Wisconsin Campaign Finance Reporting -- Tools and Tricks
Benjamin A. Katz
Filing campaign statements with the State Elections Board (SEB) or any government agency can be a nerve racking and mentally exhausting experience. Having to itemize nearly every transaction, complete complicated forms and follow obscure rules make reporting a challenging job.
The frequency of reports, rapid turnaround required during election season and requirement for exact reporting makes campaign reporting scary for even the most seasoned professional accountant.
With all of that said, after working for years with many clients, we have come up with some best practices for staying out of trouble and keeping the SEB happy.
PART I: USE GOOD SOFTWARE
In part I of this series, I will discuss what to look for in campaign reporting software and how it can make your job preparing State Elections Board reports easier and more effective. I’m clearly biased about what software to use for campaign finance reporting, however, with ever increasingly complicated reporting requirements it is extremely important to use software that will assist in fulfilling these requirements.
For example, the State Elections Board requires the itemization of donors who contribute more than $100 during the election cycle and vendors who are paid more than $20. This includes indirect transactions. These, in conjunction with other rules for aggregating itemizations and complicated limits make it nearly impossible to do reporting by hand.
1. Built-in Error Checking
Filling in a spreadsheet will give you back no feedback if there is a mistake, while a high quality product will check for missing or invalid data and provide easy to read error messages such as:
Missing occupation and/or employer for John Doe.
In our BackOffice system, we’ve taken this a step further. These errors can be clicked to open up a new window where you can easily fix whatever the problem is.
2. Contribution Limits & Allocation Thresholds
SEB contribution limits can be complicated. Donors can give directly or through a partnership. They can give for the current, past or future elections (in certain circumstances.) And, different types of entities (individuals, PACs, etc.) have different limits. While you should be familiar with the limit rules, it is also important that you have software that will assist you in tracking these limits and alert you before you accept a contribution in excess of limits.
3. Reconciliation Reports
I am always amazed when I learn of a campaign treasurer who is willing to file an SEB report without performing monthly bank reconciliations. Failing to reconcile your filing/accounting system with your bank records creates a situation where a report can be filed containging incorrect information.
Some treasurers are comfortable using a separate system for reconciliations, such as QuickBooks. In my opinion, this is little better than not doing reconciliations. Using a separate system creates a false sense of security and in many ways increases the possibility of problems.
4. A Single Integrated Solution
A single system that can be used for all facets of campaign reporting and accounting makes a treasurer’s life much easier and more productive. It is easier to generate reports, it takes less time to find and correct mistakes, and it cuts down on duplicate data entry and time spent transferring and exchanging data between systems.
Furthermore, a system that works for the rest of the campaign team helps ensure better data. When the fundraising team is using the same system to generate solicitation letters, he/she will be committed to making sure that you have correct and up-to-date addresses. Their own self-interest will contribute to filing accurate and complete SEB reports.
Some providers claim that simply because their product is web-based it can also be used by the campaign fundraiser, but this simply is not true. Fundraisers have different needs – they need to code people, track pledges, store additional contact information and log communication histories. If your software package doesn’t do all of this, you can assume that the rest of the campaign team will be using separate tools.
5. Intuitive interface
The look and feel of the software matters. If the tools are difficult to use, they’re going to make it harder to create and file SEB reports. Many providers require you to memorize and hand enter reporting codes or unique ID numbers.
When looking at software options, I recommend that you ask about less common transactions such as itemizing credit cards or reimbursements, partnerships and intermediaries. If the vendor requires you to manually enter an ID number rather than allowing you to lookup by name, you’ll spend significantly more time creating your report and you’ll be more likely to make mistakes.
6. Support & Upgrades
Regardless of the tools you use, SEB reporting is never easy and the rules often change. When looking at providers, find out about their support plan. If they do not include unlimited support and 24-7 emergency support, they will not be there to assist you when you have problems.
A good software solution will also be regularly updated to meet changing needs and requirements. In a web-based model, it’s generally very easy to provide updates. CompleteCampaigns.com averages 2 to 3 additions to our software every week based on changing regulations and client requests.
A company without a strong commitment to an improving product will not be able to meet your changing needs. When evaluating providers, ask when their software was last updated.
PART II – Beyond the Software
While good campaign management software can make it easier to file SEB reports, there are some things you should do regardless of how good your software is.
A few simple checks will help keep you out of trouble and avoid the need to file amendments of SEB reports.
1. Read the manual.
The State Elections Board offers easy to read guides for political committees of all types:
Word Doc http://elections.state.wi.us/docview.asp?docid=8987&locid=47
Word Doc http://elections.state.wi.us/docview.asp?docid=9050&locid=47
Word Doc http://elections.state.wi.us/docview.asp?docid=9050&locid=47
No software can manage all the rules for you -- you need to make sure you're very familiar with campaign finance law.
2. Know the calendar.
Don't get caught off guard about when SEB reports are due. The SEB's calendar is available online: http://elections.state.wi.us/docview.asp?docid=2022&locid=47, but we recommend printing it out an attaching it to your wall. Nothing's worse than getting fined just because you weren't paying attention.
3. Don't wait until the last minute.
In fact, we recommend entering transactions into your campaign software on a daily basis. This makes it easier, and much less stressful to generate and file reports when they're due.
4. Review your SEB report well before it is due.
Many of our clients will run dummy SEB reports in the middle of the quarter. If you have quality campaign management software, it will assist you in finding and correcting errors but even without your software helping you, this will give you a chance to review your report and start making corrections without the stress of the deadline.
5. Compare every new filing against the previously filed SEB report.
At the very least, make sure your starting cash balance matches the ending cash balance from the previous report. Even better, check each column to make sure that your cycle-to-date totals are correct.
6. Reconcile your bank account against your SEB report.
There is no way to file an accurate SEB report unless you're reconciling. Ideally, your campaign management software will support reconciliations. If not, you should do this manually.
A word of warning -- SEB reports are neither wholly cash nor wholly accrual based. Especially with the requirement to report undeposited funds, it can often difficult to reconcile SEB reports with bank statements by hand. That said, it's still much less painful than filing amendments or getting hit with fines.
7. Use Common Sense.
Take a look over your report. Does it show several hundred thousand dollars too much? Are contributions from committees being reported on schedule 1-A instead of schedule 1-B? Do you not remember that check being quite that large?
It's easy to make mistakes but with a little bit of time and a clear head, you can often solve them before the SEB sees them.
When considering software solutions for your campaign, I hope that you’ll take a serious look at BackOffice but I hope even more that this article has been helpful in giving you good ideas to make your campaign run smoother and avoid problems with the SEB.