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Spotlight on CVF

Innovator redefines California's politics on Net

Philanthropy News Network, September 3, 1999

By John T. Moore

Sacramento, Calif. -- When Kim Alexander was 11 years old, she learned one of the most important lessons in her life from her father, who was running for reelection to the Culver City, Calif., town council.

A stranger came to their home and offered her dad a $500 contribution to his reelection campaign. The young girl, who was with her father when the man arrived at their home, didn't understand why her dad refused to take the donation.

"I don't know that man," he explained to her. "I don't want to owe him anything."

The younger Alexander quickly realized what a shame it was that good people like her father never ran for higher political office.

"We don't get the best people, we get the best fundraisers," says Alexander, the 33-year-old president and founder of the California Voter Foundation (CVF).

CVF is a nonprofit that uses technology and the Internet to keep track of California political campaign finance records and improve voter education.

Alexander, a 1988 graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara with a degree in political science and philosophy, took over the then-defunct California Voter Foundation in 1994 from the California Secretary of State's office.

CVF was originally set up in 1989 to do extracurricular voter registration activities. Not being funded with state money, the organization brought in a total of $25,000 before Alexander took the helm. The group had become a burden and was out of compliance with its original guidelines.

"Some would say I rescued it and revitalized it with one mission: to advance new technologies to improve democracy," Alexander says.

Thomas C. Layton, executive director of the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation in San Francisco, agrees. CVF has received about $100,000 in grants from the regional foundation, which supports nonprofits in such fields as the arts, environment, population, reproductive rights and citizen participation.

Layton describes Alexander as a visionary who does her work "with tremendous leadership qualities and without tremendous egotism."

Those qualities led to CVF's publishing its first non-partisan voter guide in 1994. Using the Internet as the publication's medium was an attempt to get more people participating in the political process. It attempted to take away the excuse that voting in the state was difficult because the ballots were too confusing.

In 1994, the Web site was one of only six election-related sites in the country. Even though the concept was in its infancy, CVF had 36,000 page retrievals for the guide -- mostly from universities.

In the 1996 general election CVF had 200,000 page retrievals over a five-week period. That number jumped to 450,000 for the same five-week period in 1998.

"We're making political intelligence available to everyone," she says. "I think it's nothing short of revolutionary."

It's a revolution that has spread to Colorado, where Rich Braunstein founded the Citizens Institute for Voter Information in Colorado. CIVIC is a nonprofit modeled after CVF that offers voters information on Colorado ballot issues and campaign finance.

Braunstein, executive director of the foundation, became frustrated when trying to get information for his Ph.D. thesis on the Colorado and California ballot process. The difficulty in retrieving information made him realize that something had to be done in Colorado.

Luckily, he says, he had a model to work from and the executive director of that model was willing to help him form his organization. Through a series of phone conversations during 1998, Alexander gave Braunstein pointers about creating a budget for the nonprofit, getting grant money, and carving out a mission.

Braunstein calls Alexander an innovator and says that Alexander not only taught him how to build such an organization, but she motivated him to make a commitment to CIVIC.

"I feel a debt of gratitude to her," Braunstein says. "And, in a way, the folks of Colorado owe her a debt of gratitude also."

Braunstein learned from Alexander's experiences from the beginning of CVF. For the first year and a half, Alexander operated CVF out of her house. To her, the idea was still very experimental and tentative. When she took over the organization, Alexander was 28, debt-free and dedicated to the job.

But it was soon time to get more serious. It was after 1996 that she decided to take the lead and help shape the Internet into a tool that would improve democracy in California.

Alexander first linked technology and politics when she researched the role of money in California politics for the citizens lobbying group California Common Cause. She researched campaign finance and used computerized spreadsheets to sort the statistics she collected. Without the computer, Alexander says she wouldn't have been able to compute the information as easily as she did.

It was in Alexander's pre-cyberspace days that her background in campaign finance research came together with her intolerance for the way the personal disclosure system worked in California.

Citizens like Alexander who wanted to research financial records of a candidate's relied on a "jumble of papers." There was too much guesswork involved in sorting out the facts and figures on those papers, she says, causing inaccuracies in researching them.

That's why Alexander supported Senate Bill 49, which mandates electronic filing of, and Internet access to, California political disclosure records. The bill, signed into law in October 1997, will be implemented next year.

Alexander says the new law will make it easier for citizens to see the politicians who are accepting campaign contributions in exchange for their vote on a certain bill that comes before them while in office.

"Everyone always says,"Follow the money'" Alexander says, "and soon Californians will be able to do just that.

Alexander realizes that the new law will not end political corruption, but says it will open up the political process in a way that has never been done before. She uses a principal from a physics book as a metaphor: the Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle, which says that a watched object will change its behavior just because it is being watched.

Throughout the 10 years Alexander has worked in politics, she has seen how easily political corruption can turn voters and advocate groups into cynics of the political system. But Alexander, describing herself as an optimist, says that if she ever found herself becoming cynical over politics, she would get out of it.

"Cynicism is a poison," she says. "I've seen a lot of people working for the public good who create self fulfilling prophecies and fail to recognize the power of positive thinking."

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