Efforts by the four “collar counties” of Philadelphia to make more campaign finance reports available online have faltered, despite the fact that the suburban counties expressed interest in doing so two years ago.

Currently, campaign finance filings of candidates for state offices like governor, treasurer, state house and senate, all file their reports through the Department of State, which then makes the reports available online through its searchable database.

Local candidates for mayor, county council, or school board director file their reports at the county level. Citizens who want to review those reports most often have to then physically go to the county offices, far more cumbersome than doing an online search. The same would be true of independent expenditure committees or political action committees whose activities are confined to local races.

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In 2021, Bucks, Chester, and Delaware counties all told Broad + Liberty they were looking into the possibility of posting more of their campaign finance filings online to make the information more accessible to a greater number of citizens. But in the intervening two years, almost no progress has been made.

At the time, Montgomery County was the only county to have a dedicated webpage which hosted filings for candidates, but not for independent expenditures or PACs. Yet that website has fallen into disuse, with the most recent campaign finance filings being from 2019.

“We hosted countywide campaign finance data online until 2019 when the server on which the data was housed reached its end of life. The plan was to transition that system to our new countywide document management system, but the pandemic delayed that process,” said Kirk Dorn, an interim spokesperson for Montgomery County.

“We had no intention of stopping the service. We want anyone interested to be able to access the information. Our plan remains to resume the online postings when tech upgrades allow us to do so,” Dorn said.

In 2021, Bucks County Commissioner and chairwoman Diane Ellis-Marseglia said, “I am totally in favor of it, and I think there is definite interest in our doing this ASAP.”

But the county now says they took their foot off the gas under the belief that the state would soon be offering options to assist.

“It is the county’s understanding that the ongoing improvements to the state SURE VOTE system may include online campaign finance reporting modules,” said Gail Humphrey, Bucks County’s deputy chief operating officer and chief clerk. SURE is an acronym for the Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors which is the multiple software systems and databases that manage the states voter rolls for each election. 

“Consequently, Bucks did begin preliminary programming in anticipation of the state-funded program rolling out. If it appears that the state-funded finance reporting modules are not going to be finalized, Bucks does support creating a local solution.”

A request for comment to the Department of State as to whether upgrades to the SURE system would ever allow for counties to begin uploading campaign finance data was not returned.

Pennsylvania must not be left behind in the era of increased public transparency online.

Delaware County reiterated its interest in moving forward.

“We have continued to look into this issue, and we are reviewing the option of working with a leading vendor, with the possibility of implementing the online listings in the coming summer months between elections,” Delaware County spokeswoman Adrienne Marofsky said.

Chester County also expressed continued interest.

“It is an idea that our Director of Voter Services and her staff are still considering, as part of the ongoing review of ways to allow the public to interact with County government,” said Chester County spokeswoman Rebecca Brain.

The collar counties are battlegrounds in nearly every statewide political fight and have only grown in political clout in recent years, underscoring the need to make campaign finance data more easily available not only to the citizens in the county who might not be able to find time to make a trip to the county’s headquarters, but also to citizens all across the commonwealth and reporters nationwide.

For example, Montgomery’s website, although not updated since 2019, still holds campaign finance reports for Governor Josh Shapiro’s runs for county commissioner. Likewise, Valerie Arkoosh’s old campaign finance reports are also available at that website. Arkoosh served as a Montgomery County Commissioner for several years, and has now been tapped by Shapiro to serve as Pennsylvania’s next health secretary and is awaiting confirmation.

The state may soon force some kind of resolution. No fewer than four bills are already pending in the current legislative session that would require county-level data to be sent to the state, or uploaded to a state database.

“We have the resources and technology to give our citizens the transparent government they deserve while saving the taxpayers money,” the legislative memo for one such bill says. “A number of states already require electronic filing. Pennsylvania must not be left behind in the era of increased public transparency online.” 

Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at tshepherd@broadandliberty.com, or use his encrypted email at shepherdreports@protonmail.com. @shepherdreports

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