©1997 San Jose Mercury News
Sunday, October 12, 1997

By Mary Anne Ostrom
Mercury News Sacramento Bureau

New Law Mandates Filing of Campaign Records Online

SACRAMENTO -- If you want to follow the money trail in California politics, all you'll have to do now is log on.

In one of the biggest achievements in state campaign reform in two decades, Gov. Pete Wilson signed legislation Saturday requiring that campaign contribution records for state candidates and ballot initiatives be posted on the Internet.

``Voters now have more information about legislation, political currents and changes in government than ever before because of the Internet,'' Wilson said. ``The people will be able to see plainly who got what and who gave it to them.''

California is not the first state to set up an electronic campaign filing system. But because of the sheer number of races and the amount of money raised, many expect the state's system to become a national model.

``I think the American electorate has learned that following the money is one of the most important ways of derstanding political power and political process in the United States,'' said David Jefferson, a research engineer for Digital Equipment Corp. in Palo Alto. Jefferson has advised the office of Secretary of State Bill Jones, who was a sponsor of the legislation. ``The Internet can change the relationship between the electorate and government profoundly, particularly around election time.''

Electronic access becomes even more urgent in California, say supporters, as new campaign spending limits are expected to divert large cash contributions to new-fangled committees whose finances will be difficult to track.

Nationally, the addition of California will provide unprecedented information about large campaign donors.

``A lot of the money and a lot of the big institutions and individual contributors are based in the big states, and it's a big step if a state like California makes progress,'' said Paul Hendrie, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics.

Also, California's new law will cover initiative campaigns in which ``powerful interest groups pour a lot of money,'' Hendrie added.

In recent California statewide elections, candidates and ballot committees have spent as much as $300 million. As much as a quarter of that cash shows up during the final two weeks of campaigns. Last year, candidates, lobbyists and various campaign committees filed 550,000 pieces of paper with the Secretary of State's office detailing from where the money came and to whom it was paid.

The new bill requires candidates for state office to submit electronic copies of the campaign financial statements they are now required to file on paper. Those reports, which list the names of financial supporters and the dates and amounts of donations, are currently filed with the Secretary of State and county election offices.

In a September report looking at electronic filing efforts around the nation, the Center for Responsive Politics found that ``this summer's congressional hearings on 1996 campaign finance abuses have done little to slow the perpetual money chase. . . .Computerized filings can easily be converted into an electronic format that the public can access via computer terminals in local libraries or other public buildings, as well as in their homes.''

As a precursor to electronic filing, for the first time last November, the non-profit California Voter Foundation -- funded by newspapers including the Mercury News and other media outlets -- published online late contribution reports of $10,000 or more.

Through that Internet site, several reporters discovered and wrote about Gov. Pete Wilson's last-minute $700,000 infusion of cash to Republican legislative candidates.

Starting with the November 1998 elections, campaign money reports for statewide candidates, legislators and most ballot committees will be required to be submitted on a disk, which the Secretary of State says he intends to post on the Internet.

Next year's governor's race is expected to be the most expensive in state history, even if Proposition 208 -- which mandates campaign contribution limits at the state level for the first time -- withstands a court challenge.

The new online filing law requires statewide constitutional officeholders who raise or spend $100,000 or more in the November 1998 election to file their disclosure reports electronically. After a phasing in of requirements, all state candidates, including those for the Legislature, who raise or spend $50,000 or more for the November 2000 election must make their reports available on the Internet. The law does not apply to local political races.

Jones said he expected the media and campaign watchdog groups to pressure candidates to begin voluntary compliance with the June primary, though the secretary said Friday he cannot promise he will be able to post that information on the Internet by then.

``I'm sure most people will (comply) after getting calls from you guys (in the media). Check back when they're in the heat of a campaign'' said Alfie Charles, a spokesman for Jones -- who also is seeking re-election.

The timing couldn't be better for proponents, who say online access will help respond to the growing public cynicism about the links between politicians and their money.

Several campaign managers said Friday that while they generally back electronic filing, they will be cautious about using untested software for fear of having mistakes used against them in a campaign.

Wilson's signature marked the end of several years of debate over instituting online filing.

Partisan politics, fear of contributors being harassed or their names sold for commercial purposes, free-market concerns of software providers and complaints the cost could hurt grass-roots candidates all have been used to sideline nearly a half dozen legislative proposals since 1995. Elected officials, many of whom would prefer not to provide electronic access to their campaign contributions and expenditures the public, have been skeptical of any system that would make disclosure reports easier to obtain.

``No one will look at it except for six academics at Berkeley,'' contended state Democratic Party spokesman Bob Mulholland. ``I'm all for public reporting, but in the real world of politics . . . it's not relevant to the average voter.''

The California Democratic Party is stinging from recent revelations that the Democratic National Committee funneled it $4.7 million to pay for ``issue ads'' in support of the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign. The party contends the transfer was legal. Watchdog groups say the money trail would have been easier to find with an electronic filing system.

Officials of both parties, however, are more aware than ever of campaign finance reform's popularity.

``I think there is a lot of genuine disagreement over how to reduce the role of money in California politics. Here was something we could all agree on,'' said Kim Alexander, executive director of the California Voter Foundation.

Electronic campaign financing disclosure ``became an issue they could not afford to vote no on,'' Kim suggested. ``For legislative members, it was a train coming down the track they had to jump on.''