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Campaign finance websites still broken as election 2020 nears

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The 2020 election is a year away and the state’s campaign finance websites are broken.

See The Money – a website that presents data visually – has never worked properly, and the state’s campaign-finance database has had its own set of problems since the 2018 election, and the Secretary of State’s Office is now approaching a crucial deadline. Come January, candidates from throughout the state will be filing their first financial reports for the 2020 campaign cycle and the public will want to follow the money.

See The Money was a pet project of former Secretary of State Michele Reagan, and now Secretary of State Katie Hobbs is in charge of managing and marketing it, and more immediately, trying to fix it.

“It doesn’t work, and we want it to work,” Hobbs said. Her staff has spent the past year focused on improving the reporting side, making sure the information going into the system through Beacon, the new reporting portal, works with the website’s framework and accurately displays that information in a simple and intuitive way.

Hobbs said by election time, things will change.

“Our obligation is to house campaign finance reports and the goal of my administration is transparency to the public and that’s the biggest reason for campaign finance reporting,” Hobbs said. She said it’s crucial for the public to have access to that information, but what limits them, is their role in all of this – her office is a filing agency, not an enforcement agency.

“People think we dig through campaign finance reports and find problems – we don’t,” Hobbs said. “The reason complaints are made and campaign finance reports are found is because the public looks at those reports and they report problems to us. We rely on that.”

But Hobbs said it needs to be a “functional tool” for that to happen, and it’s not there yet. Complaints come mostly from campaign staff, lobbyists, or anyone else involved in politics.

They say it doesn’t display data in a way that is easy to understand. Overlooked campaign finance reporting loopholes and flaws have led to misleading or confusing figures, confusing and infuriating even to the most seasoned political operative. If they can’t understand it, they say, how is the public, who was initially the target demographic, supposed to?

One of them, Arizona Advocacy Network Deputy Director Morgan Dick, said she and her colleagues can’t remember the last time they used the website because they’ve had so many issues with it. Most of Dick’s job deals with digging through campaign finance reports, which can be tedious.

The idea and initial promise of See The Money was a godsend, she said, and it would have made her job easier. It was a great idea, Dick said, but it just wasn’t executed right.

“We often saw things were not congruent with what the campaign finance report said,” Dick said. “These data charts that you can export, they just didn’t accurately display the kind of spending we were seeing in the campaign finance side of the reporting.”

It’s so unreliable that Dick and her coworkers have to use third party sites like Follow The Money, hosted by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, which she said is generally more accurate but still has its issues. With the way things are now, it’s almost always easier, and more accurate, to go to the original documents, copy and paste them into a spreadsheet and do their own analysis, Dick said.

Secretary of State Katie Hobbs in her office. Hobbs said problems with the state’s campaign-finance websites will be fixed by the 2020 election. (Photo by Andrew Nicla/Arizona Capitol Times)

Secretary of State Katie Hobbs in her office. Hobbs said problems with the state’s campaign-finance websites will be fixed by the 2020 election. (Photo by Andrew Nicla/Arizona Capitol Times)

For a long time, because of issues with transferring what’s reported, it’s been garbage in, garbage out. Those issues have been chipped away through years and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“When you had the old campaign-finance system and See The Money was put in place, they didn’t necessarily talk to each other the right way,” Hobbs said.

She said there hasn’t been any statutory changes in what or how this information is reported, rather the way that the information is transferred and presented has.

What remains is an accessibility issue: people completely new to the system often don’t know what they’re looking at or what to look for. Now the office is working to better display the information and ensure that what’s being displayed is as accurate as they can assure it is.

Once that’s fully fixed and the website is made more accessible, it will be useful, Hobbs said, but it will never live up to the original vision. What was originally proposed was a place for every campaign finance report in the entire state, including local jurisdictions.

However, that dream never materialized because Hobbs nor her staff can compel other jurisdictions to participate and, Hobbs said, there’s no political will in the Legislature to do that. Even if there was interest, the system isn’t equipped to deliver.

If that did happen, Hobbs and others feared people would be charged to use that system. Change has been slow and hard to accomplish, Hobbs said, because her administration was a victim of circumstance – she walked into a project

The website was one of Reagan’s 2014 campaign promises: making it easier for people to see where candidates get their campaign money. Over $1 million has been spent to build the site and make it accessible for most people, but it still has issues.

Five years later, the website is still being tweaked.

Under Reagan, the office spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the project, hiring a contractor that didn’t finish and forcing it in-house in 2016. Reagan, her staff and the contractors she employed hailed the website as a success with minor issues.

Former Secretary of State Michele Reagan at her inauguration in 2015. Reagan promised during her 2014 campaign to make it easier for people to see where candidates get their campaign money. Over $1 million has been spent to build a campaign-finance website and make it accessible for most people, but it doesn’t work. (File Photo/Arizona Capitol Times)

Former Secretary of State Michele Reagan at her inauguration in 2015. Reagan promised during her 2014 campaign to make it easier for people to see where candidates get their campaign money. Over $1 million has been spent to build a campaign-finance website and make it accessible for most people, but it doesn’t work. (File Photo/Arizona Capitol Times)

Together, Reagan and Hobbs have spent more than $1 million on the project.

One of the original developers for See The Money, Al Kawazi, said the larger problem has always been how the data is received. Kawazi said he and the other developers did their job.

“The problem is that the data is only as good as the data that’s coming in,” Kawazi said. “So if somebody puts in data that is wrong or they misallocated funds where they should have gone to as an expense, they put it as income, or whatever the reason may be – you can easily see that in the visualizations.”

Another problem, Kawazi said, was categorizing names and grouping contributions from the same person or not for people with similar names. Sometimes, when filing, mistakes can happen; someone misspells their name, changes a number in their address or even puts down their second home and not their primary address. Whatever the case, Kawazi said inconsistencies in data make it more difficult for developers or their algorithms to reasonably group entries from people or organizations and to assume they are identical.

Kawazi and company were experimenting with machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence, and beginning to aggregate people by jobs, addresses and other information they gave. Compiling that accurately became hard at times because some people clearly, intentionally misreported their name or address consistently, knowing the information would be public and fearing people would send them letters or show up at their house, Kawazi said.

Kawazi said that flaws aside, the state has one of the most organized systems for presenting this data, but the problem remains that the data is dirty.

When Reagan first was elected, she had hoped to complete the website during or before June 2016, but she ended up being late, over budget and needed more money.

To help foot the $462,000 bill to develop a new campaign finance website to replace the other project that failed to launch, Reagan asked the Citizen’s Clean Election Commission to pay $200,000, and $50,000 each year for maintenance.

Director of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission Tom Collins said he’s not sure where exactly that money spent was put toward, if it was worth it and he’s not confident that it’s “up to snuff.” Collins often hears complaints from members of the public about the site and about how information can be misreported often enough to warrant double checking the original documents, confusion over the definition of a particular vendor, not distinguishing between different types of transactions and just a general lack of explanation for what exactly people are looking at.

At the end of the day, it’s not reliable, Collins said, adding that it doesn’t achieve the goals that the commission considered when it decided to make the service agreement. Collins understands that website development is hard work and said he isn’t criticizing Hobbs personally, rather he wants to make sure this project lives up to its full potential.

“If See The Money does not provide voters information they can use, grab on-the-go and use, without having to double check the campaign finance database, what did our $200,000 buy in the first place?” Collins said.

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