Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Something's Missing

One thing you would normally see by now on is a write-up of campaign fundraising and spending shown on year-end reports filed by candidates by the end of January. Last year, we posted our analysis of those end-of-year filings on February 20.

In 2007, we were able to put a pricetag on the 2006 race for governor by February 6. Two days later, we reported the total cost of the attorney general race. On February 21, we were able to issue an analysis of spending by candidates and interest groups in all state races, including all of the state legislative contests.

The year before that, it was also February 21 when we put out final numbers for campaign fundraising in 2005 reflected on year-end reports filed in late January 2006. In 2005, we reported final figures for 2004 on February 14. In 2004, it was February 18.

In 2003, we tallied the total cost of the 2002 governor's race by February 6, and reported year-end totals for fundraising and campaign spending in state legislative elections on February 24.

Notice that every year these reports were made public before the end of February. Also notice that we're already into March and we have not yet posted anything on the year-end reports filed in January that cover campaign activity in the 2008 elections. We're not able to because we can't get all of the reports from the state's new campaign finance reporting system.

This new electronic filing system was supposed to enhance public access to information about campaign fundraising and spending in state elections. So far, it's not living up to that promise. What's worse, there are substantial problems with the reliability of the data in the system. We discovered a number of glaring problems and reported on them a little less than four weeks ago. Now we've unearthed even more glitches and issued another report today.

The agency responsible for the new electronic reporting system, the Government Accountability Board, has done a lot of things right in its first year of operation, most notably standing up to the special interests and voting to restore meaning to state laws requiring full disclosure of electioneering and limiting campaign contributions. The new board also imposed stiff penalties on wealthy donors flagged by the Democracy Campaign for breaking campaign donation limitations, something the old Elections Board was loathe to do. And don't forget the new board's baptism by fire – the unenviable task of administering the 2008 election. The GAB deserves stellar marks for its maiden electoral voyage, as voting went smoothly and the controversies that marred the 2000 and 2004 elections were noticeably absent in Wisconsin last November.

But the GAB still is plagued by the Achilles' heel of the staff the new board inherited from the old one it replaced – utter haplessness when it comes to managing information technology projects. The current mess with campaign finance recordkeeping is hardly the lone example of IT work bungled by this crew. The ill-fated attempted privatization of voter registration was an even more publicized and costly misadventure.

One state senator has gone so far as to suggest candidates for state office in Wisconsin be given the option of going back to filing paper reports on their campaign finances. While the frustration that inspires such a proposal is totally understandable, there's no going back. We live in an electronic age and an increasingly paperless society. Besides, we fought long and hard for the enactment of the Citizens Right to Know law that created electronic disclosure of campaign finances. And then we fought a years-long battle to get the law implemented. Members of the public should not have to make a pilgrimage to a state agency office and paw through thousands of pages of paper reports to see who's giving money to our elected state officials.

But just as it became clear a couple three years ago that we needed a "paper trail" bill requiring any electronic voting machine to produce a verifiable paper record, and we got it, now the obvious shortcomings of the state's new campaign finance reporting system cry out for a paper trail of campaign contributions and election expenses. Wisconsin needs a mandatory paper backup to the campaign finance reports that are being stored in this new, all-too-fallible electronic filing cabinet.

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