Following the money in state politics can be overwhelming at best, and impossible at worst.
Fortunately, political reporters, academics and citizens don’t have to start from scratch. Instead, they can search and click their way through 54 million campaign finance records meticulously gathered and filed by Edwin Bender and his team at the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
NIMSP began nearly 25 years ago as a MacArthur-funded one-year project focused on the Northwest states. In that first year, a two-person staff digitized reams of campaign finance reports, which they distributed to reporters via fax and disk. Six years and multiple project extensions later, Bender says they looked at the blossoming Internet and “understood that we had the potential to be a national organization.”
I talked with Bender about the ever-expanding NIMSP, whose data is frequently cited in reporting by nationwide and local media, as well as by grassroots organizers and activists.
Katie Rose Quandt: What’s your strategy for getting data into the hands of people who can use it?
KRQ: What kinds of searches do you see people making on your site?
Bender: It tends to really follow the headlines. Right now, Kate Brown in Oregon, the new governor [appointed after the resignation of Governor John Kitzhaber.] Certainly, [New York State Assembly Speaker] Sheldon Silver got a lot of headlines. The high court races are of interest to a lot of people. Back when Sarah Palin was first announced as a vice presidential candidate, we were the only ones with that data and it just popped to the top.
And there are quite a few people looking at their own districts and their own states. The year before last, when Florida was trying to privatize their prison system, the grassroots organizers, the faith community, they all understood what a boondoggle it was. They were able to use our data and our reports about the business model of privatization of prisons and how that impacts public policy. They were able to take our list, go into committees and say, “Gosh, you got contributions from Corrections Corp of America and you want to give them a contract that will cost taxpayers millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars?”
That’s how the data can empower citizens to confront powerful interests. By looking at incumbents and who supports incumbents, you can pretty much place your bets on how policy is going to come out. It’s just that clear cut.
Quandt: You recently received a grant from the Knight Prototype Fund which helps organizations take “ideas from concept to demo.” What are your plans for the funding?
Bender: What we’re going to do with our prototype is create an upload feature. That’s something we’re had on our agenda for a long time. So when a reporter goes to the Washington State environmental committee and gets a list of major polluters and their board members and executives, they can upload [their names] to our database. It will run against our database and return matches to them. We’re hoping that invigorates a level of investigative reporting and citizen engagement around very specific issues.
Already, when we get a special request from The New York Times or Washington Post, they’ll have a list of people or companies they want to look up and see if there’s a correlation with contributions. We take that data, run it through our system. And they get to then do an analysis: How much went to winners, how much went to incumbents? Did this have an effect on public policy? We’ve been able to do it in-house because we have computer programmers. We’re creating the kind of processes and algorithms that will let the public do that.
Quandt: What else have you been working on?
Bender: We’ve just upgraded the legislative committee analysis tool. It allows you to go to a state and look at your legislature. Who are the legislators and who are the major donors? Next is the list of committees of the legislature, and you can click on a committee and see who gave donations to those committee members.
What we’ve done with this architecture is allow people to go in and really start understanding who is courting the powerful people in their states and who is going to be in the hearing rooms making their arguments, and have they given contributions?
We’re hoping this particular tool will allow people to begin understanding that campaign finances are just a piece of the overall puzzle — the influence puzzle.
Quandt: Are there pieces of the influence puzzle that are still impossible to track?
Bender: At the end of the day it’s about lobbyists. If somebody really wants something done, they’re going to hire a lobbyist and they’re going to spend four, five, six times as much on a lobbyist as they do on campaign finances, and they’re going to get what they want.
In about half the states, lobbyist reporting is so poor that you will really never know how much a company paid their lobbyists. We can tell you they hired lobbyists, but we can’t know how much. So that is a concentration of money that the public can’t see.
We’re working with the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation and trying to figure out a way that we can unlock that to get the data from the 25 states [with weak reporting requirements].
Quandt: Are you constantly adding and incorporating new types of data?
Bender: One of the biggest challenges is that we have so much information. Just getting over that hurdle is incredibly difficult.
We used to say we were the only people crazy enough to do this, and we still are. Fortunately, because we have adopted an agile strategy, each time we do something we make it a little better. We are now so good at processing data that when people come to us and say, “Can you add this data?” we say, “Of course we can.” Adding federal data, it’s a huge undertaking. We’ve been doing it for just over a year. There’s a question, “Can we do FCC data when it becomes available?” I say, “Yes, we can.”
Then when you start talking about the other data — the federal contractors, state contractors, etc. When Obama did the stimulus money, we compared stimulus recipients with our donor files and we saw very little overlap: 99 percent of the time there was no significant correlation. It was validation that there was not very much political influence [in that area].
Quandt: How is your relationship with the government offices you work with?
Bender: The relationships we’re creating with officials in each of the 50 states have value for understanding the practices of disclosure. It’s a very fragmented system. So we began doing best practices reports that we use to work with a group like the Council on Governmental Ethics Laws.
KRQ: Are you optimistic that the next generation will improve government transparency?
EB: Digital natives’ communication and technology skills are being developed in different ways, with different incentives. As they take their place in governing, some will bring new ways of looking at [not just transparency, but also] governing, spending, resource allocation, etc.
The digital natives who get this stuff are going to come in and we’re going to have a 21st-century democracy where the databases talk to each other and they can say, “Oh, these subsidies are going to the wrong place. They’re creating jobs where we already have good jobs. How do we give subsidies to places that don’t have good jobs?”
It’s not rocket science. This is bringing government up to what is a commercial-level data application.
Quandt: Are there any other groups out there doing work that will help our readers follow the money in their states?
Bender: The Center for Public Integrity is what we call “local knowledge at the federal level.” We were modeled after them. We consider ourselves their sister organization. Their ad watch this last cycle did a pretty good job of accessing what’s called CMAC data and correlating political ads and figuring out which candidates they were for, and how much they cost.
Justice at Stake is following both the dark money and the campaign finance and how it plays out in the court system. That is extremely important. If we did nothing else but feed that organization good data on the election of judges, I think that would be worth the investment.
The Brennan Center for Justice is another group that’s doing great work. And the Campaign Legal Center, for people who really want to be on the cutting edge of what’s happening in the political process in disclosure and transparency.