Yes, this deserves an exclamation point.
David Montgomery's report on the big PAC money driving state legislature campaigns includes this interesting undercard: Secretary of State Jason Gant plans to totally computerize our state campaign finance records. Journalists and bloggers rejoice!
Currently, candidates and committees can submit their data on paper or electronically. The Secretary of State posts all campaign finance reports online in PDF form. The documents come in a mishmash of formats. Some candidates send handwritten forms. Some use the Secretary's Excel template. Some simply attach their own spreadsheets, on which donors may be listed alphabetically, chronologically, or in no particular order. All are scanned images, which means that, if you are looking for a specific donor on, say, Dennis Daugaard's report, you can't use the text-search function in Acrobat Reader; you have to eyeball line after fuzzy spreadsheet line.
Now suppose you notice that Jerry Prostrollo gave Russell Olson $500 on Olson's year-end report. Suppose you get curious who else in Pierre gets Prostrollo money. You'll be clicking and eyeballing through a lot of PDFs: there is no donor search capability.
That, says Secretary Gant (who got $500 from Russell Olson's campaign), will change.
Instead of submitting paper reports that the Secretary of State's office would scan and upload, candidates will file their campaign finance reports electronically.
"It will free up time and energy from the office standpoint, and it will also make the system more searchable and user-friendly for the public," Gant said.
"Where I feel our system is lacking is in the transparency. It's not easy today to find contributors and to find PACs through our current system. With the new system, that will be very easy to find" [David Montgomery, "Deep Pocket PACs Fund Local Legislators," Rapid City Journal, 2011.05.01].
This simple yet spectacular technological upgrade will allow the Secretary of State to create an online database that we can search by donor, much like the Donor Lookup feature on OpenSecrets.org's Congressional and Presidential campaign finance database. It will allow me to compile a list of every candidate backed by Jerry Prostrollo, or by Deb or Pat or Nick or Renae. It will allow you to complile a list of every candidate backed by me (assuming I ever give more than $100 to any one candidate).
Wowza, wowza, wowza! Good work, Secretary Gant!
Now consider: if Secretary Gant can make a searchable donor database, can it really be any harder for the Legislative Research Council to execute Rep. Stace Nelson's great idea of adding a webpage that compiles each legislator's votes in a citizen-friendly format? Secretary Gant has to build a new online interface and crunch thousands of data points submitted by hundreds of independent entities around the state. Building Rep. Nelson's voting summary requires fiddling with some queries on data that the LRC already collects from people all in one building. If Gant can do it, so can the Legislature. Onward with government transparency!