Follow the Money: Do-It-Yourself Reality Check on Pols

Money talks. So it’s important for voters to know how candidates get their money, who gives it to them, and what they do with it.

This information used to be buried in obscure volumes and government reports, but digital databases have changed all that. Anyone with a Web connection and the desire to do a little research can quickly learn just about whatever they want to know about candidates, politicians and money.

One comprehensive source of information is the Center for Responsive Politics. Founded in 1983, it provides a wealth of campaign finance information through its site, OpenSecrets.org. Much of this information comes from the Federal Election Commission, and the Center for Responsive Politics organizes and explains this data for its visitors.

Tracking Donations

“We’re a one-stop shop for money and politics data,” the organization’s communications director, Massey Ritsch, told the E-Commerce Times. “You can’t fully understand what happens in politics unless you understand where the money goes and where it has influences.”

The site is a comprehensive source of information culled from a variety of public record sources. An interested voter can narrow a search by the name of a donor, the name of a recipient, ZIP codes of donors and other filtering devices. The organization tracks donations both from political action committees (PACs) and from individuals.

“We focus a lot of attention on individual money and individual donors,” Ritsch noted. “Some sites limit it to PAC money, but that excludes lawyers, doctors and other individual donors. We take all the individual records and categorize it according to industry.”

Customizable Widgets

OpenSecrets.org has some application programming interfaces for other groups and organizations to access its information, and it is also developing some public APIs that the public can link into. In addition, it has widgets available, such as a cash counter that updates with the cost of an election, as well as customizable widgets that show the amount of money donated by an industry, to a particular candidate or other information.

People can download these widgets and place them on their own sites. It also has a My Open Secrets section on its site, which is customizable by voters who can select what races or industries they want to follow.

The organization originally launched its Web site in the mid-1990s, and in celebration of the group’s 25th anniversary, it unveiled a new site redesign in May. Between 25,000 and 40,000 visitors come to the site every day, and it had 10 million visits last year.

The site gathers information, sorts it and gives visitors easy access to it. “We take this raw information and slice it and dice it,” Ritsch said.

Analyzing the Data

Another site that offers useful information is Project Vote Smart, which, like OpenSecrets.org, takes, sorts and categorizes data from sources like the Federal Election Commission. The site’s information can all be collected from other sources, including from the FEC directly, but it provides helpful context and analysis that citizens can use to analyze the data.

“We think it’s important to set campaign finance data into context,” Adelaide Kimball, senior advisor and board member for Project Vote Smart, told the E-Commerce Times. “We get the campaign finance data, and then we put it side-by-side with their voting records.”

Vote Smart’s site helps citizens see what individuals and industries give candidates and politicians their money, and then gives them an idea of how those donations might have influenced their choices once they’re elected.

“The technology has improved dramatically in terms of what’s available and how it can be used,” Kimball noted. “It used to be that campaign finance information was raw data, but people are most interested in issues. They can go to our Web site, type in issues, and find what they need to know.”

Giving Away Data

One of the ways that governmental agencies and these Web sites are getting their information to the public is through the use of APIs (application programming interfaces). These allow other Web sites — including those run by individuals and news organizations — to create interfaces with databases, thus making them accessible to the public.

“We are giving away our data,” Kimball added. “Many news organizations link to our data.”

Most of these sites focus on federal politicians and candidates, but if you’re interested in researching state politicians, the best place to turn is the Web site of the National Institute on Money and State Politics, which gives people the ability to research campaign contributions, candidates and donors in state politics.

Being Your Own Watchdog

Washington-based Sunlight Foundation has given financial support to the Center for Responsive Politics and many other organizations and sites focused on campaign finance information. The foundation launched in 2006 with the mission of helping fund the digitizing of governmental information.

“Our ultimate goal is to improve relationships between constituents and politicians,” Gabriela Schneider, the Sunlight Foundation’s communication director, told the E-Commerce Times. “There’s a real need and desire by citizens to access this information.

“We’re looking at budgets declining for investigative journalism,” she said. “Now with the rise of citizen journalists and bloggers, citizens can be their own best watchdog.”

In the end, people who turn to these Web sites to research candidates and politicians will need to analyze the data that’s available and make their own decisions about what it means.

“I don’t think people should make their decisions about voting based on what they find at OpenSecrets,” Ritsch commented. “But it’s one source of information. Then you can make your decision at the voting booth.”

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