Capital Beat: As campaign season revs up, state candidates slow to digitize their finances

Monitor staff
Published: 12/7/2019 9:07:30 PM

As New Hampshire’s gubernatorial contest races into gear, Gov. Chris Sununu and State Sen. Dan Feltes posted the biggest cash hauls on Wednesday, the deadline to file and release reports of how much money they’ve raised and from whom.

Sununu showed a staggering $846,709 campaign war-chest and Feltes reached half-a-million dollars – $500,759 to be exact – a number Feltes says is a record-breaking sum for this period of the race a non-incumbent candidate. 

But good luck analyzing the details. 

On Wednesday, both Feltes and Sununu declined to file their finance reports electronically, choosing to avoid a system that could make it easier for voters to digest who donates to them.

AndruVolinsky, the other Democrat running for the office, is the lone candidate for New Hampshire’s highest post so far to file electronically, making public analysis of the contributions easier.

Since then, and after questions from the Monitor, the Feltes campaign said Friday that it would be posting an online, digitized and searchable version on its website. 

The Sununu camp did not comment. 

Still, the behavior is part of a trend. Despite the 2016 roll-out of an online campaign filing system intended to increase transparency and help candidates, most New Hampshire politicians running for office have continued to stick to paper reports, recent filings indicate. 

There’s a reason for that. When the system was first developed, lawmakers – urged on by the Secretary of State’s office – added in one key condition: participation is voluntary.

The Granite State is on the fringe of darkness as one of only six states that does not require candidates to file reports in a digital format, according to a 2017 review of states by the National Institute on Money in Politics.

The result is no surprise. With a voluntary system, few politicians in the state have chosen to take part. Many Senate and House candidates, in fact, still hand-write reports, a review of recent filings reveals. 

That means voters have a diminished ability to search for specific donors, sort donations by size and date received, and easily break down in-state and out-of-state contributions– all functions made possible by a digital system. 

Instead, voters looking for Feltes’s, Sununu’s, and others’ spending habits on the Secretary of State’s website must download a non-searchable PDF, forcing viewers to trawl through rows of often-tiny print and make any calculations by hand.

Though digital files exist for both campaigns, neither Sununu or Feltes has yet made them available to the public. 

It’s a pattern that’s continued since New Hampshire first launched its online filing system – one of the last states in the country to do so – in 2016. 

“It’s been a slow start getting candidates to use the online portal,” said Olivia Zink, executive director of Open Democracy, an election reform advocacy group. 

Zink, a Democrat who recently won a seat on Franklin’s city council, had been pressing lawmakers to digitize the files for years – and make it mandatory for candidates to do so.

But the State House has resisted a mandate, citing worries over computer access amid the hundreds of candidates who file for a House seat alone.

“There was a lot of resistance to having this mandated,” Zink said.

For candidates that file paper reports, the process can seem retrograde in 2019. Campaigns – or individual candidates – print out versions of their electronic spreadsheets and hand-deliver them to the Secretary of State’s office. That office then scans the printed versions to make an electronic copy and uploads it to the online filing system.

It wasn’t too long ago that even that last step didn’t happen. Zink remembers in 2010, before the state had a website to display the filings, when she says the office was still accepting reports and putting them in physical filing cabinets. Those interested in taking a peek had to trek to the second floor of the State House. 

So Zink and her organization took matters into their own hands. They lugged up a portable scanner and a laptop into the Secretary of State’s office and got to work. Over hours, Open Democracy scanned the documents themselves, later collating them and releasing them online for the public. 

“I set up a little office in the corner and scanned them,” Zink recalled.

Eventually, outside pressures as well as a state study commission helped nudge the state toward a more 21st-century approach. In 2016, a scorecard from the National Institute on Money in Politics gave New Hampshire an “F” grade – one of just eight states to flunk – citing the lack of a digital filing system as a key issue. 

That year, Gov. Maggie Hassan signed a bill, and the system was soon up and running.

The digital system carries a number of advantages for voters, advocates like Zink say. It allows users of the Secretary of State’s website to tinker with the information, tally donation amounts and rearrange how the information is ordered based on any column category they want – similar to a spreadsheet program like Excel. 

That lets voters easily follow one donor’s activities throughout the campaign, or allows information to be gleaned around how much candidates raise during specific events – such as out-of-state fundraisers. 

But it benefits candidates too, Zink says. Filing digitally takes the guesswork out of calculating how much any one donor has already donated, calculations which get more complicated as the campaign season continues.

And it helps correct for other sloppy errors, such as improper entry of donor information, that could give rise to potential campaign finance violations down the road. 

New Hampshire’s system has had glitches and kinks. And that’s frustrated some candidates in the past.

“Unfortunately, some candidates have called us in a panic before a deadline, because the online system wasn't working correctly or they weren't able to get answers about digital filings from the Secretary of State's office,” said Holly Shulman, senior communications advisor for the New Hampshire Democratic Party.

Shulman and others have pointed to what they say is a lack of training and education efforts from the Secretary of State to help candidates navigate that. 

But Deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlan disputed that, pointing to efforts the office has made with candidates who walk into the office seeking help with the system.

For now, parties and candidates are left to instruct their own members. Joe Sweeney, a spokesman for the New Hampshire Republican Party, said his party would be talking to 2020 candidates about online and paper campaign finance filing requirements at training sessions in February and March. 

The Feltes campaign, for its part, argued that even if it did upload its data to the online portal, the system is overly confusing for voters to use.

"Since the Secretary of State's website is difficult for the public to navigate regardless of how a campaign submits it's filing ... we're planning to put our campaign finance report on our website,” campaign manager Nick Taylor said Friday. 

Still, without a mandatory system, there’s little to no incentive for most campaigns to file digitally, says Pete Quist, research director for the National Institute on Money in Politics, which collects finance reports for all 50 states and recreates them digitally on its website, Followthemoney.org. 

“What’s especially frustrating is you’ll see candidates filing reports on paper that were obviously made on a spreadsheet and printed,” Quist said. “That’s a difficult thing to see.”

And that’s to say nothing of the handwritten sheets. 

 “It’s just a problem we shouldn’t be struggling with in 2019,” Quist said. “But it’s real ity.”




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