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Snail Mail Slows PA’s Campaign Finance Reports

Right now, candidates for political office in Pennsylvania can mail in campaign finance reports, or file electronically.

By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s antiquated campaign finance laws are again a topic for discussion.

But, once again, it’s hard to say whether things will change, despite what appears to be bipartisan support for taking things into the 21st century.

Lawmakers are introducing measures to require all candidates for state office to file finance reports electronically, instead of mailing them. At least 30 other states require electronic filing.

This switch would save the state relative pennies in the annual budget — about $100,000 a year in the $27 billion state budget. More important, the move would more quickly make campaign finance reports available for public review.

Electronic filing is widely available for sensitive financial transactions such as tax returns and bank transfers, so using the approach for campaign fundraising reports isn’t much of a stretch. But legislation on the matter, as recently as last summer, has failed to see a vote.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, introduced one such measure in the previous session.

Pileggi thinks any misgivings lawmakers might have about filing electronically are waning.

“It is more efficient, it is less expensive and it has the added advantage of allowing more timely public disclosure of campaign finance contributions,” Pileggi said.

Pileggi’s own campaign reports are still filed on paper but, he said, his campaign staff is in the process of changing that.

Most other candidates file on paper, too. Ron Ruman, communications director for the Department of State, said about one-third of 1,400 campaign filings last election were filed electronically, an option available for at least several years.

A 2008 study from the Campaign Disclosure Project, which examined campaign disclosure laws in all 50 states, gave Pennsylvania a C+, a score dragged down by the lack of electronic filing requirements.

When the department receives electronic filings, staff members review them for general accuracy, locate the candidate in the system, then post the filings into the state campaign finance database. Forms will post either the day they are received or the next day, Ruman said.

When paper versions are received, they are also reviewed, and the cover page is scanned and saved to track the date it was received. The forms are then sent to a contract vendor for data entry. The firm, which the state contracts with for about $108,000 a year, has a 72-hour window to return the information to the department. Once received, the forms are posted online.

“It is a period of several days, typically, once we receive the paper filing until it is posted online,” Ruman said.

This becomes an issue at the final deadline, the second Friday before the Tuesday election. Ruman said filings for the cycle can be postmarked by 5 p.m. that day to make the deadline. After the weekend it would go to a data-entry contractor, which could take a couple of days before it’s to the state. Given the 72-hour response time, the reports may not be posted until after the election.

Ruman said Gov. Tom Corbett supports the concept of all-electronic filing, but the administration will not take a position on a bill in its early stages .

Ruman said the legislation would not significantly change how DOS operates, since it already has to process mail reports in some capacity.

“It would change the timing of when that work is done, but it wouldn’t detract from other work, and it would certainly allow the information to get up there faster,” Ruman said.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, supports the effort to change Pennsylvania’s filing laws.

He said past measures may have failed because of potential concern about costs to implement the new procedures.

“The time has come where just about everyone is doing this stuff online and the systems are out there and it should be done that way,” Costa said.

Contact Melissa Daniels at melissa@paindependent.com

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