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Task force tackles campaign filings

Election officials and citizens' advocates tackle the technical and political obstacles of putting campaign records online.

A group of states want local candidates to post information about their financial backers on the Net. But digitizing paper files can be a tangled process, especially when there are 50 ways to do it.

After meeting in Chicago last month, election officials and citizens' advocates have formed a ten-person steering committee to tackle the technical and political obstacles of putting campaign records online.

Making the filings accessible in cyberspace seems logical--after all, they are public records. Most states represented on the committee already put campaign finance records online or are developing electronic filing systems to allow for electronic publishing. But they are the minority.

Many states are far off from digitizing their records. Those moving toward electronic filing may document different information in numerous formats using various software programs.

Hawaii already has been posting mayoral and other election campaign records online for two years. The state is spearheading the committee effort. Under the system, all candidates will be able to directly file online using the central system. Any citizen will be able to search by the name of the contributor, dollar amount, or industry, for example.

Bob Watada, executive director of the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission, has drafted a grant proposal to create a nationwide electronic campaign reporting standard that would lay the foundation for a national database. The final system would let anyone with a Net connection see who is funding politics from coast to coast.

"First of all, if every state went about filing with their own format, they'd have to pay for the system," Watada said. "We need to develop an interstate highway approach for these filings. If someone wants to track tobacco money, now he'd have to go to almost every single state in person to look through their paper files. Wouldn't it be better if you could just go to one place on the Internet?"

The voluntary committee is proposing that states use the Public Disclosure Standard Electronic Reporting Format (PDSERF), a text format used by many electronic commerce vendors. PDSERF accepts various formats of data and has an audit feature that will, for example, check dollar amount totals.

The group is applying for a grant so it can hire a consultant to study the filing formats states use now. The consultant will also be in charge of developing the standard format, leading agencies through beta tests of the format system, and promoting the use of the final standard.

"A lot of the states are underfunded and have no staff to do this," said Kim Alexander, executive director of the California Voter Foundation. "We all recognize the higher benefits of electronic filing, but it is not going to happen overnight."

Alexander has been pushing for the passage of California state Sen. Betty Karnette's (D-Long Beach) legislation that would require candidates to report finances online by June 1, 2000.

Technical and financial barriers aren't the only things standing in the way of the digital sunshine movement.

"The bigger problems are political," Watada noted. "Many state officials and candidates don't know what the Net is and have a fear of the unknown. Some say their contributors won't give money if they know their names will be on the Internet. Eventually, all the states will move to it, but they are taking baby steps now."

The committee also includes representatives from the Federal Election Committee, California, Missouri, Oklahoma, Iowa, Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Center for Responsible Politics, the New York City Campaign Finance Board, and the California Voters Foundation.

The Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting already received a $342,000 two-year grant from the Joyce Foundation to build a campaign finance information center on the Net. Planned as one-stop resource that aggregates local, state, and federal campaign data on the Net, the site will also teach journalists how to analyze reports and follow the money.