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Laws call for posting campaign contributions on the Internet

In the land of the Internet, the latest thing sighted on the information superhighway is campaign-finance reform.

The California legislature is rapidly moving along a bill that will require all candidates to electronically file all their campaign-finance information, and would immediately post it on the Internet. With the click of a mouse, any voter would then be able to track every dollar of campaign funding, down to the last minute on the eve of a vote.

California Secretary of State Bill Jones calls it "the most significant campaign reform of the last 25 years." Last week, Mr. Jones announced that his office, which oversees California's elections, will implement a voluntary electronic filing system for the 1998 elections, in preparation for the mandatory system planned for the 1999-2000 election cycle.

California is not the first state to take this step, but it could be the most important. Kentucky, Hawaii, and Maryland, plus the city of San Francisco, all have mandatory filing requirements. Some 15 other states, along with New York City and Seattle, also have voluntary electronic filing systems, and in January, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) began a voluntary program asking candidates to file information on floppy disks.

But given the huge scale of spending in this state, comparable only with national elections, passage of the California law would rapidly accelerate the trend. "Our entry into this world of digital disclosure is going to have a big impact on moving this issue forward for all jurisdictions," predicts Kim Alexander, head of the California Voter Foundation, a key player in promoting on-line disclosure.

Politicians have not been quick to embrace this technological revolution. In Maryland, for example, Common Cause and other citizens groups tried for four years to get passage of a law creating a voluntary electronic filing system.

"[Legislators] didn't have any interest in making this information easily available," says Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause in Maryland. In California, electronic filing legislation was voted down last year.

This year, however, legislators from both parties are more open to the reform, and powerful political leaders have lined up behind the move. Experts believe the change of heart is a result of several factors.

"Certainly, the scandals in Washington helped keep this alive," says Ms. Povich. Maryland legislators saw electronic disclosures as a way of demonstrating their commitment to reform, she says. "The legislature is patting itself on the back."

And as people and legislators acquaint themselves with the Web and overcome computer phobias, the impact could be substantial.

"It's something we can achieve, and it will make a lot of difference to bringing sunshine to the campaign-funding and spending process in California," says Ms. Alexander.

In California, as in federal elections, candidates have been required to file reports on their campaign contributions since the passage of the political reform act of 1975. But that relies on the media to dig its way through dense piles of paper documents, pull out key information, and publish it.

"For individual citizens, it's inaccessible," says Jim Knox, executive director of California's Common Cause. "You have to be an extraordinarily committed citizen to ferret out this information by yourself." But by putting the information in an easily searchable electronic format, it will be readily available to citizens, says Mr. Knox. "The voters will be able to make informed choices."

The FEC has maintained a computer Web site for federal information, but the site is not easily searchable or accessible. Some specialized research organizations do use that database, but they charge $20 per hour.

For the past year, Tony Raymond, who worked at the FEC for 17 years, has offered easier access at his own Web site, FEC Info. Mr. Raymond downloaded data from the FEC site and put the information into a searchable form: Browsers can look up contributors by zip code, name, occupation, employer, or candidate.

"It's real basic stuff, but in terms of democracy in our time and age, access to information quickly is pretty important," says Raymond, who now works with the Center for Responsible Politics in Washington.

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