As one after another primary date passes, it seems that the proximity of the nation's biggest political contest is awakening lawmakers and citizens alike to the topic of campaign finance. Since this election cycle started, politicians and political action committees have drawn more scrutiny and fire than seemingly ever before.
Put under such a microscope, it is imperative that PACs stay on top of every small detail, from the financial disclosure reports they file to the PAC software they use to file those reports.
The cost of not paying attention to these things became strikingly apparent to a lawmaker in the Northeast.
Late filings lead to hefty fines
Late last year, the political action committee supporting a Portland legislator was hit with a $2,000 fine by the Maine Ethics Commission. According to the Bangor Daily News, Rep. Diane Russell's Working Families PAC was fined after failing to report expenditures totaling more than $1,200 in October 2014. Russell claimed that she attempted to report the expenditures at the time they were due, but an error – one she attributed to a software user – left the report sitting incomplete.
The reporting mistake went uncorrected for over a year, and even when Russell finally added the missing expenditures, she did not properly finish re-filing the report. She cited her treasurer's death in July as one reason for the confusion over what was required of her.
"Mistakes, honest or not, still come with costly fines."
"It was an honest mistake," Russell told the Bangor Daily News.
A $10,000 penalty was originally proposed to address the issue, but a recommendation to reduce the hefty fine was later agreed upon. A lawyer representing Working Families PAC tried to have the fine reduced even further, but as the Portland Press Herald reported, the state's ethics commission tried to warn Russell of potential recriminations without any results.
"There were multiple attempts to get her to pay attention," said Commissioner Richard Nass. Phone calls, letters and emails all seemed to have no effect.
Missing and incomplete campaign finance reports weren't the only trouble Russell had with the commission in 2015. Clean Election funds that were due to be returned to the state at the end of the year were late in their arrival, while other delinquent reports cost the representative's PAC more than $2,100 in fines.
Tennessee updates its PAC software
Stories like Russell's are part of what pushed the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance to update and improve their Campaign Finance Reporting Application.
According to a press release from NIC Inc., the eGovernment partner that designed Tennessee's new online platform, the applications hosts the campaign finance reports candidates and their PACs are required to disclose in line with state election law compliance, while also allowing these groups to file the reports entirely online. In addition, citizens' access to campaign finance information has been made easier with the inclusion of a public search function. The redesign of the Tennessee site seems to echo, in some ways, one recently initiated by the Federal Election Commission, whose beta FEC site undergoes continual development toward the eventual goal of total transparency.
Among the improvements made to the Tennessee site are more accurate data models representing reporting and amended reports, as well as new features like more convenient tools for searching and downloading finance data and optimization for a host of devices including smartphones and tablets. Like the FEC's website, the redesign comes with a cosmetic facelift as well. Everything on the state's new application is noticeably streamlined and efficient.
"The application has been updated to provide better functionality to all users," said Drew Rawlins, executive director of the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance. "Candidates and PACs will have improved error checking and edit capabilities. PACs will also have a new feature allowing their campaign finance disclosure reports to be uploaded into the application. The public will have increased search capabilities and better access to large amounts of data."
Maine is not taking any excuses. Tennessee is taking steps to totally renovate its online reporting and disclosure platform, and the FEC is making their website easier to navigate for more campaign finance transparency. With greater transparency and campaigns heating up nationwide, PACs need to be diligent in their reporting. Blaming mistakes and missed filings on the software is not going to work any longer.