Secretary of State Debuts New Political-Money Tracker

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Are you fed up with California’s deservedly much-maligned political money tracker, Cal-Access? Then hop on over to the open-source software development repository GitHub and take a whack at designing what looks to be its successor. The computer code is public and outside participation is welcome.

The California Secretary of State’s office unveiled Power Search last week, a new campaign finance disclosure tool that tracks and displays donations to candidates in a much more accessible fashion than Cal-Access. It was developed in partnership with Maplight, a nonprofit research organization specializing in money’s influence on politics.

Power Search lets people view the source, recipient and amount of state-level political campaign contributions since 2001. The data can be filtered by recipient, date, amount, location and other fields. It can also be downloaded into a spreadsheet for deeper analysis.

For instance, want to see how the fight is going to repeal the plastic bag ban next November? Sort the database for the November 8, 2016, ballot referendum supporters of the ban and find out that $431,401.61 has been contributed as of June 30.

Unfortunately, the largest contributor, at $201,138.59, is identified as “Unitemized Contributions.” California Grocer’s Association is second and third in slightly different incarnations. each at $100,000. There are 718 sources of funding listed. The opposition draws all of its $170,000 from four companies, Formosa Plastics Corporation, Superbag Corporation, Hilex Poly and Advance Polybag. The little plastic bag ban opponent has not yet been heard from.

Cal-Access provides limited views of donations to political campaigns and lobbying information. Power Search is just a small piece of an oft-promised upgrade that still does not include information on lobbying or campaign expenditures.

The data that Power Search and Cal-Access rely on also has a garbage-in, garbage-out problem. The Los Angeles Times noted that information comes from filings by candidates, political action committees and others, so errors like misspelled names will reduce the accuracy of searches.

None the less, California Forward Public Affairs Director Phillip Ung said, “All progress related to Cal-Access is progress worth celebrating.”

California Forward is part of the Cal-Access Working Group, a coalition of public, private and non-profit organizations whose goal is to provide basic transparency so citizens can see where the money goes in state politics. Since that generally benefits very few people in state politics, the going has always been slow.

In July 2013, then-Secretary of State Debra Bowen clashed with several newspapers and nonprofit organizations over months-old requests that her office post online, in an accessible format, the raw data on lobbyists that Cal-Access did such a poor job of displaying.

Bowen argued that the data needed to be cleaned up and couldn’t be provided in interactive real time. She offered to make CDs available for purchase and post online downloads months down the road. Her successor, elected last year, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, promised to do better.

–Ken Broder  


To Learn More:

“Power Search” Offers New Tool to Follow California Campaign Money (by Jim Miller, Sacramento Bee)

Following the Money Is Now Easier to Do in California (by Dakota Smith, Los Angeles Daily News)

A New Way to Track Political Money in California (by Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times)

New Search Tool Gives Boost to California Campaign Finance Transparency (by Ed Coghlan, California Forward commentary)

A Not-Too-Transparent Look at State Government’s Lobbyist Data (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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