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Money
Georgia dark money groups are required to report expenditures, but a website failure means they aren’t all made public ahead of elections. Matt Slocum/AP

Georgia’s Campaign Finance Website Is a Transparency ‘Mess’

A glitch in the state’s ethics website means that some donations aren’t reported to voters until well after an election.

A flaw in the Georgia filing system is allowing last-minute state campaign spending to go unreported until after elections — sometimes until the end of the year.

Significant dark money expenditures and campaign contributions, each $1,000 or more, are not being updated on the state’s campaign ethics website in the final days before state elections, even though updates are required by Georgia’s Campaign Finance Act. The ongoing software issue creates a short-term blind spot, leaving the public unaware of who is influencing races until it’s too late to matter.

As the state’s May 21 primary approaches, the fear is that invisible donations poured from independent expenditure committees could boost a campaign’s final charge while depriving voters of knowledge to which they’re legally entitled. The flaw allows motivated parties to influence elections undetected.

“Having these reports filed immediately before the election — like, within the last week of the election — is critical for voters,” said Craig Holman, a campaign finance expert and lobbyist for Public Citizen. “Because this is where shenanigans can be done by candidates and PACs.”

Georgia requires state political operations to file their financial reports online through a state-owned website installed and maintained by Civix, a Louisiana-based software company that specializes in public-sector software projects. The website is supposed to prompt filers to submit later donations through special reports that are processed within two business days, allowing for a more transparent process. But the prompt didn’t always come up. Now, it doesn’t work at all.

“We’re aware that there are very real issues with the e-filing system,” said David Emadi, executive director of the State Ethics Commission. “We’re working hard to get those fixed with the vendor.”

“We’re not happy that there are issues for the people that are trying to do the right thing and file their reports,” he added.

A state election official described the site as a “mess.” There’s currently a backlog of software updates needed; fixing the glitch that leaves late donations unreported is on the list, but more serious issues are being prioritized, the source said. No alternative reporting method exists for candidates impacted by the system error.

A Civix spokesperson declined to comment, citing company policy regarding its clients’ systems.

The election official told NOTUS that the commission is currently evaluating software options as it examines its relationship with Civix. The state previously awarded Civix a contract to install and maintain the e-filing site. The contract renews annually through 2029.

Few races were impacted in 2023, Georgia’s off year for state legislative and executive offices. This year will be different. Every member of Georgia’s General Assembly is up for reelection. Both parties are expected to focus their spending in competitive swing districts, creating the possibility for an invisible fundraising surge just before the general election, exacerbated by dark money groups waiting to use financial war chests to shift elections in their favor.

“If you go on the commission’s website and you look up independent expenditure committees, you’ll see none of them have filed two-business-day reports since 2022,” commission Vice Chair Rick Thompson told NOTUS. “Because the system now doesn’t allow you to. Without the two-business-day reports, we don’t know if they spent anything for those elections.”

State election officials first became aware of the filing issues during the 2022 state elections. The glitch was initially inconsistent. Some campaigns contacted the commission to alert them about the failed pop-up prompt, but others, including Gov. Brian Kemp’s leadership committee, could file the two-business-day reports without issue.

The glitch became pervasive in 2023. It already occurred this year during a special election for state Senate District 30. Candidate Robert Smith, who lost to state Sen. Tim Bearden in February, claimed he received large contributions after filing his Jan. 30 financial report. Smith said the site never prompted a two-business-day report.

Eventually, the glitch prevented all state candidates and committees from filing the reports.

“That’s a fatal flaw in the website,” Holman said.

Ben T.N. Mause is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.