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How can I dig into state campaign finance data?

The key public repository for this information is a database maintained by the Wisconsin Elections Commission. The site allows searches for registrants, reports, receipts and expenditures, among other categories. Different categories work better for different quests. Here are some specific things you can do.

Tally contributions to a given candidate: On the left-hand side of the page, click “View Receipts,” which logs all contributions from all sources and to all recipients. To search for contributions to an individual candidate, change the Filing Period Name to “All Filing Periods” by clicking the arrow, then enter a date range and candidate’s name in the field called “Receiving Registrant.”

Important note: The system tracks campaign committees, not candidates, so when you enter a candidate name in the “Receiving Registrant” field you may have to select from several committees. Generally the top committee is the most current.

Searches can be narrowed by contribution type (individual, self) and by whether they come from out-of-state. If you don’t enter a date range, the system will cull all records going back to mid-2008, when it was created.

Most searches will yield a significant amount of data, so it will make sense to download as a CSV or XLS file, at the bottom of the return page. Then the data can be more readily sorted and analyzed. Here are some examples:

  • Find how much a given donor has contributed:Use the View Receipts page but fill in the fields for contributor name. If no receiving registrant is selected, the search will yield records for all recipients.Note: Searches of this sort can be done much more simply by using the Campaign Finance Database maintained by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. This system even goes back further in time but is a bit less complete, as it only tracks donors who give $100 or more.
  • See how the money is being spent: Navigate to the “View Expenses” page, change the Filing Period Name to “All Filing Periods,” then enter a registrant name and a date range if desired.

Nifty feature: Searches can also be done by Expense Purpose by clicking the drop-down menu in this field. It’s possible to quickly find, for instance, that $5,258,399 was spent on “Media – Radio” in all state races between Jan. 1, 2011 and Dec. 31, 2012. Now you know.

How can I find who is lobbying whom over what?

The state Ethics Commission maintains a database called Eye on Lobbying. The key information categories are arranged in the top bar as “Who Is Lobbying?,” “What Are They Lobbying About?” and “Principal Lobbying Efforts.” The system defaults to the current legislative session but searches can be done back to the 2003-04 session.

As with campaign finance records, the lobbying database is so robust that it helps to give examples of specific searches:

  • Track lobbying efforts by a particular group:Select “Who Is Lobbying?” on the top bar and then “Lobbying Principals” in the menu that comes up on the left. Enter the group name or partial name in the search field and search. For instance, entering the word “National” will yield about a dozen registered lobby groups with this word in their name. Select the group you want and the site will take you to a page for the group from which you can find its registered lobbyists, lobbying interests and lobbying efforts.Note: The field “Lobbying Interests” will indicate all legislation or topic areas on which the group has expressed an interest, and whether the group has taken a position for or against. The field “Lobbying Efforts” will list how many hours the group has reported spending on this topic area, broken down by six-month reporting period.Nifty feature: From the “Lobbying Efforts” field you can select a given six-month “Lobbying Activity Period” and from there select a “Totals and Certification” report that will list time and expenditures for each individual lobbyist.
  • Track the activity of a given lobbyist: Select “Who Is Lobbying?” and select the search function for “Licensed Lobbyists.” For each lobbyist you can find a Profile that includes contact information and a list of represented principals, or clients. Click on a given principal and you can see all of its licensed lobbyists, as well as its lobbying interests and efforts.
  • Track activity on a given bill or interest area: Select “What Are They Lobbying About?” and then search by bill, topic or keyword. Searches of bills will yield information about who has registered an interest, whether they have taken a position, and how much time they’ve spent. Searches for topics will lead to lists of lobbying groups; searches for keywords will lead to bills.
  • Get big-picture information on lobbying activity: Select “Principal Lobbying Efforts” to obtain a complete listing of lobbying activity for each legislative session, arranged by hours and dollars.

How do I find similar information on campaign finance and lobbying in other states?

Check out the list of links to disclosure offices in all 50 states maintained by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

How do I track campaign donations and spending for federal candidates, like U.S. senators and congresspeople?

The most direct and comprehensive source of federal campaign finance data is the Federal Election Commission. One simple way to locate data is by searching the summary reports for candidates, parties or political action committees in various election cycles. There’s a page to search out contributions from individuals. There’s also a handy portal for electronically filed reports, from which you can obtain individual filings from candidates, parties and committees. Plus you can search for FEC data by state.

The Center for Responsive Politics tracks federal campaign contributions by categories including candidate and race. Go to Politicians & Elections and pick a category: Presidential, Congress, etc. Elsewhere on the site you can do donor searches by individual name, state, or employer. The group also classifies contributions by company and business interest.

How can I correlate contributions to votes?

A national nonprofit group called MapLight allows users to search by bills, legislators, interest groups, contributions, companies, or topics, and see how contributions made correlate to votes cast. The groups runs a national website for federal politicians.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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