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Statehouse Beat: New website for campaign finance reports proving problematic

Considering I’m still running Windows XP on my home computer, I’m probably in no position to address issues of computer technology, but the new campaign finance reporting system at the secretary of state’s office has had candidates, political consultants, and fellow reporters in a tizzy all week.

The upgrade by SOE Software Corp. of Tampa, Fla., is supposed to make it easy for candidates to file their campaign finance reports online (the first 2014 pre-primary report was due April 4), and it features all kinds of jazzy graphics and bar graphs intended to make searches easier and more user-friendly.

Problem is, it seems to be full of glitches. As of Friday afternoon, nearly a week past the reporting deadlines, dozens of candidate reports remain unposted, and many that are posted seem to have incorrect data.

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Just picking Kanawha’s 35th Delegate District primary elections at random, only two of 13 candidates had reports posted: Delegates John McCuskey and Eric Nelson, both Republicans.

Of the two, there appears to be a discrepancy in McCuskey’s report. It lists $6,050 in contributions, which matches what’s in the body of the report, but also lists $12,465 from fundraising events, even though the body of the report lists only one fundraiser, a breakfast at Bridge Road Bistro that raised $250. (Which erroneously suggests the event lost money, since the expenses for the breakfast are listed at $919.)

Likewise, a frazzled political consultant noted that the disclosure for Delegate John O’Neal, R-Raleigh, in the header lists a total of $30,600 in contributions, including $28,000 from fundraising events, but the body of the disclosure lists a single fund-raising event last October that raised a total of $4,700.

(One line of thought is that the new system is somehow combining numbers from previous financial reports with the first-primary reports filed online. I’ve also heard anecdotally that candidates have entered data for expenditures, but had different amounts show up on their posted reports.)

I talked to McCuskey Friday. He said the total amounts in his campaign disclosure posted online are correct, but said the system would not allow him to submit all the contributors at the fundraising breakfast. He said there were about 75 contributors at the breakfast, but the website as of Friday had only posted two donors in his campaign report, giving the impression he raised only $250.

Since the new system uses a cloud-based network, McCuskey jokingly suggested that the unlisted donors must be in the Internet cloud somewhere.

“It’s a completely fubared website right now,” McCuskey said. “I do think it was silly to change the website a week before the reporting was due.”

As for unposted reports, Jake Glance, spokesman for Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, said that by law, the secretary of state’s office has up to 10 days to scan and post financial disclosures that are submitted on paper onto the website.

When I noted that in past years, the paper forms have been posted by the Monday or Tuesday following the Friday reporting deadline, Glance said, “Those other years, we weren’t using a new system for the first time.”

As for technical glitches, Glance said, “The only issue we have had is some of the beginning balances were not current. That problem has been corrected.”

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Another concern, particularly for candidates and political consultants, is that old campaign finance links no longer work, including a useful link that showed electioneering communications and independent expenditures — expenditures that have to be reported within 24 hours to the secretary of state.

Instead of having a method to post those expenditures when they occur, under the new system, it appears one must click on a Political Committees link, which opens a list of several hundred political action committees and election funds, which would have to be searched individually.

As one consultant noted, given the potential for record amounts of outside money to come into the state this election cycle, it’s disconcerting to think that it may be nearly impossible to do anything close to real-time tracking of those funds.

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Finally, from a reporter’s perspective, a lag-time of 10 days in getting correct financial disclosures posted is not critical for this reporting period. However, the next reports (and last before the primary election) are due May 2, and that could push it to the point where accurate data might not be available until Election Day eve — which of course would be too little, too late.

Meanwhile, McCuskey said it isn’t fair to blame the Elections Division staff in the secretary of state’s office, whom he said have been very helpful and patient as they’ve tried to resolve the computer glitches.

Likewise, Republican operatives will surely make hay with the glitches as part of their attacks during the U.S. Senate race, which again isn’t entirely fair.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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