Sometimes you don’t miss something until it goes away.
That’s the way it was in late November when the aging computer system running the state’s CAL-ACCESS database of political contributions clanked, wheezed, sent up a final gasp of steam and then shuddered to a halt for the best part of a month.
Suddenly political junkies, consultant types, broken-down reporters and ordinary citizens were wondering how they could live without being able to find out who was giving what to whom.
State Sen. Alex Padilla of Sylmar even sent a letter to Jerry Brown, demanding that the governor take over the reporting system and make sure it’s working perfectly for the upcoming elections.
Brown was actually the right person to call, since it was his Political Reform Act of 1974 that forced California politicians to file those regular finance reports to the state. Before that, the typical answer to questions about political contributions was something along the lines of “What’s it to you?”
But even after 1974, it was a statewide game of hide-and-seek to actually find those finance reports. While every campaign filed a copy in Sacramento, reporters and other interested citizens in the hinterlands of, say, Southern California had to figure out which county courthouse held the local copy of that finance report. And if it was an Assembly or state Senate district that included several counties, good luck.
It wasn’t until 1999 that the secretary of state fired up the CAL-ACCESS system, putting that financial information on the Internet and, for the first time, making it easily available to anyone who wanted to see where the political money was coming from.
Nicole Winger, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Debra Bowen, described that original state system as “something like your first cell phone,” with the difference being that most of us have upgraded our phones since 1999, while the state is still using the same Version1.0 system.
More important, though, every year more and more people call up that site, expecting to find just who is putting up the money to back California’s politicians.
“Thirteen years ago, who could have anticipated how much this system would be used?” Winger said in an interview. “We try to promote it to voters and the usage grows every year.”
That’s actually the point of this stroll down the political memory lane. People nowadays not only want to see campaign spending records, they also expect to see them. They want those records complete and they want them now.
The demand for full disclosure can go beyond the current legal minimums, but politicians can’t afford to ignore those increasing nosy voters. Just ask Mitt Romney about his tax returns.
Not everyone in the politics biz has recognized the growing demand for financial disclosure. The U.S. Senate, for example, is still content to ignore the fact that the entire world has moved online and insists that it’s perfectly OK for senators to file their financial reports by hand and then sloooowly put them in a form people outside the Beltway can access.
Then there are the ever-increasing numbers of 501( c ) (4) non-profits, which can raise money for candidates without having to reveal who is writing the checks.
That promise of anonymity is a selling point used by folks raising cash for Republicans and Democrats who are convinced that voters either won’t notice or don’t care.
They’re playing with dynamite. As it gets closer to election day, voters are going to want to know who’s paying for those expensive hit pieces or mud-slinging political spots. And “None of your damn business” isn’t the answer they’ll be looking for.
John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.