This story was published in partnership with Sludge.
A January update to the website of the New York State Board of Elections (BOE), meant to make it easier to upload and access campaign finance data, has instead made it extremely difficult for good government watchdogs, journalists, and interested citizens to access campaign finance data, leaving New Yorkers in the dark about who is funding their elected officials’ campaigns.
“Trying to use the website is like trying to use a website when you’re not connected to the internet, and so every time you click a button it stops and it doesn’t have the information,” Jeff Coltin, a senior reporter at political news site City & State, told New York Focus. “It’s frustrating and at times infuriating, because this is a source of information that I use for reporting and for accountability, and I basically can’t use it anymore.”
The BOE website’s functionality might seem an arcane issue. But watchdogs and journalists say that their ability to keep track of who bankrolls politicians—especially in a state that has had more corrupt officials than any other in recent years—helps guard New York’s democracy.
“The public relies on intermediaries, mainly journalists and experts, to gather and interpret government data,” John Kaehny, the executive director of government transparency group Reinvent Albany, told New York Focus. “If the public’s not informed, they can’t make informed decisions about who to vote for, and then there’s no accountability.”
Last month, Reinvent Albany was one of seven good government groups to sign an open letter to the BOE calling for a revamp of the updated site, which the letter described as “so plagued by glitches, errors, and bugs as to be practically unusable.” The BOE did not respond to the letter or to a follow-up email the group sent last week.
“What do we have to do to escalate it to their attention? Does it have to be pitchforks? How do we compel them to do their jobs?” Kaehny asked.
“This is how government agencies lose public confidence.” Kaehny added. “By being unresponsive and unaccountable.”
“They’ve Rendered it Practically Useless”
Cheryl Couser, the BOE’s deputy director of public information, told New York Focus in a phone call last week that the website’s issues had been addressed.
“The site is fully functioning,” Couser said. “A user can do searches and obtain the results. I’m not aware of issues per se.”
Couser noted that a subsequent update meant to fix various issues had been made on March 3.
“I’m glad the website is slightly more usable than it was before” the March 3 update, Coltin said, but added, “It’s still fucked.”
“It’s a band-aid instead of an actual repair,” said Tom Speaker, a policy analyst with Reinvent Albany. “The site is still extremely difficult to use. It takes anywhere between ten to fifteen steps to actually get the data that you’re looking for. It should just take two steps: type a name and press enter.”
Journalists who report on campaign contributions said that since the website went haywire, they have struggled to cover the influence of money in politics.
“It’s definitely made it nearly impossible to find some information,” Bill Mahoney, a reporter with Politico New York, told New York Focus on Friday. “It’s a lot less intuitive and seems a lot more complicated than the past, where you could just put in a candidate’s name and see easy lists of all the money that they’ve raised and spent.”
Coltin said that he has had to postpone multiple stories due to the January update — including one report on potentially illegal campaign expenditures — and will only be able to complete them if the site’s functionality is restored.
“Nobody can find who is funding campaigns. At a moment when we are renewing scrutiny of Governor Andrew Cuomo, the simple information of who has been giving the Governor money is either impossible or very difficult to find,” Coltin said. “New York is going to be missing out on a pillar of political accountability until this website is fixed.”
Asked about the criticism of the site, BOE co-chair Douglas Kellner dismissed complaints as ordinary hiccups following an update.
“The switchover to the new system has just occurred, and there are the typical kinks when you’re trying to move a huge amount of data from one system into a new system,” he said.
When watchdogs complain of difficulties with the site, Keller added, he has referred them to Couser. “The feedback I’ve gotten is that after she’s explained it to them, they see how easy it is under the new system.”
Asked whether she could put New York Focus in touch with people who could give positive feedback about the updated site, Couser declined.
Before January, the website was unwieldy—watchdogs and journalists had been pushing for an update for years—but performed its basic purpose of providing information on who was making and receiving campaign contributions, several people who use the website professionally told New York Focus.
“Before they updated it, it was a mess, but if you worked with it enough to understand its quirks and the bonkers logic underlying the whole thing, it was functional,” said Rob Galbraith, a policy researcher with the corporate and government watchdog LittleSis. “They’ve just rendered it practically useless.”
“It Damages Democracy”
Before the January update, a site user could see all donations given under a last name within a certain date and dollar amount. Now, instead of being able to search by name, researchers must enter a name, wait for a drop down menu to load, and then select a specific individual. If an individual has donated under variations of their name, the donations are listed under separate entries — often making it impossible to see an individual’s entire donation history at once.
Similarly, if a candidate has opened multiple campaign accounts over the course of their political career, those disclosure reports are now split up — making it hard to track one elected official’s funding over time.
Couser declined to say whether the Board will make further fixes to the site.
Galbraith stressed that the website’s dysfunction has ripple effects. “This is a huge public data set that they have made vastly less accessible. And it’s public data that is of really critical importance, because it’s about who is influencing our politicians,” he said. “By making that information less accessible, it damages democracy.”
The BOE also has not made campaign finance data available at the NY Open Data website, in violation of a 2013 executive order signed by Governor Cuomo, Kaehny said. Kellner said that BOE has plans to provide its data to the Open Data website and estimated that it would be able to do so by mid-March.
Speaker said that the issues with the site were emblematic of larger problems with the Board of Elections, particularly its nepotistic hiring practices. He added that the website issues highlight the need for a non-partisan campaign finance board, independent of the BOE, to enforce campaign finance law, a longstanding demand of Reinvent Albany.
State Senator Zellnor Myrie, the chair of the Senate Elections Committee, indicated that he has personally struggled to use the site—and blamed the issue on broader failures in New York’s government. “What we’re seeing across government, at all levels, is a failure of transparency,” he told New York Focus. “Whether it’s data about our nursing homes or how our campaigns are financed, the issue is the same—government that fails to be responsive or accountable to its citizens.”