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Wednesday, December 2, 2009
FOI Toolbox

Research campaign finance stories online

By Joel Campbell

Want to become a pro at investigating campaign finance? No, you don’t have to attend a special class or request large databases of government data. The story can start at your computer. The data of complex campaign contributions has been simplified by several groups. Among the best Web sites for federal elections data is Opensecrets.org.

What follows is a simple process to track expenditures for a member of the U.S. House or Senate.

SEARCH FOR A MEMBER

Once you know who to background, go to Opensecrets.org/politicians and search the database by typing the member’s last name in the search box at the top right of the page. You can then view the politician’s entire career or a single election cycle by clicking on the “career” link or election cycle year.

FIND TOP CONTRIBUTORS

One of the best investigations is to view a recent election cycle. In the election cycle window, you can review Top 5 Contributors and Top 5 Industries that contributed to a campaign. You can click on these summary charts and even go into more expansive lists of contributors.

ASK QUESTIONS

As you investigate any single election cycle, the database will show committee assignments. Are there contributors that correlate with the committee assignments of the senator or representative? If members of Congress have been in office for any amount of time, they usually do. For example, it may come as no surprise that Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who serves on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, receives top contributions from pharmaceutical and health insurance companies. You might jot down a list of five possible questions the information raises in your mind.

Learn about and track campaign finance

-Center for Responsive Politics:

opensecrets.org

-National Institute on Money in State Politics:

followthemoney.org

-Sunlight Foundation:

sunlightfoundation.org

-Federal Election Commission:

fec.gov

DOWNLOAD AND ANALYZE

You can download the contribution data in a few different formats, including comma-separated values for use in an Excel spreadsheet. You might consider looking at the largest contributors and smallest contributors. You may need to investigate different individual or corporate donors to find out their connection to your representative. Such a list of top donors could be a starting story from these records.

REPEAT FOR YOUR STATE LEGISLATURE

Using Followthemoney.org, you can also repeat this process for members of your state legislature. When you land on the Web site’s home page, click on the “My District” button and use the tools to identify and then look at campaign contributions of state legislators. Look for the influence of the state teachers union, labor unions and large groups such as Realtors. Is there any pattern to their contributions?

Once you’re comfortable, try these or similar campaign finance stories:

• Contributors by ZIP code. Profile some of the top campaign contributors to all parties by ZIP code at Opensecrets.org. Who are the largest donors in your area?

• Pay to play. Look for connections between campaign contributors and local government contracts. This search will likely start at city hall or at the county government building.

• Over limit. Did the campaign stay within its limits set on the local, state or federal level?

• Bundling. Did a key contributor have children and other relatives also donate to get around campaign limits?

• 527s. You might remember Swift Boat Veterans ads that campaigned against John Kerry’s presidential bid in 2004. Track such organizations through Opensecrets.org.

• Lobbyists. Find out who are the top lobbyists, by expenditures, in your state through Followthemoney.org or the state office that oversees lobbyists.

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