Monday marks the end of the latest campaign finance reporting period for candidates running for federal office.
That means that in about two weeks, at midnight April 15, those finance reports will need to be filed with the federal government and the public will be able to get another look at the source of all the money that’s fueling some very hot races this election year.
After a fashion, that is.
Civil Beat spends a good bit of time reviewing these records. Our chief political writer, Chad Blair, likes to pull together a sort of Who’s Who wrap up, especially for the U.S. Senate race which this year also offers a window into divisions within the Hawaii Democratic Party. We analyze expenditures, too.
Candidates running for the U.S. House are a snap. Their reports are filed electronically directly with the Federal Election Commission and are immediately available on the FEC website.
They are downloadable and thus sortable and searchable. Analyzing trends in contributions and expenditures is a relatively quick exercise for the media and the public.
But that’s easier said than done when it comes to the Senate where campaign finance reports are still filed in paper form to the Senate itself which turns them over to the FEC for processing and posting. That means it takes days or, more often, weeks before the public can get a look at the detailed reports.
Hawaii Senate candidates’ reports typically run hundreds of pages each. We generally go through them with a calculator in hand, tediously adding up where the dollars are coming from. People like to know how much of the money is from locals versus donors on the mainland, for instance, or how much is coming from unions as opposed to business political committees. Chad likes to know which political VIPs are backing which candidate. All of this information is scattered through hundreds of pages.
So why doesn’t the Senate file electronically?
“The reason is simple,” a recent Sacramento Bee editorial contends. “Senators make their own rules. Some of them don’t want to make it easy for the public to see who funds their campaigns, or how they spend their campaign money.”
The Bee and a number of other newspapers opined on the sorry state of Senate campaign finance filings as part of Sunshine Week, an important yet relatively little known effort by media organizations and good-government groups to shine a light on government transparency issues.
Introduced by Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, it now has 38 co-sponsors from both parties.
Shouldn’t this be a no-brainer? According to CPR and others, it costs taxpayers more than $400,000 a year for a company in Virginia, under contract to the FEC, to copy the paper reports and then input the information into the computer. Only then does the FEC post the report on line — as a pdf. The CPR and other campaign finance trackers are the ones who make them available in a searchable database — even more weeks later.
Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa were each in our office recently for wide-ranging interviews on issues and the 2014 race. We asked them where they stood on electronic filing. Both say they unequivocally support it.
“If you can handle 435 of our filings then I don’t see how 100 are different,” Hanabusa said about the differing practices in the House and Senate.
“I really do believe that when people talk about transparency — when they talk about public participation — a major component of that is information,” she said.
Schatz called it “an easy fix” although he noted it’s not just an administrative fix and the law does have to be changed.
“When you’re running a big race — and all of us are at the point where we’re running big races — we have professional accounting firms to basically track everything so there would be no additional administrative difficulties in filing electronically,” he said. “It would be uploading something.”
That’s great to hear. Especially since it turns out about 20 senators have chosen to voluntarily file their reports electronically.
It seems there’s nothing stopping candidates from doing it on their own, according to the Bee editorial.
So let’s see if our two Senate candidates are willing to put their campaign money where their mouths are (so to speak) and simply hit the send button on the computer come April 15. We’ll let you know.
Patti Epler is the Editor and General Manager of Civil Beat. She's been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years, primarily in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington and Arizona. You can follow her on twitter at @PattiEpler, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 808-377-0561.