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Wed August 22, 2012
Most N.H. Candidates Don't File Finance Reports Electronically
Campaign finance disclosures are a bedrock principle of open government, which assumes that citizens have the right to know who is paying, and how much, to affect the outcome of an election.
New Hampshire has required candidates and political committees to file periodic reports with the Secretary of State's offices for years. But in 2006, to make the process easier and more transparent, elections officials began allowing campaigns to submit their receipt and expenditure reports via the Internet.
The problem is, state election law does not require the campaigns to use the electronic filing system, so hardly any of them do.
Assistant Secretary of State Karen Ladd, who oversees the state's campaign finance website, says no more than a "couple" of the 2010 candidates for state office filed their disclosures electronically; registered political committees, that are more likely to already be using computer spreadsheets and databases, were even more reluctant to use the system.
So far this year, Ladd says about 20 candidates have created a username and password that will allow them to upload their reports electronically. Those candidates' reports, along with about two dozen committee disclosures, will be available to interested voters, the media and the candidates themselves first thing Thursday morning.
The rest — thousands of pages of names, dates and numbers — will have to be scanned into the system by hand.
"They will be coming in, mostly in stacks or hand-carried or by mail," Ladd says, "and we will get them on our website just as soon as we can."
Even then, the electronic system will present some significant barriers for anyone hoping to make sense of how campaign money flows in New Hampshire.
The biggest problem is the scarcity of data. While the system allows users to search for individual donors, only people, political groups and corporations that donated to a campaign that files electronically will turn up in the results. And because most of the reports are simply copies of paper documents, the data can't be exported to a spreadsheet like Excel for deeper analysis.
State Rep. Seth Cohn, who also happens to be a computer programmer, was frustrated by the limitations of the electronic filing system. Earlier this year, he tried to do something about it by sponsoring a bill that would require that campaigns use the state's digital tools to file their reports. Those who wanted to continue using paper would pay a small fee to have someone at the Secretary of State's office enter the figures into the system for them.
Cohn's inspiration is the Federal Election Commissions site, a comprehensive, user-friendly storehouse of data on federal elections. But the measure was referred for "interim study," which Cohn describes as a kind of legislative limbo where bills go to die.
"Who would be opposed to that?" Cohn says. "We had bipartisan support, but the Secretary of State came in and gave everyone who doesn't want campaign-finance reform an excuse to say, 'That's a bad idea, we'll study it some more,' which means they aren't going to do anything more with it."
Dave Scanlan, New Hampshire's Deputy Secretary of State, agrees the electronic filing system is due for an upgrade. But he said the department will first need to gather input from lawmakers, candidates and other users "to make sure that we get a system that works well for everybody."
As for making it mandatory, that might be a harder sell. A growing number of lawmakers are comfortable doing business in a digital age, while others, he said, "are just completely computer illiterate." And then there's the cost in a state where fiscal austerity is a top priority.
"Like every agency we're trying to operate as lean as we can," Scanlan says. "To add something where we would actually import the data, it could be done. But the legislature has to be willing to back that up and provide the resources necessary to make it happen."
Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at New England College, says New Hampshire is struggling to keep up with the demand for government information in an electronic form.
With the help of the Josiah Bartlett Institute, the state did create an "online checkbook" that allows users to track state spending down to the transaction. And many state agencies do provide a certain level of information about their activities, and more is being added all the time.
But in terms of helping citizens engage with government, New Hampshire is "way behind," Lesperance said.
"It’s expensive to set up initially," Lesperance says. "In a state with fiscally austere attitudes, that investment has been slow to come. It's not happening at near the level of other states."