Does California’s Cal-ACCESS Upgrade Improve Transparency?

On August 28, California’s Secretary of State, Debra Bowen, obliged calls from organizations like California Common Cause, Maplight, and others to make additional campaign finance information available online. The agency agreed to upgrade Califonia’s Cal-ACCESS campaign finance search system in May, but only after a lengthy lobbying effort from transparency advocates.

Earlier this year, Bowen cited the Online Disclosure Act of 1997 as cause for concern in releasing complete campaign finance data. The act prohibits disclosing political donors’ addresses online, a policy which Bowen argued would require too great a dedication of resources on the agency’s part to implement.

Nevertheless, shortly after the update to Cal-ACCESS was implemented, Maplight released a Beta version of their Power Search tool wherein journalists and others can sift through the mountains of California campaign finance filings by political action group, donor, elected official, and more (void of personal addresses). Power Search offers considerably more in the way of search customization and user-friendliness.

Alongside the launch, Maplight’s co-founder and president, Daniel G. Newman, said:

“With the influence of campaign money far too pervasive in our government, we commend Secretary Bowen for working with the public to make it easier to see the forces influencing California’s lawmakers.”

In a release, Bowen was also optimistic about what impact the new Cal-ACCESS would have on future California elections.

“Following the money in politics and government is essential for making informed decisions at the ballot box,” she stated.

Cal-ACCESS was searchable mainly via segregated portals or a one-dimensional keyword search prior to the upgrade, thus rendering a comprehensive search of candidate and political donors unintuitive to say the least. What remains questionable is how useful the new tools will be.

Although the Power Search tool is still in Beta and new features will be made available, it is likely to be used by a minority of journalists and tech-savvy citizens. Though the upgrade may make the window into special interest influence on California’s politics slightly less opaque, it remains an alluring prospect for political watchers to presume influence based on these new tools without considering the human element.

As Allan Zaremberg, president for the California Chamber of Commerce, commented earlier this year on California’s political environment, “Money is corruptible, but it’s the people, I think the people who are leaders… They’re the ones who determine whether or not money corrupts them.”