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State declines to update campaign data online
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SACRAMENTO (AP) — The secretary of state's office stood by its decision Friday to deny a request by a coalition of good government groups, research organizations and newspapers to change the way it presents campaign finance data online.

The groups wanted the state's top elections official to improve the accessibility of public information. Shannan Velayas, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Debra Bowen, said making the entire campaign finance database, known as Cal-Access, available for download on one spreadsheet every day would involve "writing new code on a system that is very old."

Bowen sent a letter dated April 19 denying a request from MapLight, California Common Cause and others to make raw campaign finance and lobbying data on its website available for download on one file each day. Instead, the secretary of state's office creates CD-ROMs upon request and sends them by mail for $5, or the public has to search online by each candidate, group or committee.

The coalition told Bowen that making the small format change on the state's Cal-Access database would increase transparency and better fulfill the secretary of state's mission to improve campaign finance disclosure.

"It would save precious state funds, as your office would no longer have to support the staff necessary to process public records requests for copies of the database," the group's letter stated.

But Bowen expressed concern about privacy laws and suggested the change was not cost-effective.

Dan Newman, president of MapLight, which is based in Berkeley and examines the influence of money in politics, said in an interview Friday that he understands that Cal-Access is 14 years old, but that doesn't mean the legacy system needs to be changed to fulfill the request. He said his group has offered to write a software script to redact private information such as street addresses and bank account numbers to ensure privacy.

"As anyone who has ever deleted a column in a spreadsheet program knows, it's simple to remove unwanted data from a database before releasing it," he said. "No one has to take a can of Wite-Out and redact the data."

The letter was signed by Common Cause, which advocates for government transparency, as well as the Los Angeles Times and The Sacramento Bee.

Velayas declined to say whether Bowen would accept MapLight's offer for a free software script. She said the secretary of state's office is automating business filings and building a statewide voter registration database with a limited information technology staff.

"Given that the information is already readily available online for the public to see any time and available in this raw format to anyone who wants it on a CD-ROM, the secretary felt it was important not to redirect her limited IT staff," Velayas said.