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  • Go back to Tracker -- Winter 1998

    Data on the Internet:
    Ten Steps Toward Meaningful Disclosure

    Kim Alexander
    Executive Director, California Voter Foundation

    Every election season in the United States, billions of dollars are raised and spent in an effort to inform and persuade voters. Campaign messages delivered to voters over the airwaves and inside our mailboxes are underwritten by a fraction of a percent of the American people. And these messages don't come cheap -- American history is riddled with examples of how wealthy interests have bought and paid for public policy that works to their advantage at the expense of the rest of us.

    Political disclosure laws, written in the wake of the Watergate scandal, represent the most important reform ever made to expose the corrupting influence of private money in American politics. Californiašs disclosure laws, enacted through an initiative passed by the voters in 1974, clearly state the intent of such laws: "receipts and expenditures in elections campaigns should be fully and truthfully disclosed in order that the voters may be fully informed and improper practices may be inhibited."

    Since 1974 the amount of money raised and spent in elections has skyrocketed, resulting in an avalanche of paper in the offices of disclosure agencies across the country. In a typical election season in California, for example, half a million pieces of paper will be filed with the Secretary of State.

    Some states, and the Federal Election Commission, have gone to the trouble of data-entering disclosure records, dramatically improving their ability to deliver the information to the public, and the public's ability to analyze that data. But those jurisdictions have found that data-entry is time-consuming, costly and not always accurate.

    The irony, is that most campaigns are already keeping their records in a computerized format. A survey conducted by the California Voter Foundation and the San Jose Mercury News found that 90 percent of California's 1996 legislative candidates were already using computers to produce their disclosure reports.

    Why not just have candidates submit their records in a computerized format in the first place? That is, in fact, exactly what's happening. A growing number of states and cities are developing electronic filing systems that will allow filers to submit their disclosure records in a digital, rather than paper, format.

    Digital Disclosure

    A digital disclosure movement is sweeping the nation, and represents one of the most important steps we can take to fulfill the intent of disclosure, which is to ensure that voters can make informed choices, and that the public can do its job in holding politicians accountable.

    Meaningful research and analysis of campaign finance records require that the records be made available in a computerized format. Computerization is also the first step toward making these records available on the Internet. Publishing campaign finance records on the Internet dramatically increases the public's ability to access these records, which in turn increases the likelihood that people will review them. Putting records on the Internet means citizens can access the data from any computer, at any time.

    Electronic filing and online disclosure also ensure that the public will have timely access to computerized data. Through electronic filing, elections agencies can make campaign finance data available to the public on the Internet the same day they are filed, as the California Voter Foundation (CVF) did in 1995 when we teamed up with Digital Equipment Corporation to produce the first real-time online campaign finance database for the San Francisco mayoral election.

    Last Minute Contributions

    In 1996, CVF followed up with our "Late Contribution Watch" project, for which we sent teams of researchers equipped with laptops to the Secretary of State's office each day during the final two weeks of the election.

    Every large, last-minute contribution was recorded and posted daily on our California Online Voter Guide, as well as e-mailed to hundreds of California journalists. That project earned CVF the James Madison Freedom of Information Award from the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter.

    Another ongoing CVF effort is the Digital Sunlight Web site (www. digitalsunlight.org), designed to help educate people about the benefits of digital disclosure. At Digital Sunlight reporters can find news stories, updates, contact information, publications and links to the ever-growing number of Web sites featuring campaign finance data. We also published an electronic newsletter, CVF-NEWS, in which we closely monitored electronic filing legislation in the California Legislature. Through our newsletter we kept hundreds of interested citizens and journalists informed of votes, amendments and behind-the-scenes politics taking place on electronic filing bills. The newsletter resulted in additional scrutiny on the California Legislature, which passed a bill this year on a landslide vote to mandate electronic filing in California.

    Voluntary Filing in '98

    Next year, CVF is planning to promote the voluntary electronic filing system slated for implementation in the 1998 general election by encouraging candidates to file their statements electronically. Our 1998 California Online Voter Guide will let voters know which candidates are submitting their records electronically and which aren't; we're hoping California news organizations will assist in the effort by making a point of asking candidates whether they intend to file electronically.

    Some are skeptical that a voluntary electronic filing system will be successful; while mandatory electronic filing is ultimately needed for meaningful disclosure, voluntary systems can help all involved ease into this new and unfamiliar territory. And participation in voluntary systems is high when there is an effort made to encourage it. In Virginia, a coalition of news organizations, working in cooperation with the Virginia Public Access Project and the Center for Responsive Politics, was able to convince all but one of this year's statewide candidates to provide their contributions on diskette. With that data, VPAP and CRP built the most advanced disclosure database yet.

    Electronic filing and online disclosure is inevitable; whether it comes around sooner or later is up to us. What I've learned in the three years I've spent working on electronic filing is that there are many disclosure agency officials who would like to offer the public better access to the data, but don't always have the time, staff, money or talent to move forward. How soon new systems come online, and how well they work, will depend on how much help and constructive input those agencies receive.

    Eventually, digital disclosure will allow for total transparency of money in politics. Hopefully the result then is a better understanding of the role that money plays in American politics, but also more trust and participation in our political process.

    Kim Alexander can be reached by e-mail at kimalex@netcom.com.