Kim Alexander,

Kim Alexander,

A weeklong electronic journal.
May 21 1998 3:30 AM

Kim Alexander,

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       I spent most of the day putting together a grant report for one of our funders, the Columbia Foundation. It's already late, and they want to cut the check for the next payment of their two year grant before the end of the month. You know you need more staff when your funders have to remind you to get your reports in so they can give you more money.
       Grant reports always seem like a chore at first, but whenever I finish one up I'm glad that I took the time to look back and evaluate what we did with the funds. In this case, the Columbia grant was to support CVF's efforts to promote Internet disclosure of campaign finance data.
       It was an appropriate day to be writing the report, since tomorrow I will be joining California's secretary of State, Bill Jones, at a news conference to unveil the new online late-contribution disclosure program, which grew out of a demonstration project CVF sponsored in the 1996 general election that has since been codified into law.
       Yep, I had a lot of good news to share with the Columbia Foundation. Like the fact that last year the California legislature passed the strongest Internet disclosure law in the country. How did this happen? How is it possible that the California legislature, which is not exactly one of the most responsive governing bodies in the world, passed a law that requires them to file their campaign finance disclosure reports on the Internet for all the world to see?
       It's simple, really. It's a matter of applying Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle to the realm of politics. It's like this: A watched object will change its behavior just because it's being watched. This rule is true in scientific study, and it's also true in politics. Politicians perform better when they think the public is watching them.
       CVF utilized the tools of new technology to publicize the need for better public access to campaign finance data and to promote a practical solution: mandatory electronic filing laws. For two years I chronicled the legislature's actions on electronic filing legislation and publicized the events to subscribers to our electronic newsletter, CVF-NEWS. Our newsletter goes out to more than a thousand people--including many journalists who were deeply interested in this issue and wrote about it frequently. Because the bill was being covered so closely politicians had to take it seriously. And there was little room for argument--I mean, who can object to providing the public with better access to campaign finance data? Maybe no one can agree about what to do about all the special interest money in American politics, but at least we can agree that exposing those dollars on the Internet is going to make politicians think a lot more carefully about who they take money from and how they spend it.
       I call it " digital sunlight," and California is going to get a big dose of the stuff starting tomorrow. Online disclosure of the late contributions--those are the large, last-minute contributions that flood California campaigns in the final two weeks--is just the first step. In the fall, statewide candidates and ballot measure campaigns that raise or spend $100,000 or more will be required to file their contributions and expenditures with the secretary of State on diskettes as well as paper. Then, in 1999, a full-scale Internet filing program will kick in, mandating digital disclosure by all state filers--legislators, statewide officeholders, political action committees, political parties, lobbyists, major donors and, yes, even the slate mailer committees.
       Of course, it wasn't merely our newsletter or our Digital Sunlight Web site that caused this radical transformation in California politics. Lots of people were responsible for making this happen--Secretary of State Bill Jones; state Sen. Betty Karnette, who carried the legislation; the countless journalists and editors who kept the pressure on; and most of all the state legislators who had the courage to do the right thing. God bless 'em.