More than half of California’s counties — most of them small and rural — don’t provide online access to campaign finance records, and they say they aren’t likely to change any time soon, an assessment of county-level contribution records shows. Only 28 of the state’s 58 counties provide campaign finance information online. And of those, just 17 make the data available in formats that make it easy to search and analyze the money influencing local elections. Some counties say shifting online would be too expensive given tight budgets. Others have implemented electronic filing systems, but have not made them mandatory for candidates and committees. That means it’s more difficult to determine whom local donors are, how much money they raised and for which campaigns. Counties operate independently because there is no state law requiring online filing. California accepted the first electronic filing of a campaign statement in U.S. history in 1998. Little has changed since then.
“We were early out of the gate, but when other states set up their systems, they could do it with better technology and lessons learned from other states, and we haven’t upgraded much from the initial system,” said Gavin Baker, Open Government Program Manager for California Common Cause.
The most recent efforts to make campaign information accessible date to 2012, when the Political Reform Act of 1974 was amended to allow local jurisdictions to eliminate the paper filing requirement for campaign statements and create an electronic filing system. But the legislation, which went into effect on January 1, 2013, made the electronic system optional.
“Transparency at the local level is, in some ways, even more critical because the amounts that can be given to candidates can be so much higher,” said Nicolas Heidorn, who serves as policy and legislation counsel to Common Cause, a nonpartisan group that promotes government accountability. Instead, contribution limits vary county by county.