In New Hampshire governor’s race, some finance reports are clearer than others

By ETHAN DEWITT

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 05-08-2024 2:39 PM

By last December, Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington had raised a total of $1.059 million for her campaign for governor — a number clearly visible on the cover sheet of her Dec. 6 campaign finance report. 

What is harder to see is who, exactly, donated to Warmington’s campaign and how much they gave. 

Warmington’s report includes a spreadsheet of each individual contribution over $50 — their name, address, job title, and how much they donated. But the spreadsheet is presented in tiny, garbled font, and is nearly impossible to read without zooming in by at least 400 percent.

That’s in part because Warmington — unlike some of her gubernatorial rivals — has chosen not to use New Hampshire’s online campaign filing system. The voluntary system lets candidates upload digital campaign finance files to a state portal, and allows the public to easily see individual contributions and expenditures. 

Eight years after the state launched the online campaign finance system, many major candidates are opting not to use it. Now, some lawmakers are pushing for a law that would require them to. 

“At a certain level, the public has an interest in knowing who’s giving to who to make sure there’s not what we refer to as an undue influence,” said Rep. Ross Berry, a Manchester Republican and key sponsor of the bill, House Bill 1091. “Or if there is an undue influence, that the public knows about it.”

In Warmington’s reports, her contributor list is at times barely legible. The pages, which have been printed out and then re-scanned at the Secretary of State’s Office, contain letters that are so pixelated that they are barely distinguishable. Some dollar signs look like the number 5. Some names are nearly unintelligible. Even some contribution amounts are difficult to make out. And because the spreadsheet is a scanned image, it is impossible for a viewer to highlight the text and make it larger.

Warmington — whose campaign did not respond to questions about the reports — is not the first candidate to file faxed or scanned, barely legible campaign finance reports. Gov. Chris Sununu’s campaigns have long submitted similarly formatted reports, using tiny text whose quality degrades through the scanning process. 

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But her campaign’s choice to file paper reports stands in contrast to other candidates for governor. Joyce Craig, Warmington’s rival in the Democratic primary, and Kelly Ayotte, a Republican contender for governor, have both opted to use the state’s online campaign filing system.

Chuck Morse, a Republican candidate for governor, is also not using the online filing system and is filing scanned reports like Warmington, though he is using a more legible font. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment. 

Created in 2016, New Hampshire’s online campaign finance system was designed to provide the public a clear window into who is donating to the campaigns and how the candidate is spending those donations. The process is meant to save candidates time and effort as well, sparing them the possibility that their paper submissions are out of compliance because of small technicalities, such as a failure to alphabetize submissions. 

But the system is voluntary, and most have opted to use the paper filing option. That requires the campaigns to submit a hard copy of a spreadsheet — either typed out or handwritten. The Secretary of State’s Office then scans those hard copies and uploads them for the public to view online. And many campaigns use a small font and fax the submissions over to the office, a process that often degrades the font and makes it hard to read. 

To some observers, the lack of rules around legibility incentivizes campaigns to make their filings as difficult to read as possible. By submitting a scanned spreadsheet whose individual entries are often garbled, a campaign can make it harder for the public — or a rival campaign — to meaningfully analyze who is donating to the campaign. 

“People play games, especially these bigger (political action committees) and campaigns,” said Berry, who serves as chairman of the House Election Law Committee. “They play games with the physical filings.”

Those interested in looking for patterns — such as the candidate’s biggest donors or the proportion of small donations to large donations — must in many cases recreate the scanned paper filings from scratch into a digital program like Microsoft Excel. That process can take hours and lead to errors. 

Or they can attempt to “scrape” the information by using optical character recognition software, in which a computer attempts to read and digitize the scanned copy itself, but that can also be inaccurate. 

The state’s existing digital system, meanwhile, makes that work unnecessary. For candidates who use it, such as Ayotte and Craig, voters can use the secretary of state’s website to pore over the filings, sort them to pick out trends, view pie charts that break down where the money is coming from, and more.

HB 1091 would make that system mandatory. The bill would require that any campaign filing campaign finance reports “shall file all such statements pursuant to the online campaign finance system prescribed by the secretary of state.” 

If the bill passes, candidates for governor, Executive Council, and state Senate would need to use the system beginning the next election cycle — after this year’s general’s election. Candidates for all other offices, such as the House of Representatives or county commissioner, would have two more years — until November 2026 — to comply.

To Berry, who has previously served as the executive director of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee and the New England data director for the Republican National Committee, paper filing is a tactic used by both parties to obscure finances — and there are little incentives to be transparent. 

In 2016, Berry undertook a project where he attempted to track money given to Democratic candidates from unions. “And it was a pain because you have to go through all these reports, and you have to hand transcribe everything,” he said. 

The provision is just one piece of HB 1091, a sprawling omnibus bill that makes a number of tweaks to the state’s campaign finance law. The legislation came out of a public deliberation process last summer, Berry said. 

And the bill comes as the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s Office launched a new version of the campaign finance website in April. Deputy Secretary of State Erin Hennessey says the state chose to switch to a new vendor after encountering some technical errors with the last vendor.

For now, absent a mandate, the Secretary of State’s Office can only encourage candidates to use the system, and assist any campaign that wants to use it but isn’t sure how. But the office is supportive of the bill.

“I think for anyone who even has a simple campaign, it’s just an easy place to go to to input your information,” Hennessey said in an interview. “Especially if you’re trying to do this by yourself. For anyone that has a complicated campaign, it’s an easy place for people to go to to see who gave to that campaign.”

Some lawmakers are proposing other measures to require legibility. The Senate passed Senate Bill 534, which would continue to allow paper filings but require that they be legible. 

Warmington is not new to the state’s online filing system; in 2020, she used it for her Executive Council race, her first campaign for public office. But by 2022, when she ran for re-election to the council, she had opted for paper filing.

A representative for the Ayotte campaign did not comment on her decision to use the system. In a statement, Craig said that candidates should strive to be “transparent,” and said she would support legislation to achieve that, but she stopped short of specifically endorsing HB 1091. 

“We will continue to utilize the Secretary of State’s online campaign filing system and I support changes to make our elections more transparent and stop candidates from hiding their donors by filing illegible campaign finance reports,” Craig said. 

Berry argued that campaigns that use paper filing now are likely already recording their transactions digitally and could make the switch. 

“If you have the capacity to raise $5,000, you have the capacity to figure out how to file online,” Berry said.