© 1997 San Jose Mercury News
Thursday, July 31, 1997

Voters need a way to follow money online


SOME Assembly members are dragging a red herring across the trail of SB 49, which would require campaign finance reports to be filed online. They frame their opposition on the basis of privacy. But there's a fishy smell about their arguments.

As now written by state Sen. Betty Karnette, D-Long Beach, this bill would require campaign finance reports for legislative and statewide candidates, plus ballot measure committees, to be filed electronically.

This system would have two advantages over the current system of paper files.

First, the information would be available on the Internet, so it would be accessible to many more people, not just the handful who have the time to sort through stacks of paper files at the secretary of state's office.

Second, since donations would have to be reported within 24 hours, the information would be online quickly. Right now, 25 percent of campaign donations are received during the last two weeks before a campaign. They often don't get reported until after the election is over. So a huge contribution to a candidate or ballot measure could go unnoticed by the voting public until too late. The whole point of public disclosure of campaign contributions is for voters to know where candidates and initiative committees get their money before they vote.

The rationale for opposition to the bill is that it violates privacy by listing contributors' addresses. Karnette has already agreed to eliminate street addresses, leaving just name, occupation, employer and city. Opponents want to drop the city listing, saying harassment and even stalking could result. But dropping the city listing would seriously erode the value of the online listings.

It doesn't help much to know that Jane Smith, self-employed, gave $100 to ballot measure A or candidate B. But if a voter notes that most of the donations to a particular campaign are coming from a cluster of cities around an airport, or rural parts of the Central Valley, or just Orange County -- well, that says a lot. Within a community, voters will be able to figure out who gave how much because they'll know it's their Jane Smith, not just any Jane Smith.

That's hardly going to increase the incidence of stalking. We suspect the real reason for opposition to this bill is simply that some politicians don't want the public to know where their money is coming from.

Donors who want to contribute with anonymity can stay below the $100 limit and not be reported at all. Large donors, a category that rarely includes people hiding out from abusive former partners, are already subject to public scrutiny, as newspapers publish lists of major contributors to campaigns. SB 49 would take what is already public information and make it more available and more timely.

SB 49 is on the Assembly Appropriations Committee agenda for Aug. 20. The state Senate has already voted to shed more light on California's campaign finances. Soon it will be the Assembly's turn.

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