San Diego County’s System For Tracking Campaign Donations Called Outdated
Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Aired 4/1/14 on KPBS News.
Open government advocates warn that San Diego County’s system for processing political candidates’ campaign finance reports makes it nearly impossible for the public to follow the money. But there’s a chance that could change soon.
You’re running for sheriff of San Diego County, a place that includes more than 3 million people. You collect money from donors and you spend money on yard signs, polls and campaign consultants.
How you collect and spend your money must be publicly accounted for. So, you take your stacks of paper records — perhaps more than a hundred pages in a single report — to the Registrar of Voters Office and hand them over.
What year is this?
Open government advocates, political treasurers, the media — and many voters — say they can’t believe this is still the case at a time when technology rules virtually every aspect of their lives.
inewsource surveyed the five county supervisors who would be responsible for replacing the current paper-based filing system with an electronic one. Three expressed support for moving to an e-filing system. Two cautioned about cost. Only one pledged to bring it up during budget talks in June.
“Everything’s a tradeoff,” said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a good-government advocacy group. “I can tell you that having meaningful and fast access to detailed information about campaign finance is something that I think voters would assign a high priority to.”
There is a local model in place.
Ten miles down state Route 163 at the San Diego City Clerk’s Office, candidates for office don’t even come in. They push “send” and their reports are filed with the clerk, ready for public review and examination. They’re also available as bulk downloads of data, readily analyzable by anyone with a computer.
The city pays a vendor, NetFile, $63,580 a year to make these reports available to voters. It was a priority for the City Clerk’s Office.
“The previous city clerk — he was all about access and improving access and that’s something that I’ve carried on with,” said San Diego City Clerk Liz Maland.
The city’s system was what inewsource accessed to bring you our searchable database of contributions during the recent mayor’s race.
If the city hadn’t made the bulk data available to download, inewsource would not have been able to deliver daily updates on the campaigns’ finances to the public.
Tracking the payback
Why is it important to have campaign finance information easily available?
“Politicians, like it or not, are extremely susceptible to the influence wielded by well-organized and issue-focused special interest groups,” said Scheer. “Voters care about that and they need to be able to take it into account when assessing the performance of a candidate on the issues that they care about.”
San Diegans are no stranger to campaign finance scandals.
Multiple local politicians are under scrutiny for allegedly receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions from a Mexican businessman.
Related: How to uncover a scandal from your couch.
In the recently concluded mayor’s race, allies of Democrat David Alvarez and Republican Kevin Faulconer pointed to their opponent’s sources of funding to argue that he was beholden to special interests.
Ben Katz, political director of Open San Diego, said the information in campaign disclosure reports must be available for bulk data download if it is to be useful.
“Having these as PDFs that are not particularly searchable, not particularly usable, not only impacts the public’s right to know but also impacts the ability of investigative reporters, of prosecutors to do the kind of investigation that’s needed to uncover malfeasance,” said Katz.
But it’s not just useful for investigating possible crime or following the money trail during an election. Politics is a transactional business. Long after a race has been decided, journalists, good government groups and ordinary citizens can match databases of political donations with databases of businesses receiving government contracts or of highly paid government employees to look for payback.
“Having it available in a digital file format or something other than a PDF format allows for analysis of the information and comparison of the information to other data that somebody may have,” said Scheer.
Scheer points to MapLight, a nonpartisan research organization that uses such data to compare campaign donations with politicians’ voting habits.
Briefly, here is how the systems in the city and county differ:
First, the county’s process is not automatic, as is the city’s e-filing system.
County staff must manually scan, redact and upload an image of the documents they receive. So, there’s a slight delay in posting the reports to the web.
With the city’s system, e-filed reports are automatically redacted and posted to the website immediately.
Second, the county’s system doesn’t allow the data in these reports to be downloaded in machine-readable format. The city’s does.
Using spreadsheet programs such as Microsoft Excel or even more powerful database software, individuals can easily search, sort, filter and otherwise analyze vast amounts of data on political contributions in real time, giving the public information on where politicians’ money is coming from.
“TurboTax for political campaigns”
And it’s not just advocates for the public who want to see the county move to an e-filing system. Professional treasurers — whose customers are politicians — are avowed supporters of switching to electronic filing.
“We took an official position on it — God knows — two, three, four years ago,” said David Gould, president of the California Political Treasurers Association.
Gould said that “100 percent” of the campaigns his organization’s membership work on use software internally to record donations and expenditures.
He said the benefits are obvious.
“It can help you correct your mistakes if you don’t altogether know what you’re doing. It puts things in the right place. It’s a database. It’s organizable, OK?,” said Gould. “You make a mistake on paper, you gotta redo it again. This way, you don’t. You ever want to make a change — make an amendment? OK, whatever you want to do, it’s very easy to do.”
San Diego County Registrar of Voters Michael Vu said that even if the county switched to an e-filing system, it would have to allow some filers who don’t raise a lot of money to continue filing on paper.
“A person could opt to still provide the hard copy, which if they did then we would be going down this path of managing two processes,” said Vu, who’s been registrar since December 2012.
State law requires that jurisdictions allow candidates who raise and spend less than $1,000 in a calendar year to file on paper. The city of San Diego allows candidates raising less than $10,000 to file on paper.
Open San Diego’s Katz, who in 1999 founded the company CompleteCampaigns to provide campaign management software, said modern software is so simple that even most small campaigns are probably using software with built-in e-filing capabilities to keep track of fundraising and spending.
“There’s software out there that’s essentially TurboTax for political campaigns,” Katz said.
Options for e-filing
The county has options.
Mariposa-based NetFile is at the moment the sole vendor in the state of California offering municipalities and counties a system to accept electronically filed campaign disclosure reports.
The company was founded in 1998 and initially focused solely on developing campaign management software for internal use by campaigns. It began developing systems for use by local governments in the early 2000s and inked its first contract with a California filing agency — the county of Santa Clara — in 2003.
The history of e-filing in San Diego
Since that time, the company’s client list has grown to include 55 California cities and counties. In addition to the city of San Diego — which signed on with NetFile in October 2004 — the company also provides a combination of e-file systems for campaign disclosures and statements of economic interest to nearby Orange and Riverside counties and the cities of Carlsbad and Oceanside.
“We have never lost a client,” said NetFile President Tom Diebert, who’s quick to note that the annual subscription cost for his clients does not increase over the length of the contract.
That could change soon if San Diego County’s current filing system vendor has its way.
Grant Gyulnazaryan, co-owner of Riverside-based SouthTech Systems Inc., said that the company has been working on adding e-filing capabilities to its software for more than two years and hopes to offer clients the option of upgrading to an e-filing system within the next 90 days.
When asked whether his company intended to compete with NetFile for customers, Gyulnazaryan didn’t hesitate.
“Absolutely,” he said, noting that SouthTech already competed with NetFile in providing local governments with electronic filing systems for politicians’ and officials’ statements of economic interest. He said his company controls 70 percent of that market.
When San Diego County selected SouthTech as its filing vendor in 2010, it asked the company to look into providing e-filing capabilities.
“Originally, when we spoke with Michael [Vu], they wanted to have electronic filing down the line, and we pretty much started working on it a couple of years after that,” Gyulnazaryan said.
Gyulnazaryan said that San Benito County and the city of Long Beach were testing a beta version of the software ,and that “we’re two to three months away from deploying it.”
If that schedule holds, SouthTech could pitch the county on the system before it holds budget hearings in mid-June.
“It’s pretty much ready,” said Gyulnazaryan.
Up to the supervisors
inewsource sought interviews with all five county supervisors — the elected officials responsible for allocating the funds required to purchase such a system — but none agreed.
In a written statement issued in response to a series of emailed questions, District 3 Supervisor Dave Roberts said he supported replacing the county registrar of voters current, paper-based filing system with an electronic filing system.
“If the process is not put in place, I will address this issue during our budget hearings in June,” his statement read in part.
District 1 Supervisor Greg Cox also signaled support for moving to an electronic filing system but wrote: “We don’t have a specific cost yet from our current vendors on the upgrade they are working on.”
When asked by inewsource for an estimate as to what a new contract for San Diego County might cost, Gyulnazaryan suggested it would be “probably twice as much for them combined,” referring to a system that would allow for paper and electronic filing methods.
The county currently pays SouthTech about $11,000 a year under a contract, Vu said.
District 2 Supervisor Dianne Jacob wrote in a statement that she, too, supported moving to an e-filing system. “It would make it easier for candidates to turn in statements and for the public to sort through the information,” she wrote.
Jacob said she was aware of SouthTech’s efforts to build out an e-filing system and was “anxious to hear about it.”
District 4 Supervisor Ron Roberts was more circumspect about the possibility of a switch to an e-file system, writing in a statement that he wanted to “see an analysis of the startup and ongoing costs, and the corresponding source of taxpayer dollars, before making any commitment.”
The current San Diego County budget is $5 billion.
District 5 Supervisor Bill Horn was similarly non-committal, writing in a statement that supervisors “have a responsibility to the taxpayers to spend their money prudently when investing in new technology as systems can become outdated quickly.”
For Katz, who recalls electronic filing being available for state-level candidates as far back as 1998, the county already has a lot of catching up to do.
“We’re not talking two or three years behind the times,” Katz said. “We’re talking more than a decade.”
inewsource investigative researcher Emily Burns contributed to this report.