Follow the money — if you can

150 150 John Guenther

(photo credit: Images Money)

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that political money equates to speech. If so, the voices attempting to influence policy decisions in California politics are growing increasingly louder. Special interests spent $564 million lobbying state government during the 2011-2012 legislative session. Add to that another $650 million that flowed into California elections last year and you can see the pivotal role money plays in politics and shaping public policy.

But following the money is no easy task. I know. I tried. More on that later.

Pop quiz: How much have the candidates for Secretary of State raised? 

You can find the answer online, but if you don’t know where to look, you’re not alone. Accessing campaign finance data requires navigating the state’s archaic and cumbersome online disclosure portal, Cal-ACCESS. The database tracks political contributions and lobbying activity, but the data is formatted in a way that is neither intuitive nor easily accessible to voters.

The 14 year-old crash-prone database, managed by the Secretary of State’s office, is in dire need of a makeover. California’s disclosure system uses 13 different programming languages (Rosetta Stone, anyone?) and runs on technology so antiquated that a mere handful of people nationwide are even capable of repairing glitches.  

So that’s the problem. What can be done?

Senators Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) and Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) introduced legislation sponsored by Common Cause requiring the Secretary of State to take meaningful steps towards the modernization and replacement of Cal-ACCESS. SB 3 would bring California’s campaign finance database into the 21st century, something Philip Ung of Common Cause says is “desperately needed because our system is really old.”

“Everyone has talked about replacement but nothing has ever been done,” said Ung. Transparency advocates have patiently waited while officials provided a “litany of excuses” for postponing modernization, said Ung, who believes California has finally reached a tipping point for change.

An overhaul of the database costs money, which the Secretary of State’s office simply doesn’t have, but Ung challenges anyone doubtful the investment is necessary to spend 10 minutes on the site.

Challenge accepted.

Feeling like Lewis and Clark, I set out to follow the money trail. After wading through pages and pages of confusing data, it’s obvious that without a modern day digital Sacagawea to help navigate and translate, I’d have better luck locating Carmen Sandiego than finding how much money is spent lobbying San Diego legislators.

“It’s not the most user-friendly system for folks who may not be experts in how the campaign finance system works,” said Lieu.

The system can and should be much more user-friendly as well as robust and reliable, to prevent it from crashing, said Lieu, who also believes the fixes are critical for “transparency and good government.”

Need more convincing?

To make informed decisions at the ballot box, voters not only deserve to know, they need to know who’s spending money to influence California elections and legislators.

Money buys influence, and political donors often expect a return on their investment. Comprehensive and timely disclosure of contributions fosters accountability and minimizes their potentially corrupting influence.

The irony here is that California’s campaign finance disclosure laws are among the strictest in the nation. But that won’t translate into greater accountability if voters don’t know how to access or interpret the data being disclosed. That’s why our sister organization and longtime advocate for increased governmental transparency, the California Forward Action Fund, endorses SB 3, joining the growing choir of voices urging the state to take the initial and necessary steps to make campaign finance data more accessible to the public.

In fact, in an effort to make personal financial interest forms filed by public officials more accessible, California Forward is working with the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state’s political watchdog, to digitize the database of economic interest forms (Form 700s).

The quality data currently buried in Cal-ACCESS is absolutely vital to the formation of an informed electorate and transparent electoral process. Removing the technological barriers that impede public access to campaign finance data helps hold public officials accountable to the public interest and not special interests. 

Money in politics is here to stay. “We can mitigate its effects by requiring greater disclosure and transparency helping let voters as well as the media know where the money is coming from and who it’s going to,” said Lieu.

Makes sense to me. How about you? 


John Guenther

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