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End campaign filings by paper

N.C. lawmakers have an opportunity this short session to make it easier for the public to see and evaluate who may be influencing state policy with their dollars. They should not let this opportunity pass.

The legislation, House Bill 919, would require all legislative candidates and political committees receiving over $10,000 to file campaign finance reports electronically. Such a change would be a public service and save taxpayer money. It passed the House last year with strong bipartisan support and is now in the Senate Rules Committee.

Previously, we’ve called for electronic filing of campaign finances for U.S. Senate candidates (it’s already required for U.S. House and presidential candidates), noting that paper filing is cumbersome and wasteful. Worse, it makes public records public in name only as reports languish, awaiting input and examination.

Much the same can be said for legislative filings. More than half the state’s 170 lawmakers have filed paper reports for the 2014 campaign season – reports disclosing campaign donations and how the money is used. Those too-often-illegible reports have the effect of obscuring long after the election who sought to curry the favor of legislators through donations. Lawmakers are effectively shielded from adequate public scrutiny with these paper reports.

Said Bob Hall, executive director of the nonpartisan Democracy North Carolina: “The paper reports pile up, and years can go by before the poorly funded Board of Elections has a chance to computerize the information and examine it for missing or inaccurate data.”

Amy Strange, deputy director for campaign finance and operations at the state elections board, acknowledged to the Observer in April that the agency has a large backlog of reports to audit. She said 70 percent of the filings are in paper form. Staff has to enter data into electronic files before the board can examine them for compliance with the law. That’s a waste of time and money.

Paper filing is a bipartisan problem. In the Mecklenburg delegation, for instance, both Democratic Rep. Kelly Alexander and Republican colleague Ruth Samuelson file paper reports. On the other hand, Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis and Democrat Tricia Cotham file electronically.

Democracy North Carolina found more than 30 state legislators, including Samuelson, with reports going back to 2010 that have not received the compliance review required by law.

Hall thinks the possible campaign violations involving $240,000 that video-gaming magnate Chase Burns donated to N.C. candidates in 2012 would have been revealed earlier if reports were filed electronically. A week ago, the SBI confirmed a criminal investigation into possible corruption involving Burns’ donations to perhaps influence action on ending the state’s video sweepstakes industry. Records show money went to politicians of both parties.

House Bill 919 offers an opportunity to bring light, and quicker scrutiny, to these kind of transactions in a more timely manner. The Senate should join the House and pass this bill this session.

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