Dole leads race, is first to file contributor data on CD-ROM

In every presidential election, for each presidential candidate,
Federal Election Commission workers spend hours verifying campaign finance reports against
paper copies of thousands of donation checks.


This year, the painfully slow process will stop for a handful of candidates.


Sen. Robert Dole's presidential campaign is the first to submit the contributor
information to the FEC on CD-ROM. The FEC also expects President Clinton and Patrick
Buchanan to submit their contribution information on CD-ROM.


Instead of sorting through some 40,000 Dole campaign contribution checks manually, FEC
auditors will look at images of the checks stored on CD to certify that the candidate
should receive matching federal campaign funds.


For FEC auditors, the amount of time needed to reconcile reports will be reduced
greatly. "Within two seconds you can find a check, where before it could take 30 to
45 minutes," FEC software specialist Anthony D. Raymond said.


"From our end, it allows us to save our client a lot of money," said John
Simms, president of CMDI, the data processing service in Falls Church, Va., that created
the CD for the Dole campaign. "That will result in a savings of about $1
million."


For the FEC, all the time savings have been accomplished with a modest investment in a
single CD-ROM reader.


The FEC's only requirements were that the disks run under Microsoft Windows and store
the check images as .TIF files, said Richard Hooper, director of FEC's Data Systems
Development Division. "What it looks like, how it feels, we don't care, as long as it
performs these functions," he said.


The FEC does not plan to require the use of the electronic check submissions this year,
but commission officials hope the use by the Dole, Clinton and Buchanan campaigns is the
start of a popular trend.


Presidential candidates who raise at least $5,000 in each of 20 states in individual
contributions of no more than $250 can receive matching federal funds of up to about $15
million. FEC auditors check each contribution up to the $100,000 threshold and do random
checks of contributions for subsequent requests for matching funds.


Since 1984, candidates have submitted paper copies of the checks and the required
contributor information on tape or diskette, which FEC loads onto a Digital Equipment
Corp. VAX 4500. The FEC then generates finance reports based on the data. Commission
auditors in turn verify the reported information against the paper copies of checks. Each
monthly submission can include copies of 40,000 or more checks that must be verified.


FEC used this system to authorize payment of $43 million in matching funds to 12
candidates in the 1992 presidential election, and the agency just put five tons of paper
records from that election into storage. Eleven or 12 candidates are expected to qualify
for matching funds this time around, said Ray Lisi, deputy assistant staff director for
presidential election campaign funds.


CMDI's Simms described the process as labor-intensive and inefficient for both the
campaigns and FEC.


"It was obvious there was a way to bring efficiency to this," he said. On
behalf of the Dole campaign, Simms approached FEC six months ago about using electronic
imaging and received the agency's enthusiastic approval. "It was really very
easy," he recalled.


The Dole campaign's bank, which routinely makes images of all checks before deposit,
transmits those images daily over a high-speed data line to an ALR Inc. server at CMDI's
offices. The server is linked by a Novell NetWare LAN to PCs, where the contributor data
is keyed in and linked to the check images using Microsoft Corp.'s FoxPro database
software.


In June, the Dole campaign provided a single CD-ROM that contained images of 46,490
checks. FEC auditors downloaded the usual reports to a PC equipped with a CD-ROM reader.
By using a mouse to point and click on a particular donation in the report, a commission
employee can call up an image of the check for verification.


"This saves a lot of time," Lisi said. "It has cut [the verification
process] by about two thirds."


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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