84 Senators Still Stand for the Tyranny of Paper

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Filling campaign finance docs online would save government time and money.

Even the House of Representatives does it. Say what you will about the dysfunction in that chamber, but at least all 435 members are required to file their campaign finance reports online. The Senate? Not so much.

According to the Center for Public Integrity, just 16 of the 100 senators filed their reports electronically for the second quarter of this year. That's up one senator (Jack Reed, D-R.I.) from the first quarter filings. Of the 16 e-filers, 12 are Democrats, two are independents, and two are Republicans. For the complete list, check out CPI.

But so what if the remaining senators prefer ink-and-paper files? Last week, the Sunlight Foundation published an open letter to the remaining holdouts to explain the stakes. It's just grossly ineffective, and can delay financial disclosures to a time potentially after November elections. (Emphasis mine.)

Unfortunately, exempting Senators and Senate Candidates from mandatory electronic filing has resulted in delayed disclosure of critical campaign finance information. Senators file reports with the Secretary of the Senate, who delivers the paper copies to the FEC. That agency must then manually input the data from thousands of pages of paper into databases before the information can be made public in a searchable, usable manner.

Who would want that job? Anyway, USA Today reported in March that the paper filing costs around $500,000—and several weeks worth of wasted time. From the senators' offices, the reports are passed to the Office of Public Records, which then scans the pages, and submits to the FEC. The FEC then contracts out the reports to be made electronic. What's ironic, USA Today pointed out, is that the FEC gives out free software to compile reports. If the Senate offices used that software themselves, it would cut out the middleman.

In February, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., introduced a bill to require all senators to file electronically. It hasn't moved very far since.