Bipartisanism Bytes – A Digital Outcry for Transparency in Outside Political Spending

ProPublica’s “Free The Files” Map. (Screengrab from 10/18/12)

It speaks volumes about our the state of bipartisan politics when a Green Party presidential candidate is arrested outside of a debate , peacefully attempting to enter the building where two main candidates were answering cherrypicked questions and arguing about who’s pension is bigger. Not to mention the fact that a majority of the Presidential Debate Commission is chaired by corporate lobbyists and funded by wealthy corporations. Yes, every next election year it becomes more and more apparent just how much money talks.

As I watched Obama and Romney jab at each other’s policies in each debate, each time my twitter feed (as it so commonly is during election events) was flooded with quirky responses, jokes, and general knee-jerk tweets geared toward both candidates’ monologues. But amongst a sea of puns and bad memes, there swam several journalistic groups who trickled bits of noteworthy information on the election, and more specifically, campaign finances. From their mobile phones and computers, these groups have slowly helped shape the way weary voters looked at the campaigns this year. Turning to a more constructive way of conveying the information being dispersed, they’ve sought to unearth both the facts and the flow of cash beneath the bipartisan rhetoric.

Back in late September, non-profit investigative journalism site Propublica announced their election outside spending project, “Free the Files“, geared towards compiling specific data from recently released FCC political ad buyer files:

This summer, the Federal Communications Commission ordered TV stations to pull back the curtain a bit, requiring them to publish online detailed records of political ad buys. Before, these records were only available by visiting stations in person, an issue ProPublica spotlighted in our Free The Files coverage. So far the new rule only covers the top 50 markets, and it’s impossible to search these files by candidate or political group—meaning it’s impossible to get a full picture of the spending.

We want to change that.

The project has been quite a successful case of crowdsourcing. Promoted across social media platforms, the moderators encouraged anyone interested in following the trail of outside campaign money to contribute to the cause by simply copying required information presented in the files they chose to a simple interface on the same page and submitting them when finished. Only a few blanks to fill in, ending with the click of a button, and voilà.

The Layout of a File’s Page from Propublica’s “Free The Files” Project.

As of November 3rd, 8,846 files have been ‘freed’ (out of the total 22,800), totaling to $516 million so far. The trove of data that has been revealed has revealed that the top committee buying ads was Obama For America, with a 1,045 ads purchased for a grand total $94.1 million. The Committee that placed second was Romney For President, with 353 ads purchased to total $32 million. The data retrieved from the project also paints a geographical picture of where each buyer’s ads were being targeted in the country. It is no surprise that a majority of both of the top two committees’ ads were purchased to be aired in Ohio, arguably the most important swing state. In Cleveland, Akron, and Canton a total $102 million has been logged from ads so far. That’s 19.88% of the current total from all ads logged across the nation.

Keep in mind, this project has been as successful as it is due to the contributions of volunteers; ‘citizen journalists’, twitter users, and political junkies from across the internet. It’s quite impressive how many files certain individuals have logged according to the leaderboard. Having participated in in the data crunching myself, I thought the leaderbaord was a great concept for encouraging friendly competition geared towards exposing the money flow.

Besides ProPublica, there are other important examples of investigative journalism geared towards exposing influence behind the campaigns. The Sunlight Foundation is another nonprofit, nonpartisan organization pushing for government transparency which has been educating the general public during this year’s election with their ‘Dark Money’ and other ‘Track the Influence’ projects

OpenSecrets (The Center for Responsive Politics) has been doing their part during the elections, piling up data on outside spending and create several well-crafted infographics highlighting the contrast between the candidates and their campaigns.

OpenSecret’s list of top contributing organizations to the Obama and Romney campaigns.

The very same Center for Responsive Politics has predicted that the total spending amount could top a record-breaking $6 billion, setting a record in overall election spending. If it wasn’t clear before now how much outside spending and the creation of Super-PACs has shaped the influence of candidates, it’s become more and more obvious as we near election day.

So why is this information so important? Why should we care where the money is coming from when we know it’s been deemed legal? It is very easy to get bogged down by the harsh realities of plutocratic funding of campaigns, and feel completely helpless. With investigative journalism sifting through piles and piles of data, at least we know who to hold accountable for the funding, which I would argue is a first step in encouraging a more democratically based mode of influence. What it boils down to is that many times when these comittees and donors contribute to a campaign, they are doing so assuming or hoping their needs will be served by the candidate they are pandering to. Through careful analysis of the data presented, these investigative reporters can convey to the general public which organizations are shaping each campaign with a heavy flow of cash.  In other words, they expose to us which side some of the weathiest organizations stand on in the parted sea of red and blue.

Consider donations in this case to be a powerful networking tool for groups to attain a possibly incredibly beneficial ‘relationship’ with a politician or political party. Using this logic, it’s easy to understand why voters and the public in general might want to know just who is monetarily supporting each candidate before they fill out their ballot in the fall. I consider such forementioned investigative journalism groups to be of the utmost importance in terms of progression for a democratic system. The more factual information the citizens of a country are given about outside campaign spending and money trails, the better. Transparency by the people, for the people as a product of non partisan/non for profit groups is truly an exciting venture with a pure nonpartisan intention.

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