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A new way to track political money in California

A new way to track political money in California
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, then a state senator, listens to a staffer during a Rules Committee hearing in the Capitol on Jan. 10, 2007. (Robert Durell / Los Angeles Times)

Californians will have an easier time determining who is giving money to political candidates and causes starting Thursday, when a new tool becomes available on the secretary of state's website.

The antiquated CalAccess system, which shows political donations and lobbying information on the site, is clunky and difficult to use, especially for searching and sorting the data.

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A new search engine has been added to help users see more fully and easily, for example, the money received by candidates and ballot-measure campaigns. It will also be easier to see where industries and other special interests are concentrating their money.

"The public and press should have quick and easy access to campaign finance information," Secretary of State Alex Padilla said Wednesday in announcing the improvements. The new search mechanism provides "a clearer view of the flow of campaign dollars," he said.

The new tool, developed by the nonprofit group Maplight, which tracks political money, allows searches by geography, dollar amounts and time periods going back to 2001. It also allows quick determination of totals in specific elections.

In a demonstration Wednesday, Maplight President and co-founder Daniel G. Newman retrieved the records of all contributions from Realtors in one case, and those for all contributions from employees of Microsoft in another.

The new system, developed with a $100,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation, still has a few flaws, Padilla said. For example, the information is provided by candidates and political action committees and others, so it will contain any errors they make in their filings, including misspelled names.

The search engine will be available starting Thursday at www.sos.ca.gov, on a green button saying "Power Search Contributions."

Power Search is the first step in modernizing the state's campaign reporting system, Padilla said.

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