It doesn’t do much good requiring candidates for elected office to report who gives them money if the state can’t process the filings in time.
That’s why support is needed for a bill working its way through Frankfort that would require candidates to file their campaign finance reports online. In the process, it would modernize how the public learns who is giving candidates contributions.
Filed by state Sen. Damon Thayer, Senate Bill 4 passed the Senate easily in January by a 34-2 margin before heading to the state House of Representatives, where it awaits introduction.
Candidates are required to report who contributes to their campaigns because sunlight is the best disinfectant when it comes to corruption, and money in politics is one of the biggest corrupting influences.
The problem is that the state agency that collects those reports, the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, doesn’t have enough staff to process the paperwork. Under current law, only candidates for statewide constitutional offices are required to file electronically. Everybody else can file paper reports.
Most candidates running for local offices choose paper reports because it is simpler than using the expensive, cumbersome, 20-year-old software that is required to e-file now.
Each candidate in the state who plans to spend more than $3,000 is required to file contributions and spending reports 60, 30 and 15 days before a general election and 30 and 15 days out from a primary. Then at least one post-election report, possibly two.
In the 2018 general election, there were 1,559 candidates required to file reports, and all but 106 of them filed paper reports, KREF Executive Director John Steffen told The Kentucky Standard. He had two employees assigned to keying in the reports by hand.
Getting those reports processed in time for the public to learn about who is financially backing what candidate is physically impossible.
Journalists know that they can get the paper reports by requesting them from the registry, but even that can be problematic. While covering last year’s elections, the Standard had trouble obtaining some campaign finance reports by candidates running for local office. While the newspaper was able to get some of the information, expecting the typical voter to go through the requesting process is too much to ask if they just want to know who is giving to whom.
The shame of it all is that the registry maintains a very useful searchable database that is easily accessible to the public. Users can go to http://kref.ky.gov and click on “Search Election Finance Statements” to search by candidate or contributor all the way back to the 1990s.
The key, though, is informing voters before they go to the polls.
But the problem goes beyond timeliness too. A database is only as good the data that goes into it.
Variations in handwriting, plus the repetitive nature of data entry, can result in errors. Candidates e-filing greatly reduces the chance for those errors.
The proposed law includes funding for developing a new, modern online filing system that could utilize current technology that could make it simple enough to file from a smartphone.
Voters deserve to know who is funding candidates’ campaigns. It is only through transparency that we can hope to minimize the corrupting influence of money in politics. It makes sense that state lawmakers would get behind this bill and provide support for modernizing one of the core principles to fair, representative government by the people and for the people.