Mississippi lagging in digital requirement for campaign finance forms

Published 6:14 pm Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Basic computer technology — the kind found in almost every office or classroom in America — is giving people easy access to candidates’ campaign finance information in many states.

Not in Mississippi.

A nationwide, yearly study that grades states on how they inform voters about where politicians get their campaign donations gives Mississippi a fat “F” and ranks it 47th out of 50. What’s more, while many other states have improved in recent years, Mississippi had a backslide, dropping from a D to an F.

Mississippi’s main problem is that it does not present candidates’ campaign finance information in a searchable database, says Will Barrett, an author of “Grading State Disclosure 2007.” The project is a partnership between the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Center for Governmental Studies, the UCLA School of Law and the California Voter Foundation.

“Fourteen states received an overall F,” Barrett said. “Mississippi got Fs in three out of four categories.”

While Mississippi’s disclosure law is middling, graded a C-minus, the information is not presented in a way that’s easy for the public to determine who might be holding a candidate’s purse strings.

There’s good news: Mississippi could greatly improve its grade overnight if it were to join the computer age in campaign finance records. Oregon recently did this, rising in the rankings from 24th to 3rd after its Legislature passed a campaign finance disclosure reform package.

The reason Mississippi’s grade has fallen is that the campaign finance section of the secretary of state’s Web site has become harder to use, Barrett said.

“Part of our criteria is that one of our partners, UCLA, runs a test of the usability of every state’s Web site,” Barrett said.

While 21 states’ grades improved, Mississippi’s site usability has gotten worse over the past few years, the undergrads who participated in the testing concluded. While Mississippi does provide Internet access to state candidates’ finances, it provides them in a portable-document format, or pdf, which means the files are only pictures of documents. Candidates are required to turn in paper forms, sometimes handwritten, and not computer spreadsheets.

A voter or reporter cannot search the records by computer, or have a computer compile tallies of various donors, expenditures or categories. Because campaign-finance reports for major state races, such as governor or lieutenant governor, can contain hundreds of pages of donor listings per candidate, using the data to determine who, or what industry, is financing a candidate is time-consuming and difficult.

Mississippi is one of only 10 states that does not require electronic filing for any candidates.

Mississippi also is lacking in enforcement of its campaign finance laws and in auditing the records candidates submit for accuracy or conformity with the law. For all intents, the state’s campaign disclosure is on the honor system.

Efforts at reform have failed in recent years.

Former Secretary of State Eric Clark, supported by Attorney General Jim Hood, pushed a major reform package — loosely based on the federal McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Act — for several years starting in 2004. Clark did not seek a fourth term in 2007 and left office in January.

The Legislature in 2004 approved a package with at least some of the changes Clark promoted. The package had bipartisan support, but Gov. Haley Barbour vetoed it. Barbour said the bill would put limits on contributions to political action committees. Clark said Barbour’s veto created “open season for interest groups to spend millions of dollars to buy Mississippi’s elections.”

Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston, chairman of the House Elections Committee, said the disclosure Mississippi requires now is “minimal.”

“What you’ve got is that individuals that give are scrutinized, but the no-name PACs that just flood the state with money are not really scrutinized,” he said. “You can have the Little Sisters of the Poor PAC getting their money from the Osama bin Laden PAC, and just create enough shells that no one can track where it’s from.”

Campaign finance reform in Mississippi, and across the nation, has been the source of bitter partisan fights. There’s a tug of war between Democrats, often financially supported by trial lawyers; and Republicans, often supported by business interests. Each side has tried to use reform efforts to gain the upper hand. Each side also has tended to use soft money, loans and various forms of PAC financing in ways that cloud the source of the money.

While Democrats decried the veto by Republican Barbour, Republicans claimed that Democrat Hood and others sneaked an item into the 2004 reform bill at the last minute that would have limited the amount corporations could give political action committees to $2,000, instead of the unlimited amounts allowed now.

“I think we really need reform,” Reynolds said. “But we have to get it out of that partisan divide. Surely we could have a meeting of the minds among people of good will. I really don’t see how disclosure would adversely affect anyone who has a genuine goal of serving the public.”

There has not been a large cry from the public or media for campaign finance reform in recent years, said Sen. Deborah Dawkins, D-Pass Christian, who has filed several reform bills with little success.

“It just doesn’t seem to be a sexy topic that people want to campaign on or want to hear about,” Dawkins said. “It’s kind of like the plumbing. People want it to work, or they want it to be fixed if you ask them, but mostly they don’t think about it. Everybody is just one crisis away from becoming an advocate for public accountability, but it’s hard to get a groundswell.”