Capitol Alert

‘Power search’ offers new tool to follow California campaign money

Secretary of State Alex Padilla took office in December. Wednesday, Padilla unveiled a new “power search” contribution lookup tool to bypass the difficult Cal-Access website.
Secretary of State Alex Padilla took office in December. Wednesday, Padilla unveiled a new “power search” contribution lookup tool to bypass the difficult Cal-Access website. Sacramento Bee file

Secretary of State Alex Padilla unveiled Wednesday a new “power search” lookup tool for state campaign donations, offering the public an alternative to California’s confusing Cal-Access campaign-finance website.

The search tool, developed by the nonprofit MapLight, takes nearly 15 years of Cal-Access contribution filings and presents them in a simpler and quicker search engine. People can look for specific candidates, donors, or time periods and download the results.

Someone, for example, could search for specific contributors to Jerry Brown campaign committees from 2005 through 2010. Donation data will be updated daily. Padilla called the search function “a marked improvement” over the main Cal-Access search tool, which debuted in 1999.

Cal-Access includes almost 3,700 campaign committees going back to 2010

“The public and the press should have quick and easy access to campaign finance information,” Padilla told reporters at a demonstration of the search tool, which goes live Thursday. “It’s important – people have the right to know and be informed of the flow of money in politics.”

But the new tool covers contributions, not expenditures. Someone who wants to see how candidates and ballot measure campaigns spent their money will still have to work through the main Cal-Access’ website. The same goes for spending by outside groups, which play an increasingly large role in legislative and statewide campaigns.

On the contribution data, the MapLight system does nothing to clean up the alternate spellings, missing data and other errors in campaign committee filings that hamper the public’s understanding of the state’s donor class. “If there are errors in the data, it’s because filers made the error,” MapLight’s Dan Newman said.

Phillip Ung of the good-government group California Forward said the new tool improves public access to at least some of the state’s campaign-finance data. But much more remains to be done to improve the website, he said. The group leads a working group to improve Cal-Access.

“This new tool is a hint of what voters could look forward to if the Legislature, secretary of state and Fair Political Practices Commission are able to get together and modernize the fundamental system,” he said.

MapLight began working on the project under Padilla’s predecessor, former Secretary of State Debra Bowen. A $100,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation made the project possible, Padilla said, adding that such open-source projects are part of the office’s “all of the above” approach to improving the site.

“We could have waited until … we figured out all elements of Cal-Access,” Padilla said. “Approaching it in significant chunks at a time helps serve the public better, and more quickly.”

The new tool’s open source code will be available on the coding collaboration site GitHub, and others can work to improve it, Padilla and Newman said.

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