Steve Grunwell

Open-source contributor, speaker, and coffee snob

A close-up on a stack of US currency

Steal This Idea: Campaign Contribution Visualizer

This post is part of my “Steal This Idea” series: free ideas for anyone to take and run with. Learn more about #StealThisIdea.

In the same vein as my idea for a Social Media Analyzer tool, my interest in politics also brought up another question: why isn’t there an easy way to see who — at a local level — is supporting different candidates?

Legally, political campaigns have to disclose who their donors are. After all, money often buys influence, and an elected officials’ constituents have the right to know for whom their representative might be working.

Naturally, there are all kinds of sneaky ways to get around these rules (search “dark money” for more on that topic), but at the local-level it’s good to know who has the ear of your local representative.

In the state of Ohio, we have a rather simple system where raw campaign contribution data is available for downloading and searching, but there isn’t an easy way to see (for instance) what counties are supporting which candidates.

The Idea

Since the data’s readily available, there’s a lot we can do with it once ingested. We could see which candidates are raising the most money, when the money’s coming in, quantity of donors v. average donation size, and more.

Taking it a step further, what if we created real-time visualizations of the data? By routinely pulling fresh data, we could get a record of where money’s coming from over time, which candidates are receiving donations, and how much they’re raising.

I picture a map of Ohio (or any other state), broken down by county in shades of blue and red. Zooming in on the map, users could see — down to the neighborhood — how different areas are donating.

In the case of Political Action Committees (PACs), the tool could also assemble profiles on them: which candidates are they supporting, who is donating to them, and what interests are they promoting?

Ethical Concerns

Fortunately, this tool has fewer ethical concerns than the Social Media Analyzer; since all of this data is being pulled from publicly-funded, government-maintained sources and the campaigns are legally required to report campaign contributions, the data doesn’t get much more “public record” than this.

That being said, there have been [often unsubstantiated] stories of political donors being harassed for making contributions to certain candidates. While it’s technically public record that your neighbor contributed to <insert candidate here>’s campaign, using that information to attack them isn’t the most neighborly thing (and incidents of doxxing appear to be on the rise).

Conversely, if a local store is donating money to a candidate who is campaigning against my beliefs, I’m perfectly within my rights to not patronize that store. In the same way I won’t eat at Chick-fil-A or shop at Hobby Lobby (“vote with your wallet” and all), I’d want to know if my local grocer is donating to campaigns that go against my values.

A reasonable middle-ground might be to ingest all of the data, but not expose specific names/addresses through the visualizations; let people see how certain neighborhoods have donated, but don’t take it down to the street/lot level.

Since individual businesses are permitted to donate (thanks, Citizen’s United), I’d lean towards their contributions being separated; I’d personally consider it a public service to report on which candidates are receiving political contributions from local businesses.

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