Public Policy
  Analysis, opinion & ideas from Steve Harry



Online campaign finance reporting

September 15, 2017 - See responses from Lansing city clerk Chris Swope and state representative Andy Schor at end.


Can you believe that campaign finance reports for local government offices in Michigan are done on paper? A candidate can download a program from the Secretary of State's website to prepare a report, but you cannot submit a digital report to the county clerk. You can email a PDF file, but this is essentially an image of the paper report. This primitive way of reporting has many drawbacks:

  1. It's difficult for the candidate. There is MERTS, the program provided by the Secretary of State, but it has to be downloaded and installed on your computer, and unless it has improved a lot since I used it in 2011, it is not easy to use. Some candidates, like Lansing councilwoman Jessica Yorko, don't bother and just prepare the report by hand. Errors on hand-written or typed reports are difficult to correct.

  2. It's time-consuming - and therefore costly - for the county clerk. Each paper report has to be scanned and then posted to the clerk's website. Reports have to be reviewed for errors, and when found, a letter is sent to the candidate (example). Letters are also sent to inform candidates when reports are due (example) and to threaten them when they are overdue (example).

  3. It is difficult for the public to find and examine reports. For example, here's a portion of the list on the Ingham County clerk's website of Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero's reports:

The list contains not just reports, but all correspondence between the campaign committee and the county clerk. It is difficult to find a report for a specific reporting period. Once you find a report, there is no easy way to pull information from it. You have to re-key it. I've compiled contributions and expenditures from Mayor Bernero's reports for the last 8 years, typing the information into an Excel file. Then I sort into various sequences and copy it into this website. Click a year to see:


Ending Balance


























as of July 20


For state level offices, campaign finance reports must be filed electronically. They can be prepared with the MERTS program or with private software that creates files to Secretary of State specifications. On the Secretary of State's website, you can look up a candidate's campaign finance committee and then look at either the contributions or expenditures for that committee. You can specify time periods, contributor names, amounts, etc. And you can sort your results in various sequences. This is the screen used to request contribution information:



You can view the records you've requested online:


Or you can download a digital file that can be loaded into a spreadsheet program. That's how I got the information on contributions to Andy Schor's state representative campaign for this story.


Michigan Online Campaign Finance Reporting System


It should be possible to design a web-based program that allows candidate committees for state-level offices as well as local offices to enter information on contributions as they are received and expenses as they are incurred. It would be one-step recording and reporting. There would be no need to download a program or purchase software; the committee would just log on to what I will call the Michigan Online Campaign Finance Reporting System, or MOCFRS. Each transaction would be edited for errors such as exceeding contribution limits or failing to provide occupation and employer information for contributions over $100. Besides entering contributions and expenditures, the committee would be required to enter a transaction to finalize a report at close of books, before the reporting deadline. The system would notify the candidate if a report is not finalized by the deadline.


This would save counties a lot of money by relieving county clerks of the burden of processing and posting reports. If properly designed, it would make reporting easier for candidate committees. And since contributions and expenditures are recorded online, that information would be immediately available to the public. We could even require that contributions and expenditures be recorded within a week or two of being received/incurred.


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Previous stories


September 16 response from Lansing city clerk Chris Swope:


I supported the addition of Section 18a to the MI Campaign Finance Act (below) which was adopted in 2013. At the time it was hoped that the Secretary of State would make a system available to counties, which has not happened. The Secretary of State's program for state level candidates is not even made available to local candidates to use for paper reporting, so it is difficult for many local candidates to keep track of cumulative totals. I agree it should be relatively easy to make the existing software work for electronic reporting to counties.


I am not aware of any county which has adopted an electronic system.



Chris Swope

169.218a Electronic filing and internet disclosure system; adoption by county clerk.

Sec. 18a.

(1) A county clerk may adopt an electronic filing and internet disclosure system developed or approved by the secretary of state that permits committees that are required to file statements or reports under this act with the county clerk to file those statements or reports electronically and that provides internet disclosure of electronically filed statements or reports on a website. If the secretary of state develops an internet disclosure system, the secretary of state shall not charge a county clerk for the software for that system.

(2) A county clerk who adopts a system under subsection (1) may require each committee that received or expended the threshold amount set by the county clerk as provided in this subsection in the preceding calendar year or expects to receive or expend the threshold amount set by the county clerk in the current calendar year to file campaign statements or reports electronically. A county clerk shall set the threshold under this subsection at $5,000.00 or $1,500.00.

(3) A county clerk who adopts a system under subsection (1) shall permit a committee to electronically file statements and reports required under this act, as described in subsection (1), except an original statement of organization, after the committee treasurer and, for a candidate committee, the candidate has signed and filed a form designed by the secretary of state to serve as the signature verifying the accuracy and completeness of each statement or report filed electronically.

(4) If a committee was not required to file a campaign statement under subsection (2) only because it did not meet the applicable threshold, but the committee later reaches that threshold, the committee shall notify the county clerk within 10 business days after reaching that threshold and shall subsequently file electronically all statements and reports required under this act.

History: Add. 2013, Act 259, Imd. Eff. Dec. 27, 2013

September 16 response from state representative Andy Schor:

I requested legislation last session to allow counties to utilize the state system. I met with the secretary of state’s office and they said that counties could do that now and to have any interested clerk talk to the state elections division. My understanding, in talking with county clerks, is that some have reached out to the secretary of state to do a pilot program, but none were taken up on their offer. So, as Chris indicated, this would be a good question and proposal for the Secretary of State. I agree that it is inefficient for local candidates have to do this by paper, especially when the state system exists and could be very easily utilized by county clerks that want to.