The knock on our democracy is that it’s too much like an auction. Incoming Secretary of State Debra Bowen said she wants to counter pay-for-play government by making campaign finances as easy to search as eBay.
Bowen is planning major improvements for the Cal-Access Web site. While she has yet to set a timetable, she did say the redesign will focus on factors like standardizing the formats of names, having late disclosures cataloged more quickly and making it easier to search for information around independent-expenditure committees. There are also plans to make it easier to find trace which committees are being controlled by particular politicians.
“My goal is to create a system that’s as easy to use and provides as much information in a user-friendly format as possible,” Bowen said.
While she doesn’t have specific changes ready to announce, Bowen said the main goal will be to move Cal-Access from a “form-driven” to a “data-driven” model. Cal-Access was launched in 2000 by then-Secretary of State Bill Jones in response to legislation. It basically took existing campaign forms and put them online. While there were many usability improvements, such as offering lists of donations in Excel format, the data is not yet gathered with the Web in mind, Bowen said.
Kim Alexander, president and founder California Voter Foundation, applauded this approach, saying she hoped Bowen would enable better coordination between the information gathered by the Fair Political Practices Commission and data made available by the secretary of state’s office.
“If there are going to be significant changes in Cal-Access, you’ll have to change the way data is filed,” Alexander said.
When Cal-Access first came online, it was the best state campaigns Web site in the country, she said. However, we ranked only third behind Washington and Virginia–with a “B+” grade–when the CVF rated the states last year. The Web site was created via 1997 legislation by then-Senator Betty Karnette when she chaired the Senate Elections Committee. This followed previous attempts by Senator Tom Hayden in 1995 and Assemblywoman Jackie Speier in 1996.
The site has been a “work in progress” ever since, Alexander said. During his time as secretary of state, Kevin Shelley added search functions and created pages for ballot propositions. Among the improvements she would like to see, Alexander said, are better labeling of the sections on the Web site and the release of finance summaries for campaigns and propositions.
While Cal-Access isn’t ideal, it’s far better than the “ridiculous” Federal Elections Commission Web site, said Ned Wigglesworth, policy advocate for California Common Cause. Many campaign watchers are hopeful that congressional Democrats will make good on promises to improve federal online campaign-finance and lobbying disclosures. An outspoken Republican champion of this cause, Rep. Mark Green of Wisconsin, left office this year in an unsuccessful run for governor.
While they’re hungry for more details, other campaign watchdogs welcomed Bowen’s statements and said she has the credentials to pull it off.
“She’s on the cutting edge in terms of legislators who have been following these issues,” said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies.
Her resume includes co-authoring legislation in 1993, while she was in the Assembly, that placed bill information, committee analyses and voting records online. She later sponsored legislation to do the same with public records. More recently, she served as chairwoman of the Senate Elections Committee.
Which is not to say that current secretary of state McPherson was a slacker. Alexander said he made some small but useful “cosmetic changes” to the site. He also upgraded back-end hardware to allow Cal-Access to run faster and made other improvements, said McPherson’s press secretary Nghia Nguyen.
“During Secretary McPherson’s administration he asked users of Cal-Access, including those in the media, for input on improvements to Cal-Access and the secretary made improvements to make it easier for the public to track campaign dollars,” Nguyen said. “And it showed this past election, with all the articles on campaign contributions.”
In March of last year, McPherson appointed an Online Disclosure Reform task force. Stern was a member, though he said their work didn’t get around to really improving the Web site. McPherson discussed more significant overhauls, Stern said, but had to oversee two elections–something Bowen probably won’t have to do for a year and a half.
“McPherson didn’t really have time,” Stern said. “I wouldn’t criticize him because he was only there are year and one-half.”
Cal-Access even became an issue in the campaign between the two. Bowen noted that in order to search “McPherson,” one had to type “Mc Pherson” because the system had a hard time dealing with the internal capital letter.
McPherson praised Bowen’s work in improving online disclosure. However, he criticized “her aggressive demeanor as chairwoman of the Senate Elections,” which he said “created tensions rather than building the collaboration and trust that are essential between state and county elections officials.” This tension became particularly sharp as she and McPherson sparred over the certification of Diebold voting machines.
However, both Stern and Wigglesworth said these criticisms needed to be taken with a grain of salt; goading local election officials is part of both the job.
“The county folks are against anything that makes them spend another dime,” Wigglesworth said.
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