© 1997 Laura Yeomans Permission is granted to newspapers to reprint this column if Yeomans is given the byline and is identified as the research director of Citizen Action.

May 30, 1997

Candidate electronic filing needed in Ohio

By Laura Yeomans
Citizen Action Research Director

Who gave the largest contribution to your state senator? Do the National Riffle Association or Pro-Choice political action committees support your state representative? In some states, candidates file campaign reports electronically and voters can answer these questions by logging onto a state candidate database through the Internet.

Although the Ohio Secretary of State was given the authority in 1995 to require candidates to submit campaign reports via the Internet, Taft has not done so. There are no definite plans in Ohio to require mandatory electronic filing by candidates or to create Internet access, according to John Bender and Beverly Martin of the Ohio Secretary of State's office. Instead, the Ohio Secretary of State's office is currently investing in an imaging program, which requires that candidates fill out paper forms, which are read by a machine. Craig Holman is project director of the National Resource Center for State & Local Campaign Finance Reform.

"Imaging and scanning really is a backward way of going about campaign filing," said Holman. "With an imaging system, candidates and committees type in all their campaign finance data on their personal computer. Then they print it out. They turn it over to the Secretary of State's office which then scans the hard copy back into the Secretary of State's computer system. As long as the database is already computerized, it should be taken directly from the candidate's computer right into the Secretary of State's computer." Another problem with imaging is that scanning technologies are approximately 98 percent accurate, according to Kim Alexander, director of the California Voter Foundation.

"When talking about campaign finance numbers, 98 percent is not acceptable," Alexander said, "The difference between a $1,000 contribution and a $10,000 contribution is one that any candidate will tell you is significant. If the data on-line is not known to be accurate, it is not going to be of as much value."

Instead of imaging, the National Resource Center recommends that states phase in a mandatory electronic filing system for candidate and committee reporting. Candidates would keep computer records of their contributions and expenditures and transmit this data to the Secretary of State' office via the Internet. Software programs would secure the data and carry a special digital signature from the candidates.

Florida, Kentucky, New York City, Hawaii, San Francisco, and Maryland currently have mandatory electronic filing systems.

"Oftentimes a state has to make a transition," Holman said. "A good transition tends to focus first on statewide candidates or candidates and committees that spend over some threshold, say $50,000. The system might require all candidates and committees who spend more than $50,000 to file electronically, allowing voluntary filing for everyone else."

With a phased in system the Secretary of State receives initially a smaller amount of data that is manageable, and candidates and committees learn how to transmit the data. Once the state confirms the technology works, all candidates and committees are then required to file electronically.

For voters, the advantages of an electronic filing system with Internet access are clear, Holman said.

"The public is very alienated and distrustful of politicians, special interest groups and political action committees," Holman said. "The root of alienation is the amount of money spent in politics. The public doesn't know where it is coming from or how it is being used. By putting it on-line, especially through the Internet, that makes it easy for any citizen to log on and take a look. That would significantly help improve the public's confidence in what's going on."

If you would like to examine web sites offered by other states for candidate campaign files try the following: Florida has an Internet site that allows the public to search the records of candidates in a variety of ways. http://election.dos.state.fl.us/online/index.htm. Hawaii's records are available at http://election.sdr.com/cgi-bin/hi96/contrib-html.

Laura Yeomans is the research director for Citizen Action. Write to her at P.O. Box 8, Dover, OH 44622-0008. Please include your phone number and a self-addressed stamped envelope. Yeomans reserves the right to edit and print letters.

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