As we finish celebrating the unofficial beginning of summer, those in favor of more robust campaign disclosure can already start looking forward to the unofficial end of the season.
By Labor Day, California's campaign finance database will be downloadable, Secretary of State Debra Bowen has announced.
This is a big step forward for advocates of campaign disclosure and transparency. As it stands the Cal-Access database (which should perhaps be re-named the Cal-Lack-Of-Access Database) allows visitors to download information by committee. This imposes a significant burden on any users seeking to obtain a comprehensive view of campaign finance data. The change will allow visitors to download the entire campaign finance database in one sheet.
This marks a difference between information that is disclosed online and information that is disclosed in a way that is actually useful for visitors.
Bowen's decision marks an about-face from her previous position that this change would not be cost-effective. After discussions with members of the reform community, Bowen apparently changed her mind. The prior request for the database change was signed by media outlets and nonprofit organizations including MapLight, the Los Angeles Times, the Sacramento Bee, Common Cause, California Forward, and the Sunlight Foundation.
Although campaign disclosure is vitally important, this database is not a panacea. In an era of PACs and SuperPACs that do not disclose their donors we need more than information that is easy to download. We need that information to be useful and understandable. To use a fictional example, the utility of knowing that Americans for Apple Pie spent $14 million in races throughout California may pale in comparison to knowing who is actually behind Americans for Apple Pie. The Chairwoman of the Fair Political Practices Commission, Ann Ravel, has been among those leading the charge for smarter disclosure in California.
This two-pronged approach, information that is both easy to access and which provides useful information, could allow California to serve as a model of transparency for local and state governments throughout the nation.