A bill by Rep. Jana Della Rosa (R-Rogers) to require online filing of campaign contribution reports passed out of the House State Agencies committee this morning on a voice vote. It now heads to the House floor.
The bill would greatly increase transparency in campaign finance in Arkansas by creating a searchable electronic system. Candidates could continue filing on paper if they attach a notarized affidavit declaring they don’t have access to the necessary technology. Similar legislation sponsored by Della Rosa was voted down in the House in 2015.
Della Rosa told the committee this morning that the state has already spent about $750,000 on developing a new online filing system to be managed by the secretary of state’s election division — candidates often complained that the old online system was difficult to use — but that the new database would not be helpful to the public unless candidates were mandated to use it. “If we do not report into it, it’s useless to them, because it will only have some of the information,” she said.
Later, in response to a question from another member, Della Rosa explained how a searchable online system would allow a member of the public to figure out which campaigns “Joe Smith” donated to during a given election season. “If you want to know that during the election … you would have to pull hundreds, thousands of paper filings and go through them by hand. … If this passes and we use this system the way I have laid out, you would be able to just go into a database with a very nice user interface … and just type that in and say ‘Who all did he give money to?’ And it’ll be there, within a few seconds.
“I’d like to point out too: What I’m asking us to do here is not anything that we haven’t asked every agency to do for us and everybody that reports to us. Think how … angry we would be if every time we went to the Bureau of Legislative Research and said ‘Can you tell me where in code I need to fix something?’ and they just came and plopped down a big old book and said ‘Go find it.’ … We expect reports to come to us in electronic format, because it’s such a huge waste of time for us to get [that] information when electronic filing is available. … So I’m asking us to … report to the public, our bosses, essentially the same thing that we’re requiring everybody to do for us.”
Rep. Charlotte Douglas (R-Alma) expressed opposition to Della Rosa’s bill. “I think a lot of people would be more comfortable with this if you had said ‘Let’s run a pilot for a year, let’s let everybody get comfortable with it and work out the kinks,” she said. Della Rosa replied, “I have a feeling that it doesn’t matter what I do — there’s always going to be something that’s not going to be liked about it.” If the bill passes, the mandate would not go into effect for four months, she said, and the secretary of state’s office will be providing training throughout the summer (that is, when campaign filings are likely to be sparse) for elected officials that need help navigating the new system.
Douglas remained skeptical. “I don’t see a public outcry at the grassroots level. I’m not having any mail on this. I’ve never had anyone say ‘We’d like for you guys to be more transparent in your filing.’ It’s a question as to where really this is being driven from, if it’s not grassroots Arkansas. Who are we really making this easier for?” she asked.
Rep. Jim Dotson (R-Bentonville) asked what would happen if a candidate experienced technology problems. “Does this allow for a grace period … because you can’t log into a website that’s down?”
Della Rosa said it does not. “I would remind you that you have 15 days [to file a campaign finance report]. … The same risk exists on paper. Let’s say you try to fax it in on midnight. You’re always taking a risk if you wait until the last second to do it. … Within a 15 day period, you should be able to get it in.”
Several representatives worried about the possibility of punitive measures from the Arkansas Ethics Commission if they should be late in filing electronically. But Graham Sloan, the ethics commission’s director, told the committee that the law allows a 30 day cure period for errors in filing. Rep. Andy Davis (R-Little Rock) — who appeared to support the bill — asked Sloan if the commission had ever sanctioned candidates for “missing a day or two.” Sloan said it had happened before, “but not for good cause.” If a person is sick, or if inclement weather disrupts the phone lines, or any number of other situations arise, the commission won’t mete out sanctions, he said. “A lot of good causes exist: The bridge is out, I couldn’t get to town,” Sloan said. “If somebody demonstrates circumstances beyond their control, that’s good cause shown, and that’s already built into the existing system.”
In response to a later question, Sloan said electronic filing would make the commission’s overall job easier. “We look at a lot of reports, and believe it or not, legibility [of paper reports] is an issue,” he said. “This is well-oiled software, so it’s going to be an improvement over the existing system.”
David Sachar, the director of the Judicial Discipline & Disability Commission, spoke in favor of the bill, saying it would improve his agency’s ability to enforce ethics rules for judges. “This is an issue that is even more important for judicial elections,” he said. “When it comes to an independent magistrate, we need to know who supported the judge and we need to know in a timely fashion.” Making campaign contributions to judicial elections easily searchable would make it much easier for lawyers and parties to make a motion for a judge to recuse from a given case, he said. Sachar also dismissed concerns about overly punitive sanctions, noting that JDDC gives “safe haven” to judges who contact the commission in the event a finance report is going to be submitted late.
Josh Waters, a lawyer for the conservative group Conduit for Action, also spoke in favor of the bill, saying it would increase government transparency.
Kelly Boyd, a deputy at the secretary of state’s office, told the committee that the office does not anticipate any increase in monthly expenses in upkeep for the new system. “Right now , the system runs at around $3,300 a month, and we anticipate similar charges,” he said. Currently, staff in the office must electronically scan the paper filings submitted by candidates (thus creating non-searchable PDFs) so having an automated system will likely save money in the long run.
The committee passed the bill on a voice vote. There were a few audible “no” votes.