As news journalist Gillian McGoldrick wrote in the “Lancaster Watchdog” column in Sunday’s LNP | LancasterOnline, the records of every dollar spent in local elections, “including the financing of school board and local borough council races,” are stored in file cabinets in the Lancaster County Board of Elections office on North Queen Street in downtown Lancaster. Though they are public records, “this information about how local politicians spend their money — and who they get their money from — is examined only by a few: county officials tasked with archiving them, politicians and their campaign staffs, and reporters,” McGoldrick reported.
We find it difficult to believe that the campaign finance reports of candidates running for elected office in Lancaster County are stored, in 2021, on paper.
Change is hard. We get it (believe us, we get it). But, as things stand now, there is nothing public, in practical terms, about these supposedly public records.
As McGoldrick noted, “Some counties go above and beyond to make these campaign finance filings accessible: Philadelphia posts all of its reports online for all local elections, archived through 2006; Allegheny County just moved its campaign finance filings online this year.”
And both of those counties are considerably larger than our own, so while they have more resources, they’re also dealing with more candidates and more campaign finance reports.
Nevertheless, McGoldrick reported, “Lancaster County has no plans to follow their lead. Members of the public must visit in person to look at the records, or rely on overworked newsrooms like LNP | LancasterOnline’s to do it for them. Many of these filings, by the way, are filled out by hand, posing a challenge to anyone trying to decipher the handwriting of campaign treasurers.”
It would not be too difficult to create a standard form for campaign finance reports that could be emailed to candidates’ campaigns and returned via email, or posted online for campaigns to download and complete. Make the campaigns do the scanning; then, their records could easily be uploaded to a county website.
But that’s not the whole of the problem.
More obstacles to sunlight
McGoldrick pointed out that the current filing deadlines also make it difficult to inform voters, before they cast their ballots, about the contents of those reports. “The last filing deadline for the municipal elections was June 17. The next one isn’t until Oct. 22 — less than two weeks before Election Day and more than four months since the last reports were due. This means voters won’t have anywhere close to a full picture of how much money was spent to influence their local elections until nearly the last minute, when mail-in ballots are expected already to be in the hands of voters.”
That may not matter in uncontested races — as, disappointingly, too many municipal races are — but in the high-profile races for Manheim Township commissioner, “voters only know how much Republicans spent through the primary: more than $50,000,” McGoldrick wrote. “The June 7 documents, moreover, show that the Democratic candidates, who did not have competitive primaries, spent only $615.” We can guarantee that greater sums of money have been spent since the last filing deadline.
Candidates in state-level races, at least, must file their campaign finance reports with the Pennsylvania Department of State, which then will make sure they are accessible online.
But the financing of municipal races remains essentially shielded by the outdated way in which records are collected and maintained. This can give candidates cover to collect funding from sources that some voters might find suspect or concerning. If, for instance, a school board candidate takes money from an extremist group, or a township supervisor accepts contributions from a developer, who is going to know unless this newspaper reports it?
Embrace new technology
As Pat Christmas, the policy director at good-government advocacy group Committee of Seventy, told McGoldrick, the campaign finance reporting structure was built before access to the internet was widely available.
“This is a perfect example of where our law is just way too old, written for a time where there was no internet, no computers — at least not the sophisticated computers we have today,” Christmas said.
Indeed. And it’s clearly time for both state lawmakers and county elections officials to adopt new technology to make campaign finance reports more accessible and transparent.
McGoldrick reported that there are “two GOP-sponsored bills in the General Assembly that would require all state-level candidates and political action committees to file their campaign finance documents online through the Department of State, which is currently not required” (though there is at least an online database where voters can view PDFs of the filings).
A House bill introduced by Perry County Republican state Rep. Perry Stambaugh passed unanimously out of committee; he expects it to pass unanimously on the floor. Which is promising.
As McGoldrick noted, many candidates and political action committees already file their reports online.
In our view, if they can solicit contributions online, they should be compelled to report online the money they receive.
Stambaugh told McGoldrick that online filing “will save everybody a lot of time,” and increase transparency. We laud him for pressing this reform.
We just wish it extended to local candidates. Stambaugh said he would consider widening his bill at some point to include them, and we hope he does.“Anything that improves the ability for the public to look at expenditures that go to political candidates is definitely worth it,” he said. “At the end of the day, we shouldn’t have anything to hide.”
We’d like to write this in 60-point type, embroider it on pillows, wear T-shirts emblazoned with this message: Political candidates shouldn’t have anything to hide.
In that spirit, counties should make candidates’ campaign finance reports readily accessible to the public.
Here, the future should be now
Christmas told McGoldrick that he understands why some counties don’t scan and upload these reports; they’re busy with other tasks. But he also said this: “Having hard-copy reports in a filing cabinet is not transparency.”
It absolutely is not.
Christa Miller, Lancaster County’s chief registrar/chief clerk of elections, said the current system, of paper records in file cabinets, is working for them. Working for whom, though? Because it’s certainly not working for the convenience of voters.
As McGoldrick reported, Miller said that at one time during former chief clerk Mary Stehman’s tenure, officials discussed moving these filings online but it “didn’t seem feasible.” Stehman’s tenure ended in 2011. Which was 10 years ago. Ten years!
Miller agreed that the information in these filings helps to “paint a fuller picture of a candidate’s platform” by showing where campaign money is coming from. And she admitted that it’s likely that most voters don’t know the files exist in her office.
Nevertheless, she only was willing to say that requiring online reporting is “something we could consider for the future.” But when in the future?
The news journalists at LNP | LancasterOnline “spent months creating their own database of filings from top political players in the county, which the newspaper hopes to expand and eventually make public,” McGoldrick wrote. “Reporters spent hours each week manually copying the filings into a digital, searchable version. But even this hand-built database is unlikely to include all of the information available in the county’s filings, because there is not enough time in a week to copy down or scan all that information.”
This is a valuable and impressive effort, but it is the county government’s duty to make campaign finance reports accessible to voters. We agree with Christmas, of the Committee of Seventy, who told McGoldrick that the state Legislature shouldn’t wait for counties to make the move to online filings on their own.
Because transparency with regard to campaign finance reports is essential to free and fair elections. And voters shouldn’t have to wait for some vague and distant future to get it.