November: Make electronic campaign data easier to understand

2007 Columns

The famous Watergate-era figure dubbed Deep Throat once told a reporter to “follow the money” in order to figure out what was going on.  That’s sometimes easier said than done, particularly when it involves gleaning information from some of the electronically filed campaign finance reports filed by Wisconsin’s political candidates and committees.

For instance, here are three verbatim contribution and expenditure entries from electronic reports posted on the Web site of the State Elections Board.

Anybody know what this means?

1-A,5/19/2006,Schurch, Frieda,,3109 30th Ave. #6,Kenosha,WI,53144,  , 50,100,

How about this?

2-A,6/8/2006,Patton Technologies, LLC,,2333 Alexandria Drive,Lexington,KY,40504,Software Program Fee,2000,

Or this one?

1-A,12/21/2006,Dentice, Bruce,,930 Washington Rd,Kenosha,WI,53140,Conduit:WI Amusement,Owner Sam’s Amusemennt & Vending , 250,600,

Political types have had to file paper reports for decades detailing who gives them money and how they spend it. The reports must be filed every six months in odd-numbered years and four times in even-numbered or election years by candidates for statewide, legislative and some county offices, political action committees and state and local political parties.

However, anyone who wanted to view or copy these reports had to come to the State Elections Board office in Madison. In 2002, most candidates and committees finally were required to electronically file their campaign finance reports.

Electronic filing was intended to provide greater public access, but the requirement created new problems.

First, as you can see from the examples above, the text formats used by some candidates and committees make it difficult for the public to make sense of the information as filed.  Making data more accessible to more people doesn’t do much good if it’s presented in an unintelligible heap.

Some candidates and committees electronically file their reports using a spreadsheet that shows the viewer a facsimile of the paper document.  The donor’s name, occupation, employer, date and amount of the contribution and the donor’s total year-to-date contributions can be organized, labeled and easy to understand.

But many other candidates and committees use a PDF file or text format to file their reports. PDF and other text formats make it almost impossible for the average person to reorganize and view the information differently than the way it is presented on the report that is filed. That limits the usefulness of the report to people who want to reorganize it so they can view contributor and expense data by date, name, city or amount.

When the Elections Board finally started to require electronic filing, it offered filers a  free spreadsheet program. However, using it was an option, not a requirement.

The recently formed Government Accountability Board, created to take over the Elections Board’s duties, should review this disclosure problem and consider requiring campaign finance reports to be filed in a standardized format.

Those who electronically file campaign finance reports also should be required to clearly identify the transactions in those reports. Candidates and committees should format data to be easy on the eyes for those who just want to view the reports, but also supply the information so it can be easily downloaded, manipulated or even converted to another format by the viewer.

For now, Wisconsin residents should try not to be deterred by the complexity of the system. Check out campaign finance reports electronically filed by their legislators, the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, the political parties and special interest committees on the Web site, and contact the board if you can’t figure out the reports.

These days, many people are curious about the sources and amounts of money that political candidates and committees accept and spend —  and increasingly skeptical of claims that private campaign contributions don’t influence public policymaking. Public disclosure doesn’t mean much if people can’t make sense of the information.

Buelow is a former Associated Press reporter and research director for the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign,( Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Freedom of Information Council (, a nonprofit group dedicated to open government.