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Oregons open book on campaign financing

On-line campaign finance reporting system, 'Orestar,' brings new level of transparency to local and state elections
by: , Oregon ranks near the top in campaign finance reporting and transparency, behind only California and Washington.

With a click of the mouse button - whoosh! - anyone connected to the Internet can now be transported into the novel realm of campaign financing, all thanks to the Oregon Legislature.

A relatively new function on the secretary of state's Web site geared toward campaign finance reporting has opened a window for any of us - journalist, concerned taxpayers, self-proclaimed busy bodies - to find out who is paying for whom in the realm of national and local politics.

And in the heated political climate heading into the primary and general elections this year, just such a system is a welcome addition in Oregon.

Called the Oregon Elections System for Tracking and Reporting, or 'Orestar' for short, the Internet engine offers an electronic portal for candidates to file campaign activity. Even better, it offers a quick and easy way for voters to find out if their favorite union or local business is financially backing any candidate.

Orestar started last year, on Jan. 1, 2007, but the upcoming May primary is really the first big test of the system.

'Certainly this is the largest election since Orestar has gone on-line, no doubt about it,' said John Lindback, the director of elections for the Oregon Secretary of State Elections Division.

Lindback said Orestar, at a cost of around $700,000, is only one part of a larger overhaul of the state's election infrastructure. Future modifications will include, among other things, how measures and referendums are filed.

'We are piece-by-piece rebuilding the entire elections division,' Lindback said.

In past years, campaign financing at the local level was filed through the county's Elections Department.

Lindback said he has seen more detailed and comprehensive reporting from candidates since Oretsar launched.

Pam Benham, the elections supervisor for Columbia County, said the emergence of Orestar for campaign financing reporting has made her life easier.

'It puts it all on the shoulders of the secretary of state's office,' Benham said.

Benham said she has little concern that candidates would withhold information, something in the past she said has not been a problem. Then, if she saw a proliferation of signs popping up along a roadside for a candidate who had not filed finance papers, she would contact that candidate to ensure the correction.

'If I saw signs or ads everywhere, I would get in touch with the candidate,' she said. 'If they missed the deadlines, they'd get a letter.'

Today, accountability largely hinges on complaints. If someone believes a candidate has been less than forthcoming in his or her reporting and files a complaint, Lindback's division at the state office is on the hook for any follow-up investigation.

Election law is written into Oregon statute. In the event of suspected violations, Lindback's office can subpoena candidate records and, in extreme situations, a candidate can be forced to appear in circuit court and be legally compelled, under the threat of contempt of court, to comply with the law.

Generally, candidates are required to post contributions and expenditures on the Web site 30 days after the transactions occur. Within six weeks of the election, the reporting time span narrows to one week.

Since Orestar went into effect, Oregon jumped from a ranking of 24th to 3rd nationwide among all 50 states in the area of campaign finance reporting, according to Web site www.campaigndisclosure.org.

'Before Orestar was launched, we were in the middle of the pack,' Lindback said. 'In a single year, we vaulted all the way into third.'

Only Washington and California ranked higher.