ANNAPOLIS – David B. Simonton sat transfixed at a computer monitor in a darkened room at the State Administrative Board of Election Laws, deepening his brow furrows over a crash course in the board’s new campaign finance reporting software.
“We’re like babes in the woods coming into this thing,” he said, sighing. “We’re going into it one toe at a time.”
Simonton, a Temple Hills accountant, volunteers as treasurer for a Prince George’s County candidate not yet registered in a specific race. But he already is preparing for a new Maryland law requiring office seekers to file campaign finance records electronically.
The law directs candidates to provide the election board with computer disks detailing information formerly filed on paper — including the identify of donors, amounts given, bank account balances and spending records.
On Nov. 10, candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer and attorney general must comply. The law expands to all candidates filing with the state board by late 1999, and all candidates reporting to 24 local boards soon afterward. And it specifies that records eventually be made available on the Internet.
Jeff Chumley, technical support manager for Aristotle Publishing, which provided the board with software, guided Simonton through compiling and checking campaign records. The board allows candidates to use one of several approved databases to record information, but provides its own program to check for accuracy and completeness.
Chumley said the system takes minimal effort to learn, and saves time in the long run for both candidates and regulators.
“You have to keep these records anyway,” he pointed out. “This actually makes it faster. Now it only takes a few minutes, even for a big file,” to check for and correct errors.
To Mark Lampe, treasurer for Ellen Sauerbrey’s GOP gubernatorial campaign, easy availability of campaign finance information could be just what the process needs to clean up its tarnished image.
“H.L. Mencken said something about light having a sanitary effect,” Lampe said, referring to the late Baltimore Sun columnist. Electronic posting of records sheds light on information the public seldom sees in such detail, he explained. “Ultimately, I think its a wonderful thing to have.”
Tejal Cherry, an elections board computer analyst, noted that “any member of the public or press can manipulate this data and use the information any way they want to” — calculating, for instance, which businesses or interest groups gave the most money to what candidate.
Lampe said changing over to the new system will not be difficult for Sauerbrey, whose records already are partially computerized. However, he said, the timing could have been better.
“It’s been hard to implement because its being done in the third year of a fourth-year cycle,” he said. Had the board waited until the beginning of 1999, there wouldn’t be such a scramble to get the information together, he added.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s re-election campaign records always have been on computer file, so very little change is needed to comply with the law, said Treasurer Robin Oegerle. While she declined to speculate on how the new databases will be used by the public, she questioned whether Maryland voters would get much information from them.
“With any computer system, having the information there and being able to use it are two different things,” Oegerle said.
Betty Weems, treasurer for the re-election committee of perennial Maryland Treasurer Louis L. Goldstein, said her organization also is ahead of the deadline. It obtained the fact- checking software from the election board several months ago, and already is entering amounts from a recent Goldstein fundraiser.
Automation “has simplified a lot of it,” Weems said. “Before, you had to list all the names and addresses by hand. Now it all just goes into the computer program at once.”
But Lampe warned that while the new system may simplify campaigns of well-established candidates for statewide office, it could be a burden to regional and local candidates.
“What is somebody running for court clerk going to do?” Lampe asked. “They don’t have the resources to do all of this filing. It will eat heavily into their budget.”
Simonton, who will enter all data for his candidate, faces that problem himself once the campaign begins collecting donations.
“We tend to work primarily at the grassroots level, collecting smaller donations per donor,” he said. “If you get a lot of $100 donations over the reporting period, that’s a lot of time” for entering data.
Still, he said, the election board’s system is not difficult to learn, and once a treasurer gets accustomed to it, data entry probably will be a minimal inconvenience. “I’ve gotten to the point where I know what I need to do,” he said. “Now, its just a matter of going in there and doing it.” -30-