For anyone who has ever tried to sift through the campaign finance reports filed by political candidates in Maryland, there is really only one major obstacle: a voluminous mound of paper.
Yesterday, lawmakers were asked to take the first baby steps toward improving access to those records by allowing candidates to file reports electronically with the state election board in Annapolis.
"The reports you see today are a product that is incapable of being analyzed," said Del. Dana Dembrow, a Montgomery County Democrat. "They are better than nothing, but are incomprehensible in a major campaign."
Mr. Dembrow urged members of the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee to approve legislation that would require the election board to develop computer software that would be available to any candidate for a fee, perhaps of $25.
The software would permit candidates to use computers to file reports with the state. The system would be voluntary; candidates would still be able to file the old-fashioned way -- through pages and pages of forms typed or written in longhand.
Deborah Povich, executive director of the citizens lobby Common Cause in Maryland, told delegates that in an era of multi-million-dollar campaigns, "paper as a reporting medium is no longer adequate."
"This would lead to more meaningful and timely disclosure," Ms. Povich said. "When you're dealing with hundreds of pages of paper covering millions of dollars in donations, is it meaningful? You can't make use of it."
Legislators have long been fond of electronic recordkeeping except when it comes to campaign finance reports. Many fear how the information would be used by opponents or the press and prefer that records be less accessible.
Electronic records would make it easier to enforce state limits on political contributions. Violations may pass unnoticed now because it is so difficult to cross-reference campaign finance reports.
For the past three years, the House committee has rejected computerization. Last year, the measure was referred to a task force reviewing Maryland's voting laws in the wake of the controversies surrounding the 1994 gubernatorial contest.
The task force subsequently endorsed the idea. Delegate Dembrow said that endorsement is helpful, but even more important, candidates are beginning to realize that filing reports electronically would be easier for them, too.
"You put numbers into a computer and it automatically tabulates the form," Mr. Dembrow said. "It really makes it easier for campaign treasurers."
Del. Cheryl C. Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat, questioned whether electronic filing might raise privacy issues. People who donate money to a candidate could find themselves being solicited by individuals who found out about their donations, she said.
But proponents pointed out that these records are already public, and said a greater purpose would be served by making them as accessible as possible.
"The public's right to know where campaign contributions come from vastly exceeds the privacy rights," Mr. Dembrow said.
While the proposed system would be voluntary, supporters hope that Maryland eventually will require all campaign records to be computerized. The proposed voluntary system, which would go into effect in 1999, would cost the state about $70,000 annually.