IRE/NICAR Tipsheet No. 275

Tips for Using Computers To Track Local Campaign Contributions
By Craig Staats
Oakland Tribune

1. If you are just beginning, starts small. Pick a few candidates and examine their previous campaign finance statements to get a feel for who their long-time supporters are and the size of a typical contribution. Do at least some date entry yourself to get a sense of the ambiguities and problems that will arise.

2. If you're on a tight budget, some spreadsheet programs (Quattro Pro, for example) offer database capabilities—searching, sorting, and querying-and cost less than Paradox, FoxPro and other regular database programs.

3. In designing the structure of a table for campaign contributions, you should begin by including everything your state or locality require of the candidates. Normally, this will be name, address, occupation, employer, date and amount.

4. At this point, think carefully about what else to include. Do you want to group contribution into categories, like law, labor, development, and insurance? Do you want to track PAC money? If so, add fields to do that. Document your decisions, so that everyone involved in data entry and data checking treats the information the same way.

5. No matter what system you use to get information in to the machine, doing the data entry yourself, scanning it, hiring someone to keypunch it or getting the data on disk directly from the candidate—check and double-check the work.

6. Cultivate campaign treasurers. Even at the local level, many candidates, use computer software and sometimes, their treasurers can help you learn about both software and local campaign finance law.

7. Just because a contribution is reported and it's in your computer, that doesn't mean it happened. You should always confirm it by talking to the people involved: the contributor and the campaign.

8. As more cities pass local campaign finance restrictions, more pole will look for ways to subvert them. In your data, look for unusual clusters of contributions. Search by address to see if there are multiple contributions coming from different corporation and individual at one address. Look for large contributions by people in low-paying occupations—fields hands, secretaries, waiters—which can indicate that someone is hiding the true source of campaign money by giving in other people's names.

9. In between elections, keep up with a candidate's filings and fundraising. Look for contributions that occur around the time of key decisions in off-years. You can also use your computerized data to help background individuals for other stories.

Written Resources:

"Money and Politics in the Golden State -- Financing California's Local Elections." A report from the California Commission on Campaign Financing, an independent, non-partisan group. It's a 1989 report, but still good background on the variety of local ordinances and the issues. Bob Stern the commission's co-director and general counsel, is at 310-470-6590 and is a good resource.

"Capital Eye-A Close-Up Look at Money in Politics." A free newsletter produced by the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington D.C. 202-857-0044. Ellen Miller and Larry Makinson at the center are also good sources.

"Open Secrets." An exhaustive guide to PAC contributions to Congress. Available from Congressional Quarterly press. Excerpts on your state's delegation are available from the Center Responsive Politics.

The Federal Election Commission produce a wealth of guides and handouts on their data. One pamphlet is "Your Guide to Research Public Records," which summarizes what is available. Another helpful booklet, "Pacronyms," Lists political action committee acronyms, initials and abbreviations. There also is a separate brochure on the FEC's on-line access program.