by Institute Staff | 2016-03-15
Disclosure of money in politics is critical for educating the public and fostering accountability in our democracy. For decades, the National Institute on Money in State Politics has led the call for greater campaign finance transparency throughout the nation.
In 2014, the Institute published a scorecard that graded states’ independent spending disclosure practices,1 adding another tangible, visual analysis to the recent collection of national overviews published by public interest organizations.2 The goal of these studies is to help educate the public, inform state agencies and legislators about how their states compare to others, highlight trends in disclosure practices, and spawn improvements. For example, Pennsylvania State Rep. Neal Goodman (D-123) recently introduced a bill to mandate disclosure of those financing electioneering communications, partly in response to his state receiving an “F” on the Institute’s independent spending scorecard.3
The Institute formulated its newest national scorecard to grade states’ disclosure practices governing direct contributions to state candidates, state political parties, and, where applicable, committees that support or oppose any kind of statewide ballot question (hereafter referred to as ballot measure committees). Adequate disclosure has an extensive impact on our understanding of state campaigns; such contributions totaled $3.3 billion in 2014 alone.
This contribution scorecard reveals a national average score of 77 points. Although a handful of states received very high marks, the “C” national average highlights the need for improvements to be made in the vast majority of states in order to ensure the public has timely access to thorough information about who is funding state campaigns.
The state of Maine stands above the rest, and as such, can serve as a beacon for other states hoping to improve their disclosure practices. Maine does the best job of providing the public with timely access to complete digitized data, and thorough information about the donors and the finer details of their contributions. Four other states—Arizona, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Oregon—also received extremely high marks, and they too serve as shining examples for other states to follow. On the other side of the spectrum, six states—Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island—fared the worst, and have the most room for improvement.
Each state’s score should be interpreted as a holistic appraisal of state campaign finance disclosure practices, not as an assessment of the agencies that collect these filings. Many reforms needed go beyond the agencies’ reach, and require legislative and executive action. Additionally, many agencies operate with limited resources and depend on the Legislature to appropriate the funding necessary to achieve a higher score.4
The Institute stresses that the scores reflect practices that were applicable during the study period, yet changes are always on the horizon. For example, beginning in 2017, North Carolina will require electronic filing for all candidates and committees above a certain threshold.5 Several other recent changes impacted states’ grades: for example, Iowa’s score benefited from electronic filing becoming mandatory for all filers on January 1, 2016,6 but Wisconsin’s score decreased as a result of a bill passed in December 2015 that included a provision eliminating employer disclosure for individual donors.7
The Institute’s scoring methodology is based on a set of criteria measuring the disclosure of contributor information, the timeliness and quality of campaign finance data, and public access to the data. See Appendix A for details.
- Does the state require a contributor’s occupation be disclosed?
- Does the state require a contributor’s employer be disclosed?
- Does the state require a contributor’s street address be disclosed?
- Does the state require the date of the transactions be disclosed?
- Does the state clearly identify the following types of transactions: direct monetary contributions, in-kind contributions, loans, loan repayments, unitemized lump sums, returned contributions, and other (non-contribution) income?
Timeliness and Quality of Data
- Does the state require special late or large contribution reports?
- Does the state require campaign finance reports be filed electronically?
- Is the state’s electronic data complete and publicly available?
Access to Digitized Data
- Is the state’s electronic data searchable online and available for download as a dataset?
- Does the state ensure hard copies of campaign finance reports are available online?
Twenty-nine states received a “B” or better, including 10 that earned an “A”; conversely, 12 states got a “D” or worse, including eight that flunked. Scores varied widely across the country, with almost every region represented on each side of the grading spectrum.
The national scorecard is displayed in the interactive map below. The map allows the viewer to see states’ overall scores, as well as the scores on each of the criteria outlined in Appendix A.
Maine led the way with a perfect score, while Arizona, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Oregon tied for second with 97.5 points. Mississippi stood alone at the opposite pole with only 37.5 points. Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island did not fare much better; each earned fewer than 50 points.
The national average of 77 points is a fairly reliable marker separating states that excelled and states that lagged behind on two criteria that the Institute prioritized over all others: electronic filing and completeness of electronic campaign finance data. Of the 32 states with an overall score of 77 points or higher, 25 received full credit for both electronic filing requirements and completeness of electronic data. Conversely, of the 18 states that scored below the national average, only seven got a full score for completeness of electronic data and 15 received a partial or null score for electronic filing requirements.
The vast majority of states need to improve reporting of contributor information, as indicated by the national average of only 25 points, or 71 percent of the possible points. The problem was especially pronounced with the disclosure of the economic interest of individual donors. Thirty-one states failed to earn full credit for employer and occupation disclosure, including 16 states that did well otherwise, earning at least a “B” on the scorecard. A small plurality of states received a partial score for disclosure of occupation, employer, and transaction type.
Mandating the disclosure of contributor information is essential to capturing a complete profile of campaign donors. A contributor’s employer and occupation are needed to determine his or her economic interest, which could be impacted by those benefiting from the contribution, or to identify significant or numerous contributions coming from employees or members of an organization. A street address may be necessary to identify multiple contributions from the same source, thereby allowing the public to identify a donor’s contribution trends. Finally, the date and type of contribution are critical for understanding a donor’s contribution proclivities.
Just seven states—Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee— received the maximum 35 points for the disclosure of contributor information. An additional nine states scored 30 or higher, of which most lost points for transaction type disclosure, but street address and employer disclosure prevented two states from achieving a full score.
There is reason to be sanguine on the national outlook of two criteria dealing with contributor information. States almost uniformly require a contributor’s street address be disclosed (only California and West Virginia received partial scores for this, while Texas and Wyoming received null scores). Similarly, all but three states got full credit for disclosure of transaction date: both of the Dakotas received partial credit, while Montana got a null score.
There was a mixed record of success among the states for employer and occupation disclosure. Eighteen states failed to disclose employer information altogether, including 13 states that also did not disclose occupation information. Fifteen states received partial credit for disclosing the employer of some donors, of which all but one also got partial credit for disclosure of occupation. Another 17 states got full credit for disclosure of employer, and all but one got full credit for occupation disclosure.
The score count for the disclosure of transaction types are as follows: 22 states received full credit, 17 received partial credit, and 11 were given a null score.
Timeliness and Quality of Data
The public needs to have access to timely, quality data; therefore, this section of the scorecard is heavily weighted, with half of all possible points assigned to these practices. Most of the points are given for electronic filing requirements and completeness of electronic data because this expedites access to all contributions in a user-friendly format as an election approaches. Electronic data permits the public to ask essential question about campaign contributions (e.g. “How many candidates received contributions from this donor?”) for which database research is most appropriate. Without electronic data, one is often relegated to perusing individual campaign finance forms, some of which are not searchable.
Thirteen states got a perfect score of 50 for this section: Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wisconsin. An additional 14 states scored 45 or higher for mandating electronic filing and ensuring the completeness of electronic data online, but these states lost points because not all filers are required to submit special reports to disclose large or late contributions.
Almost every state either requires at least some filers submit campaign finance information electronically, or permits filers to voluntarily file reports electronically. Thirty-one states received all 25 points for mandating electronic filing across the board, while 18 states received only partial credit. Mississippi is the only state that received a null score—all reports are still filed on paper.
Many states ensure the completeness of electronic data, but almost a third of the states failed to garner all 20 points available. Thirty-six states earned full credit for completeness of electronic data, which includes nine states that must manually input some paper reports to build a comprehensive online database. Eight states got partial credit for this criteria because some data is not available in a digital format or some paper reports are only accessible as hard copies or scanned images. Six states failed to meet even the latter criteria, resulting in a null score.
Thirty-seven states require late or large campaign contribution reports for some or all filers. Almost half (24 states) apply this standard to all candidates and committees, thereby receiving full credit, while 13 states got partial credit. Another 13 states fail to require late or large contribution reports altogether.
Access to Digitized Data
Completeness of electronic data may not be sufficient for some researching a candidate’s or party’s financial backers, which is why the Institute also assigns points for access to the data. A searchable database in which users may download contributions as a dataset is ideal because it allows the public to search for filings by contributors, transactions, committees, and more. Absent this feature, a state could partially make up for these deficiencies by providing copies of the paper reports on its website.
Overall, states fared pretty well in the electronic data format score. Forty-three states received a perfect score by ensuring the data was searchable and downloadable as a dataset, and five states got partial credit for having a searchable database but no download feature. Arkansas and Mississippi were the only states to receive a null score because some reports can only be accessed as paper copies.
A solid 35 states got a full score for hard copy data format, and 12 states received partial credit for posting all paper-filed reports online. California, Kentucky, and New Hampshire each received a null score.
Although a handful of states stood out among the rest, this study revealed that much work remains to be done before the public has timely access to a complete picture of who is funding political campaigns in every state.
It is both astonishing and disappointing that, in the year 2016, nearly half the states failed to require electronic filing of campaign finance reports, or provide completeness of electronic data, or both. States could dramatically improve their disclosure if they required electronic filing of all filers who raised money above a specific threshold, as established by the state. If electronic filing is not required, states need to ensure agencies have the resources necessary to manually input data from all paper reports so that the public has access to a complete, searchable and downloadable digitized database.
Of course, completeness of digitized data is substandard without a user-friendly website that allows the public to effectively search for contributions according to any number of criteria (e.g. type of committee, donor, transaction date). Providing a downloadable database is the most effective means to achieve this objective, but seven states still do not have this feature on their websites. Further, at a bare minimum, all paper reports should be viewable online, yet 3 states fail to do so. Quality and accessibility of data should be considered when states move to increase campaign finance transparency.
With the public more attuned to the role of campaign donors in our elections, it is more important than ever for states to prioritize the disclosure of complete contributor information. The lack of employer and occupation disclosure is most pressing for the Institute and others interested in capturing a full profile of campaign donors. Additionally, many states are lagging behind on identifying the types of transactions, and a handful of states still fail to provide basic information such as street address and date of transaction.
States would be wise to adopt solutions created and tested by other states; this study spotlights effective models that can help other states make notable strides in the future.
Appendix A: Scoring Methodology
The Institute’s scoring methodology is based on a set of criteria measuring the disclosure of contributor information, the timeliness and quality of campaign finance data, and public access to the data. States could receive a maximum of 100 points based on the criteria listed below. (Partial credit was given if disclosure was required only in some instances, explained below.)
- Does the state require a contributor’s occupation be disclosed? [Maximum Score: 5]
The most common scenario for a partial score is a requirement that a contributor’s occupation be reported for contributions above a dollar threshold that is higher than the itemization threshold.
- Does the state require a contributor’s employer be disclosed? [Maximum Score: 10]
The most common scenario for a partial score is a requirement that a contributor’s employer be reported for contributions above a dollar threshold that is higher than the itemization threshold.8
- Does the state require a contributor’s street address be disclosed? [Maximum Score: 10]
Partial scores are given if a contributor’s street address is required to be reported for contributions above a dollar threshold that is higher than the itemization threshold, or if street addresses are required to be reported but are not made available online.
- Does the state require the date of the transactions be disclosed? [Maximum Score: 5]
Partial scores are given most commonly if transaction dates are available in electronic data but not in paper-filed reports, or vice versa.
- Does the state clearly identify the following types of transactions: direct monetary contributions, in-kind contributions, loans, loan repayments, unitemized lump sums, returned contributions, and other (non-contribution) income? [Maximum Score: 5]
Partial scores are given if all of the above transaction types, save for returned contributions, are clearly identified on campaign finance reports. Null scores are given if additional transaction types are not clearly identified.
Timeliness and Quality of Data
- Does the state require special late or large contribution reports? [Maximum Score: 5]
Full scores are given if candidates, parties, and ballot measure committees are all required to file a special report to disclose large or late contributions. Partial scores are given if such a requirement exists for any, but not all, of these kinds of filers.
- Does the state require campaign finance reports be filed electronically? [Maximum Score: 25]
Full scores are given if candidates, parties, and ballot measure committees are all required to file campaign finance reports electronically into a database (this does not include emailing Word documents or PDF reports, or otherwise submitting unsearchable documents). Full scores are still given if there is an exception for filers raising or spending below a specified dollar threshold, or if a filer can submit a request for a waiver for technological hardship, etc. Partial scores are given if such a requirement exists for any, but not all, of these kinds of filers (e.g. statewide candidates but not legislative candidates, or all candidates but not parties). A partial score is also given if electronic filing is optional. In either of these situations, the state receives reports through electronic filing, but some reports from filers raising and/or spending below a specified dollar amount will not be submitted electronically.
- Is the state’s electronic data complete and publicly available? [Maximum Score: 20]
Full scores are given if all contributions to all candidates, parties, and ballot measure committees are available electronically. In some states where not all filers are required to file electronically, state agencies manually enter data from paper-filed reports, thereby meeting the criteria for a full score on this question. Partial scores are given if certain types of transactions are not available in a digital data format, or if reports filed by certain filers on paper are only available as hard-copy paper or scanned images of the reports.
Access to Digitized Data
- Is the state’s electronic data searchable online and available for download as a dataset? [Maximum Score: 10]
Full scores are given if campaign contributions can be downloaded in a dataset. Partial scores are given if the campaign finance data exists in a database and is searchable online (such as by contributor), but cannot be downloaded in a dataset.
- Does the state ensure hard copies of campaign finance reports are available online? [Maximum Score: 5]
Full scores are given if all contributions are available in an electronic format, either because all filers submit campaign finance reports electronically or because the state enters paper-filed reports. Partial scores are given if any paper-filed reports are available only as scanned images. Null scores are given if any paper-filed reports are not online in any format, and can only be accessed as actual paper.
- 1. Quist, Peter, “Scorecard: Essential Disclosure Requirements for Independent Spending, 2014,” National Institute on Money in State Politics, December 3, 2014, available from http://www.followthemoney.org/research/institute-reports/scorecard-essential-disclosure-requirements-for-independent-spending-2014/, accessed February 24, 2016.
- 2. Stepleton, J T, “We Need to Talk About Your Grades,” National Institute on Money in State Politics, November 16, 2015, available fromhttp://www.followthemoney.org/research/blog/we-need-to-talk-about-your-grades/, accessed February 24, 2016.
- 3. Goodman, Neal P., “Pa. should shed light on ‘dark money’ ads,” The Express-Times, Februrary 24, 2016, available fromhttp://www.lehighvalleylive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2016/02/pa_should_shed_some_light_on_d.html, accessed February 24, 2016.
- 4. Ginley, Caitlin, “Policing the politicians; state ethics commissions lack muscle,” Center for Public Integrity, August 8, 2012, available fromhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2012/08/08/10588/policing-politicians-state-ethics-commissions-lack-muscle, accessed February 26, 2016.
- 5. North Carolina General Assembly Session 2013, “Senate Bill 403 Ratified Bill,” available from http://www.ncleg.net/Sessions/2013/Bills/Senate/PDF/S403v6.pdf, accessed March 10, 2016.
- 6. Interview with Megan Tooker, Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, Des Moines, Iowa, February 23, 2016.
- 7. Marley, Patrick and Jason Stein, “Scott Walker signs bill on splitting GAB, campaign finance,” December 16, 2015, available fromhttp://www.jsonline.com/news/statepolitics/scott-walker-signs-bill-on-splitting-gab-b99622842z1-362665541.html, accessed March 10, 2016.
- 8. Many states require disclosure of donor information for contributions above a specified monetary threshold, which varies widely across the country. Smaller contributions under that threshold, commonly referred to as “unitemized donations,” are exempt from such disclosure requirements.