Campaign finance reform? Computerize records: How serious are legislators about giving public access to records?

February 05, 1997

PERHAPS ONCE A DECADE, politicians get serious about strengthening state election laws. This time it took a series of missteps by Gov. Parris N. Glendening to spur reforms backed by the General Assembly's presiding officers. Yet lawmakers may still weaken these bills, leaving only the illusion that "reforms" have taken place.

Advocacy groups are concerned that legislators don't really want to see sweeping changes, that they don't truly want to open their campaign finance reports to scrutiny by the public. There is also a fear that bureaucrats at the state elections board would prefer minimal changes instead of the broader proposals embodied in these bills.

One key is computerization of all campaign finance reports. Without this crucial tool, it is too easy for contributors and candidates to violate election laws. Twenty-seven other states have gone to computerized election reports; New York is likely to become No. 28. As one New York assemblyman from the Bronx put it, "It's time that we left the Stone Age."

But Maryland election officials are not eager to rush into the computer era. They propose a tortoise-like crawl before all finance reports are fully computerized. That's not acceptable. Election officials also have not thought about coding this campaign data so it can be viewed on the Internet. Instead, the board proposes just two computer terminals in Annapolis for public use -- and no modem connections.

That won't provide sufficient sunshine. Legislators must insist that election officials immediately plan for Internet access and that a firm phase-in of computerized campaign reports be written into law. By this November, all statewide candidates should be required to file computerized reports. By November 1998, all candidates who raise more than $50,000 in campaign funds should be required to file, and by the fall of 1999 all other candidates should file computerized lists.

Given the modest outlay and relative ease of using a computer, there is no excuse for a candidate to submit a hand-scrawled list of hundreds of contributors. Computerization would simplify matters for campaign treasurers, for election officials and for citizens who want to know who is putting money into a candidate's coffers and how that money is being spent.

Pub Date: 2/05/97

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