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Disclosure Content Accessibility

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Disclosure Content Accessibility is an area in which a majority of states have significant room to improve. Seven states received A grades for Disclosure Content Accessibility, and four states received Bs. Seven states received Cs, and eight states received D grades in this category. Nearly half the states, 24, failed the accessibility assessment; Montana, South Carolina, and Wyoming were found to have no disclosure data at all on their web sites, and the others that failed have either very little data or provide it in formats that make it difficult to access.

  • All 50 state disclosure agencies have a site on the World Wide Web.
  • 47 states post campaign finance data on their web sites.
  • 3 states – Montana, South Carolina and Wyoming – have no campaign finance data available on their web sites.
  • 27 states provide searchable databases of contributions online.
  • 17 states provide searchable databases of expenditures online.

States with the best accessibility to campaign finance information, in rank order from one to eight, are: Washington and Michigan (tied); Ohio; Rhode Island and Texas (tied); Massachusetts and Hawaii (tied); and Florida, Illinois and Maryland (tied).

States with the weakest accessibility to campaign finance information, in rank order from 40 to 50 are: Oregon, Minnesota and West Virginia (tied); North Dakota; New Hampshire; New Mexico; Alabama; Montana; Tennessee and Wyoming (tied); and South Carolina.

The study found that over half the states provide searchable databases of campaign contributions on their web sites, and 17 provide expenditure databases, although the quality and comprehensiveness of those databases vary widely depending on the state. One surprising finding was that states with voluntary electronic filing programs are just as likely to have an online contributions database as those states with mandatory electronic filing. Although the searchable databases in states with mandatory electronic filing are more comprehensive than those in states with voluntary electronic filing, this was nonetheless an encouraging finding and a sign that states with voluntary programs are inclined to make the most of the data they receive.

The best campaign finance databases include: itemized data for all filers; the five searchable fields of contributor name, amount, date, employer, and zip code; “smart search” features and innovative database functions; the ability to sort and/or download search results; clear and thorough instructions for how to use the systems; and explanations of data content and history.

Florida's top-rated comprehensive database offers a “name sounds like” search option, a “contribution totals” feature that gives quick summary figures, and a complete “How to Use the Campaign Finance Database” section. Michigan's system allows searches for both “zip code matching” and “zip codes between”, and by type of campaign statement (i.e. pre-primary, post-general election). Maryland offers simple and advanced search screens, allows the user to specify a case sensitive or case insensitive search, and gives the total amount of all transactions for a particular search at the top of the results page.

Users of Rhode Island's database can opt for details or just summary information for each transaction returned by a search, and people searching Washington's database can limit transactions returned to those relating to a particular office or party. Illinois provides customized tips for each type of search (i.e. candidates, contributions, expenditures), and Ohio includes “output/printing hints” for its database, which also allows search results to be sorted on six fields at once.

The average and below-average databases typically fall short because they lack at least one, if not more, of the characteristics that define above-average systems. Examples include systems with records from a very small percentage of filers (Nevada, Oklahoma), databases with just one searchable field (Connecticut, Georgia, New York, Utah), and databases that are lacking either "smart search" features (Delaware, Utah) or instructions for how to use the system (Maine). Some databases also have significant technical usability problems; for example, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana, and Oklahoma all have search fields that are case sensitive, but do not explain that to site users.

Many states – regardless of whether they provide searchable databases – offer complete campaign finance reports that can be browsed in HTML or PDF formats. The quality of browsable files varies as much as the quality of databases, with some states posting scanned, handwritten documents that are difficult to read, and others posting very user-friendly HTML displays of the filings. Twenty states allow users to sort campaign finance data, either in a database or within an HTML display of reports, and 24 give site visitors the option of downloading records in Excel, comma-separated files, or a similar format that allows the data to be analyzed offline. A number of states will also e-mail data or compile it on a disk and mail it upon request.

While many people turn to computers for campaign finance information, some still need to access disclosure records on paper (the only option in states that have no data online), so the Project also assessed how easy it is to get disclosure reports the old-fashioned way. The study found that, with a couple of exceptions, it is fairly easy for people across the country to get copies of paper campaign finance records. The cost of records ranges quite a bit, from as little as three cents per page in Ohio, to as much as one dollar per page in Alabama. In Tennessee, a person who wants to view records must first disclose his or her name, address, and other personal information, which is then made available to the candidate whose records were viewed.

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This page was first published on September 17, 2003
| Last updated on September 17, 2003
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