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Understanding the Ins and Outs of Campaign Financing
Posted On June 12, 2018
It's a good time to think about key resources available to help find, compare, and understand the laws, regulations, and trends concerning campaign financing at the state level. Each state has enacted its own rules about campaign financing, and there is an amazing variety of restrictions. Add to that the changes that take place over the years to address new issues, court cases, and federal directions.

A new and truly revolutionary tool, CFI’s (The Campaign Finance Institute) Historical Database of State Campaign Finance Laws, is an excellent example of OA information presented using state-of-the-art technology and graphics that make it easily accessible to any interested researcher. It has value for those—citizens, scholars, lawyers, legislators, and lobbyists—who need to know comparative or historical information on state laws.

Bringing Complex Laws and Court Rulings Down to Earth

“Money thwarts governance,” said Gene Ward, a former senior advisor at USAID, at a symposium sponsored by the Brookings Institution. “If we really care about democracy, we’ve got to follow the money.” That was in 2004. Today, we have a variety of tools and organizations dedicated to shining a light on current practices—with the goal of making elections fair and free in the U.S.

In 1757, George Washington, at the age of 25, entered into his first candidacy for public office. The campaign had two other candidates seeking a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses, at least one of whom was accused of buying and distributing more than a quart of rum, beer, and hard cider per voter in order to win. Washington lost that year. Attempts to influence voters have been an issue in the U.S. government at all levels throughout our history.

Efforts to control or restrain campaign and political contributions by corporations or wealthy donors go back to Theodore Roosevelt’s attempt at reform laws, which led to the 1907 Tillman Act. (It was largely ignored.) This was soon followed by the 1910 Federal Corrupt Practices Act, the 1935 Hatch Act, the 1943 Smith-Connally Act, the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, and so on. Researching at the federal level is complex; however, state-level legislation offers many challenges too. CFI’s new database represents a major advance for helping all people better understand the precedents, procedures, do’s, and don’ts of campaign funding in clear terms.

A Tour of the CFI Historical Database of State Campaign Finance Laws

CFI defines its database as “structured to handle queries from the simplest to the most complex” for state laws on campaign financing from 1996 to the present. The information is presented visually on a map of the states as well as graphically, and all data is available for downloading. The laws are divided into four categories across the top of the page: Contribution Limits, Other Restrictions, Disclosure, and Public Financing. Each of these brings up a category of interest. Under Public Financing, for example, a Question category is presented that allows you to see information by state for Type of Public Financing for legislative positions, governorships, state parties, or refund or tax credit for contributions. Selecting any of these will bring up a map showing which states support which options (using color-coding for amount or limits). There is also an infographic that displays the results comparatively.

At this point, you have the option to download specific segments of data or the entire dataset for that question area. You can also download the entire dataset and codebook so you can do your own data manipulation. According to CFI, “[T]here are more than 500 variables of data for each state [every] two years. In addition to more of the details about contributions, disclosure and public financing, the full database also has one for legal definitions and another to identify the state agencies responsible for administering the law. And sprinkled throughout the five sections are full citations to the laws that were in effect in any given year.”

This is a tool that has broad application for K–12 schools and colleges as well as for the public. It is an excellent example of the growing movement toward transparency in the U.S. and beyond.

More Great Sources for Government Information

Bringing key information into the public discourse has become the mantra of the open data movement, and many political action committees (PACs) and nonprofits have also created incredible sources of information:

  • The Center for Responsive Politics’ Organization Profiles—Provides information on “20,000 organizations … including the 100 biggest givers in federal-level politics since 1989”
  • The Center for Responsive Politics’ Lobbying Database—Allows users to search federal sources “by name for a company, lobbying firm or individual lobbyist; search for the total spending by a particular industry; view the interests that lobbied a particular government agency; or search for lobbying on a general issue or specific piece of legislation”
  • The Center for Responsive Politics’ Political Action Committees—“[L]ists campaign contributions by PACs and donations to PACs, broken down by sector, industry and unique PAC … during the current or last two election cycles”
  • MapLight’s Contribution Search—Allows you to “find campaign contributions to candidates for the United States president or Congress”
  • National Institute on Money in Politics’—Offers “comprehensive campaign-donor, lobbyist, and other information from government disclosure agencies nationwide”
  • Stanford Libraries’ Database on Ideology, Money in Politics, and Elections (DIME)—Allows users to study “campaign finance and ideology in American politics. [It was] developed as part of the project on Ideology in the Political Marketplace, which is an on-going effort to perform a comprehensive ideological mapping of political elites, interest groups, and donors using the common-space CFscore scaling methodology …”
  • The Federal Election Committee’s (FEC) Campaign Finance Data—Provides  information on “how candidates and committees raise and spend money in federal elections [that] helps voters make informed decisions”

Of the People, by the People, for the People

“Over the past several decades,” Beth Rowan writes at, “political campaigns in the U.S. have become increasingly costly and unsavory.” However, we are now providing information that has never been as easily made available before. “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people,” noted Thomas Jefferson. “They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” Today we are seeing more and more easily accessible sources of information and data that should be critical resources for everyone. CFI’s Historical Database of State Campaign Finance Laws is a great example of the power of the internet to inform, challenge, and perhaps bring change.

Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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