States across the country have the most room for improvement
in the contextual and technical usability of their disclosure
web sites. No state received an A in the usability category,
and only four states received Bs (the highest being Illinois,
with a B+). Seven states received Cs and twelve received
D grades. Twenty-seven states failed, indicating substantial
opportunity for progress in this category.
states publish campaign finance analyses online, including
lists of total amounts raised and spent for individual
candidates in the most recent election.
states publish historical campaign finance analyses online,
but do not provide similar analyses for the most recent
states do not provide a compilation of summary data online.
states provide some information about campaign finance
restrictions and disclosure reporting requirements online.
state disclosure agencies, in Arkansas and Delaware, provide
no explanatory information about campaign finance laws
on their web sites.
States with the best contextual and technical web site usability,
in rank order from one to eight, are: Illinois; South
Dakota; Alaska; Massachusetts; Idaho and North Dakota (tied);
Nevada; and Mississippi, New Jersey and Washington (tied).
States with the weakest contextual and technical web site
usability, in rank order from 41 to 50, are: Georgia,
Maine, Missouri and Oregon (tied); Kansas and Oklahoma (tied);
Arkansas and Iowa (tied); New Hampshire; and South Carolina.
The most encouraging pattern identified by the study in
the area of contextual usability is the widespread inclusion
of information about state disclosure requirements and laws
on disclosure agency web sites. Forty-eight states – all
but Arkansas and Delaware – have detailed information about
campaign finance requirements on their sites. Some
states feature this information as part of a Frequently Asked
Questions section and others post complete disclosure guides
and publications. A number of states, including Alaska,
Hawaii and Washington, provide nice tables of contents for
the text of their disclosure laws, which makes it very easy
to locate and browse sections of the campaign finance code.
found that several states with good disclosure guides inadvertently
limit accessibility to that information online by directing
publications to candidates as opposed to the general public,
with labels like “Handbook for
Treasurers” (Florida) or “Candidate Guide” (Kentucky),
instead of more universal publication titles like "Guide
to Disclosure" (Illinois) or “Summary Guide to
Candidacy and Campaign Finance Laws” (Maryland).
A number of states split contextual information about campaign
finance requirements between two or three state agency web
sites, as opposed to putting it all alongside the actual
disclosure data. For example, in California, the Secretary
of State's office is responsible for receiving and disseminating
campaign finance disclosure reports and publishes campaign
finance data on its site, but the text of the disclosure
law is located on the web site of the Fair Political Practices
Commission, which is responsible for the enforcement of disclosure
laws. The absence of clearly visible links between
the two sites makes it difficult for people looking at disclosure
data to find the text of the law.
it may not seem like the most important element of a disclosure
web site, another thing almost every agency does well is
make its contact information (including agency mailing
address, phone, fax and email address) very easy to find
online. Every state disclosure agency except Michigan featured
complete contact information either directly on the front
page of its web site, or through a “contact
us” link. Often the only reason people visit a state
agency web site is to get contact information, so it is encouraging
to see this information featured prominently on 49 of 50
Overall, states do not do a good job of providing site visitors
with overviews of campaign finance data for current and past
elections, such as compilations of fundraising statistics
or simple lists of candidates and how much money they each
raised and spent during a particular election. Ten
states do provide lists of total amounts raised and spent
by all state candidates in the most recent election, giving
citizens a way to quickly compare fundraising across candidates
and gain a better understanding of political money trends
in their states.
Six state disclosure web sites have compilations of fundraising
statistics for past elections, but not for the most recent
election. In five of the six states (Alaska, California,
Kentucky, Missouri and North Carolina), the discontinuation
of summary reports coincided with the introduction of electronic
filing and the posting of itemized data online. Agencies
may think that such reports are unnecessary once detailed
data is accessible on the Internet. Or, it is possible
that resources, previously available for producing summary
reports, are now being employed in the implementation of
electronic filing programs.
in the area of contextual usability, the study found that
half of the states provide good information to help site
visitors understand which candidates' reports and specific
data are available on their disclosure web sites. Some
states do a particularly good job of describing the history
of the data on the site. For example, New Jersey states
that scanned campaign records are available “beginning
with the 29-day pre-election reports for the 1999 primary
election”, and New York explains that “electronic
filings are available for each filing period commencing on
July 15, 1999”. Maryland explains that agency
staff manually enter reports from paper-filers into the campaign
finance database, and Iowa makes clear that “Summary
and Schedules A, B, D, E, F, and G are available for viewing
via the Internet by committees that file electronically”.
states excel at helping site visitors determine more specifically
the scope of records online for one particular candidate.
For example, in Utah, site visitors can view a chart that
lists each candidate and shows exactly which of his or
her reports have been filed and are available on the web.
Visitors to Kentucky's site will see an asterisk in the
report index of a particular candidate if a campaign finance
filing has been received, but has not yet been processed
for display on the Internet. In North Dakota, the names
of candidates are followed either by a “Contributions” link, for those whose reports
can be viewed online, or “NR”, indicating there
is no report available on the web. Alaska publishes
a “reports filed but not published” list, and
a “delinquent reports” list, to help site visitors
identify the reason a particular candidate's report is missing.
side of the finding, however, is that in 25 states it can
be hard, if not impossible, to figure out which campaign
finance reports are being published online. Many states
provide no information at all to explain the data history
of their systems or spell out exactly which candidates'
reports are being posted. Some disclosure agency web sites
have multiple interfaces for viewing campaign finance records,
and in those cases, it is even more crucial that the state
thoroughly explain whose records can be found in which system.
Connecticut, Hawaii, Missouri, and West Virginia each have
two systems for viewing campaign finance reports, depending
on whether they were filed electronically or on paper. Connecticut
does provide a chart listing each of the candidates for statewide
office and where most of his or her records can be found,
and West Virginia's site tells visitors they “may have
to search both systems to find all reports”. Hawaii
and Missouri are lacking similar explanations to help people
locate reports in the different systems.
was placed on the availability of both original and amended
filings on disclosure web sites, and also on how clearly
amendments were labeled online. Only 23 states received
full credit in the study for this particular criterion,
posting both original and revised filings and identifying
amended reports with either an “A” for
amendment, or language such as “this report supercedes
previous reports for the pre-general filing period.” Seven
states received partial credit for their handling of amended
reports, and 20 states received no credit, meaning amended
reports are simply unavailable online or original reports
are removed from the web in cases where amendments have been
filed and posted online.
Comprehensive lists of candidates in current or recent elections
were found to be available in 26 of the 50 states, making
it easier for people researching disclosure data to view
committee reports in the larger context of the election,
and to compare the reports of various candidates running
for the same office. Fifteen additional states provide
lists that name candidates but are missing other information,
such as party affiliation or office sought. Nine states
provided no candidates lists, or even archived election results,
which would have served a similar purpose.
majority of the states, it is difficult to locate the campaign
finance disclosure agency by browsing the state's home
page or conducting a search of the state's web portal.
The best state search engine is New York's, which delivers
just one result for a search of the term “campaign
finance”, with a link straight to the New York State
Board of Elections homepage. Many state search engines return
hundreds of results often linking mostly to campaign finance
related legislation, or press releases from various agency
offices (North Carolina's official state search engine even
linked to articles on a local newspaper's web site.)
a disclosure site by browsing the state web portal can
be frustrating because the names of the state agencies
responsible for overseeing campaign financing vary by state;
often it is the Secretary of State, but sometimes it is
an independent State Ethics Commission or Board of Elections.
Some disclosure agency names are unique but still fairly
intuitive, such as Massachusetts' Office of Campaign and
Political Finance, or Hawaii's Campaign Spending Commission.
Some are more obscure, such as the Alaska Public Offices
Commission, and can be difficult to find online unless
the state provides a subject index with an entry for “campaign finance” or “online
campaign disclosure” (which Alaska does.) Other
states with subject indexes are Washington, with a “State
Services” index that includes an entry for “Campaign
Financing Reporting”, and Mississippi, with its topical
directory including an entry for “Campaign Finance Disclosures”.
Once a person finds a campaign finance agency's web site,
he or she is likely to encounter unfamiliar terminology or
unclear language that may make it difficult navigate the
site and locate disclosure information and records. The
study found that 40 percent of the state disclosure web sites
have serious terminology issues; the other 60 percent have
adequate terminology, but only a handful can be described
as having excellent terminology throughout the site.
link titles do not reflect the content of what is located
in that section of the web site, such as the “Maine
Campaign Finance Electronic Filing” link, which is in
fact the entry point for candidates to log into the electronic
filing system, but is also what site visitors need to click
in order to access the searchable campaign finance databases. On
Kentucky's web site, Frequently Asked Questions and disclosure
reporting dates are somewhat buried in a section ambiguously
titled “information library”, and on Nebraska's
site, itemized expenditure data is in a section called “miscellaneous
transactions”. Some of the terminology problems
identified in the study may seem minor when taken individually,
but the overall usability of a disclosure web site can be
brought down significantly by the use of imprecise language
throughout a site.
In the usability testing conducted by the UCLA School of
Law, three states – Alaska, North Dakota and Utah – were
outstanding. Testers who were unfamiliar with those
states' web portals were able to quickly locate the disclosure
web sites, find the amounts received by the governor in the
last campaign, and identify at least one campaign contributor.
Further evidence of the quality of these states' disclosure
sites lies in the fact that the researchers retrieved consistent
information in all three tasks. At the other end of
the usability spectrum are Missouri and South Carolina.
Most of the testers had great difficulty locating those states'
disclosure agencies online, if they found them at all, and
could not locate campaign contributor information on either
The results of the usability testing show that the most
difficult task for usability testers was finding a state's
campaign disclosure agency web site. Testers would
start at the state's homepage and search for five to ten
minutes for a clear indication of where they might go for
campaign finance information, sometimes locating the disclosure
web site and sometimes finding nothing. Surveys completed
by the testers following their research indicated that most
disclosure web sites are 'somewhat confusing' (43%) or 'very
confusing' (25%), and only ten percent of the sites were
rated 'excellent' or 'near excellent'.
One major advantage of the World Wide Web as an information
resource, is that it is dynamic. The Project is aware
the changes are already underway on state disclosure web
sites since the close of the study research period, with
some states, including California and Oklahoma, adding new
search capabilities, and others giving their disclosure sites
a facelift and possibly even more substantial changes. The
Project is optimistic that improvements will continue to
be made in the Contextual and Technical Usability of state
disclosure web sites in the coming year and that grades in
that category, which saw the most room for improvement, will
in fact be higher in the next Grading State Disclosure report.