Joyce Terhaar

Good luck trying to figure out California’s campaign finance data

It is the “most knotted ball of string you ever imagined.”

That’s how Richard Hertz – pollster, professor and former Fair Political Practices Commission staffer – describes California’s campaign finance database, called Cal-Access.

The secretary of state’s database, intended to allow the public to track campaign money, is virtually useless unless you’re particularly skilled at working with databases and have quite a bit of extra time. Launched in the late 1990s and since swaddled in some sort of bureaucratic tech-averse cloak, the site is described by some as the worst government site in the country.

Every candidate running to replace Secretary of State Debra Bowen last year agreed Cal-Access needs to be fixed. Bowen’s successor, Alex Padilla, told The Sacramento Bee then that “we need something better not just from a reliability standpoint but user-friendliness standpoint … to track how the money is moving on a much more regular basis.”

The issue is transparency. Given the technology available today, it should be a simple thing for a citizen to find information showing how money is spent, and influence wielded, in the Capitol. Access to that kind of information encourages citizen engagement and a healthier democracy.

Instead, the site is an information labyrinth. You can’t just click a button to see who gave the most money to a candidate. Bee reporter Jim Miller says this is what you do instead: Combine contribution totals from regularly scheduled campaign filings with the filings of late contributions. Then you repeat that addition for every campaign committee.

I work in databases every day. I see hundreds of government databases. This is the worst.

Los Angeles Times reporter

That’s only part of the challenge. The data often have errors that make it difficult to track contributions from a single entity. For example, from 2010 to June 2015, campaign filings include almost 50 different spellings of the California Real Estate Political Action Committee.

As he ran for office, Padilla said he would work with legislative colleagues to get money to improve Cal-Access – experts estimate the cost at $15 million – and that he would start working on it this year. To date, Padilla has focused his improvement efforts elsewhere, though press secretary Sam Mahood said Wednesday, “We remain committed to finding solutions that will provide open access to data that is both more user-friendly and reliable than the current system.”

In the meantime, journalists are stepping up to provide the watchdog work that should be more readily available from the state.

At The Bee, Miller works with Hertz, who provides raw data in a format that Miller can query and analyze to reveal influence. For instance, a Feb. 6 story showed how political parties in California legally function as money middlemen, obfuscating which special interests were supporting candidates. Miller’s story tracked contributions from public-employee unions and corporations to the Eureka-based Humboldt County Democratic Central Committee, which then funneled the money to Senate races in Fresno and Santa Ana.

Miller’s analyses support Bee databases like Track the Legislature, which allows anyone to look up a legislator, his or her voting record, campaign finance sources, district demographics and issues and more. You can use the database to answer questions like this one: Is the legislator sponsoring and voting on bills that address the district’s issues, or those of the campaign funders?

Two new ventures – Cal Matters and the California Civic Data Coalition – also are working to make campaign funding and influence more transparent in California. Each recently received $250,000 from the Knight Foundation to fund their efforts.

The coalition describes itself as a “loosely coupled” small team of journalists from the Los Angeles Times, Stanford University’s Computational Journalism Lab, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Reporter Ben Welsh of the Los Angeles Times said the group hopes to make progress before the 2016 election. “I don’t want to miss another (election) cycle,” he said.

“I work in databases every day. I see hundreds of government databases. This is the worst.”

He said the team hopes to put “handles” on the Cal-Access system, so anyone can easily use it. To start, the group asked Padilla’s office for the source code behind Cal-Access, figuring they could then accurately extract data in a way that would make it easy for citizens to use.

Padilla’s office turned down the request, saying the source code is not subject to disclosure under the state Public Records Act.

Cal-Matters has taken a different approach, working for almost a year on a database that integrates the Cal-Access data with about five other databases tracking money and influence.

This is very hard to do. It’s cost a lot of money.

Dave Lesher, Cal Matters board member

Dave Lesher, director of government affairs for the Public Policy Institute of California and member of the Cal Matters board, said their work is largely done and staff members are running queries to see how the database performs.

“This is very hard to do. It’s cost a lot of money,” Lesher said. “It’s at a point where we would share it with any other media right now” but it isn’t yet ready for the general public.

This is important work. It’s about accountability for our elected officials, yes, but also public engagement. Citizens have a right to know who is influencing decisions that shape our state. Journalists are spending considerable time and money to improve transparency, but Californians also need a Cal-Access overhaul. Mahood said his boss remains committed to open access. We are watching to see what that looks like.