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Campaign reform coming online

The California Senate approves a bill that would require candidates and other campaigners to report finances online.

The fat cats who fund American politics are increasingly being forced to open their books to the Net as states push campaign finance reform into the digital age.

In the latest move, the California Senate today passed Sen. Betty Karnette's (D-Long Beach) bill. If the California Assembly follows suit, the new law would require candidates and other campaigners to report finances online by June 1, 2000, if their total contributions exceed $100,000 in primary elections and $50,000 in general elections.

"This is the most significant step the California legislature has taken toward making political disclosure accessible on the Internet," said Kim Alexander, executive director of the California Voter Foundation, which puts itself at the forefront of this issue.

Proponents of publishing campaign finance records say that voter awareness allows citizens to be better watchdogs and blow the whistle on shady fund-raising practices. Increasing disclosure is part of many federal and state campaign reform efforts, and the Net has become a big component of those plans.

"The Net will really change how citizens are able to see what the government is doing," said Trudy Schafer, program director of the League of Woman Voters for California. "When people know what's being contributed, they are more likely to get involved because they'll see where their influence is needed."

Even if Karnette's bill is killed by the Assembly, Secretary of State Bill Jones already has announced a voluntary system to put deep-pocket contributions online by the 1998 gubernatorial election.

California's efforts in this vein are plugging along, but other states already have mandatory or voluntary online filing rules. Some simply require electronic records, which aren't available yet on the Net.

Hawaii led the pack two years ago by putting mayoral and other election campaign records online. However, the legislature excluded itself from the disclosure requirement. Since, Washington, Oklahoma, and Missouri have set up systems to put some or all election contributions on the Net.

Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York are also considering plans.

Moreover, Mother Jones magazine continues to post databases online that reveal the nation's top political investors and the favors they receive in return for their greenbacks.

SDR Technologies created the electronic filing system used by Hawaii; San Francisco was the first locality to buy SDR's system. Others are joining in, including the Federal Elections Commission, which will put records for the presidential and congressional elections online within six years.

SDR lets candidates computerize all their contributions, which can easily be uploaded to the Net. Soon, SDR will introduce a system that alerts candidates when information is missing from their records or when supporters have hit their contribution caps, which vary nationwide.

But states using SDR Technologies often don't use the same format to accept filings. Standardization of the reporting methods may be the next step in truly casting "digital sunlight" on campaign cash flow.

"It is absolutely destined for the information to be put on the Internet," said Kelly Kimball, president of SDR. "If they can decide on a standard filing format, then people will be able to access a comprehensive analysis of this data from anywhere about any state."

Next month, election officials from various states will meet in Chicago for a roundtable organized by Hawaii to discuss electronic filing standards.

In addition, a group called Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) and the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting are spearheading a nonprofit effort. The IRE recently received a $342,000 two-year grant from the Joyce Foundation to build a campaign finance information center on the Net.

Planned as one-stop resource that aggregates local, state, and federal campaign data on the Net, the site will also teach journalists how to analyze and follow the money.

"With paper filings, you could go after the particular [contributor], but you couldn't make connections and follow the trail of money," said Brant Houston, IRE's executive director.

"Electronic information will allow people to judge more accurately and fairly who is influencing whom. Then people can decide with a lot more clarity who they are going to vote for," he said.