More transparency needed in campaign laws

Published 2:37 pm Tuesday, March 8, 2011

By Cam Ward

As the beginning of the 2011 Regular Legislative Session approaches, there has been a great deal of attention paid to the budget problems facing Alabama. This is the biggest issue facing our state; however, there are other issues that I will address in the upcoming months as well.

Several bills are merely being reintroduced for a second or third try on my part. One bill I am particularly interested in this session is the requirement to file campaign disclosure reports online.

This legislation sounds like something of a no-brainer, but apparently it is not. I have introduced this bill eight times only to see it defeated on every attempt. The bill would require candidates running for political office in Alabama to disclose their campaign contributions through an online electronic system as opposed to the archaic method of submitting paper documents like we do now.

In recent years, voters could only obtain such information by traveling to Montgomery, searching through hard copies of filed reports and paying $1 a page to have them copied. Recognizing the difficulty of this process, the state finally started scanning these reports and has made them available on the Internet.

While this allows for more light to shine on state campaign activities, there are still some obvious restraints. Scanned reports do not allow voters to easily search their contents for specific donors, and interested citizens must still spend hours on the Internet to gather the information they need.

Under this legislation, once a campaign disclosure report is filed, the electronic report will become part of a database allowing citizens to search contributors by name, giving them a full picture of who gives and receives money in statewide elections. This system will be similar to the searchable databases that are used by the Federal Elections Commission for congressional and presidential races.

My bill alone is not enough to bring 100 percent transparency to our political campaigns. State Senator Arthur Orr is sponsoring legislation that will add to the benefits of online disclosures. His legislation will close the loopholes that have allowed campaign contributions to be made right before an election and are never reported until months after the election occurs.

Mandating an immediate disclosure of campaign contributions that are received within 10 days of an election would prohibit special interest groups from secretly pouring millions of dollars into a campaign without the public ever knowing the source of those monies. I look forward to supporting this effort by Senator Orr.

There are several other measures being considered in the upcoming session to bring more transparency to political fundraising. I hope that we can look back on the 2011 Regular Session and say that Alabama finally made it into the 21st Century when it comes to campaign finance disclosure laws.

The public deserves nothing less.

Cam Ward is the state senator representing Chilton County.