Ed Bender moved to Helena twenty-five years ago as a journalist working on water rights. He became interested in campaign financing and started assembling campaign finance data from every state. His efforts grew into followthemoney.org, a non-profit that organizes and disseminates data about political campaign expenditures. In 2015, followthemoney won a MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective institutions.
Each state has its own system of campaign finance reporting. Followthemoney organizes the $3 billion we spend on elections into a free database that illustrates which individuals and organizations are funding what candidates and initiatives. “It’s all interesting to me, but that’s just me.”
Ed gave me a demonstration of how people can navigate their website. One can find direct contributions to electoral candidates, money given to committees, and for specific legislation. “Our next step is to connect contributors to lobbyists. Companies spend six to ten times more money on lobbyists than they do on contributions.” Including lobbyists will link all political monies to their power implications.
Followthemoney has API’s (Application Program Interface), algorithms that illustrate relationship between money and influence. “When our citizenry is more well versed, they will be able to create their own API’s, to find out what they want. The idea of accountability is important. As a reporter, I can go into this data and make a story, many stories.”
“Our biggest problems are: awareness, people have to know this data is available; care, people have to think that it’s important; and bandwidth, we have to give people the capability to analyze the data according to their need. We’re just doing the bandwidth, the easy stuff.”
Followthemoney continues to refine their data. They are working to connect donations to voting patterns and demographics. “Big data houses already do this. We’re doing it for the public. If you get to ask the questions, you pretty much get the answers you want, or you get to table the issue.” That skews our system in the direction of those with money and influence.
How will we live tomorrow?
“The focus of the first fifteen years of this organization has been collecting and logging data. The objective of the next fifteen years is to make sense of it. We can ask questions like, ‘Are term limits good, are campaign contribution limits good, and how do matching funds affect influence?’ We can track the revolving doors of regulated industries like prisons, utilities, and the stock exchange.
“We are approaching this to be an enabler. After Watergate we implemented a series of reforms that were actually pretty good. We have whittled away at them, but they could be strengthened again.”