For the past 15 years, those seeking state office in Ohio have filed campaign finance reports online. This has increased greatly the ability of members of the public and journalists to gain access to the information. While under current laws, it is not possible to limit campaign spending, at least voters can learn quickly who is making major donations to particular candidates.
In that spirit of transparency, state Sen. Frank LaRose has introduced a helpful bill that would expand the electronic filing system now used in state-level races to local boards of elections, which currently receive campaign finance reports on paper forms. The Copley Township Republican moved forward after learning that the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections was considering going online, but encountered obstacles in state law.
LaRose has gained the support of Common Cause Ohio, the Ohio Newspaper Association and the Ohio Association of Election Officials, among others. He would ease into the new requirement for local officials, giving them at least six months to comply, and exempt local officials who raise or spend less than $2,000.
The bill also would affect candidates for State Board of Education, county political parties and political action committees.
Unfortunately, strong opposition has been voiced by state Sen. Bill Seitz. The Cincinnati Republican sees the bill as a burden on local officials, despite the exemptions crafted by LaRose and that many campaign treasurers at the local level already keep such records on computer spreadsheets.
Seitz missed the point by a long way when he asked for electronic filing to be optional, with copies of paper reports scanned and posted online. The trouble is, such a system would not permit electronic searches, which the LaRose bill would facilitate by requiring spreadsheet files. Under Seitzís plan, journalists and interested citizens would have to call up locked files such as PDFs and manually enter data.
In recent testimony, Patrick McDonald, the director of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, said requiring local boards to re-enter information from paper filings also would be costly.
For virtually all campaigns these days, an electronic filing requirement hardly would be a burden. Meanwhile, putting campaign finance reports in the kind of format where searches for specific donors or spending information easily can be made would improve transparency greatly.
The continued use of paper campaign finance reports by candidates for local offices, even if scanned and made available online, represents a major obstacle to those seeking to examine and track comprehensively lists of contributors and how a campaign is spending its money.
Citizens deserve to have the same ease of access to campaign finance information from local candidates as they do from state-level officials. As the money flows in and out of local campaign committees, making it easily accessible would permit voters to make up their own minds about the influence of money in politics.