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Online Contextual and Technical Usability

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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.

  • 10 states publish campaign finance analyses online, including lists of total amounts raised and spent for individual candidates in the most recent election.
  • 6 states publish historical campaign finance analyses online, but do not provide similar analyses for the most recent election.
  • 34 states do not provide a compilation of summary data online.
  • 48 states provide some information about campaign finance restrictions and disclosure reporting requirements online.
  • 2 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.

The study 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.

While 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 disclosure sites.

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.

Also 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”.

Other 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.

The flip 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.

Importance 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.

In a 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.)

Finding 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.

Sometimes 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 state's site.

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.

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