Capitol Alert

Keep an eye on election IE’s with new search tool

The cover of a mailer sent by an independent expenditure committee during last year’s special election in the East Bay’s 7th Senate District.
The cover of a mailer sent by an independent expenditure committee during last year’s special election in the East Bay’s 7th Senate District.

Voters trying to follow the torrent of unlimited outside spending during this year’s California campaigns now have an easier-to-use alternative to the state’s unwieldy Cal-Access system: an enhanced search tool launched Tuesday.

Independent expenditures by businesses, unions, trade groups and others topped $78 million in legislative races during the 2013-2014 cycle, with the outside spending often overshadowing the activities of the candidates’ own campaigns. During last year’s special election in the East Bay’s 7th Senate District, for example, candidates’ campaigns spent $2.5 million combined – about one-fourth what outside groups spent.

But anyone trying to track the money through Cal-Access confronts odd data formats, multiple versions of candidates names, and other hurdles that make it difficult to get the full picture of outside groups’ role in a particular contest.

The new search tool, developed by nonprofit MapLight, lets people tally independent expenditures going back to the 2002 election. They can look up particular candidates and statewide campaigns, as well as particular outside spending committees, and export the results.

“Independent expenditures are such an important part of how money buys influence in elections nowadays,” Daniel G. Newman, president and co-founder of MapLight, said at a briefing with Secretary of State Alex Padilla. “We feel it’s so important for the public to have access to the information in an easy-to-use, timely way.”

The Power Search contribution and independent expenditure tools amount to open-source stopgap workarounds of Cal-Access. Overhauling the entire system would cost an estimated $13 million to $15 million. A proposed ballot measure would allocate the money. Legislation doing the same also is a possibility, as is an appropriation in the next state budget.

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