Officials of the Alabama Secretary of State's office say they'll launch a searchable online database of campaign donations by the end of May — replacing the office's old system of paper filings and scanned-in documents.
State officials say the changes should make it easier for average voters to figure out who’s accepting money from whom.
“If you know Joe Schmoe in your local area, and you know Joe Schmoe Construction Company gives political donations, you can look it up,” said Julie Sinclair, elections attorney for the Secretary of State's office.
State law demands that political candidates and political action committees report their donations and spending online, beginning June 1. That law was one of several campaign finance reform bills passed by the Republican legislative supermajority in 2011, the GOP's first year controlling the House and Senate.
Under the current system, candidates file paper forms, which are then scanned in and posted online at www.sos.alabama.gov. The result was often exasperating even for experienced researchers. Candidates filed weekly, daily and monthly reports in which some donations seemed to be duplicated. Candidates who made errors had to correct them by filing additional forms. Documents sometimes didn’t get scanned in.
Perhaps most significantly, there was no way to search by donor. Donations by individuals or corporations showed up in candidates' reports, but it was nearly impossible to tell how much those individuals gave overall.
"Electronic filing helps everybody," said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a group that has studied campaign finance reporting in all 50 states. "It helps voters, it helps candidates, it helps election officials. The only reason elected officials don't find it desirable is because a confusing system keeps you from finding out who’s funding them."
From 2002 to 2008, Alexander's group teamed up with the University of California Los Angeles and the Pew Research Center to grade all the states on accessibility to campaign finance records. Alabama got an F every time, Alexander says.
In 2008, the state was one of only eight without an electronic filing system. Alexander said many of those states were already working on an electronic filing system at the time.
She said highly involved, active voters would see the most benefit from the change.
"Disclosure helps voters anticipate what they're going to get," she said. "A lot of voters view voting as a hiring process. They want to know who your 'references' are."
Alabama is using the same company that produced Colorado's online reporting system (http://tracer.sos.colorado.gov/PublicSite/Search.aspx), and the Alabama system will operate in a similar fashion, Sinclair said. Another official of the Secretary of State’s office said the system’s cost was somewhere between $300,000 and $350,000.
Sinclair said the new filing system will include all finance reports filed after June 1 and will enable voters to search for specific donors. Older records will remain online as scanned-in documents.
Candidates must file reports with the state if they're in statewide races. In local races, candidates file reports at the county level, which isn't part of the new database.
The system may come too late to catch every major political donor. Recent election cycles have seen the growth of "dark money" — money spent on political advertising by 501(c)4 nonprofit organizations that aren’t required to reveal their donors.
Still, Sinclair said, state law requires groups to submit campaign finance reports if they produce an ad with the name or image of a candidate within 120 days of an election.
"Right now, they can do anything they want," Sinclair said.
The new online system is being tested, Sinclair said, and the exact launch date has not been determined.
Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.