This January marks the rollout of the South Dakota Secretary of State’s Campaign Finance Reporting System, and for the better part of a week, I’ve been trying to figure out the improvements from the older systems to the new one.
And before I go into my own experiences trying to work with it, it’s an appropriate time for a primer/history on South Dakota Campaign Finance on-line reporting.
As someone who spends a lot of time looking through campaign finance reports, I was hoping we’d see some improvements to the system, such as being able to sort all filings by date, so as to see “what’s new.” This was a functionality in the very first filing system that was not carried over when it was redone in 2011, that actually was very helpful to filing researchers.
In response to my query about that possibility, I was informed by Kea Warne in the elections department that “You are able to search by committee name or candidate name to search for a particular one or search all to see an entire list of committees. You cannot search by date submitted.”
Oh, well. That would have been an improvement over the old system. So I set myself to trying to find what were the actual improvements to the system on the researcher side of things. You know, trying to figure out what enhancements have been made in the interest of public disclosure and transparency?
So, lets talk about the various systems and their history. Having been involved in politics since 1988, I can tell you that the transparency of the documentation in South Dakota Campaign Finance has taken various forms over the past decade or so.
Originally, you would have to go talk with Darleen Gage up at the Secretary of State’s office, and she’d point you to the files, and you would be able to have a look/see. That was fine, but it was definitely a manual system.
As technology marched on, a computerized system was created which allowed you to look up filings by name and by date.
There was no aggregation of names, so if you wanted to look through the Republican State Central Committee, you had to go through a few pages of them.
That system, used from about 2007 up through 2010 can be viewed here, and featured a searchable field, allowing the user to filter the results slightly.
It was primitive, and it had it’s faults, but it allowed the user to perform the research on-line that had previously been limited to the hours of 8 AM to – 5 PM in Pierre.
2011 saw Jason Gant taking over the office with a wave of modernization of data systems for which he was alternately cheered and razzed for. Among the systems that received that dual response was an attempt to make the system more publicly accessible and transparent. As it was announced, the new system was “South Dakota’s first entirely electronic campaign finance reporting system“ which “allows a campaign committee’s finances to be recorded and tracked through the use of an online accounting ledger, making reporting as simple as clicking a button.”
His CASH system, while it was not everything to everyone, it was cheered by members of the media as “a big step forward.“ But, there was discontent in paradise. Some in the media groaned it should have gone further, and a few legislators howled about it going too far. They did not like an optional campaign accounting function was attached to the system, giving them the option to store their records on-line, and some of the less technically adept preferred paper filings, and didn’t like putting things on-line at all.
But, for all its foibles, it represented the first time that donor information was digitized and searchable, and represented a significant step forward for political transparency, as opposed to the previous system’s flat file with accompanying scan of the document, with no searchable donor function. The new system allowed for wild card text searches, and provided broad amounts of information for a person’s political activity.
Searching on one name allowed you to find out what political committees a person was attached to, committees they made donations to, and other useful information you would normally have to pick through multiple reports for to find relationships and trace donations.
Unfortunately, that required someone to enter that data, and some legislators balked at doing it themselves.
While the release promises the “first entirely electronic campaign finance reporting system,” eventually, necessity caused that the be abandoned somewhat, and the scanned documents were returned. For those that submitted the information in that manner, the donor information would be typed in by hand by staff. Inefficient, but it was one way to maintain donor transparency, and respond to the grumbling by committees and elected officials who didn’t want to spend the time to enter the information themselves.
That system brings us up to the present day, and the system rolled out in the last week or so. The latest and third incarnation of campaign finance reporting is generically titled the “Campaign Finance Reporting System,” which you can find at http://sdcfr.cloudapp.net/Search/Search.aspx, hosted out on the Microsoft azure cloud.
What do I think? Well…. How about I tell you about my experiences in using it?
Upon entering the system, if you’re attempting to perform a search, you’re required to drill down to a separate page:
Upon going to that page, you’re given the option of searching by committee name or type. And upon clicking on one of them (name in this instance), you’re prompted to select committee name.
But, didn’t it say search up above? Well, yes, but it isn’t a search. Not at all, unless they mean by search, you scroll through hundreds of committees and “select” the one you’re after. The new system seems to lack an option to do a nominal, or even a rudimentary wildcard search, as had been allowed in the 2007 version back nearly a decade ago. You don’t search for a committee, as much as you are required to scroll through the list seeking the one you want.
If you don’t know the name of the committee, there’s no broader searching functionality provided, and you could have to manually peck through 460 PAC’s and Committees, with no notation of filing or dates of the election cycles, which leaves you guessing even further.
Once you select a committee, you are presented with the following screen:
The screen is reminiscent of the prior CASH system, shown below…
… but without digitized donor information available, and while the new system has added phone numbers to the committee information screen, it is in what some may consider a more basic layout.
According to Deputy Secretary Kea Warne, the Secretary of State’s office has “received positive feedback from committees that have used the new CFRS system.” When asked about additions or changes to the newly rolled out system, I was informed the office does “not have any plans for enhancements.”
I asked the Secretary of State’s office about the notation that had been on the website – up until today – on the search screen in bold red that “documents created in the new CFRS after January 4th, 2016 can be found in a search utilizing the “Date Received” and/or “Date Filed” criteria, as I was unable to find where you could do that. They replied that they “decided not to include the search function for date submitted and date filed due to not everyone filing online.”
And in response to my inquiry, they removed the language.
While the Secretary of State office claims positive feedback from filing committees using the new system, (I haven’t used it myself to enter data), enhancements in the system for the media or casual researcher are not evident. In fact, for the researcher, the system’s interface lacking the ability for any text or wildcard searches appears to be less sophisticated than the system originally introduced by Chris Nelson in 2007, and with the alternatives of endless scrolling or paging through dozens of pages of committee names, it is far, far more unwieldy to use.
What should be concerning to transparency advocates is that with the new system transparency has taken a giant leap backwards when it comes to the availability and searching of donor information that was present in the preceding system. The new system has eliminated that functionality, and returned to the roots of the 2007 system, ignoring any evidence that the State of South Dakota ever dipped a toe in the waters of that kind of campaign finance transparency.
There may be more “user friendly” enhancements on the back end which are not evident to the public researcher. I’m sure there are. But if it was a choice between enhancing the experience of a few hundred political committees, or maintaining and improving the transparency for several hundred thousand taxpaying South Dakota citizens, I’m sure you can guess which one they should have chosen.
But don’t take my opinion on it. Try all three for yourself…
And let me know what you think.