By Cosmo Garvin
When California introduced its Cal-Access campaign finance website, “There was nothing like it in the country,” said Rob Lapsley, who was under-Secretary of State in 2000, the year the campaign disclosure tool made its debut.
Before Cal-Access, anyone curious about who was giving money to politicians had to make a trip to the Secretary of State’s office to dig through the paper contribution reports by hand. That’s okay for reporters with time on their hands, no good for anyone with a real job. Cal-Access presented the first opportunity for ordinary citizens to hop online and access finance records electronically, to find out who was trying to influence their elected representatives with campaign cash. California was the first state to provide that kind of access.
“Basic searches like how much money does Comcast give to legislators could not be done without downloading hundreds of files.” — Dan Newman.
Fast forward 15 years: What was once cutting edge is now obsolete.
“The current system is broken, literally,” says Lapsley, now president of the California Business Roundtable. In April, the system went dark for several hours right before a major campaign finance deadline. It was one of many frequent breakdowns. A few years back, Cal-Access was out for three weeks. It’s a mismatched, patched-over system, running on a dozen different programming languages, some no longer learned, and in need of a complete overhaul.
“The whole system predates Myspace, it predates USB flash drives,” said Daniel G. Newman, president of the Berkeley-based non-profit MapLight. Besides being unreliable, the system is awkward and frustrating to use. Finding campaign contributions to a single candidate may require multiple searches under different committee names and different years. There are separate search fields for contributions received and “late” contributions received. There are separate fields for contributions received below $5,000 and contributions above $5,000. The data generated by each of these separate searches can be downloaded into separate spreadsheets. If you’re reasonably proficient at Excel, you can merge those spreadsheet yourself. Otherwise, good luck keeping the information organized.
“Basic searches like how much money does Comcast give to legislators could not be done without downloading hundreds of files,” said Newman. “You have to be an expert researcher to pull information out of Cal-Access.”
There have been some improvements recently. Last year MapLight launched an open source program called Power Search, linked to the Secretary of State’s website, which makes it considerably easier to search, sort and download data. But Newman says it’s a temporary solution, and doesn’t solve the underlying problem of Cal-Access’ fragile infrastructure.
In the 2014 election campaign to replace the termed-out Bowen, all of the major candidates promised an overhaul of the decrepit system.
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