© 1997 The Sacramento Bee
Sunday, July 20, 1997 · Editorial

Political donors online: Vital data needed to make Internet reporting useful

Name: Joe Smith. Occupation: retired. Address: California. If some Republicans in the Assembly have their way, that's the only information that would be available online to the public about the identity of those who donate millions of dollars each year to California political campaigns. That's not good enough.

For the sixth time in two years, reformers are trying to put online the millions of pages of campaign finance reports filed every election season. SB 49 by Sen. Betty Karnette, which passed the Senate on a strong bipartisan vote, would require candidates for state offices and ballot measure committees to file their campaign finance reports electronically. Information about who contributed to which campaigns and how much would then be made available via the Internet.

Worried that donors might become targets of harassment or even criminals, Karnette has agreed to omit street addresses from campaign reports that go online. That's reasonable. But some Republicans in the Assembly want the donor's city omitted as well. That goes too far. The remaining information -- name, occupation and employer -- would not, by itself, be enough to accurately identify contributors.

One-third of campaign contributors who file with the Federal Elections Commission list their occupation as "retired." Another 11 percent list "housewife." The most common employer designation is "self-employed." Given the number of duplicate names in this state, determining which of the thousands of Joe Smiths in California is the one listed on a candidate's campaign contributor form would be impossible.

City designations would help reduce the confusion, but zip-code listings would be even better. Most states where donors file electronically now use zip codes. Karnette's bill doesn't because the California Fair Political Practices Commission rules don't specifically require zip codes on the paper reports filed under current law. But they don't forbid them either. A zip code designation would carefully balance the donor's right to privacy with the public's right to know who is bankrolling campaigns.

Add the zip code and get on with it. Most of all, don't let this diversion torpedo the most important political reform measure offered this year.

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