During the 2004 election, 85 percent of the money going to U.S. Senate candidates was contributed from the start of July to the end of September. But voters, reporters, interest groups and political opponents could not use the powerful tools of the Web to explore the data until the closing days of the election.

The result, according to a report by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, is that potentially controversial contributions to Senate candidates do not become readily accessible for public examination until very late in the contest, if at all.

An attempt, for example, to track contributions of employees of George Soros's management fund would have required spending days, if not weeks, to find that they had given a total of $36,000 to four Democratic Senate candidates in tight races, according to the CFI study. Soros, a billionaire financier, was a controversial figure last year because he put millions of dollars into pro-Democratic committees and had been a supporter of efforts to legalize marijuana.

"Due to the Senate's self-exemption from electronic filing requirements that apply to other federal candidates, party committees and PACs, information on 85% of contributions to Senate candidates during the last critical reporting quarter of the two year 2004 election cycle was not accessible to the public through the Internet as late as 3 days before the election," the report found.

Reports filed by House and presidential candidates, the Democratic and Republican National Committees and even the new "527" committees that raised and spent millions in the last election cycle are all filed electronically, and are available for public inspection within hours or minutes of filing.

Reports in this form allow database searches and other electronically driven means of developing information on patterns of contributions that have become essential for reporters covering campaign finance issues.

In contrast, Senate candidates continue to file paper reports. Initially, when paper reports are converted for Web access, almost "none of these contributions and expenditures are publicly available by inquiries through the search mechanisms on the Web site -- by downloading electronic data and manipulating it to see who the big donors are or by doing searches for particular donors on the Web site," said Steve Weissman, associate director for policy at the institute.

"The scanned images are supposed to be up within 48 hours but are basically useless since they are not searchable, sortable and downloadable," Weissman said. By the time the reports become available for Web-based examination, "it is too late for any real public discussion, news stories and reaction to donations," he said.

Any attempt for timely news coverage requires the cumbersome and time-consuming process of going "page by page through a scanned image of the paper form, with contributions and expenditures listed in no particular order, where the third-quarter forms for each candidate were as long as over 3,000 pages," Weissman said.