On July 16, less than week from today, candidates will participate in an annual ritual: They will go to the Secretary of State’s office to file campaign finance reports under the gaze of reporters.
Though paper filings are due soon, it could be another two years before campaign finance data is easily searchable and sortable online, according to Secretary of State James Condos. Currently most forms are submitted in paper form and scanned, and then made available on the secretary’s website within 24 hours.
But there is no easy way to search through the data for the names of donors, or to add and analyze total contributions from a specific corporation, say, or a given political committee. Many forms also contain handwriting which is hard to decipher.
You’d have to pore through dozens of pages to analyze the contributions of many candidates, said Wally Roberts, executive director of Common Cause Vermont. “The people’s right to know has to be a digital right to know,” said Roberts. “The government has to adapt.” Common Cause Vermont recently compiled its own searchable database of donations for the 2010 state elections: Roberts says the state hasn’t been “up to the job” and that “it shouldn’t be up to a private nonprofit organization to do this.”
Although Secretary Condos hoped for a state database by the 2014 elections, he could not pin down a concrete timetable or detailed costs. He aimed for the overhaul to cost less than the $600,000 to $1 million estimated in 2010 by his predecessor Deborah Markowitz, but could not give a specific cost estimate or bracket, citing the lack of specifications on a new system by the Legislature.
“It’s been a struggle,” said Condos, of the challenge to full digitization. “Now it’s a terrible system – I know that, but my goal is, whether it’s a reporter or a citizen here, or in Burlington, Brattleboro, or Bennington, they can sit at their computer and look at the information, download and search it.”
“We need it,” conceded Condos. “Absolutely, we need it.” But he emphasized that a searchable database would require significant support and funding from the Legislature and the administration.
Condos explained that his office is now looking to the campaign finance databases of a few states, including South Dakota specifically, for models and inspiration in updating Vermont’s more traditional system.
The Secretary of State’s previous report on a proposed overhaul, authored under Deborah Markowitz, estimated that “the start-up cost would be over $1 million and take at least three years.” In contrast, the software developers for South Dakota’s campaign finance database, BPro, said that it cost less than $50,000 to develop.
“Prices vary a lot for campaign finance databases – sometimes millions of dollars – but it can be done for much less,” said Brandon Campea, president of BPro and a software engineer experienced with elections-related data.
How Vermont fares among other states in terms of access to campaign finance information is debatable. A 2011 investigation into state transparency by investigative news group the Center for Public Integrity, among other partners, gave Vermont a ‘D+’ for overall government transparency, ranking it 25th out of 50 states, but gave the state a B- for political financing specifically.
Vermont received a 50 percent score with respect to citizen’s access to political finance records. Veteran reporter Jon Margolis noted that “reports are readable and complete, but not data-searchable.”
Vermont’s information is “a little harder to search, than, say, Oregon or Washington,” said Robin Parkinson, a researcher with followthemoney.org who has worked with Vermont’s campaign finance data. “Handwriting also makes it a lot harder to search: but the forms tend to have a decent amount of information, and people who work [at the State Secretary]’s office respond really quickly.”
Parkinson said that it’s hard to compare states directly for access to campaign finance data, since states have varied reporting requirements, agency sizes and budgets.
While the lack of strong political championing and government funding is cited by several as an obstacle to a searchable system, at least one state senator still believes it’s an important problem which needs to be fixed.
“The fact that campaign finance (information) isn’t searchable, means that it requires a lot of time and expense to look at what companies are making contributions,” said State Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham. “If it was searchable, you could just enter the name of ‘Anheuser-Busch’, and quickly see how much they were contributing to different candidates.
As it is, said Galbraith, “it’s very difficult to follow the money. I’m sympathetic to why it hasn’t occurred: but influence is obscured by the fact there isn’t a searchable database.”