In their ongoing battle to prove the depth and quality of their support, the two Massachusetts Senate candidates spent the better part of last week flinging around dollar figures.
Scott Brown announced that about 71 percent of his donors this year were Massachusetts residents. His Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Warren, touted her own hand-picked statistic: 83 percent of her donors gave $50 or less. But how much did Brown’s in-state donors give? How much did Warren’s other 15 percent pour into her campaign? That was left open to conjecture.
In a Senate race that will probably be the most expensive in state history, where the amount of money raised is heralded as a barometer of momentum, a dearth of information remains about the millions that flowed in during the first three months of the year.
The candidates have released the overall totals, and some carefully selected statistics that best serve their interests, but answering other questions, like the identity of donors and potential industry sway, is probably going to take weeks.
The reason is an arcane law that exempts Senate candidates, but not House candidates, from filing their campaign finance reports electronically. Instead, they file their campaign finance reports in paper form, hundreds and hundreds of pages, which are a printout of their electronic files.
The Federal Election Commission then uses those to recreate a searchable electronic database, a process that can take weeks, costs taxpayers an estimated $250,000 each year, and creates a time lag during which candidates may cast their fund-raising in a preferred light and omit damaging information.
While campaign reports for House candidates and others filing with the commission will be available in searchable database form shortly after Sunday’s deadline, the public will not be able to analyze the Senate numbers nearly as quickly.
“When it comes to the Senate, candidates file like they are still living in the 20th century, and they do it on purpose because they know that when they control the information, they can use it to their political advantage,’’ said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington. “They spin it any way they want, and the first story is the one that really matters.’’
The law also means that some of the Senate candidates’ campaign finance information, from the final weeks of the race can remain obscured until after the election.
According to a survey by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, in the week before the 2006 elections, voters in 10 competitive Senate races could not search through the candidates’ final campaign finance disclosures, meaning there was limited opportunity to analyze the data and search for patterns of donations, such as groups of donors from one industry or interest group.
“For disclosure to serve its main purpose, information must be available to voters in a useful format before voters make their decisions,’’ said Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute.
The exception to electronic filing for senators dates to 1995, when Congress voted to allow the Federal Election Commission to accept electronic filings. In a small but significant passage, Congress also changed the filing location for House members from the clerk of the House to the commission, but left senators filing with the secretary of the Senate.
In 2001, when electronic filing with the commission became mandatory, senators escaped the mandate because they did not file with the commission.
Efforts to amend the law have failed. Currently, a bill that would mandate electronic filing by senators, sponsored by Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, is pending. A hearing is April 25. It has 22 cosponsors, including members of both parties.
Senators may choose to voluntarily submit their disclosures electronically, and some regularly do. But they still must file the paper copies.
Brown’s spokesman, Colin Reed, said the senator plans to become a cosponsor to Tester’s proposed legislation and is considering whether to voluntarily file electronically.
Warren’s spokesman, Kyle Sullivan, said she supports Tester’s bill; he said she plans to file electronically in future, perhaps as soon as when reports are due April 15.
The logistics of paper-filing are complicated. Candidates must deliver their paper records, by hand or mail, to the secretary of the Senate. The pages are scanned, and digital images are sent to the commission, which stores the images and prints them out. The printouts, which run into thousands of pages, are sent to a contractor in Virginia, which keys all the information into a computer again and creates a downloadable database, which is posted to the FEC website, where it largely mirrors the data submitted by House candidates weeks earlier.
“This is madness because the campaigns are keeping this stuff in databases for themselves and in some cases, using free software provided by the FEC,’’ said Bob Biersack, the commission’s former chief statistician and now senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics.
Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, said, “There is no good argument for why this shouldn’t be filed electronically.’’