©1997 New York Times - Cybertimes
Sunday, October 12, 1997

By Rebecca Fairley Raney

California Governor Signs Bill
To Put Campaign Donations Online

By the 2000 election, California voters will be able to go to the Internet, type in the names of candidates and find out who gave them money under a bill signed into law Saturday by Gov. Pete Wilson.

Online Disclosure Act of 1997, which represents the seventh attempt in three years to get state campaign contribution data online, was lauded by supporters Saturday as a breakthrough in California politics, a system in which voters will have easy access to information about political money for the first time.

"Voters now have more information about legislation, political currents and changes in government than ever before because of the Internet," Wilson said in a statement released by his office Saturday. "This is fundamentally democratic and I am pleased to sign this bill."

Secretary of State Bill Jones, in a statement released by his office, said: "The voters have been saying 'show me the money.' Beginning with this next election cycle they will finally be able to see the money for themselves."

Some traditional factors played a role in the bill's success -- strong bipartisan support and the fact that it is not an election year -- but without question, online activism contributed to the bill's passage as well.

The electronic grapevine in California lit up this year with week-to-week updates about the status of the bill from the non-partisan, nonprofit
California Voter Foundation. More than 700 people received the updates, including many reporters based outside Sacramento.

Consequently, the issue received regular news coverage from San Diego to Los Angeles to San Francisco.

"In order for a story to continue, it needs to be narrated," said Kim Alexander, executive director of the California Voter Foundation. "A lot of reporters have come to rely on that newsletter to get information on this issue. It's a good lesson to any other political activists out there."

The author of the bill, Democratic Senator Betty Karnette of Long Beach, said Alexander's efforts helped her own. Keeping the idea before the public played a very important role," Karnette said. Now voters will be able to unravel the $300 million worth of campaign contributions and lobbying reports accrued during the state's two-year election cycle.

In the past, the reports generated mountains of paper. For example, one report from a two-week period for the governor last year ran 1,200 pages. It's common for campaign and lobbying reports from one California election to reach a half-million pages.

About 25 percent of all contributions commonly arrive within the last two weeks of elections and, under the old system, are available to the public only in bound reports at the Secretary of State's office in Sacramento. Under the new law, the office will report incoming late contributions on a Web site 24 hours a day.

Voters will get their first view of the data in the 1998 statewide elections. Contributions for all statewide candidates, such as the governor and the attorney general, and for state ballot measures, will be online then. For the 2000 primary, contributions to campaigns that take in $100,000 or more will be available online. The system will be in full swing for the 2000 general election, when details for campaigns that receive $50,000 or more will appear online.

More than a dozen states -- including Hawaii, Florida, New York, Michigan, Washington and Oklahoma -- have enacted legislation that provides for candidates to file statements electronically, but California's law is one of the strongest yet because it forces campaigns to put information in electronic form and mandates reporting of the data on the Internet. Many states have enacted programs that allow candidates to file by diskette voluntarily or have no provisions to report the information online.

In its final form, California's campaign finance site on the Web will be a searchable data base that will allow people to ask very specific questions of the data, such as "How many lawyers contributed $1,000 or more to campaigns?" or how many people contributed a certain amount to a specific candidate, and who those contributors were.

When he signed the bill, Gov. Wilson ended a political cliffhanger. Supporters of the bill were uncertain until Saturday whether he would sign or veto the bill after his advisers formally opposed it on the basis of the $1.1 million cost and concerns that a Web site would be susceptible to hacker attacks.

But in the end, he was talking the talk of the online activists.

"Allowing citizens to monitor the disclosure forms will lead to a more open process," Wilson said in the prepared statement. "The people will be able to see plainly who got what and who gave it to them."

Related Sites

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The Online Disclosure Act of 1997

The California Voter Foundation's Digital Sunlight site