Paper Campaign Records Doomed

DEC. 15, 2010

Yesterday marked the final formal hearing of the Political Reform Act Task Force. Since early September, I’ve watched the 25-member panel, convened by Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) Chairman Dan Schnur, thrash out ways to improve, tighten up and otherwise make clearer the regulations governing election campaigns and conflicts of interest. There’s still the matter of figuring out which of the few dozen ideas to turn into hard recommendations that can translate into legislation, but for the most part the task force’s work is done.

Of course, by “done,” I mean “only just begun.” More than ever technology is changing the way political campaigns operate, forever forcing the FPPC to play catch-up.

“How do you address technology, which is moving so quickly?” panel member Darius Anderson, a consultant, asked.

In 1974, when the state’s Political Reform Act went into effect, slate mailers – colorful cards sent to voters listing endorsed candidates, many of whom paid to appear on the card – were a big deal. But Task Force member Richard Schlackman, a political consultant, waited until the final hearing to mention that in a couple years slate mailers will be dead, replaced by slates e-mailed directly to voters.

“You will see the end of print slate mailers soon,” he told the panel. “Just because of postage costs. Mark my words.”

This seemed to stun the panel. Ditto Schlackman’s mentioning of “telephone town halls,” in which voters or activists, sometimes tens of thousands of them at a time, listen in on a 30-40 minute conference call.

“In two years you’ll be asking how to put a disclaimer on telephone town halls,” Schlackman said. “The last one I saw had 20,000 people. This is what the technology is moving towards.”

Panel co-chairman Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies had never heard of them.

Where the panel seems to be embracing technology is in the realm of campaign finance disclosure. Put simply, the panel recommended “A single, statewide electronic filing system for state and local candidate and non-candidate committee campaign disclosures that consolidates all state-required campaign data into one searchable database.”

Building such a database would provide immense information directly to voters – a single Web site where they could search for any candidate in the state, regardless of election, and get virtually instantaneous campaign contribution dollar amounts. But some, both on and off the panel, want the recommendation to go even further. They want the Task Force to call for electronic filings, and not the current paper filings, to be the “filing of record” – the main and official way of collecting campaign finance data.

David Montgomery, a representative of Netfile, a company that sells campaign finance e-filing systems and stands to gain strongly from such a law, told the panel in very strong terms that localities would save tremendously by ditching paper in favor of e-filing. He even provided copies of a nine-page letter from the San Francisco Ethics Commission to the panel that buttressed his case.

“As a significant short-term goal, San Francisco strongly supports eliminating the paper filing requirement and making the electronic document the official document of record,” the Nov. 30 letter stated.

Some panel members, as well as FPPC Chairman Schnur, agreed. “This is a ripe issue for this task force,” member Steven Lucas, a campaign attorney.

In response to a question as to former FPPC Chairman Ross Johnson’s views on the matter, FPPC Executive Director Roman Porter said Johnson opposed getting rid of paper, saying he thought there was no substitute for having a “wet signature” on a document.

Schnur disagreed. “The current chair does not share Chairman Johnson’s concerns,” he said. “In my mind, there is no single, more important accomplishment than moving forward as strongly as possible on this.” Schnur acknowledged that there are “logistical and financial considerations” to take into account, but said there wasn’t “anything we can that’s more important than this.”

Despite such strong approval, Stern hesitated, saying e-filings “aren’t as robust as paper documents.” He’s got a point. Though the San Francisco Ethics Commission letter says quite forcefully that electronic filings are safe and secure and are continuously backed up, and that paper is bulky and expensive to maintain, it’s a fact that digital documents, data and even whole websites have vanished from state computer systems. As this CalWatchdog story from January makes clear, state information officials are in the process of dealing with the problem, but have no real understanding of what’s been lost, except that losses – due largely to hardware and software changes – do, in fact, occur.

There’s nothing wrong with the FPPC embracing new technology, but in this case, ditching ancient paper might not be in the public’s best interest.

–Anthony Pignataro

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