California Groups Seek to Expand Access to Legislative Records

Californians, do you want to know the voting patterns of your elected officials? Would you like to see whether campaign contributions affected their vote? In this time of economic crisis, global warming, and the wars on terror, it is very important to know where legislators stand on various issues. With a closer look, you may find that what your politician promised is not exactly what he/she did. Or, you could be pleasantly surprised by the voting decisions. Either way, as voting, taxing paying citizens, we all have a right got know how the men and women we elected decide to use their power.

Thanks to various public records Acts and laws, voting records and other information about elected officials are public records. You can typically find anything from contact information, to campaign finance records on politicians. Also, most of this information is available online, making the search that much easier. The Free Public Records Directory actually provides links to various searchable sites by state or records type. However, according to two California non-profits, California’s system of providing bill and voting information is not enough to satisfy the public’s right to easily access information on Legislative voting records. In fact, this week a lawsuit was filed to expand the ease of access to these public records.

These groups would like for the public to be able to easily view records showing connections between campaign contributions and votes. As mentioned, currently, there are public records resources where we can individually look up how a politician voted, or we can look up who contributed to their campaign. The California Legislature provides their own website whereby searches for bills can be performed by session number, bill number, or house. As part of the search results, users can retrieve texts of such bills along with votes, veto messages, history, and status. However, one of the groups responsible for the lawsuit, would like to provide the public with a database which allowed users not only to easily view voting records but also to analyze trends in voting, bill topics, and contributions. With the current text based system, any comparisons or connections would need to be made manually, on your own time, after pulling dozens, maybe even thousands of records.

Apparently, an electronic database of these records already exists; however, the information provided to the public is only in the text format. As such, this lawsuit seeks to have the electronic database released to the public. Yet, it has been argued that according to the California Public Records Act, the Legislature is only required to provide certain records, not necessarily a database. What are your thoughts on the matter? Is it sufficient to be able view the bills, or should the government make it easier for the public to view and analyze their voting patterns? I must agree that while being able to access a specific document is wonderful, its not always super user friendly. Thus, if a database already exists that could make our searches easier, shouldn’t we be allowed to view it?

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