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Political Payoffs: With Software and Sweat, MapLight Connects Campaign Money to Votes

February 20, 2015
by Glen Martin

It’s hardly news that money has a corrosive effect on the political process. Well, maybe it’s news of the dog-bites-man variety: Your jaw isn’t likely to drop to your clavicle in shock, total shock, when you hear that Senator So-and-So voted to deregulate the highly-polluting widget industry shortly after receiving a hefty campaign contribution from Widget Amalgamated.

Still, you can’t help but feel deeply dispirited when you start drilling down into the details of the current Gilded Age. And for such handiwork, some would say there is no finer drill than MapLight, a Berkeley-based research organization that goes further than simply linking donations to politicians—it also links to their votes on specific pieces of legislation of interest to their benefactors. You can pan out to get a general sense of the influence of cash on a broad legislative agenda, or zoom in to see how your local representative voted on a single bill after receiving money from a particular lobbyist.

Daniel Newman, MapLight’s president and co-founder, received his master’s in psychology from UC Berkeley, where he researched how people think about political issues. He is quick to emphasize that his organization isn’t Wikileaks; every datum the group uses is in the public record.

MapLight president Daniel Newman

“The difference is in the way we present the information,” Newman says. “We use customized open-source software, and then we apply a lot of sweat equity to show the connections between campaign contributions and votes. It makes it easy to see and understand what’s going on.”

Not surprisingly, Newman sometimes hears carping from the politicians and lobbyists he covers.

“The response we often get is that a $4,000 or $5,000 contribution has absolutely no effect on the way a legislator votes,” Newman says. “But we’ve found a striking correlation between votes and money received, and this has held through issue after issue, vote after vote. We demonstrate that money clearly influences votes, and that it also helps elect people who are friendly to specific industries.”

Since its start in 2005, MapLight has collected some noteworthy honors, including the James Madison Freedom of Information Award and a Webby nomination for best political website. Newman himself earned a spot on Fast Company’s list of the 100 Most Creative People in Business, and was named a Civic Innovator of 2014 by the World Affairs Council.

MapLight provides various tools for citizen investigators—most recently a personalized application called Voter’s Edge, whose funders include the James Irvine, Hewlett, Kaphan and Tides foundations and the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund’s Smart Voter donors.

“It provides detailed information on who’s on your local ballot and the money behind them,” says Newman. “It’s turning out to be a very popular tool. During the (2014) election, one out of every 10 California voters used Voter’s Edge. That’s a total of 700,000 unique visitors.”

Moreover, MapLight isn’t just a resource for regular folks who are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore (or at least, don’t want to take it anymore).

“We’re getting more and more calls from journalists seeking data on political influence,” says Newman. “With the decline of financial resources, there are very few newsrooms that have dedicated data teams anymore. It’s sad, but at least we’re filling a need.”

Certainly, the organization’s site burgeons with examples of unseemly (if technically legal) examples of Mammon despoiling our political system, but a few stand out as especially egregious—and one in particular seems to stick in Newman’s craw.

“The bill funding the federal government that President Obama recently signed included a measure written by a Citigroup lobbyist,” he recalls with restrained distaste. “It allows banks to speculate, to make risky investments, using taxpayer-insured funds. And this comes at a time when we’re just digging out of the global recession caused by, yes, banks making risky investments.  Really, it’s the kind of move that’s breathtaking in its brazenness.”

But if our body politic is seriously ill, Newman isn’t ready to send it to hospice just yet.

“There’s some good news,” he says. “Some local jurisdictions are initiating reforms. Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, passed a measure that allows candidates to opt for a ‘small donor’ system. If they restrict their fundraising to small donors, the county will match their take, so they aren’t beholden to wealthy interest groups. We’re seeing similar moves in Maine and Connecticut. We just need to see it with bigger states and on the federal level.”

Newman also singles out University of California president Janet Napolitano for praise.

“When she was elected governor of Arizona, she was the first governor in U.S. history to run without (large donor) private funds,” Newman says. “She ran strictly on contributions from small donors and government funds. One of the first things she did after taking office was create a discount prescription drug program for the state. She later said she couldn’t have done that if she had taken Big Pharma money. And she’s right.”

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