Count it as a measure of progress that Alabama candidates’ and PACs’ campaign finance reports are online. If this were 1998, we’d be celebrating our bridge to the 21st century head-start.
However, it’s not 1998; it’s 2011. And at the Alabama Secretary of State website, reports are nothing but images of mostly handwritten reports that are turned in via mail and fax. They are scanned into images and posted at www.sos.alabama.gov.
Moveable type, hyperlinking and other digital advancements that allow citizens to easily search and share data are absent from the state’s campaign-finance database.
Alabama’s current system is like creating and using a telegraph app to type out Morse code on a mobile phone. You could do it, by why not just catch up to the latest technology by speaking into the receiver?
When asked about the digital dead-end last year, Alabama Secretary of State Beth Chapman said her hands were tied by the state Legislature. Her claim is difficult to completely swallow.
She’s right that the Fair Campaign Practices Act is woefully inadequate when it comes to digital realities. However, nothing in the law denies her office the ability to create a database far easier to navigate. Instead of scanning in campaign-finance paperwork, the Secretary of State’s office could type in the data.
Imagine examining a candidate’s contributions and hyperlinking from a contributor’s name to see who else he or she has given to. That’s a far richer web experience, one that’s good for trust in government.
A better solution is for Montgomery to amend the state’s campaign-finance laws to allow candidates to enter their donations and expenditures in real-time via the Secretary of State’s website. Give the late-adapters an incentive: Perhaps a processing fee for filing through the mail or fax; filing instantly online would be free.
In an era where online banking is commonplace, instant digital filing is not too much to ask of candidates. By joining this exercise in open government and accountability, they will be building the trust of the voters. And that’s always a good thing.