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State officials look to replace Arkansas' 'clunky,' 'antiquated' electronic campaign-finance system

State looking to replace it, but likely not until after November’s elections by Lisa Hammersly | December 5, 2021 at 5:35 a.m.
Hands type on a laptop computer keyboard in this Feb. 27, 2013, file photo. (AP/Damian Dovarganes)


Since its rollout in 2017, Arkansas' computerized system for tracking political campaign contributions and expenditures has generated gripes from candidates, elected officials and the public.

Among objections muttered privately or said outright in public meetings: "clunky," "tedious," "not user-friendly," "inaccurate," "antiquated."

Now, state lawmakers and the Arkansas secretary of state's office are taking steps to procure a new computerized system at an estimated cost of $750,000 to $1 million, in hopes it will be easier to use for candidates and everyone else.

The planned new system, however, isn't expected to be in place until after the November 2022 general election. That means candidates and the public have more than a year to coexist with the current system's flaws.

Those flaws include errors and omissions in data, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette found in downloading and examining more than 650,000 campaign contributions and expenditures over the past four years.

The secretary of state's office and legislators refer to troubles with the current campaign finance filing system as glitches, and the glitches are hardly secret.

Is the proposed new campaign finance filing system "going to be more computer friendly than the one existing now?" Rep. David Fielding, D-Magnolia, asked during a Nov. 16 meeting of the Arkansas Legislative Council Review subcommittee, which was examining the secretary of state's proposal.

"I certainly hope so. It couldn't be any less computer friendly -- I'll put it that way," said Kurt Naumann, director of administration and government relations for the secretary of state's office.

State Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, who sponsored the bill calling for a new campaign finance filing system, talked about the current system's difficulties.

He's heard constituents say, "I've tried to look something up and couldn't make heads or tails of it." He also hears about information that is wrong.

"I truly believe with the problems and glitches with the existing system, there are a lot of inaccuracies you can't fix," Johnson said in an interview.

ERRORS, OMISSIONS

Among errors and other problems that stood out during the newspaper's review of downloaded line-by-line campaign contribution and expenditure data:

• More than $1.7 million in mostly unitemized donations to 2021 Arkansas campaigns for governor were incorrectly listed this fall as coming from residents of Maine. That "glitch in the system" that involved 72,592 entries was initially fixed incorrectly to show the money coming from Arkansans, according to a secretary of state's office spokesman.

The office later acknowledged that the current campaign reporting system doesn't allow candidates to enter a state of origin for unitemized contributions -- which are donations less than $50. So the system was fixed again, correctly, to show no state designation.

• Users interested in one candidate or political race can't download that specific data. The only option is to download all contributions to state races for a calendar year.

For 2021 so far, that's more than 390,000 lines of data, a lot of information for a casual viewer to sort through, looking for one low-dollar candidate or contest.

• Information about contributors to political action committees was spotty. When the newspaper noticed some contributions missing for 2017, the vendor restored those. Later, the newspaper found contributions still missing for political action committees for other years.

• Individual contributions appear incorrect or overstated for more than one campaign that the newspaper examined closely. One problem is refunds, which aren't captured in the downloaded data, according to the secretary of state's office. That means some campaigns' donations and totals are overstated.

For example, the current system's data download showed a candidate had received $5,000 each from several different contributors. PDF documents in the system for that candidate, however, provided a different picture: the contributors initially gave $2,500 each, the campaign refunded that money because of an error, then the same contributors each gave $2,500 again.

SHORT-TERM SOLUTION

Every state for decades has required candidates to report where they get their funding, according to Pete Quist, deputy research director for OpenSecrets, a nonprofit that tracks money in state and federal politics.

This is true "because financial backing of political campaigns is so universally acknowledged as essential for having an informed electorate," Quist wrote in an email. "And having an informed electorate is essential for an informed and accountable democratic government."

Arkansas law since 2017 has required state candidates to file campaign finance information electronically, instead of on paper, with the secretary of state. Until this year, the law listed only two exceptions: lack of access to technology and substantial hardship.

Johnson's bill, now Act 1029, struck the two stated exceptions, instead requiring a notarized affidavit on a form prepared by the secretary of state's office. The new law doesn't say what the affidavit can allow. Currently the "Affidavit for Paper Filings" lists the same two hardships as were in the law previously.

It's not clear whether the language change will affect how candidates choose to file campaign finance reports. Most state candidates won't file for office until early next year. As of now, only a handful have indicated plans to file campaign finance information by paper, according to the secretary of state's office.

Among them is Rep. Lane Jean, R-Magnolia, who said his office is "down in the country, on the farm. It wasn't reliable Internet."

"I'm kind of glad I didn't" file electronically, he added, "because I think a lot of people had trouble. ... I don't know if they have all the bugs worked out."

About his new law's potential to make paper filing easier, Johnson said, "I considered it a short-term solution. My tendency would be to think I would work toward repealing that, once we have a good new system in place."

A BETTER MODEL

Arkansas' campaign finance reporting system aims to record contributions to all candidates for state office, including detailed information for every donation over $50, specifying the contributor's name, contribution amount, address and date.

The filings quickly get more complicated because candidates must not accept donations that exceed state limits or otherwise violate election laws. (The limit this year for individual donors is $2,900 per candidate, per election).

Candidates also must file information for expenditures. In addition, political action committees and other groups are required to file similar reports.

The current campaign finance reporting system contains PDF copies of documents that users can print or store, but they aren't searchable by computer without specialized software. The system also provides line-by-line data for contributions and expenditures that users can download to their computers as spreadsheets to search, sort and analyze.

Despite its difficulties, Arkansas' current campaign reporting system was a step forward for the state.

In 2014, Arkansas was among the last remaining states nationwide that didn't require digital political contribution and expenditure filings.

Researchers and members of the public curious about political money had to pore over hundreds or thousands of pages that were sometimes handwritten, occasionally illegible.

Former Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers, sponsored a 2015 bill that sought to require candidates to file campaign finance reports into a computer database that existed then. Gov. Asa Hutchinson supported the idea.

Her first effort failed, but Della Rosa succeeded in 2017. That's also when the state brought in the current computerized filing system at a cost of $763,820. The start-up date was Oct. 1, 2017.

The bidding attracted just one vendor, PCC Technology Inc. of Connecticut, according to secretary of state's office spokesman Kevin Niehaus. A well-established provider in the field, "They were the only company that responded who could get it done in the time frame."

Installed under then-Secretary of State Mark Martin, "it was not a system we necessarily loved or were thrilled with," Niehaus said. Current Secretary of State John Thurston "hasn't been a fan" of the system either and favored a new one.

"The search-ability on it is a bit cumbersome. I would simply say it's not user friendly," Niehaus said. "That's the biggest gripe we've heard and the feelings we share as well."

With the passage of Johnson's bill this year, Thurston's office is now circulating a Request For Proposal (RFP) among legislators, seeking their comments by Dec. 15. The hope is to seek bids on a new system by Christmas, Niehaus said.

"There's no finger-pointing," Johnson said of problems with the current system. "It's kind of a Model-T, and now there's a better model available."

"They did what they could" in 2017 to create the state's current campaign contribution and expenditure filing system, Johnson said. "They did it with what was available. It's clear now that it's antiquated and tedious."


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