New York has struggled to emerge from a long history of political scandals. In recent years, a number of the state’s most powerful elected officials have left office after indictments or convictions, as have numerous state legislators. The public’s unhappiness over the pervasive influence of money in state politics has led to a loud call for new legislation that would reform campaign finance and ethics laws. But the state legislature has resisted. Despite this inaction in Albany, we are optimistic that there are ways forward that do not require difficult legislation or political upheaval. For instance, New York — and other states — can use inexpensive technology to help make our campaign finance system cleaner, fairer and more transparent.
Our informal group of civic-minded technologists and transparency and campaign experts has created a blueprint for an affordable, state-of-the-art campaign finance reporting system called the State Open Campaign System. It’s like a super-charged TurboTax for campaign finance: a website based tool that would be made available by the Board of Election — for free — to every state political campaign to use for bookkeeping, reporting and donor tracking. All online, no paper. Our design builds on the New York City Campaign Finance Board’s web based CSMART, which moved all New York City campaign reporting online this year. Our team assembled earlier this year in the midst of a big push for a small donor matching program like New York City’s 6-1 public match, and lower caps on contributions. Experts on campaign finance agree that any public funded campaign matching program must be accompanied by rigorous reporting, oversight, and tough enforcement. They also agree that transparency and tough reporting are an integral part of any kind of clean campaign finance system.
We designed the State Open Campaign System — “SOCS” — after in-depth discussions with government regulators, campaign treasurers, experts from academia and watchdog groups, and major technology firms.* We had three goals for the web based system. First, we wanted to design a system that allows campaigns to comply with very tough reporting and auditing regimes as easily as possible. Second, we wanted to sharply reduce the cost to regulators of conducting audits and detecting abuse. Third, we sought to use modern data sharing techniques, like API’s, to open up campaign finance data to the public, and to watchdogs in and out of government, and to make it as useful as possible. SOCS incorporates best practices for campaign finance and ethics reporting: 1. A fully paperless system which uses a website for all records and transactions. 2. Smart web-forms, with automatic suggestions/corrections, producing fewer errors. 3. Instant address and donor ID validation procedures that use voter and data files. 4. Unique ID numbers for all donors. 5. Open data using widely available API’s and bulk downloads in open file formats.
To make SOCS as useful as possible, we went through every step of reporting and auditing campaign donations and expenditures. We designed a “work flow” that uses smart forms, and widely available business software, to help campaigns comply with complicated rules, in a way that is as simple and intuitive as possible. We strove to keep our system as inexpensive as possible by using modules of open source code. We estimate that completely implementing SOCS, and buying new database hardware and software would cost New York about eighteen cents a voter, or two million dollars. Since New York’s totally archaic campaign finance technology is on the verge of collapse, and has to be replaced in any event, the additional cost of building a system like SOCS is very low.
Our hope is that New York will build the State Open Campaign System as part of replacing its aged technology and reforming its campaign system. If it does, we would like to see SOCS offered as an open source tool for other states. We have a promising discussion underway with the NYC Campaign Finance Board about open sourcing its CSMART code sometime in early 2014, and we will continue to work with the Democracy Fund and our many other partners to get the Open Campaign System up and running. Please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org John Kaehny is executive director of Reinvent Albany, and a co-founder of the Open Campaign Working Group.
*Summaries of some of these interviews are online at opencampaignsystem.org