ANNAPOLIS – A state lawmaker invited his colleagues to take a step closer to the Information Age Wednesday by allowing Maryland candidates to file their campaign disclosure reports in electronic form.
Under a bill sponsored by Dana Lee Dembrow, D-Montgomery, and 13 other delegates, candidates could bring a computer disk instead of paper records to the State Administrative Board of Election Laws when reporting campaign contributions and expenditures.
But they would not be required to file the reports in electronic format.
The bill would also cover filings by political action committees and political parties, which must disclose their contributions to candidates.
Under the measure, election officials would have to maintain the electronic records and take “reasonable” steps to make them “easily accessible to the public.” They would also have to supply any disks or “other media” required to file electronically, but could charge a reasonable fee for that.
They would have to accommodate electronic filings by Jan. 1, 1999.
Electronic filing, Dembrow told members of the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee, would save money by reducing paperwork. He said candidates could buy software to make their reports electronic for $495.
Deborah Povich, executive director of the Maryland chapter of Common Cause, a group that lobbies for good government, told lawmakers that campaign disclosure reports have become increasingly difficult to interpret as more and more money has been spent on elections.
She said an “extraordinary amount of time and effort” is required to analyze some reports covering millions of dollars and running for thousands of pages.
“We are very concerned about the difficulty of making any sense of campaign finance records as they currently exist,” Povich said.
That task is simplified by use of computers, which can quickly search records for specific names, zip codes, amounts of contributions, and the like.
Many candidates would file electronically even if not required to do so, Povich said, because it’s more convenient than the current method.
Rebecca Wicklund, state director of candidacy and campaign finance, said election officials could start work on accommodating electronic filings as soon as they have the necessary resources. Those would be a computer programmer, she said, and software and hardware for state officials as well as each local election board, where campaign reports are also filed.
Existing law requires candidates to disclose contributions and expenditures periodically before and after elections.
The bill is Dembrow’s third try to accommodate electronic filing. Two years ago, he introduced a bill that would have required electronic filing, but that measure failed in committee.
Last year, Dembrow introduced a bill identical to the current measure. It was referred to a task force studying election laws.
The task force endorsed electronic filing in a December report, saying that the “purpose of prompt and full disclosure of campaign financing is poorly served” by the current method.
“Increasingly campaigns are using personal computers to keep their records of money received and disbursed, issue receipts, and produce campaign fund reports,” the task force report said. “If the report were submitted on electronic medium … in a prescribed uniform format, it could be utilized readily and immediately … and the disks could be copied and made available to the public for review and analysis.” -30-