SB 3 vital to modernizing California’s campaign finance database

150 150 Alexandra Bjerg

(photo credit: penguincakes)

California’s aging electoral infrastructure may give the impression that the Secretary of State’s office is still partying like it’s 1999. Don’t get me wrong, it was a good year, pagers were still cool, screeching dial-up connections made ears bleed nationwide, not rewinding VHS movie rentals was a major faux pas, and California’s newly designed campaign finance database was cutting edge. 

But all of these technological advancements have gone the way of the Dodo. Except, of course, Cal-Access. which has been left relatively untouched since iPhones and Netflix have come around. And unfortunately, the tech sector has yet to embrace the vintage trend currently dominating the fashion world. 

But with one stroke of a pen, Governor Jerry Brown can help bring California’s campaign finance and lobbying database into the 21st century, fostering greater transparency and voter confidence in the electoral system. One bill among hundreds atop the Governor’s desk is SB 3, which requires the Secretary of State and Fair Political Practices Commission to take meaningful steps towards modernizing and replacing Cal-Access. 

“The Cal-Access system is the only tool available to the public that shows who has influence in Sacramento and puts it at our fingertips,” said Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), author of the legislation, at a press conference this week urging the Governor to sign the bill. “Californians deserve a modern and efficient means of accessing this information rather than a relic from the early days of the internet.”

Running for office in California costs more than a pretty penny and even candidates with deep pockets must find additional funding streams. In fact, more than $650 million flowed through California elections last year alone.

Political money can affect policy decisions as donors often expect a return on their investment. “It’s essential that citizens know who is funding their representatives to be able to judge whether these politicians are representing the voters or the donors,” said Daniel G. Newman, founder and CEO of MapLight. He added that “Cal-Access has serious limitations in allowing citizens, journalists and nonprofit groups to track who is influencing their representative.”

Following the money requires navigating the aging and extremely cumbersome database, which isn’t easy. Trust me, I’ve tried. For example, if you want to know who the California Chamber of Commerce or the California Teachers Association contributed to last year, you won’t find one central list.

Even the Secretary of State has acknowledged the crash-prone system is held together by gum and Band-Aids, said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, sponsor of the legislation. But an overhaul of the state’s online disclosure portal costs money that the Secretary of State’s office simply doesn’t have. 

Stepping up to fill the void, MapLight launched California Power Search, a new tool created with the raw campaign finance data released earlier this month for the first time by the Secretary of State after a wave of public pressure

Newman likens the much more user-friendly tool to a Google search in that users don’t need to have campaign finance or technical expertise to dig up the data they’re looking for. With Cal-Access, you have to look up contributors by campaign only, which isn’t too user-friendly if you want to spot any support trends for a certain donor. California Power Search allows you to see every campaign a specific donor or entity has contributed to with one search, painting a far clearer picture of their possible allegiances at the push of a button.

Voters, journalists, nonprofits, can use the free portal to “search where politicians get their money instead of the Secretary of State’s antiquated system that really doesn’t have the capacity citizens need,” said Newman. MapLight is even building an API data feed so any developer can create a new and different tool to suit their specific needs.

“It’s our hope that what MapLight is now doing is something that the state will adopt itself to make this information even more broadly available,” he said. “MapLight is happy to work with the Secretary of State at anytime to help produce tools that are fast, meaningful and easy to use.”

The irony is that California’s campaign finance laws are among the strictest in the nation, but that data is being buried in in the current system. Californians need easier access to what is already being disclosed to ensure public officials are accountable to public, not special, interests.

“An accessible system is an honest system,” said Yee. “SB 3 will give us a political system that is more transparent.” Electoral transparency and integrity are essential to restoring the public’s trust and maintaining a healthy democracy through an informed and engaged electorate.

To make informed decisions at the ballot box, voters not need to know who’s spending money to influence California elections and legislators. For this reason the California Forward Action Fund (CFAF) supports brining California’s campaign finance database into the digital age as a more robust, reliable, and user-friendly tool. As such, the CFAF urges the Governor to sign SB 3.


Alexandra Bjerg

All stories by: Alexandra Bjerg