Home PublicationsCommentary The Senate Should Stop Filing Campaign Finance Reports on Paper

The Senate Should Stop Filing Campaign Finance Reports on Paper

by Eleni Manis

To provide transparency in elections, all candidates for federal office must regularly report the amount of money they raise and spend to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). For the past two decades, House and Presidential candidates have filed campaign finance reports electronically, with the result that campaign finance data can be downloaded and searched for insights minutes after it is filed. However, candidates for the Senate continue to use a paper-based reporting system that not only wastes time and money—nearly $900,000 per year—but obscures public scrutiny of campaign spending. The Senate’s long-standing resistance to filing this data electronically is indefensible, but fortunately it appears close to ending this practice.

House and Senate candidates who raise or spend more than $5,000 must designate an official campaign committee responsible for all contributions and expenditures on behalf of the candidate. At least five times each election year—on April 15, July 15, October 15, January 31, and 12 days before the election—the treasurers for these campaign committees must electronically submit campaign finance reports. The FEC makes data from these reports available to the public, including journalists, to view, download and analyze.

House campaign committees must file their reports electronically, and according to the FEC, these reports are “normally available to the public, and may be downloaded, within minutes.” However, Senate campaign committees print and then either mail or hand-deliver paper copies of their computer-generated reports to the Secretary of the Senate. There, these paper documents are scanned and forwarded to the FEC. The FEC uploads these scans to its website within 48 hours. However, it takes at least five to ten additional days, and sometimes up to thirty days, to restore and upload the data in a sortable, searchable format. This is an absurd and inefficient process.

As a result, by the time October 15 and pre-election reports can be parsed for useful information, November 3 elections may be long past. Late-stage campaign reports disclose important information about the amount and source of money in contested races. More generally, sortable data lets journalists answer important questions: Who are a candidate’s biggest donors? What percentage of a candidate’s money comes from out of state? What conflicts of interest does a candidate have? Reporting delays serve no other purpose than to obscure this information.

Requiring Senate candidates to file electronically would be simple. Virtually every Senate campaign uses software to produce its campaign finance reports, with more than 30 different e-filing software solutions available, in addition to FECFile, the FEC’s free electronic filing software. The only step remaining is for Congress to pass the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act. This bipartisan legislation requires Senate campaigns to adhere to the same filing requirements as other federal campaigns by removing the 28-word exemption that, in 1999, allowed the Senate to continue filing paper reports while other federal campaigns moved to electronic reporting. The legislation, first introduced in 2003, has received support from numerous election-focused organizations and now lists more than half of all senators as a cosponsor.

Congress has included the legislation in its most recent legislative appropriations bill, and pending the results of a conference committee, should vote on its final passage soon. The Senate should welcome this opportunity to enter the modern era of campaign finance reporting and accountability.

Image credit: Wikimedia

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