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Senate paper-pushing hides data from public

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina is in a fight for her political life, and one of eight Republicans will campaign hard until Nov. 4 seeking to replace her.

Both sides are sure to raise millions of dollars, much of it from special interests. But unlike in every U.S. House race, voters might not know who’s bankrolling the campaigns until after the election.

That’s because the U.S. Senate plays by its own archaic rules. Those rules require senators to file their campaign finance reports on paper, not electronically, with the secretary of the Senate. They are taken in at a non-descript office building in the District of Columbia, invisible to the public’s prying eyes.

Candidates for the presidency, the House and offices in many states – as well as PACs and super PACs – must file their reports online, making those records immediately available to anyone with an Internet connection. Not Senate candidates. For weeks or even months after their reports are filed, those public records are public in name only.

Hagan and her opponent, like all Senate candidates, will file a campaign report on Oct. 15 covering their third-quarter activity. They will file another one Oct. 23, less than two weeks before Election Day, covering donations from the first half of October. But because those documents will not be filed electronically, the public will not be able to examine them without traveling to Washington.

The Federal Elections Commission spends more than 400,000 taxpayer dollars a year to hire a private contractor to punch in the thousands of pages of Senate reports. Eventually, the public can view them on the FEC website.

Senators can voluntarily file their reports electronically in addition to on paper, but neither Hagan nor Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., do.

A Hagan spokeswoman told the Observer editorial board that Hagan would support requiring electronic filing. But she is not one of 38 co-sponsors of a bill that does exactly that. The spokeswoman says Hagan has co-sponsored such bills in the past.

A spokeswoman for Burr said he is just following Senate rules. She added: “Given the increased use of technology in campaigns, Senator Burr has no issues with moving to electronic filing if the Commission and Senate rules require such reporting.”

That’s a pretty tepid endorsement, just agreeing to abide by the rules.

Today kicks off Sunshine Week, a national effort at raising awareness of the importance of open government. The U.S. Senate is a good place to expect that.

It’s time for senators to join the rest of us in the 21st century, save a little money and be at least as transparent as their colleagues in the House. If there is a strong reason to require only paper filing, we’ve never heard it. It serves only to further cloud an already-murky world of special interest money seeking to control Congress.

Until the rule changes, Senate candidates, including Hagan and her general election opponent, should agree to voluntarily file their reports online – or explain to voters what they’re hiding.

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