Editorial

It gave birth to Apple and Google, but California doesn't have the tech to track campaign contributions

It’s election time once again, and that means huge amounts of money are flowing into candidates’ war chests, political action committees and independent expenditure committees.

How much? Record amounts. As of last week, more than $24 million had been reported in independent expenditures in state legislative races alone. That’s the most ever, and it’s not even counting the millions spent in direct contributions to those candidates.

Who is spending all this money? Who is receiving it? Good questions. Fortunately, voters can find out at the touch of a button with California’s state-of-the-art online campaign finance portal. Cash amounts, donors, independent expenditures, ballot measures, gifts – it’s everything a voter needs to know about the special interests working behind the scenes to influence them before stepping into the polling booth.

Ha-ha! Just kidding. That’s merely wishful thinking. Thanks to years of ineptitude by past officials, the state that gave birth to Apple and Google has been stuck with Cal-Access, a 1990s-era campaign finance database that’s ugly, difficult to use, doesn’t aggregate data, crashes often and requires users to employ Microsoft Excel just to get basic information. The only highlights of Cal-Access are the two recently added search tools built by an outside organization, MapLight.

It’s so clunky and user-unfriendly that good government groups like Common Cause don’t send members there to get basic information. It’s so old the software vendors responsible for the Cal-Access don’t even support it anymore. It’s so out of date that it’s making it hard for the Secretary of State and the Fair Political Practices Commission to make the public disclosures mandated by law.

Nobody loves Cal-Access. It’s an embarrassment, it’s an impediment to open democracy and it’s time for it to be replaced. By the time the next presidential campaign rolls around it probably will be. But voters shouldn’t have to wait that long.

A bill by Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), SB 1349, would help speed up the replacement of Cal-Access by removing some of the red tape that binds the state when it buys technology, which could shave a year off the time it takes to get a new system in place – though the secretary of state’s office would still employ safeguards so money and time aren’t wasted.  The bill would also commit the state to the upfront funding for the new system, which is expected to cost about $13.5 million. Otherwise, Secretary of State Alex Padilla may have to wait until the new Political Disclosure, Accountability, Transparency and Access fund saves up enough from the $375,000 in fees it collects a year to pay for it.

Padilla, the FPPC and those who care about transparent government support the bill, making for an unlikely alliance of business and taxpayer groups, labor unions, and good-government organizations. The Senate passed the bill unanimously last week, but it’s hard to say what Assembly members will do. We urge them to pass this bill as soon and possible and the governor to sign it, so that voters don’t have to wait until another presidential primary for a campaign finance database that has all the things they need to assess candidates and ballot measures in the era of big money.

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