The state of state and local campaign finance: D.C. primary edition

A picture of the Wilson Buidling in D.C.
The Wilson Building, where the mayor of Washington, D.C. works. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Here in Washington, D.C., we’ve got a touch of election fever since we’re a day out from the April 1 primary elections. If you don’t live here — or in Illinois or Texas — you are going to have to wait at least until May and as late as September in order to witness your own state’s legislative primaries.

So who are you planning to vote for? You mean you don’t know? Why not?

Maybe it’s because your reporters lack access to good data.

If it’s a primary election, you’ve probably read insufficient reportage about it. The fact that primaries receive lower levels of scrutiny than general elections itself produces a sort of catch-22 in that it contributes to the lower level of broad knowledge about primary candidates that produces lower levels of voter interest. With this lower level of voter engagement, primary elections get only a fraction of the turnout that states enjoy during general elections, reinforcing the idea that they are unworthy of closer attention and analysis.

Nonetheless, primary elections are extremely important in jurisdictions with low interparty competition. When one party’s candidate routinely wins the general election, the only real competition — and thus the most significant opportunity for voters to influence the electoral outcome — occurs at the primary election. This is certainly true for D.C., where Democratic mayoral candidate won the last two general elections for the District’s highest office with 74 percent (2010) and 90 percent (2006) of the vote.  

Just as it does in general elections, campaign finance data provides a valuable source of data about primary candidates. It provides a way to understand who has “momentum,” who’s paying for all of those advertisements you’re seeing, and who generally supports which candidates — which is also a way to understand the value an elected candidate might provide to particular economic sectors.

Campaign finance databases critically support reporters’ ability to identify improper relationships as revealed through a history of campaign donations. Washington, D.C. is certainly no stranger to this story. In the past year, WAMU investigated relationships between major campaign donors and the kinds of subsidies that donors’ development projects received from the city, finding that developers who gave the most money to elected city officials were the most likely to receive sweetheart deals. Revelations stemming from good campaign data makes it possible to track problems in real time, rather than having them play out years later with a distance that makes it seem somewhat harmless to brush illegality under the rug. (See, for instance, The Washington Post’s recent argument that even if Mayor Vincent Gray did know about an illegal campaign slush fund in 2010, the fact that District crime is down and the economy improved might mean that official corruption is not be so terrible after all.)

Finally, campaign finance data is important because it can be analyzed with a degree of consistency and objectivity. Being able to track the pace and source of donations over time is necessary for being able to demonstrate trends both in narrative and visual form. Unlike so many other things in politics, we can get reasonable cross-party consensus on what dollar figures have been given to and received by various players, at least once they’re disclosed.

Happily, in response to the problems brought to light by investigations, the D.C. Council made substantial changes to the way that campaign finance information was filed and reported (in line with suggestions made by the Sunlight Foundation, among others.) This has made the DC campaign finance website significantly easier to operate and has enabled better analyses of campaign finance data.

Bulk data from D.C.’s campaign finance site

Whatever may have been true in the past, Washington’s Office of Campaign Finance currently features a website that’s friendly for a variety of forms of inquiry and analysis. If you want to learn about the scale of donations, quickly sort and look for largest single donations or get a sense of contribution collection over time, it is easy to go to their download page and select the parameters of a CSV file for download. You can choose to get both contributions and expenditure filings from campaign committees, exploratory committees or “other political committees.” The collection of all of these databases in the same format, in the same place, allows an observer to continuously track a contributions from an original donor to the candidate, for example by looking to see who contributed to an “other political committee” and then searching for that committee’s donation to the candidate’s campaign committee.

When data is available in CSV form, it is then amenable to all sorts of exploration. For example, I was curious to learn about how the trend in donations related to Councilwoman Muriel Bowser’s late-breaking increase in support. It was the matter of one download and a couple of minutes’ spreadsheet work to visually compare her campaign committee’s receipts against those of her rivals.

One quick inference from this information is that there are three candidates who are collecting significantly more money than the others. I then reduced my focus to Evans, Bowser and Gray.

This second graph, produced through a couple of minutes with D.C.’s campaign finance bulk download, echoes not only the poll findings suggesting Bowser’s late-breaking support but also demonstrates Gray’s continued ability to raise substantial amounts of money very quickly. Several interesting stories could be spun off of an investigation of who was in each of these candidates’ corners.

One always interesting category of donor is the “corporate” category, a contribution source which D.C.’s campaign finance site allows you to search specifically. Corporate donations have represented the surging source of dark money in U.S. elections at all levels since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. Since the last election, D.C. is taking steps to increase disclosure and consistent limits on corporations through closing “the LLC loophole” that has allowed individuals to register as many corporations as they wanted, bypassing both contribution limits and public scrutiny.  This initiative has yet to be fully implemented. When (and if) it is, this regulatory improvement will greatly improve the power of the corporation contribution search function, giving reporters and researchers significantly more accurate data about the flow of money from individual sources to individual targets.

While D.C.’s downloadable campaign finance data has a number of positive features, there are areas where it lags behind what’s available elsewhere. The data fields inexplicably lack the name of the race associated with each candidate, adding an additional step for the dataset’s use in analysis. It would also be valuable for D.C. to include information about contributors’ employers in order to allow analysts to see the full impact of corporate contributions, since some employers may steer their employees to contribute to a preferred candidate.

While not yet perfect, D.C.’s campaign finance website has a number of features that allow reporters and other researchers to access many aspects of campaign finance data in bulk form. Unfortunately, this cannot be said of many states and municipalities nationwide. We know from exploring the landscape of municipal campaign finance data that the accessibility and completeness of this crucial dataset varies greatly. As we get closer to other primary periods, I will explore some of the current national variation in the accessibility of good quality, bulk-downloadable campaign finance data.