Systematic Cleanup of Albany


This Op-Ed originally appeared in the Albany Times Union’s July 7, 2013 edition.

Screen Shot 2013-07-19 at 5.05.13 PM

by John Kaehny and Andrew Rasiej,

Like other New Yorkers, we are dismayed by the culture of corruption in state government. We’re disappointed that state lawmakers, though slapped across the face by major scandals, left the Capitol last month without doing anything to strengthen ethics and campaign finance laws.

But as technologists, we are optimistic that things can change. We see how easy it would be to use everyday technology to help make our political system vastly cleaner, fairer and more transparent.

On Tuesday, Gov. Cuomo appointed a Moreland Commission to investigate Albany’s pay-to-play campaign finance system. The commission will inevitably find that the crucial computer systems used to track political campaign money are falling apart and plagued with problems. The good news is that New York can easily do much better.

New Yorkers use computers, tablets and smartphones every day to shop, search for information and bank. Our state can use the same technology to make New York a showcase for clean elections and good government.

We are part of an informal group of civic-minded technologists and campaign experts who have created a blueprint for an affordable, state-of-the-art system called the State Open Campaign System. It’s like a super-charged TurboTax for campaign finance: an online tool available to every state political campaign to use for bookkeeping and reporting — all online, no paper. New York City moved campaign reporting and record keeping online this year. The state should do the same.

The Board of Elections is starved for funds, buried by impossible amounts of work, and burdened by decrepit technology. New York’s handful of election cops depend on a mishmash of three obsolete data systems built independently over 20 years. It’s like arming state troopers with stone axes — with predictable results. A recent report found a mind-boggling 100,000 unenforced state campaign finance violations in the last two years.

In contrast, governments with clean campaign finance systems use modern technology that allows them to conduct regular, rigorous government audits of campaign finances that detect — and deter — abuses. The open campaign system would make the audit process easier and less expensive for campaigns, public watchdogs and overworked election officials.

It would digitize campaign record keeping, reporting, and official communications with auditors — no more paper. And by scanning and storing paper receipts, helping campaigns automatically fill out disclosure forms, and utilizing address and identity verification features, the system would reduce mistakes and improve the quality and timeliness of campaign finance data.

Fewer mistakes mean less time wasted for campaigns, enforcement focused on real problems, and increased transparency that helps restore public confidence. The open campaign system would make elections fairer by giving all campaigns the same online tools, and helping them to navigate complex disclosure forms and record keeping requirements. And the open campaign system includes tools that journalists, watchdog groups, or other parts of government can use to import data straight into their systems.

Finally, besides being a huge upgrade of the existing state technology, the open campaign system can be easily adapted to accommodate other long-overdue changes to the state’s campaign finance system.

What’s the catch?

On the technology side, there is none. The system can be built quickly and inexpensively using existing open source software. The governor’s appointment of a Moreland Commission shows that he is searching for practical solutions. The State Open Campaign System is a tool for cleaning up Albany that the governor and reform-minded legislators should put to work.

John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany and Andrew Rasiej, chairman of the NY Tech Meetup, are part of the Open Campaign Working Group.