Campaign Cash: A Journey Through The Cal-Access Labyrinth

by Cosmo Garvin, Capitol Weekly

california-budget-cuts-smWhen California introduced its Cal-Access campaign finance website, “There was nothing like it in the country,” said Rob Lapsley, who was under-Secretary of State in 2000, the year the campaign disclosure tool made its debut.

Before Cal-Access, anyone curious about who was giving money to politicians had to make a trip to the Secretary of State’s office to dig through the paper contribution reports by hand.  That’s okay for reporters with time on their hands, no good for anyone with a real job. Cal-Access presented the first opportunity for ordinary citizens to hop online and access finance records electronically, to find out who was trying to influence their elected representatives with campaign cash. California was the first state to provide that kind of access.

Fast forward 15 years: What was once cutting edge is now obsolete.

“The current system is broken, literally,” says Lapsley, now president of the California Business Roundtable. In April, the system went dark for several hours right before a major campaign finance deadline. It was one of many frequent breakdowns. A few years back, Cal-Access was out for three weeks. It’s a mismatched, patched-over system, running on a dozen different programming languages, some no longer learned, and in need of a complete overhaul.

“The whole system predates Myspace, it predates USB flash drives,” said Daniel G. Newman, president of the Berkeley-based non-profit MapLight.

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