We like to think Vermont politics are clean and transparent. They very well might be, but it's sometimes hard to know given the lax reporting requirements for state political campaigns.

The state's campaign finance reporting is so lax, in fact, that Vermont has earned a failing grade from the Campaign Disclosure Project at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law. The project is underwritten by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Jessica Levinson of the Campaign Disclosure Project, Allen Gilbert of the ACLU, and William Dalton of the Vermont Secretary of State's office discussed the situation Monday on Vermont Public Radio's "Vermont Edition."

Access to campaign finance reports is poor. Information such as occupation and employer of donors is not collected, as it is for federal campaigns. Audits of reports are not routine or required.

Most states require candidates to file their reports online. The information can then be accessed, in a database, by anyone via the Web.

Vermont still uses paper forms. The forms are made into PDFs and posted -- which means that analyzing the information is difficult because it's not part of a searchable database. It's like having data on a stone tablet.

Money is blamed for the low-tech approach. The Secretary of State's office estimates that an electronic system would cost $1 million, an amount the Legislature has been reluctant to provide.

There's another major shortcoming to Vermont's system. Personal financial statements are not required of candidates running for either statewide offices or legislative seats. Nearly all states have this requirement, as does the federal government.

The ACLU believes Vermont needs legislation that does four things:

  • Requires earlier reporting and first-of-month filing of campaign donations and expenditures.
  • Makes reports accessible, online, within 48 hours of filing.
  • Mirrors federal law in requiring a donor’s occupation and employer.
  • Gets Vermont up-to-speed with the rest of the country by mandating personal financial disclosure of candidates for statewide and legislative positions.

In the past, Vermont has devoted attention to enacting limits on donations and expenditure limits. What's needed now is a strong focus on access to and disclosure of information showing how money moves through Vermont campaigns.