Election funding meets Net age

Election funding meets Net age<@VM>Senate plays by its own set of disclosure rules

In quick fashion, federal campaign watchdog turns raw reports into HTML code

By Patricia Daukantas

GCN Staff

With national elections three weeks away, it's crunch time for the Federal Election Commission.

Campaign financial reports are flooding in from political groups, and the FEC staff is posting the raw filings to the Web within minutes of receipt, said Robert W. Biersack, supervisory statistician in the commission's Data Systems Development Division.

Not only is the commission gearing up to require electronic filings from most political organizations next January, it just started posting Senate campaign finance reports on the Web. Until recently, senatorial candidates' method of reporting election money clashed with FEC's electronic filing requirements (see story, Page 43).

The commission collects financial reports from all committees for individual candidates in federal elections, as well as from political parties and political action committees involved in House, Senate and presidential elections. FEC recently changed its regulations to require, starting Jan. 1, electronic reports from all committees receiving political contributions of $50,000 or more per year''a fairly modest activity level,' Biersack said.

Once the new rule takes effect in January, about 2,500 committees will have to file electronically.

'It took us up to 30 days to process data from a paper report,' Biersack said. 'Now we can provide that information almost immediately on the Internet after we receive it.'

The $50,000-per-year threshold covers major party candidates in most House races, Biersack said. A typical candidate raises $400,000 over the course of a two-year term.

With the new threshold in place, 90 percent to 95 percent of all financial disclosures in each election cycle will arrive electronically, Biersack said.

'We have a relatively small number of large committees, and that allows us to capture the great bulk of the data more efficiently,' Biersack said. 'It includes virtually everybody who's a serious candidate for Congress.'

FEC requires campaign committees to report individual donations of more than $200 per year to a given candidate, Biersack said. Political groups also must disclose every contribution from PACs and political parties, as well as list all vendor disbursements in the course of a campaign.

Candidates typically file quarterly in an election year, Biersack said. PACs and political parties can choose to file either quarterly or monthly.

'Many of the bigger PACs and parties like to file monthly because it's more manageable for them to do that,' Biersack said.

This week the commission enters its most intense work period because quarterly filings were due by Oct. 15 and monthly reports are due Oct. 20.

For all candidates, there's a pre-general-election deadline on Oct. 26, which covers contributions made up to 20 days before the election.

48-hour deadline

'The juices start to flow at this time of year,' Biersack said.

When political committees receive contributions of $1,000 or more after the Oct. 15 deadline, they must report the gifts to FEC within 48 hours. The commission is setting up a Web process to handle that, Biersack said.

Although it's a relatively small number of reports by FEC standards, there are still 8,000 to 10,000 separate reports to deal with during a busy time of year. They arrive in many different formats, including on paper and by fax.

FEC still has a legal requirement that all campaign finance reports bear an original signature. To mesh that constraint with the digital age, committees must request a password on a paper form signed by a campaign official before they can upload data to FEC's systems. Biersack said digital signature technology might be considered in the future.

The commission recently upgraded its servers to prepare for the January expansion of electronic filing.

File over Internet

Political groups upload their data over the Internet to two Sun Microsystems Enterprise 250 dual-processor servers running SunSoft Solaris 7 at FEC's Washington office, said Randy Bartlett, director of systems and development for commission contractor National Information Consortium Inc. of Overland Park, Kan.

National Information Consortium acquired the FEC contract earlier this year when it bought the commission's previous contractor, SDR Technologies Inc. of Westlake Village, Calif.

The servers are backed up to a Sun StorEdge L280 tape library with digital linear tape drives, Bartlett said.

A utility called FECLoad, developed by National Information Consortium, lets committees encrypt their data files and exchange passwords with the FEC servers.

The commission requires data submissions in standard, comma-separated ASCII format, Biersack said. A number of commercial financial software packages tailored for political groups can generate properly formatted files.

National Information Consortium also wrote a program called FECFile, which the commission supplies to smaller committees at no charge.

When the FEC servers receive the data, they check for proper format and send back an instant confirmation, Biersack said.

The servers then forward the reports to two Sun Enterprise 250 Web servers in the contractor's data center in Herndon, Va. It takes about 24 hours for the data to populate the center's Informix Corp. Informix-SE 7.2 database, which provides search and query functions to Web users, Bartlett said.

The raw financial reports go straight onto the Web, however, either as Hypertext Markup Language files or as comma-delimited files for database or spreadsheet analysis. The contractor wrote the routine that generates the HTML, Biersack said.

It takes only a few minutes to format a presidential candidate's filing and post it to the Web.

Offsite backup

Each of the Sun servers in Washington and Herndon has a 150G Sun RAID array, Bartlett said. FEC also maintains an offsite Sun server and backup tape library at a separate California location.

Beyond disclosing campaign contributions to the public, the commission has civil enforcement authority to ensure that political groups don't exceed contribution limits and that presidential campaigns use their federal matching funds appropriately.

FEC's audit and enforcement staffs study campaign data that has been copied onto a Compaq Alpha VAX cluster running OpenVMS, Biersack said.

Right now that system is housed at the Medford, Mass., data center of Digital Island of San Francisco, and it runs a System 1032 database for OpenVMS, from Computer Corp. of America of Framingham, Mass.

Over the next two years, the commission will migrate the System 1032 data to an Oracle8i database management system, Biersack said.by Patricia Daukantas

So far, the Senate has excluded itself from the statutes that require that House and presidential candidates file campaign funding information electronically with the Federal Election Commission.

Instead, Senate candidates file their reports with the Office of the Secretary of the Senate, which forwards them to FEC.

Senate candidates have the same filing deadlines with the secretary's office as the presidential and House candidates have with FEC, said Pam Gavin, superintendent of public records in the secretary's office.

Until last April, the secretary's office sent campaign finance reports to FEC on paper or microfilm, Gavin said. Staff members now scan the paper reports into image files instead.

The office uses an Eastman Kodak Document Scanner 990 running FileNet software from FileNet Corp. of Costa Mesa, Calif., Gavin said.

Although the law gives the Senate secretary's office a 48-hour turnaround window, Gavin said her staff transfers .tif images to FEC the same day the hard copies arrive.

Since Sept. 22, FEC has been posting the Senate campaign finance documents to the Web both as .tif files and in Adobe Portable Document Format. Copies of reports that the commission received before the start of the image transmission program are available at the FEC public records office.

'It's not the solution that we would prefer,' said Robert W. Biersack, supervisory statistician in FEC's Data Systems Development Division.

But at least the Senate arrangement lets the commission post the imaged pages on the Web, he said.

'We're hopeful they'll decide that electronic filing is beneficial,' Biersack said of Senate lawmakers.

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