Politics

Senate E-Filing Launches New Era in Campaign Disclosures

Advocates for political money transparency praised the move away from snail-mail reports.

With the signing of a spending bill on Friday, Senators and Senate candidates are required to file campaign finance information to the Federal Election Commission electronically. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

It’s been a good week for advocates of faster, and more, political money disclosure.

With President Donald Trump’s signature Friday, it’s official: Senate candidates now must file their campaign finance reports electronically with the Federal Election Commission, making it easier for reporters, voters and opponents alike to sift through donor and spending disclosures.   

The change was tucked into a $147.5 billion government spending bill, which covers the tab for the legislative branch, the departments of Energy and Veterans Affairs, military construction and housing projects for U.S. troops.  

Advocates on and off Capitol Hill for Senate e-filing, including Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, have been lobbying Congress for years to make the change, to no avail — until now. Montana’s other senator, Republican Steve Daines, chairs the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee and included the provision in that bill.

“This is a down payment on disclosure, and we believe it is a harbinger of more bipartisan work in the future,” said Meredith McGehee, who runs the campaign overhaul group Issue One. “Today is a long overdue victory for supporters of government transparency and commonsense, bipartisan political reform.”

House and presidential campaigns have been required to file electronically since 2001, and have been able to do so since the mid-1990s. Senate campaigns, however, until Friday were required to tender the actual paperwork to the secretary of the Senate, even if they also voluntarily filed electronically with the FEC. The FEC tabulated that taxpayers had to spend an extra $898,000 per year to digitize the hard copies.  

“The Senate has finally joined the 21st century by moving to e-filing system, years after it was implemented in the House,” said Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center, and a former GOP chairman of the FEC. “This will save taxpayers nearly $1 million every year, enhance transparency and help to increase accuracy. Citizens will finally be able to view and search the actual Senate reports online and watchdog organizations will be able to better monitor and analyze campaign activity.”

The official switch to e-filing came the same week as advocates for transparency cheered a Supreme Court decision Tuesday that kept in place a lower court ruling from Aug. 3 requiring 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations to disclose donors who contribute more than $200 toward campaigns aimed at influencing federal elections.

FEC commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, tweeted that the decision was “a real victory for transparency.” 

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