OpenGov Voices: Tracking campaign finance in all 50 states
In mid-December, the National Institute on Money in State Politics (NIMSP) reached another milestone in its quest to provide the public with comprehensive information about campaign finances: It uploaded its 100 millionth record of data to FollowTheMoney.org.
We celebrated … for a few minutes. We then returned to the hard, meticulous work of documenting the role money plays in the elections and public policy processes in the 50 states.
We have a great deal of work ahead before we can achieve the type of transparency envisioned by Chief Justice Roberts in the McCutcheon decision, which states:
Today, given the Internet, disclosure offers much more robust protections against corruption. … Reports and databases are available on the FEC’s Web site almost immediately after they are filed, supplemented by private entities such as OpenSecrets.org and FollowTheMoney.org. Because massive quantities of information can be accessed at the click of a mouse, disclosure is effective to a degree not possible at the time Buckley, or even McConnell, was decided.
Our most recent challenges include:
- Lobbying: NIMSP is compiling information about how much money is spent to influence public policy in the states, but the data is frustratingly incomplete. For instance, only about half the states require reporting even basic information such as how much clients pay lobbyists in compensation. To date, we’ve compiled 2012 and 2013 lobbying money in 14 states, increasing that to 19 states in 2014.
We’ll be launching this data publicly in early 2016. Preliminary figures show special interests spending around $1 billion in the 14 states in 2012 and again in 2013. The amounts spent by those clients are two, three and even four times the amount raised by candidates. Clearly, much work remains to fully capture and understand the role of lobbying in the other 31 states.
- Independent spending: The day after the Citizens United decision, we launched groundbreaking research to understand how express advocacy and electioneering communications are reported in the states. To date, we have documented more than $1 billion in independent spending across the U.S. Figures have been trending upward since 2006 in the 28 states where the information is readily available. Spending from 2006 through 2012 increased by 40 percent to 60 percent, depending on the election cycle. NIMSP is collecting independent spending data in 30 states for the 2013 and 2014 cycle.
The lack of laws requiring the reporting of independent spending in many states, and poorly reported data in others, means a tremendous amount of work remains in the other 22 states before we can fully understand how independent spending is affecting our elections. And that’s not even considering the so-called “secret” money given to 501c organizations for election-related activities.
In concert with work being done by the Sunlight Foundation, the Center for Responsive Politics and others toiling to expand transparency in our democracy, we at NIMSP will build on our Best Practices in Disclosure reports that analyze campaign finances, independent spending and lobbyist disclosure, and we will engage elections and ethics administrators across the country to encourage adoption of 21st Century disclosure technology and procedures.
We appreciate and applaud Justice Roberts’ acknowledgement of the value of our transparency work. But we also know there is no time to rest on our laurels. Much hard work lies ahead if transparency is to help lead our country to a new place in its history, where “of the people, by the people, for the people” rings true.
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