FEC wants electronic campaign data

With the 1998 election season about to gear up fully after Labor Day, the Federal Election Commission released a request for proposals this month to develop partnerships with software companies to encourage the electronic filing of campaign fund-raising and spending reports.

According to the RFP, the FEC wants to partner with software companies that develop database programs to help manage federal offices that already are working with political action committees. The FEC hopes to encourage the companies to make modifications to software so that political candidates and PACs can file campaign spending reports electronically, said Bob Biersack, an FEC supervisory statistician in charge of the initiative. By filing electronically, campaign spending reports would be available sooner, and the FEC could respond to the filings faster, Biersack said.

Federal campaign finance law requires PACs to file reports on the amounts of money they raise and spend. The RFP follows a year-long effort by the FEC to encourage committees to file the campaign fund reports electronically.

Congress passed a law in 1995 that pushed the FEC to offer the technology by Jan. 1, 1997. But, Biersack said, PACs started using the new system in July 1997. While the FEC wanted as many as 500 of the more than 3,000 campaign committees and PACs to file electronically by 1998, only about 150 have done so.

The FEC believes the partnerships with software companies could increase the use of electronic filing by teaching committees how to use unfamiliar filing software.

The FEC also has made it possible for users to file reports on diskette or via the Internet.

Level Playing Field

Reluctance on the part of the campaign committees and the PACs to file reports electronically may not be caused by a resistance to technological change. Instead, committees that file electronically may fear that their political opponents will not follow suit. Campaign spending reports filed electronically are more readily accessible than traditional paper files, Biersack said. Unless candidates gain positive press by sharing how much money they spend, they seem unlikely to want to speed up the amount of time it takes for the media to access their financial campaign information.

"These are the kind of problems you get into when it's voluntary," said Thomas Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. "The FEC has long favored going to this form. They make it possible, but they would actually prefer that Congress make it mandatory. I think it's inevitable that we move in that direction."

In the meantime, however, to try to make paper reports as easily accessible as electronically filed reports, the FEC has begun scanning written reports and posting them on the Internet. The FEC hopes that if PACs and campaign committees know that their campaign funding reports eventually will be posted electronically, the committees will view electronic filing more favorably.

In addition to targeting committee needs, the FEC also will offer an incentive to companies that partner with the agency. "In exchange for helping us explain what electronic filing is all about, we'll provide some sort of payment to those companies and list them in a way that committees will know that [they] are working on this project," Biersack said.

The FEC has developed software for keeping records and arranging material for electronic filing, and committees can order it at no cost. "The FEC has provided software that would be very user-friendly," Mann said. "I think it's a no-brainer. It's one of those things that, if done properly, will ease the burden on candidates and committees."

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