Cal Access Replacement Project Scrutinized at Oversight Hearing

By Published On: December 2, 2022

A quarter of a century has passed since California passed the Online Disclosure Act in 1997, requiring elected officials, candidates for public office, and committees that support or oppose a candidate to file campaign and lobbying statements via an online disclosure program.

Right in time for its primary election in 2000, the state unveiled The California Automated Lobbying and Campaign Contribution and Expenditure Search System (CAL-ACCESS).

While CAL-ACCESS was developed in accordance with the Online Disclosure Act, the system has run into a number of pitfalls since it was implemented, including a month-long outage in 2011 and various compatibility errors. 

Former Secretary of State Alex Padilla once called CAL-ACCESS a “Frankenstein monster” of code. 

“We’re doing our best with duct tape and rubber bands,” Padilla said at a Senate hearing on campaign finance in 2015. “We need a new Cal Access. No more band-aids, no more glossy polish. We need a complete rebuild of the system.”

In 2016, Legislature passed SB 1349, requiring the Secretary of State to replace CAL-ACCESS with the CAL-ACCESS Replacement System (CARS), but the development of CARS has been delayed via extensions and terminated vendor contracts. By June 2021, CDT ran a six-month assessment of CARS and found that the project needed to be restarted. 

“It was a system that was not going to work,” Secretary of State Shirley Weber told CalMatters in October. “And no one could tell me why, and no one could tell me when, and no one could tell me what the problem was. So I had to hire an outside person to come in and give us information on the project.”

Planning on the CARS restart (through the Project Approval Lifecycle process) began in July 2022 and has been appropriated $11.3 million in the 2022-23 Budget Act.

On Nov. 29, the California State Senate held an oversight hearing on the CAL-ACCESS Replacement System, discussing the overhaul of CARS and best practices moving forward. 

According to Secretary of State Weber, CARS suffered from issues regarding data migration, a high number of testing defects, and negative feedback from the user community. 

“When we looked at the data and I met with all those that were involved with the project, it was clear there was not a person who was in defense of the system,” Weber said at the oversight hearing. “It became clear to me that there was no confidence in the readiness to launch the system. I could have done the politically correct thing and launched the system and blamed everybody else for its failures, but I thought California deserved better.” 

Weber noted that there were structural issues internally within SOS, citing challenges within personnel itself, particularly in IT services and management. 

Just as critically, Weber reported that the CDT assessment found that CARS has been built on software programs and platforms that are no longer supported by “any vendors.”

“The system cannot be upgraded to meet the modern demands of the current campaign finance and lobbying reporting environment,” reads the assessment.

The inability to upgrade CARS’ platform led to performance issues, slowdowns, and decreases in efficiency. 

Laurel Brodzinsky represented California Common Cause, which has long engaged with the development of the system, speaking from the perspective of an advocate that relies on tools like CAL-ACCESS to monitor government ethics.

“SOS interaction with [California Common Cause] diminished after a vendor for the rebuild was chosen in 2018.” Brodzinsky said. “Transparency, compliance, and accountability are all diminished because of an outdated system which results in decreased trust with government and diminished civic engagement.”

Brodzinsky stressed that the main objective of CARS should be to increase transparency and to inform voters of the big money interests behind each candidate.

To accomplish that, CARS has to be easily digestible and requires an intuitive interface for the public. 

Ultimately, CARS must serve as a tool for the public that will maintain trust and transparency with its elected officials and candidates. With that in mind, time is always of the essence. 

Brodzisnky closed with emphasis: “It’s time to get CARS up and running.”

For the Secretary of State, the pressure of expedience and thoroughness must be balanced in the system’s restart.

Watch the complete hearing below:

About the Author: Will Keys

Will Keys writes about technology issues for the GovReport. He is a graduate of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. He can be reached at will at govreport.org