Jeremy Carbaugh and Caitlin Mac Neal also contributed to this feature.
April 23, 2013 Update: The map below and the data available for download on data.influenceexplorer.com have been updated to reflect the most recent filings with DC’s Office of Campaign Finance. When this post originally ran, Anita Bonds’ campaign finance filings weren’t available online yet. Bonds’ filings pushed the total reported amount raised for the DC special election to $590,000. That money came from a total of 28 states.
Bonds still leads in the total amount raised. She also still far surpasses all other candidates in the number of corporate contributors at 54. She actually more than doubled the amount of corporate contributors to her campaign between the March 10th filing deadline when she reported money from 24 corporations and the April 15th deadline.
As residents of the nation’s capital prepare to vote next week to fill a vacant at-large seat on Washington’s City Council, here at the Sunlight Foundation we’re marking the occasion by providing a sneak preview of the latest data we’re adding to Influence Explorer —District of Columbia campaign finance records.
We’re still working to complete the process, but this project will eventually fully incorporate DC data into a national database, allowing users to include money that big spenders drop in the municipal elections into the influence profile of an individual or an entity.
Early returns suggest that might yield some interesting results. While the federal district that is home to Congress, the Supreme Court and the president may have second class status in the nation’s electoral system—DC residents have no voting representative in either the House or Senate —it turns out that local elections attract plenty of outside interest in the form of cash.
Over the last two years, money from 47 other states has poured into DC municipal contests, raising intriguing questions about what interest contributors from as far away as California might have in races where the debate centers around issues such as parking restrictions, charter schools and creating dog parks. Our analysis shows that contributions from outside DC made up 30 percent of the funding used to fuel local political campaigns.
Outside interests in the D.C. Council race
So far, this year’s special election has attracted donations from residents and corporations in 27 states in addition to the District of Columbia. As of April 15, when candidates were required to disclose their final campaign finance reports before the election, candidates reported raising more than $500,000 in campaign contributions from all over the country. And that number is sure to grow because the race’s front runner, Democrat Anita Bonds, is the only candidate running that didn’t file her report electronically. That makes it impossible to include her records in an electronic database without laborious hand-entry, raising another barrier to any pre-election analysis. As of today, April 17, her pre-election report still wasn’t available online.
Still, an analysis using data.influenceexplorer.com by the Sunlight Foundation revealed that Bonds, has so far reported receiving money directly from 24 corporations, more than anyone else in the race. She’s also the only candidate still in the race to report receiving any money from a union. A local branch of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) —SEIU Local 722 —gave Bonds the maximum allowed to contribute to candidates in special elections, $1,000. (Michael Brown reported receiving money from two labor interests, but he dropped out of the race in March.)
Bonds is not new to the D.C. government scene and has been scrutinized by a number of journalists and bloggers who cover the district’s politics. She’s the incumbent in the race, having been appointed the interim at-large council member last November by the D.C. State Democratic Committee, an organization she also chaired. Bonds is currently the corporate relations director for Fort Myer Construction, a company that has contracts with the city. So far, Bonds’ employer has contributed $1,000 to her campaign.
In March, the Washington Post reported on Bonds’ campaign finance records highlighting that the majority of her funds had come in the form of $1,000 checks from companies that do construction and road paving and the people that work for those companies.
Suggestions for improvement
In order for the Post to do its analysis, reporters there made use of the PDF files (essentially, images of paper documents) available on the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance website that contain employer information for contributors. To make DC data part of the Influence Explorer dataset (and to avoid the inevitable errors that come with hand entry), we took advantage of electronic files that the Office of Campaign Finance makes available for download. Unfortunately, this data lacks some basic information —including names of the candidates affiliated with campaign committees and employer information for contributors.
While we were thrilled to find that DC provides electronically downloadable campaign finance files, the data is not all that helpful if it’s incomplete. Not having all of the information on the PDFs in a downloadable format makes it much harder to analyze the dataset and to identify contributors correctly and to determine how much of a candidate’s funds come from a particular interest group.
Sunlight did its best to complete the picture. Before adding the data to Influence Explorer, Sunlight had to add fields for the names of the candidates, the seats they are seeking , as well as their party affiliations. We were not able to fill in the blanks for the seats candidates running prior to this year’s special election were seeking. Unless that data was made available by the DC government, that column may not always be filled in.
There have been efforts by others to make D.C. campaign data more accessible. Washington Times reporter, Luke Rosiak, a former Sunlighter, has scraped the district’s campaign finance website in an attempt to put information about contributors’ employers online.