Today, in an address at Goucher College, the Comptroller of the State of Maryland, Peter Franchot, called on the governor and general assembly to establish a new system of real-time campaign finance disclosure.
I believe we can start to make it clear to citizens where and how money is flowing in this system…This notion that Maryland only has the capacity to accommodate annual or semi-annual reports is antiquated, and citizens should reject that excuse. We see this technology displayed on a daily basis; for example, when we see deposits and withdrawals immediately applied to the balance of our checking accounts, and when debit card transactions at the gas station and supermarket are reflected online within minutes.
So what is stopping Maryland — and the rest of us, more generally — from seeing the creation of a transparent, real-time system for campaign expenditures and contributions?
In part: Short-sightedness.
As Comptroller Franchot noted in this talk, the technology exists to remove the delay between when a record is filed and when it appears in public (online), but so long as there’s a gap between when a transaction subject to disclosure happens and when that transaction is reported, transparency won’t be in real-time. Although technology can of course aid this process and reduce the burden on those who have file, ultimately, real-time disclosure relies on policy updates like increased filing frequency and expanded reporting requirements.
In other words, what we need to close that last part of the “real-time gap” relies not on tech, but on people and political will.
It’s this point that makes the Comptroller’s statement one worth following. The vision Comptroller Franchot outlined today would not only (newly) establish an online database, updated in real time, for campaign finance reports filed with the state, but would also include policies to address broader questions about the quality and timeliness of disclosure, with an eye to maximum public accessibility.
Although Colorado has a campaign finance database that’s updated immediately with each e-filing, no state has yet taken on both parts of real-time disclosure in one go.
Of course, the test of the Comptroller’s initiative will be in how his call gets translated into policy (and whether that policy sees the light of day). Nonetheless, we are glad to see public conversation about these issues in the mid-Atlantic and look forward to tracking Maryland’s progress.