Matching Money & Votes: California Shows a New Way

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A lot of cars have passed through the intersection since Woody Allen famously dismissed leaving his beloved New York for the California glitz of Los Angeles, “where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light.”

Give it up, Woody. California’s done it again – this time with a new and intriguing web-based template for matching political contributions with legislative votes.

It’s on a new website, launched just yesterday, called MAPLight.org. (The MAP stands for Money And Politics.) The site is the brainchild of Dan Newman, executive director of Take Back California, a campaign finance activist group that created the website as its latest project.

Newman, like almost everyone in the world of money and politics non-profits, had been searching for a long time for a compelling way to illustrate the effects of campaign contributions on votes – in this case, with the California legislature.

He brought together three crucial factors:

  • A breakdown of all campaign contributions to California lawmakers from 2001-2004, categorized by industry and interest group. (The data came from the Institute on Money in State Politics, based in Helena, Montana.)
  • An analysis of all 5,000 bills considered by the California legislature during its 2003-2004 legislative session. Backers and opponents of each bill were identified, and the bills were coded with the same industry-interest group categories as the campaign contributions.
  • An easy-to-use, richly graphic website that highlights the connections between money and votes, and makes do-it-yourself inquiries easy, informative, and inviting.

To ensure that last element, Newman’s group tapped into California’s home-grown expertise. MAPlight’s board members and advisors have got plenty of experience with both commercial and non-profit web ventures. The advisory board also brought in people with deep and thoughtful media experience – like Ben Bagdikian, dean emeritus of the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley.

One of the many innovations on the site is a listing, alongside each lawmaker’s roster of top contributors, that shows how often they voted along with that contributor in matters that came before the legislature. Very cool idea.

Likewise for the interactive timelines that let you see exactly when the money rolled in and how that matches up with the dates of key votes.

The best way to dip your toes in the water of this new resource is to watch the six-minute video tour that takes you through its many features. It’s an exercise I recommend to everyone who’s ever wondered how to illustrate the connection between money and political influence.

When you watch it, keep a notebook handy. I had the sense when I saw it that I was screening a preview of the next generation of money-and-politics reporting. They’ve pioneered a lot of good ideas here that could be built – and should be built – into other websites that explore the same subject.

What’s next for MAPlight? They’re trying to raise funds to extend their research to the current California legislative session – and to extend the experiment to the national level, beginning with California’s delegation in Congress.

That’s an ambitious agenda and I wish them Godspeed. This is one idea – like right turns on red lights – that deserves to spread well beyond the borders of California.

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