© 2017 Commonwealth Commonsense

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IMPROVING PENNSYLVANIA'S

CAMPAIGN FINANCE WEBSITE

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Commonwealth Commonsense is bringing together a coalition of Pennsylvania organizations focused on connecting citizens with their state government through technology.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

This coalition is now actively supporting the Pennsylvania Department of State in its effort to upgrade the Commonwealth’s campaign finance disclosure website and the data management systems that underlie it. Based on a review of best practices established by leading good government research organizations - including the Center for Public Integrity, the Campaign Finance Institute, the National Institute for Money in State Politics and others -  we have identified five key attributes of an effective campaign finance disclosure website:  

  • Quick, free access to financial information

  • Complete and detailed public records

  • Open data

  • Improved website usability

  • Data accuracy

 

Pennsylvania's current site fares well in providing quick, free access to information, and provides relatively complete and detailed records. As such, the primary areas for improvement fall under the remaining three attributes.

  • Open data

    • ​PA website should offer better record formatting for more versatile data mining

    • Reports for non-independent expenditures should be presented in the same format as independent expenditures 

    • There should be an option to download the reports

  • Website usability​

    • Searching for information should not take more than 10-15 minutes

    • Users should be able to enter their home address and be given a list of all candidates running to represent that address, grouped by office. The candidates’ names should be hyperlinks to the candidates’ reports

    • Data should be presented in a simple spreadsheet format for each filer. The spreadsheet should be sortable by clicking on the headings of at least the following fields: donors’ names, donors’ employers, donors’ zip codes, size of contributions, contribution dates, and donors’ aggregate contributions to this recipient.

    • A visitor should be able enter only a few letters and then be given a list of possibilities for candidates and committees

    • Content should be written in non-technical language, and an FAQ page should be created letting a user drill down to more specific questions

  • Data accuracy​

    • Reports that have some, but not all, transaction data should be marked as incomplete

    • Address the occasional reports that are marked as received, but cannot be viewed

    • Address independent expenditure data that does not match the information on paper-filed reports

 

 

STATES LIKE PA?

Among the few states in the Union that do not require electronic filing for campaign finance reports, Pennsylvania’s website and data systems stand above the rest.

 

According to a report from NIMSP, as of 2015, 17 states either did not require electronic filings at all or only in some cases.  Of those, only 3 have a better score on the three relevant transparency practices ratings from the CPI report.  However, two of those three do require electronic filings in most cases (exceptions only for filings under $5,000 or for local races). 

That leaves Delaware as the only state that might be worth considering for transparency's sake.  However, Delaware has one of the worst ratings from CFI on its website for both user-accuracy and being user-friendly.  In fact, none of the states that allow for any type of paper filing have a better rating than Pennsylvania on their website.

So, there is no state with the same filings requirements as Pennsylvania that has a better website or transparency practices.  No off-the-shelf model exists that will meet the needs of what DoS would like to offer.  Code for Philly pointed out that trying to plug in another state’s system would likely cost more in the long run as so many alterations would likely be necessary.

 

INITIATIVES IN PA

There have been local efforts to make campaign finance data more accessible online for the media and the public in the commonwealth’s two largest cities.  In Pittsburgh, the City Controller has built a web portal called Open Book Pittsburgh.  In Philadelphia, two different non-profit organizations have built out some type of campaign finance disclosure tool.  AxisPhilly, a discontinued initiative of Temple University, built a tool called Money Maps; Code for Philadelphia is building a tool called Leverage.  These recent initiatives illustrate that there is a significant desire across the state to see campaign finance data made more accessible.

 

BEST MODELS IN THE NATION

Washington is the only state that receives the highest ranking on both CFI’s website assessment and CPI’s disclosure practices.  It also receives rave reviews from NIMSP and Co70.

 

California is another state that is rated most highly for its Power Search website and the data management system.  That was built by a non-profit called MapLight, which “provides transparency tools that connect data on campaign contributions, politicians, legislative votes, industries, companies, and more to show patterns of influence never before possible to see."

 

There are two additional models worth review, even if they are not managed by state government.  One, Illinois Sunshine, is a project of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (ICPR), a leading good government organization founded by two former U.S. Senators from both sides of the aisle.  The other, Open Disclosure California, is the product of a partnership between Oakland Public Ethics Commission and several Code for America brigades that comprise CA Civic Lab.

 

 

Whatever improvements DoS decides should be made to Pennsylvania’s campaign finance disclosure website and data management systems, there are many resources available. There are plenty of good government organizations willing to offer guidance and support as well as several worthy models to look to.  However, the major improvements necessary for the Pennsylvania DoS to host the premier campaign finance disclosure model in the nation will require significant monetary commitment.

 

Both the work that MapLight did to create California’s Power Search tool and the work that ICPR did to bring Illinois Sunshine into existence were largely funded by private foundations.  Whether or not the foundation community in Pennsylvania is able to and interested in supporting this work must be explored in order to determine if a major overhaul is possible.