Hawaii's Campaign Spending Site Gets the Vote
- By Tracy Mayor
- Sep 30, 1997
Even as the campaign spending hearings in Washington highlight abuses and prompt calls for reform, the state of Hawaii has found a way to let the average citizen see where the money is coming from and where it is going.
Leading a growing number of states with projects in this area, Hawaii has embraced the electronic filing of campaign finance information and the posting of all such data on the Internet, where it can be accessed by the general public.
Politics watchers are still undecided on whether such systems may actually help correct campaign finance abuses, but simply making complete data on campaign contributions available easily and inexpensively appeals to candidates and voters alike. "The Internet is broadcasting," said Robert Watada, executive director of the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission (CSC) in Honolulu. "And the more people get used to seeing [campaign data] on the Internet, the more they'll start asking, 'Where is a candidate getting his money from?' "
The Hawaii Electronic Reporting&Tracking System (HERTS), inaugurated in January 1996, electronically collects legally required data, such as campaign contributors' names, addresses, dollar amounts and sometimes employer and occupation information. It accepts and processes the data in the CSC office and presents it in an easily navigable digital format for distribution via public-access terminals or diskettes.
The system's Internet piece, which debuted in August of last year, allows Net-enabled candidates to file information directly and automatically to the Web, without requiring any intervention from the CSC. Perhaps most important, HERTS makes all campaign spending data widely available as soon as it is filed.
The system's search engine brings a level of context to campaign data that goes far beyond merely looking at a candidate's flat list of contributors, Watada said. For example, anyone logging on to election.sdr.com/hi96 can enter a person's name and discover not only how much he contributed to a given candidate's campaign but also how much he contributed to all campaigns. Users can search on corporation names to find out where a given company spent its political dollars. And because individual contributions in excess of $1,000 must list employer and occupation information, people can search on contributors' affiliations as well.
Political Action Committees
Coming soon, Watada said, will be online information about the activities of political action committees and other lobbying groups. "All PACs have to code themselves according to area, so you'll be able to type in 'tobacco' and see how much tobacco money is coming into the state," he said.
HERTS is a far cry from the way Hawaiians used to obtain campaign data. As is the case in most states and municipalities, candidates were required to file a report that was made available in paper form for in-office reference only. Journalists, analysts, political activists, lawyers and citizens had to travel to the appropriate clerk's office-which in Hawaii could be on another island-stand in line for the report and then sift through hundreds of pages of unfiltered information.
Now all candidates in Hawaii for mayor, county council, governor, lieutenant governor and county-level prosecuting attorney are required to file electronically - by diskette, direct-dial or the Internet. In the 1996 elections, 61 of 440 candidates used the software, with one candidate choosing the then-brand-new option of filing directly to the Web site. "We'll see a major increase [in Web use] in the 1998 elections," Watada predicted.
HERTS developer SDR Technologies Inc., Westlake Village, Calif., makes the filer software available free of charge to candidates. Candidates don't have to use the software, according to Watada, but they do have to submit data in PDSERF, which is a public-domain file format developed by SDR and used by HERTS. The company supplies a free file-conversion utility that translates most popular database and spreadsheet formats into PDSERF.
The filer software provides a single place where candidates can log monetary and nonmonetary contributions and other receipts, record various types of expenditures, track and reconcile bank accounts and, most importantly, generate some paper and electronic reports required by CSC. Built-in diagnostics alert users when information is missing or when contribution limits have been reached for a particular donor.
"The program takes care of adding up everything," said Lee Dodson, the campaign treasurer for Linda Lingle, who is the mayor of Maui County. "It eliminates all the handwork. Now I just input expenditures and receipts as I get them [and] then generate a report for the filing deadline."
Dealing With Limitations
But for all its power, HERTS isn't a be-all package for campaigns. "It's not sophisticated enough to handle all aspects of a campaign," Dodson said. "We can't generate [all] reports or manipulate data the way we need to." Although HERTS does have the capacity to export names and addresses to other applications, Lingle's office maintains two separate systems: one for treasurer Dodson running HERTS, and another for all other management activities related to the campaign.
Dodson, who used HERTS' Internet- filing system to file Lingle's supplemental, or between-election, reports, said the system was relatively easy to use. That's a reaction CSC hopes other candidates share. Agency employees are highly interested in having HERTS' Web-filing option catch on, chiefly because the system's high level of automation cuts down on clerical tasks, reduces errors and makes the data public within six or seven seconds of being posted.
When a candidate is ready to file, he logs onto the Web site and submits a password. HERTS checks the password and sends back a public encryption key. The file is encrypted, sent and decrypted by CSC's filing-agency software, which also checks for structural and relational integrity, Dodson said. Once the file is accepted, it's live, and the candidate receives either an e-mail or fax notification.
While cutting down on data entry and other clerical tasks, HERTS also gives CSC workers "a whole new level of analysis that was impossible before," Watada said. In addition to identifying which, if any, contributions are outside the law, HERTS helps CSC serve the public by easily generating reports that were previously too difficult to produce. "For example, if someone needs to know all contributions received by all senate candidates, we can [now] produce that in a matter of minutes," Watada said.
Joining Hawaii, state and local governments throughout the country are embracing electronic filing as part of a "digital sunlight" movement to publicize campaign spending. SDR, which builds only customized versions of its software, has signed up state agencies in Washington, Oklahoma, Missouri and Michigan as well as the Federal Election Commission and several counties and cities nationwide.
But election enlightenment doesn't come cheap. Watada estimates Hawaii's hardware, software and support expenditures totaled $300,000 to $500,000, and that includes cost savings that grew out of CSC's early and close development partnership with SDR.
SDR president Kelly Kimball agrees with those figures but points out that every system is customized to meet the needs of a particular client. Depending upon the level of efficiency that existed previously inside a given agency, savings in clerical costs can be significant once an electronic filing system is in place. "Some venues have people who do nothing but type up delinquency letters or log files into their system, and most of their audit/enforcement personnel are doing Level One audits only," he said.
On the other hand, an electronic filing system not only eliminates the need for legions of clerical staff but also frees up auditors to concentrate on true violations rather than simple name-and-address errors, Kimball said. "Now they can go after the folks they need to go after, and they can bring information to the public faster."
Tracy Mayor is a Beverly, Mass.-based free-lance writer specializing in information technology. She can be reached at [email protected]
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At a Glance
Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission
Candidates Monitored in State and Municipal Elections: 440 in 1996.
Internet Project: Hawaii Electronic Reporting&Tracking System (HERTS).
Organizational Payback: With encryption and integrity-checking built into the system, data is posted directly to the Internet, eliminating the need for processing or clerical intervention from state Campaign Spending Commission (CSC) workers. HERTS allows workers to perform analyses and produce reports that previously were too time-consuming or simply too difficult to generate.
Citizen Advantage: Journalists, voter advocates and special-interest groups-always heavy users of campaign spending data-as well as average citizens who may never have known such information was available can now view and parse campaign spending reports instantly.
Cost Containment: At $300,000 to $500,000, an electronic filing system isn't cheap, but some of those costs can be recovered by a dramatic reduction in clerical work. The Hawaii CSC was further able to keep costs from escalating by serving as an early client and de facto development partner with SDR Technologies Inc., the maker of the filing software.
Hardware and Software: Web server runs dual Intel Corp. Pentium 200s with 128K of RAM and five Quantum Corp. Fireball SCSI hard drives. The operating system is Solaris Server v2.5.1; the database is Informix v7.10.
The interoffice server at the CSC is a Digital Equipment Corp. DEC 2000 Alpha AXP with 64M of RAM running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT Server Software v4.0. This is standardized with Microsoft Internet Explorer v3.02.
Desktop PCs are IBM Corp. 66 MHz 486s running Microsoft Windows for Workgroups v3.11 and Netscape Communications Corp.'s Navigator v3.0. They use an Intersolv Inc. ODBC Driver.
The local-area network runs via a Hewlett-Packard Co. 10Base-T hub and uses Microsoft Windows NT Server Software v4.0. For its direct interconnection equipment, the office uses a Cisco Systems Inc. 2500 Series Router running Cisco software v10.3 and delivers services at 56 kilobits/sec.