In February 2011, California State Assemblyman Charles Calderon introduced Assembly Bill 1158, which would permit payday lenders—suppliers of short-term, high-interest loans typically secured against a borrower’s next paycheck—to make advances of $500, up from the previous cap of $300. Payday loan recipients often put themselves in a financially precarious position; the prospect of larger loans, at interest rates topping 400 percent, threatens to trap borrowers in vicious cycles of debt.
Two months after Calderon introduced the bill, Californians were alerted to an interesting fact: The assembly’s single largest recipient of campaign donations from payday loan companies was none other than Calderon, who took $31,450 between 2003 and 2011. His brother, California State Senator Ron Calderon, received $50,000, more than any other state legislator. Correlation isn’t causation, and it’s hard to tell for sure whether campaign donations really purchase political decisions—but this particular correlation stank.
“Don’t Let Payday Lending Outfits Buy a Bad Bill,” opined The Sacramento Bee, the state capital’s newspaper. The Bee was one of several dozen publications to decry the predatory proposal and its industry-sponsored sponsor. AB 1158 did not pass.
Providing the funding figures that hastened the bill’s undoing was MapLight, a nonpartisan watchdog group founded in 2005 by Dan Newman, a computer programmer and frustrated political activist. Thanks to coding chops, media canniness, and research know-how, MapLight has become an important and popular source of US political information, fusing multiple data streams about campaign and other contributions into analyses that once would have taken hours or days to assemble. MapLight’s reports reach millions through the news media, and thousands of people use the organization’s tools to conduct their own research. This is accomplished with a staff of 12 employees on a budget that many Silicon Valley startups would consider a rounding error.
“We’re in a new Internet era for nonprofit groups,” Newman says. “In the last three weeks, with the California primary, we were cited in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Twenty years ago, a 12-person group couldn’t have had that type of reach.”
Connecting Citizens to Legislation
Early in the millennium, Newman’s full-time job was at a software company that translated speech into text. Political activism was a hobby, and one with which he soon grew disillusioned. “I noticed how much money was affecting and distorting political issues, but it wasn’t covered very much in the news and people didn’t talk about it very much,” Newman recalls. In 2004, he campaigned for a ballot measure to bring public financing to political campaigns in Berkeley, Calif., a left-leaning city that might be expected to support any populist measure. The measure was solidly defeated.
To Newman, the loss demonstrated the average citizen’s disconnect from political realities. Public financing was a solution, but people didn’t even appreciate the problem. “Most people had no idea how much money is corrupting our political system,” Newman says. He also realized that although some people see money in politics as a crucial issue, it is not one with which they are emotionally engaged. MapLight was designed to make the underlying issue of money in politics emotional.
Newman’s epiphany came at a fortunate moment. The ubiquity of computers and high-speed Internet access, combined with the digital access to information, enabled citizen demands for government transparency. Sites like Govtrack.us, launched in 2004 to provide comprehensive, user-friendly tracking of legislation, hinted at what would soon become a movement.
Newman co-founded TakeBackCA.org, a database that tracked where politicians got their money and cross-indexed it with their voting records. Within an hour of state congressional votes, Californians could see how their representatives voted and where. It was heavy going—California didn’t yet put lawmaker votes on the Internet, so interns had to code the information manually—but it hinted at what would be possible two years later, when TakeBackCA.org relaunched as MapLight.
In its new incarnation, MapLight draws on multiple sources: Legislative records from Govtrack.us; donations and industry classifications from the Center for Responsive Politics; and its own research team for tracking which companies, organizations, and interest groups support or oppose congressional bills. These sources feed MapLight’s database, which correlates political donations and a politician’s vote and analyzes funding alignments on both sides of a bill.
“If it gives constituents a chance to see what the relationships are, that’s an important check on the interests seeking influence,” says Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. But Krumholz also has concerns: The “broad brush” correlations MapLight draws make it easy to infer corruption where none exists, she says.
In a similar vein, Joshua Tauberer—the architect of Govtrack.us—lauds MapLight’s technical competency, but thinks it presents an oversimplified view of money’s role in politics, blurring correlation and causation. “They correlate the campaign contributions of left-leaning organizations with left-leaning members of Congress. You see, to no surprise, votes correlated with money. In that situation, there’s clearly no reason to think there’s a causal link. People give money to candidates who are roughly in line with their views,” Tauberer says.
Newman acknowledges the criticism of causal links, but thinks ambiguity is preferable to opacity. “Although these data could theoretically be misused or misinterpreted, the risks from a lack of transparency are far greater,” he says.
Data for Accountability
Anyone can use MapLight’s tools: citizens, journalists, and activist groups like the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). CREW compared the 2010 fundraising of senior House committee members with their 1998 totals and found that donations from committee-regulated industries grew nearly three times faster than donations from parties outside the legislators’ newfound influence.
“One of the themes throughout our organization is the combination of technological and research expertise,” Newman says. “How do you combine it so it gives insights? And how do you present the data so it’s meaningful? We combine the technical work with what it means.”
In addition to developing its own reports, MapLight answers organizational requests. The nonprofit Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), for example, asked for help on a campaign protecting homeowners from abusive foreclosures. ACCE was frustrated by financial industry links to state legislators who killed a first round of proposed protections in committee, and decided to focus on those influences. MapLight staff helped research and draft several reports, and on July 2, 2012, state legislators passed the Homeowner Bill of Rights. “A lot went into the bill, but one key piece was taking the gloves off around the issue of money and politics,” says ACCE executive director Amy Schur.
MapLight also is responding to the 24-hour news cycle. When the nonprofit started, staff posted voting analyses one day after votes occurred. That’s been shaved to an hour, sometimes less, so journalists can use MapLight’s information immediately. “We have information on votes when it’s current and in the same news cycle,” says DeAnna Dalton, MapLight’s advancement director.
Yet MapLight’s impact is tricky to measure. Even if a bill is defeated or a politician pushed from office, it’s difficult to isolate the role a piece of public information played. MapLight calculates its success by the number of people it reaches. In 2009, Newman says, MapLight reached 16 million people; in 2011, that number had jumped to 55 million, the estimated audience of some 1,500 news reports that cited MapLight data. Audience-at-a-distance is a somewhat fuzzy number, but its tripling is impressive, especially because in that time MapLight’s budget increased from only $705,000 to $917,000.
Two-thirds of MapLight’s budget comes from 18 foundation grants. The roster includes the Rockefeller Family Fund, the James Irvine Foundation, and the Sunlight Foundation, another transparency watchdog whose $200,000 grant in 2007 was crucial to MapLight’s establishment. The other third comes mostly from individual donors. About 80 percent of the budget goes to pay staff.
MapLight’s research has limitations. Most obviously, it can work only with the data to which it has access; many data sets are difficult to acquire, if not outright hidden. Congressional voice votes aren’t officially recorded; congressional committee hearing times, voting records, and transcripts are often hard to find; lawmakers don’t have to disclose meetings with lobbyists; and the White House visitor log is inconsistently kept and released in non-searchable electronic image formats, as are campaign contributions to senators.
For MapLight, filling these gaps is the organization’s great challenge. Ultimately, Newman envisions a database that will visually represent whole networks of influence relationships. “The ultimate influence database is what the Internet was built for,” he says. Building that database will cost an estimated $5 million.
In the short term, MapLight’s goals are more prosaic: expanding during the election cycle to cover ballot measures in six states. It will provide the technical platform, Newman says, but local citizens will collect the data with MapLight training, when needed. Eventually, MapLight plans to provide services in all 25 states with ballot measures.
“We’ve seen leaps and bounds of improvement in finding products online, and in purchasing products online with one click, but there hasn’t been the same financial investment in technology to hold government accountable,” says Newman. “There are maybe thousands of tech startups that each have as much resources as the entire government accountability field. Yet the field is doing tremendous work with those limited resources.”