COLORADO—Edwin Bender knows the value of a good follow-the-money story.
Bender is the executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics and its website, named—appropriately enough—Followthemoney.org. He’s also someone with a particular interest in prison-privatization proposals, and a particular suspicion, honed over more than a decade, about the role political donations play in encouraging elected officials to embrace privatization.
So Bender was paying close attention in February, when lawmakers in Florida narrowly killed a controversial, multi-million-dollar bid to privatize state prisons. The bill failed because a group of rogue Republicans defected from a privatization push led by Gov. Rick Scott and state Senate President Mike Haridopolos.
But it also failed in part, Bender believes, because the media followed the money. The Palm Beach Post and The Huffington Post (also here) were among news organizations reporting that private prison companies had poured at least $1.8 million into Florida campaigns, mostly Republican, over the past three election cycles—including $35,000 to Haridopolos and $25,000 to Scott’s inaugural ball in 2011.
Huffington Post writer Chris Kirkham said that shortly before his Feb. 1 article appeared, he read an analysis by the institute documenting campaign contributions during the 2010 cycle. Kirkham contacted Bender, who walked him through the data on the institute’s website. “You could look at contributions by industry, by state, and by election cycle,” said Kirkham. “You could see that Florida had been a real target of donations for the private prison industry.”
While no one suggested a quid pro quo, the story is a textbook illustration of how money buys access to those who set public policy, Bender says. It’s also a good example of how strong coverage of campaign finance can make arcane data compelling and relevant; in this case, the governor and Senate president appeared to be “buying the company line—hook, line and sinker,” Bender said.
And it’s an example, too, of the value of the expansive public-oriented information ecosystem that has emerged to help tackle the money-in-politics story. As campaign finance becomes an ever-trickier minefield of legalese, gray areas, hair-splitting distinctions and moving parts—and as it becomes ever more central to the story of politics—reporters can turn to a wealth of watchdog sites where researchers gather, analyze, and post reams of data about state and federal elected officials.
In addition to Followthemoney.org, these sites include the Center for Responsive Politics’ Opensecrets.org, Maplight.org, and a range of projects sustained by the Sunlight Foundation (which has funded some of CJR’s reporting on transparency). Other valuable resources include Democracy 21, the Campaign Legal Center, and Votesmart.org, which posts lawmakers’ resumes, voting records, and issue positions.
These sites aren’t magic; they can’t expose “dark money” or remake the post-Citizens United, post-super PAC legal landscape. And knowing how to navigate them isn’t a substitute for independent expertise in this area.
But many of the watchdog sites provide valuable original reporting and useful resource guides, along the lines of what appears in accountability-minded news organizations like ProPublica.
And one of these sites’ greatest virtues is that they make campaign-finance data, at both the state and federal levels, readily accessible and easy to work with. Want to know, for example, which Senate race has seen the most spending by outside super PACs to date in this cycle? Click here, and you’ll see it’s Nebraska’s. Click here and you’ll see which groups are doing the spending. By contrast, official government sites are often still clunky enough to frustrate non-expert reporters and deter even interested members of the public.
(A case in point about those official sites: Four weeks ago, I logged onto the Colorado Secretary of State’s campaign finance disclosure website and was thwarted right out the gate. Clicking “User Instructions” landed me at a page that read, “Firefox doesn’t know how to open this address, because the protocol (mms) isn’t associated with any program.” Even my computer-savvy, post-grad son couldn’t help. When I visited the site again in late March, I found several promising features, including “TRACER Home Page Tour” and “Search Complaints,” but none of the links worked. They didn’t work for my son, either. He said the site may only support Internet Explorer, and suggested I call the secretary’s office in the morning.)
As newsrooms around the country set their sights on political money, the data that these sites are gathering—and the expertise behind it—has helped facilitate coverage. According to Bender, reporters from major newspapers across the country—from The New York Times and The Washington Post to The Miami Herald and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution—regularly use Followthemoney.org.