A Web site that lists political backers is changing the nature of elections.
W hen Angela Alioto stood for mayor in San Francisco's municipal elections in 1995, she managed to raise $146,346 in campaign contributions. Norman Young, owner of Discount Muffler & Brake, donated $500. Another $500 was thrown into the hat by Sal's Pizzeria. Lourdes Hsueh, a plastic surgeon, bankrolled Alioto to the tune of $200.

How do I know all this? Let me direct you to a remarkable Web site - http://www.election. digital.com - where you can see these and another 475 contributors listed by name, organisation, occupation, town and state and, of course, amount donated.

It is here that I discovered that the incumbent mayor and eventual victor in the campaign - former Speaker of the California Legislature Willie Brown - fared rather better than Angela Alioto. Brown managed to raise a total of $2,722,910 from 8,563 contributors, all of whom were restricted to the legal maximum individual donation of $500.

Of course, his roll-call of contributors was rather more illustrious, including as it did the likes of William Paul Getty ("philanthropist"), the Hon Jim Guy Tucker (governor of Arkansas), Coca-Cola Enterprises, AT&T, actors George Segal and George Hamilton, the owner of the St Louis Rams American football team and the chairman of Motown Records.

Each candidate's campaign expenditure is also broken down and listed in detail on the site, with Alioto spending a total of $210,780 to Brown's $2,647,390. It's all part of a movement towards electronic disclosure of electoral finances which is taking root in the US and which could have implications for the UK.

Digital Corporation started the ball rolling by creating a site for the Californian state elections in 1994. The site had the co-operation of the Secretary of State for California, and was, according to its creator, David Jefferson, the grand-daddy of election sites on the Web. It featured information on every candidate, and it had live election returns with an active political map that updated every five minutes. The site had an unprecedented number of visitors - one million in 24 hours on polling day.

What started as an experiment began to snowball. In 1995, Digital took advantage of the fact that San Francisco was one of the only jurisdictions in the world that not only requires campaign finance data to be filed routinely during the campaign but also requires it to be filed electronically. The candidates and their committees have to hand a diskette to the Registrar of Voters to be made available for public scrutiny. And two weeks before the election, the law requires that they hand in a disk every single day.

Working with a non-profit organisation, the California Voter Foundation, Digital created a searchable database on the Web listing the campaign finances of all candidates in the San Francisco election. Mr Jefferson says that there has been a 25-year campaign in the US for financial disclosure but that since the success of the San Francisco site, the pressure is now for electronic disclosure.

"Since we put up the site, Hawaii has required candidates to file electronically and the state of Washington will soon follow suit," says Mr Jefferson. A bill covering California "almost made it" while the Federal Election Commission is lobbying Congress to make electronic disclosure mandatory at a federal level.

Digital's Palo Alto team went on to create an interactive site for the November presidential election that allowed people to register applause and boos - in real-time - during live debates between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole.

The parties viewed the whole experiment with some dismay because, for once, they actually had no control. Their hugely expensive spin merchants were powerless to intervene. But as far as David Jefferson is concerned, the genie is out of the bottle.

In Britain, of course, we have some way to go. Tory policy, according to Central Office, is to remain stum. In their words: "Individuals should be free to give money as they like without it being disclosed and there are no plans to do otherwise."

Labour policy is to disclose all single donations to the party over pounds 5,000 and anybody can see the list by ordering a copy of the National Executive Report priced pounds 6.50 from John Smith House in Walworth Road. A spokesman added: "We believe the whole issue of party funding should be referred to the Nolan commission." Should Nolan decide the time is ripe for electronic disclosure, David Jefferson will be ready. "When they see the light," he urges, "have them call usn"


Drop in at the Independent '97 election Web site this evening from 7pm to 9pm and join John Rentoul, an 'Independent' journalist and author of a biography of Tony Blair, in a debate about the Labour leader and his personal positions on the policies that matter.