Election day is Nov. 4. Do you know where your candidates' money came from? And where it's going? It's actually quite easy to find out, and it just might make a difference in how you vote, says journalism professor Brant Houston, who holds the Knight chair in investigative and enterprise reporting at Illinois, and has written guides on computer-assisted reporting. He's also teaching a "Following the Money" community course this fall through the university's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Houston spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
So before we talk about how easy it is to look up candidates' funds, what's the benefit? After all, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless if you're not among the big donors. And that's even before we consider all the anonymous "dark money" now flooding into elections.
Looking up campaign funds can give you a good idea not only of who is giving money to the candidate, but also what the candidate will really do when elected to office. Money often equals influence. So seeing the money allows you to compare and contrast candidate campaign statements with where their money is coming from.
While some may feel a bit overwhelmed or powerless when it comes to federal elections, voters can feel they have more influence over state and local elections. Knowing contributions and spending can help voters make more-informed decisions.
Also, voters can see which organizations are supplying the dark money - donations from unidentified contributors - and which candidates are accepting it.
After the election, citizens should remember to check donations for the winning candidates and compare them with the candidates' legislative votes and actions. It's a good way to see what kind influence the big donors may have.
Considering that many of us don't feel very tech savvy, how do we go about it?
The trick is to just get started. Once you see where to start on a website - such as this state contributions Web page - you can learn quickly to do the searches on contributions and expenditures by simply putting the name of a candidate who represents you into a search box.
Both the Illinois State Board of Elections (elections.il.gov) and the Federal Election Commission (fec.gov) websites have many good tutorials. I've also developed a quick tutorial for using the state board website.
And there are several excellent nonpartisan, nonprofit websites that not only have the data, but also summarize it and write about it. They include OpenSecrets.org and FollowTheMoney.org, the latter specifically for money in state politics.
What can we learn that you think might surprise people, especially in Illinois, with its reputation for corruption?
I think people will still be shocked by the amount of money pouring into state and local elections and the loopholes in contribution limits that still exist after the campaign finance reform legislation in 2009. Donors still can throw millions of dollars into the governor's race if one of the candidates donates $250,000 to their own campaign, for example. Also, it's still possible through the dark money organizations for donors and campaigns to keep the identities of donors hidden, both in state and national elections.
What information do we need access to that we don't currently have? And what improvements would you like to see in the way we can access information?
We now have access to much of the information and data we need. What we need are better tools to look at the possible influence of all this money.
For example, we need an analysis widget comparing state and local campaign finances with legislation, showing how close the date of a contribution is to the date of a vote by that candidate on a particular piece of legislation. That has been developed for federal data at MapLight.org, but not for state or local data.
We also need to end the "dark money" - the legal money laundering going on in campaign finance, where a donor can contribute to a nonprofit that then contributes to a candidate or political committee. Currently, these so-called social welfare and association nonprofits don't have to disclose their donors - so it's a way for donors to keep hidden their identity and their intended influence.