Sat
Jan 26 2008
10:56 pm

It's 2008 and I can't understand why we don't have online access to local campaign contributions.

In the last election, I could hardly believe it when I went to get the campaign contribution records for local races and found out that they were stored in a decidedly low-tech metal filing cabinet in the election commission offices in the old courthouse.

Yes, the patient election commission employee fingered through the manila files, looking for the individual folders for each officeholder I requested. He brought the file(s) - I actually wanted them all - one at a time, over to where I was standing behind the counter. I flipped through the pages of contributions for each candidate, putting a stickynote marker on each page I wanted. The election commission employee then took the file over to the copy machine, and slowly and tediously copied each page I marked.

All in all, it cost me $75 and the better part of a day. It took the election commission worker the better part of a day, too, to find my requests and make my copies.

I have been told that the problem is that the election commission doesn't have the money to computerize the records or make them available digitally.

What I don't understand is why the candidates can't submit their reports in a spreadsheet - or better yet, file their reports online at the election commission's web site.

Surely in the year 2008, we can find a way to make these records available. Or maybe it's not a priority because some officials would prefer that it not be so easy for the public to follow the money?

If Knox County would provide the secure web space, I know a programmer or two that could make a secure web submission form for the candidates to upload their records into a database. It wouldn't cost that much or be that hard. Call me.

It seems to me that if the election commission doesn't have the resources to make this information available, then finding a way to get those resources should be a priority. This is some of the most valuable information about a candidate and the public shouldn't have to work so hard to get to it.

bizgrrl's picture

You are obviously a patient

You are obviously a patient person, Lisa. Apparently this is a necessary quality when dealing with local government.

I would suggest putting this information in electronic format could be handled in-house easier than they think, if they would just think about it.

Carole Borges's picture

That's a very good point, Lisa

It's hard to believe they are not already doing that. Maybe they don't care if these records are hard to access?

bizgrrl's picture

Maybe they don't care if

Maybe they don't care if these records are hard to access?

I too wonder if this is the issue versus blaming it on the cost of electronic reporting.

jbr's picture

Maybe they could purchase an

Maybe they could purchase an existing application from one of the possibly 1000 counties already doing it.

Lisa Starbuck's picture

Other Counties

You're right, there are lots of examples out there with a casual search:

(link...)
(link...)

The states of Virginia and Oregon and probably other states as well, but not Tennessee, provide the information for local races by county:

(link...)
(link...)

There's several good articles and blog postings about the importance of easy access to campaign finance information in local races:

(link...)
(link...)

reform4's picture

Try Going Direct?

Take a Brian Paone approach- ask all the candidates to directly email you their data on Jan 26-29. Private message me your email, I'll send you mine (a brief summary is on my blog, reform4.blogspot.com). Brian has a good record of getting responses, and PK is getting more traffic, maybe work with him to have PK request/post the data.

I likely won't officially be turning mine in until the 29th deadline (when I go down for the Commission meeting, just to avoid two trips), but anyone who wants a scan of the document is welcome to it. I'll be getting my treasurer to sign it today.

-----------------------------------------
Fighting for Reform and Representation, Fourth District
Steve Drevik, Commission Seat 4-B
(link...)

Lisa Starbuck's picture

Direct?

Thanks for the offer Steve, but my point is that the average citizen shouldn't have to work hard to get this information. It should be readily available to all via the web.

Indya's picture

digital financial reports

I keep all my campaign finance records in Excel, and then have to print them out and enter the summary information by hand on the forms provided by the Election Commission. I would *prefer* to file my campaign financial disclosures electronically. I tried to do that in 2004 and it wasn't possible. Easy access to this information would definitely benefit the public, but would also make things easier on Election Commission staff.

Indya

Lisa Starbuck's picture

Good point Indya

I believe most serious campaigns would keep information about who is supporting them financially digitally anyway, and filling out the reports by hand is probably a big chore. Everyone who is running a campaign should have access to a computer, even if they have to go to the library.

A web form isn't that hard to do. Or an emailed spreadsheet that could be imported into a database isn't rocket science.

Anonymously Nine's picture

I want to see the funding

I want to see the funding from the new Knox Charter Petition committee.

Are you curious where the $150,000 already raised came from? Do you find it incredible this group has raised so much money so quietly?

(link...)

Schmid said about $150,000 already has been raised to hire professional signature gatherers for the new charter amendment drive. About 40,000 names would be needed for each petition within a mandatory 75 days.

The Knox Charter Petition group plans to file two petitions Monday with the county Election Commission, one for changes to the legislative branch, the other for changes to the executive branch.

The new group isn't taking up all of the original KCOQ recommendations. For instance, it hasn't proposed appointment of an independent commission to review areas where city and county government functions overlap.

"We looked at it in terms of its political viability and what we could afford to put on the ballot," Schmid said.

In addition to securing signatures, the group plans to campaign for the amendments. Such an "education" effort could cost about $150,000, Schmid said.

The cost could depend on the amount of opposition to the referendums, he said. The group is estimating the entire project - petitions and politicking - could cost about $300,000.

Lisa Starbuck's picture

Funding

I think that funding of any group is a very important piece of information, especially political candidates.

I think the funding sources for the Knox Charter Petition group will be disclosed soon. My understanding is that the initial money is coming from contributions from couple of dozen individuals, rather than one or two big sources.

reform4's picture

150,000 / 24 = $6,250 per

150,000 / 24 = $6,250 per individual. That's still some awfully heavy lifting.

Tamara Shepherd's picture

Keep it focused

I don't object to the obligation our group will have to make financial disclosures (after we organize as a non-profit under state law, later this week). What I don't want to see happen following that disclosure, though, is for people to cease their close examination of the processes we suggest and turn their attention to something, anything, else.

Where financial disclosures for candidates are concerned, that information gives citizens insights into what the candidates' priorities and values might be. It's often indicative of how they will vote on issues. That's one thing.

But where financial disclosures for our group's efforts are concerned, I don't know that they will better enable citizens to evaluate whether our proposed processes are well-considered, and that's where the public's focus should be.

We hope folks will find that our suggestions will establish better controls and invite greater transparency and participation in government, period. Folks don't need to guess at our motive, as it's all right there on the pages of the petitions.

Either our proposed processes are valid for achieving these goals, or they're not. *IF* they're not, be prepared to explain why not--and please don't convolute the question by pointing to some tangential concern about sources of funding.

(Disclaimer: I have no idea where the big bucks originated, and it makes not one whit of difference to me.)

Paul Witt's picture

See this post for Amy's list

See this post for Amy's list of contributors. The full list. Not just the list of $100+ contributors.

(link...)

Anonymously Nine's picture

(Disclaimer: I have no idea

(Disclaimer: I have no idea where the big bucks originated, and it makes not one whit of difference to me.)

Yep, that about sums it up.

Lisa Starbuck's picture

Candidate Disclosures

Both Indya and Amy obviously have a modern record-keeping system to keep track of their campaign contributions. I'd wager most everyone else does too. So why is the election commission still using a hammer and tongs so to speak?

I surely would like to hear from Greg Mackay on this subject.

Greg Mackay's picture

hammer and tongs

We have a somewhat better system set up for today. We are making a copy of each disclosure as it comes in. It goes in a hanging folder on our counter for all to see. I have a copier on the table in the lobby.
It seems to be working well, the press seems happy.
I would love to scan them and put them on the website.
The problem is a week before the election I don't have anyone not doing anything.
If we put one online we have to put them all.
Keep in mind Haslams' was 400 pages. It is no small feat.
I'll tell you what. Come down here. We will give you a copy of all of them. You can scan them and put them online. As long you put all of them up we won't charge you for the copies.

Lisa Starbuck's picture

OK

Thanks for the offer not to charge me. What I guess I am still wondering is why you can't have them submit their records digitally instead of filling out a paper form.

Greg Mackay's picture

why

Good question. It would make more sense.
We do it because of state law.
They have changed the law for state offices but not local.
You got to remember, a lot of people in the rural counties running for constable may not be as computer savvy as your average KnoxViews aficionado.

We are not like a business. We cannot change a procedure because it makes sense. We have to do what the law says.

Lisa Starbuck's picture

State Law?

The state law says they must submit via paper instead of digitally or that they can submit via paper?

Greg Mackay's picture

TCA

2-10-104

Lisa Starbuck's picture

TCA 2-10-104

2-10-104. Affirmation of statements before witness. All statements required by this part shall be signed by the person filing such statement in the presence of one (1) witness who shall sign such statements as a witness. The treasurer shall not be authorized to sign as a witness. Such person shall sign the statements prior to the filing of the statements. Statements required by this part do not have to be sworn to or affirmed by a notary.

So you're saying the reason they can't be filed electronically is that the statements have to be signed? In the web app, what if we could make it so that after they entered their data, it output a PDF file they could print out, sign in front of a witness, and fax, mail or bring to the election commission?

In the case of a spreadsheet template, could you design it so that they could send it in electronically, but also still print it out, sign it and send the printout in without having to fill out a form manually?

Since Knox County doesn't have constables but may have some candidates unable or unwilling to submit electronically, would it be the end of the world if someone had to enter the data in the database manually? Even if it were 400 names, for the purposes of providing information to voters, all that is needed is their name and contribution amount. And anyone who has 400 names and doesn't have access to a computer has a serious problem anyway trying to keep up with all that information with a pencil.

If all else fails, can we ask the Knox County delegation to to fix the language so that electronic filing is specifically permitted, although not required?

Lisa Starbuck's picture

PDF's

Mainly because a PDF file isn't very useful for searches.

R. Neal's picture

What I guess I am still

What I guess I am still wondering is why you can't have them submit their records digitally instead of filling out a paper form.

Not to speak for Greg, but that's a good question. One problem is standardization. Every campaign has different accounting tools, might be a spreadsheet or a homemade database or whatever. Whatever it is, it doesn't have a standard output for electronic filing because there isn't a standard for Knox County or any other county. And even if Knox County had a standard, who's going to program the campaign's database/tracking system to output what they need?

The State has a web based form submission, but it is tedious and a serious duplication of effort to sit there and fill out an online form for each contribution.

The FEC has a standardized electronic filing format. They provide software, and list of other vendors whose software has been certified to work with the FEC standard.

What should probably happen is for Congress to mandate adoption of the FEC or some other electronic filing standard for all state and county election offices. The problem with that would be varying state by state reporting requirements. We'd have to standardize that, too.

But once all that was done, there would be incentive (or it would at least make it economically feasible) for software vendors to provide solutions, and the federal government could offer a free "starter" system for any campaign that wanted it.

Scanning in paper forms is a waste of time, money, and effort. They use up tremendous disk space and aren't searchable (unless they are OCR'd as they are scanned, which makes the process take even longer and produces even bigger files and the end result is riddled with errors), and they still have to be indexed by hand, and you'd have to have some kind of expensive document imaging system. I suppose it would be better than nothing, but really, for the few people who would actually use it I imagine it would be very cost prohibitive.

Lisa Starbuck's picture

Standardization

Yep, I agree that standardization would be best and it's not realistic to scan all the forms. Makes much more sense to have a searchable database of that information, and also provide a way to relieve the burden of hand-writing these forms by the candidates.

We need to focus on how you get to that under the constraints of the current law, or how to remove the constraints by changing the law.

I disagree that only a few people would use it. I think there would quite a bit of interest in a searchable database of campaign funding. I know the KNS created one for the mayor's race during the Haslam/Rogero days but it was for the mayor's race only.

If it's a legal problem getting there, let's get the county delegation working on a change. If it's a funding problem, let's get it in front of county commmission - it doesn't have to cost very much. I know Greg Mackay would like to see it happen and I appreciate the constraints he is working under, but there has to be some catalyst to change it.

I just think it is information that should be easily available to the public and that the election commission should provide it as a matter of course without having to go make a copy of a piece of paper in a file cabinet.

jbr's picture

If it was known and easy to

If it was known and easy to use I think it would get a lot of usage.

This site for state of Tennessee is a good resource
(link...)

Maybe Knox County could secure that application, or at least pick the brains of folks that created/maintain it.
Or rewrite in whatever scripting language with which the Knox County IT staff is most fluent.

Talk to them about the process with which they populate the data.

Knox County seems to use PHP. If Knox uses the spreadsheet approach mentioned earlier
PHP can access Excel using odbc connectivity if it resides on same server I believe. Data already in a spreadsheet for typical reasons but additional functionality you might desire.

I have used the Tennessee one to poke around a bit. See who folks like 'Titlemax' have contributed to for instance. etc. Then see if any tie to specific legislation voting.

jbr's picture

They use an Excel template

They use an Excel template they get from election folks so field names are consistent from all candidates. From there you off to races.

R. Neal's picture

They use an Excel

They use an Excel template

Are you saying that's how it works now, or that's your suggestion on how to standardize?

Either way, that's not a bad idea. Or a simple Access database might be better in terms of easily setting up input forms and output files.

jbr's picture

That is my suggestion of one

That is my suggestion of one way to standardize.

Or I guess they could use Open Office if they did not want to require folks buy Excel. Does Open Office have a spreadsheet application?

Anyway, a spreadsheet template of some sort.

Nelle's picture

Open Office rox

Does Open Office have a spreadsheet application?

Yes, it's called Open Office Calc, and it's compatible with Excel: you can save Calc files as Excel files and open Excel files in Calc.

Open Office: software for cheap people!

Lisa Starbuck's picture

A good spreadsheet

I just love me a good spreadsheet. . . one of the easiest ways to get data imported into just about anything.

What I was actually thinking of was a web app that would allow them to enter the data manually, with the additional option of choosing to upload a template-based spreadsheet instead.

It might take some minor manipulation of the spreadsheet by election commission personnel to make sure the data is in the correct format and to perform the import into a database.

I'd like to make the case to whoever's in charge of getting something like this done that it would be relatively inexpensive to do and one of the most useful services the EC could perform for citizens.

It's nothing that an employee with a couple of hours of individualized training couldn't do - and surely the Knox County webmasters can handle setting up a secure form for entering the data into the database. At least they could provide hosting.

If the Knox County webmasters can't do it, the development and training could be outsourced and still not cost a whole lot.

Lisa

jbr's picture

If they had issues, whatever

If they had issues, whatever they may be, of populating the spreadsheet on their own, then arrange a mechanism whereas they could do it and get help at library branches, or any govt office branch office.

thisknoxtown's picture

Disclosure Deadline - is Broyles right?

Does anyone know if the law allows for late filing as long as the disclosure is postmarked by the deadline and sent certified mail? I think this is dead wrong. Would be interested in the election commission's response to Broyles' reading of the law.

TCA 2-1-108. Elections/General Provisions/Filing of required documents.

(a) When any document is required to be filed by a date or time
prescribed by this title, it shall be received by the officer or body
with which it is to be filed by the date or time prescribed.

(link...)

amybroyles's picture

Broyles is Right

I am quoting from Commission employee Linda Jo Colquitt's letter about Pre-Primary Financial Disclosure. It was sent to all candidates:

Under T.C.A. 2-10-102(7), "filed" means the date that this office receives the statement or the date of the postmark if postmarked and sent by registered or certified mail of the United States Postal Service.

thisknoxtown's picture

Thanks

Thanks Amy. I just read the statute you cited it and it is right! Look forward to reviewing the disclosure.

Pam Strickland's picture

As Paul noted above, you can

As Paul noted above, you can already view Broyles disclosure here: (link...)

Pam Strickland

"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." ~Kurt Vonnegut

thisknoxtown's picture

Not same as election commission disclosure

Thanks Pam. The link is not the same as what Amy had to file with the election commission. I am just as interested in how the candidates spent the money they raised. I am waiting to review once up at PKnoxville. But thanks again.

reform4's picture

3 day window

It sounds like Greg M. is practicing a little discretion for those trying to comply with the law. Don't know how much discretion state law gives him.

I certainly think all forms have to be in well before Feb 5th for public review. For those who fail to do that, clearly the fines aren't enough of a deterrent, IMHO, but that's for the State Legislature to deal with. $25 a day means I can buy anonymity through Feb 5 for under $200, maybe $50 with the 5-day grace period.

I will say the forms are awful, like a tax form, having to break up receipt/expense totals by the $100 threshold. Whoever wrote this up for TN has a budding career in the IRS.

-----------------------------------------
Fighting for Reform and Representation, Fourth District
Steve Drevik, Commission Seat 4-B
(link...)

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