In the waning hours of this year’s N.C. General Assembly session, lawmakers passed a bill that would improve transparency in campaigns.
Even though, perhaps somewhat ironically, the bill was approved in the dead of night while the vast majority of North Carolinians were asleep, the legislature deserves credit for taking up a provision that should vastly strengthen our campaign finance system.
The measure, Senate Bill 403, deals with a host of election-law clarifications, but an important piece of that legislation would require candidates in North Carolina to file their campaign finance reports electronically beginning in 2017.
Under the current system, candidates can file handwritten reports that have to be manually entered by the Board of Elections staff, which is an extremely inefficient drain on that agency’s already scarce resources and leads to reporting backlogs.
Moving to electronic filing should lighten some of the burden on the Board of Elections and allow for more accurate and timely campaign finance information being presented to the public. This is a worthy goal that all advocates of open government should welcome.
Under the provision, all candidates in North Carolina that raise or spend more than $10,000 would be subject to the new electronic filing requirement. It may be surprising that in our age of technology this was not already the case, but currently the majority of candidates do not file their reports electronically.
Ultimately, it would have been nice to see this new requirement applied sooner than 2017, but the implementation date was pushed back to ensure new software would be in place to handle it. Once new software is available and 2017 arrives though, campaign finance reports should be more searchable and user-friendly, allowing interested parties easier access to information on who is funding campaigns and how that money is being spent.
There is still much work to accomplish when it comes to improving the openness and transparency of North Carolina’s government, but the General Assembly is to be applauded for taking this important step.
In the future, it would be helpful to see greater transparency around independent expenditure groups and their spending, which has exploded in recent years and is much more difficult to track than candidate spending. The House overwhelmingly passed legislation in 2013 with House Bill 918 that would have begun to address this issue, but it stalled in the Senate this year. Hopefully it’s a topic lawmakers will revisit in 2015.
As for now, the citizens of North Carolina can be thankful that there will be more sunlight shining on our campaign finance system, which will make it much easier to find out who is spending money on campaigns and how that money is being spent, even if we have to wait until 2017 to reap the benefits.
And in today’s polarized political times, it’s nice to see an important issue like transparency garner support from both sides of the aisle. Let’s hope that trend continues as we seek additional ways to bring sunlight to state government.
*Brent Laurenz is the executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education and a contributor to TheVoterUpdate.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.