The following is an April 2001 memo sent by the California Voter Foundation to the Secretary of State's Political Reform Division regarding CAL-ACCESS, California's campaign finance filing and disclosure system, and how it can be improved to allow for easier navigation and better access to online records.

April 3, 2001
To:   Caren Daniels-Meade, Political Reform Division
California Secretary of State
From:   Kim Alexander and Saskia Mills, California Voter Foundation,
Re:   CAL-ACCESS improvements,

Thank you for inviting public input and suggestions for how to improve California's one year-old CAL-ACCESS online campaign finance disclosure system. We appreciate the hard work the Secretary of State's staff has already put into this important system, and have some additional suggestions to create a truly user-friendly, state-of-the-art Internet disclosure program. Below is a list of the ten suggestions for improvements to CAL-ACCESS.

1. Improve searching ability by creating a relational database. Currently CAL-ACCESS only allows users to search records within a given filer's reports. What everyone has been hoping and waiting for is a relational database, similar to the one that the Secretary of State created in 1998 with the voluntary electronic filings. A relational database would allow users to search across all filings, and not just within the records of one filer.

2. Cross-reference information from different divisions online. Online information from the Elections Division and the Political Reform Division needs to be better cross-referenced. It should be possible, for example, for a user to visit the Secretary of State's Ballot Initiative Update page and find links to the campaign finance disclosure reports for proposition committees' electronic filings in CAL-ACCESS; or, similarly for a user to visit CAL-ACCESS to look for a candidate's disclosure report and find that report cross-referenced to any information on that candidate provided online by the Elections Division.

3. Change link colors after they are followed. When a person is using CAL-ACCESS, they are often reviewing several filings at the same time. It is difficult to keep track of files that you have already viewed because the followed links don't change color. By changing your web site programming to show followed links in a different color you will greatly aid a user's research efforts.

4. Add more fields to html display of contribution data. Currently the html display does not include a donor's occupation or employer information, or their city, state or zip code. Many users may not know that this information is required to be disclosed and is contained in the PDF files. All fields included in the disclosure reports should be included in the HTML display.

5. Export function -- the site currently offers only limited exporting functions. The exporting function is crucial for doing large-scale sorting and analysis of contribution and expenditure data. Currently the only data available to export is campaign contributions as they appear in HTML on CAL-ACCESS. Once exported, the data does not include the fields that are omitted from the HTML display (see suggestion #4). The export function is also difficult to find because it is only accessible by clicking on the "search contributions received" link, and then only at the bottom of the page. The export function does work very well, and should be expanded to include data from all fields and all schedules.

6. Browse function -- the site allows for browsing, but, like the exporting function is not obvious to the user because it is accessible by clicking on the "search contributions received" link. One easy way to advance suggestions #5 and #6 is to change the text of the header "search contributions received" to instead say "search, browse or download contributions received".

7. Expenditure data -- expenditures were originally accessible via the name and ID number search; now, however, when you are looking at a particular committee's records, the only two options (besides downloading a PDF file) are to "search contributions received" or "search contributions/independent expenditures made". The expenditures need to be accessible at this level of CAL-ACCESS again.

8. Fix PDF files so that attached notes will print. Currently if a PDF file includes a note, that note displays in Adobe Acrobat online, but does not print out, leading to confusion and errors.

9. Design the site with the low-end user in mind. The site works well for people with expertise in campaign finance research, but for new users or just curious citizens it is very confusing to use. The site assumes too much of the user; many people don't know what the disclosure laws are and are unfamiliar with the intricacies of our state's disclosure process. A user's guide needs to be created to help the public fully utilize the disclosure data.

10. Integrate the site with the main state site. Earlier this year the Governor spent $2 million to build a new web site and search engine for the State of California's official web site at Initially, the site did not find CAL-ACCESS when searched by terms such as "campaign contributions" "political donations", "money in politics", etc. It should be assumed that the public does not know which state agency is responsible for disclosure reports; a curious citizen is most likely to start looking for this data through the official state site. The California Voter Foundation brought this problem to the attention of both the Secretary of State's and Governor's staff. The state search engine now turns up CAL-ACCESS if you search "campaign contributions", but other similar search terms do not lead you to CAL-ACCESS. Ideally, not only would all search terms related to politics and money take a user to CAL-ACCESS from, but the state search engine would also return disclosure reports if a user searched the state site by any name, company or entity with reports housed at CAL-ACCESS.

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This page was first published on June 19, 2001 | Last updated on June 19, 2001
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