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The Future of Voting in California

Public Hearing of the Fair Political Practices Commission’s Subcommittee on the Political Reform Act & Internet Political Activity

Testimony of Kim Alexander, President & Founder
California Voter Foundation,
March 17, 2010
428 J Street, 8th Floor, Sacramento, CA


Good morning, and thank you for inviting me to participate in today’s hearing.

I am Kim Alexander, President & Founder of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization advancing the responsible use of technology to improve the democratic process, online at

Since 1994 CVF has worked on public policy issues located at the place where technology and democracy intersect. We have focused on electronic filing and online disclosure to help voters follow the money in campaigns and elections; we provide voters with online access to reliable, nonpartisan election information; and CVF worked to ensure electronic ballots are audited and backed up with a voter-verified paper trail.

We have also conducted studies of California’s infrequent voters and nonvoters to determine what keeps them from participating and how those barriers could be removed; and we have examined voter registration data-gathering and dissemination practices in all fifty states.

One thing I have learned over the years of working in the area of democracy and technology is that government very rarely keeps pace with technological innovation. The federal government awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to states to purchase new voting equipment before standards were in place to ensure that equipment’s reliable performance. Counties are using electronic signature verification technology to process absentee ballots because nothing in law prevents them from doing so, but at the same time refuse to accept petition signatures collected on iPhones because nothing in law permits them to do so.

So first and foremost, I would like to congratulate the Fair Political Practices Commission for its forward thinking, and for convening this hearing at all. And not just now, but also ten years ago, when this agency gathered some very smart, thoughtful people together to figure out what our state should do, if anything, to regulate political practices on the Internet.

When I think of political practices online, I think about what the founders of the Internet envisioned this technology could create. They had a very egalitarian, inclusive view of the world and hoped the Internet would democratize politics, enable more people to participate more effectively, help raise the public’s voice, balance out the imbalances between big money and grassroots. I would say that while the Internet is probably a lot more “dot com” than what they imagined, it is still a place where a true grassroots cause can take off like wildfire, and where someone can put a creative, low-budget video together and post it on Youtube and get millions of views.

It’s important that whatever happens with the Internet and politics in the future, creativity is not stifled. You don’t want to create a situation where every time anyone opens his mouth he has to form a political committee and attach an ID number.

What we want to avoid on the Internet is anonymous paid political speech. Anyone can open a Twitter account, and mouth off all day long about someone who is running for office. And they should be free to do that, unless the person doing it is being paid by someone – then the twittering moves from “free speech” to “paid speech”.

California’s approach to balancing political speech and disclosure is a good one – we use thresholds. If you spend more than $1,000 you must form a committee. If you put a piece of campaign literature through the U.S. Mail you must truthfully identify yourself. If you give one hundred dollars or more your name, address, occupation and employer will be publicly disclosed.

However, it will not be disclosed online. In California a donor’s street name and number is redacted from the online display at the Secretary of State’s web site. In fact, it appears that California is the only state in the nation that redacts street names and numbers for donors. This is an important element of California’s disclosure system and one that CVF pushed for because we did not want online disclosure to have a chilling effect on the public’s desire to participate in elections as campaign donors.

It would be helpful if the public could be better informed about this redaction process. I also encourage the FPPC to consider implementing a program to more aggressively monitor and fine campaigns that identify donors below the itemized threshold. Too often I find donations for $99 displayed on the Cal-Access disclosure site – and I’m fairly certain that people who are giving $99 are doing so because they want to give the maximum amount possible without having their names disclosed.

I also think it would be helpful if the FPPC could be more forthcoming on its web site about what anonymous free speech rights the public is entitled to in campaigns. These rights need to be clearly spelled out, so that people know how closely they can walk up to the line of having to identify themselves without crossing it.

Whether voters are able to track any campaign message back to its original funding source depends on what time of year they try to look. It may surprise you to know this, but if you’re looking in January or February, it is nearly impossible to find out where the money to fund an initiatiave while it is in circulation is coming from. The initiative committees are still outside the “90-day-before-an-election” 10-day disclosure rule. Making all disclosure more instantaneous would be a huge improvement, but that alone would not be enough. You also need a resource that lines up initiatives in circulation with actual names of ballot measure committees. Otherwise the voter has no idea where to look – the measure is not yet qualified and no number has been assigned. This is a serious shortcoming in California’s disclosure process and one I hope the FPPC can work to correct.

Again, thank you for taking the time to consider these issues.




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This page was first published on October 20, 2009 | Last updated on March 17, 2010
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