Secretary of State Debra Bowen has rebuffed a request from advocacy and news organizations to allow direct, daily Internet access to her office's campaign finance database, citing legal hurdles that would make it prohibitively expensive.
Data on the flow of political money is readily available on the secretary of state's website, but it is broken up into discrete forms for different transactions. There is no comprehensive document or file online that includes all the information -- the full database is available only on a CD-ROM that costs $5.
Several organizations pushing for more transparency in politics, including MapLight and California Common Cause, sent Bowen a letter asking that Bowen's office upload a single copy of the database online every day. The Sacramento Bee, the Los Angeles Times and the California Newspaper Publishers Association also signed the letter, as did Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco.
Bowen responded with a letter saying the request was not feasible. California law prohibits her office from making certain information, like addresses and bank account numbers, available online, and Bowen's letter argues that redacting all the necessary data for a daily posting would be too costly and time-consuming.
Tech staff members at the secretary of state's office are focusing on two projects -- one to establish a statewide voter registration database and the other to automate business filings -- and both are claiming a large share of their time, according to Bowen spokeswoman Shannan Velayas.
"The secretary of state's office has limited IT staff that are already stretched thin on two very large IT projects," Velayas said today.
But Phillip Ung, a policy advocate for the California branch Common Cause, pointed to a discrepancy in which private citizens and organizations can obtain the shielded data -- just not on the Internet.
"The weird thing is that they're not allowed legally to put that information online, but if we requested a DVD or CD ROM, then that confidential data is available on that disk," Ung said. "It's this crazy legal hurdle and technical dysfunction."
Sifting through and compiling all the different documents available online takes too much time, said Pamela Behrsin, vice president for communications for MapLight. She said the secretary of state's office needs to "move away from providing something that's so antiquated" and argued that the fix should be simple.
"It just takes a really long time to do what we're doing, and this information is public data so we should be able to get at it," Behrsin said. "It's just a matter of making a couple changes before we can get it online."
PHOTO CREDIT: Secretary of State Bowen during a legislative hearing on March 13, 2012. Lezlie Sterling/The Sacramento Bee.