Q. I constantly see in the paper about how much money the candidates are raising and from whom. Do I have to be an investigative reporter to uncover this information or is it readily available to the general public?
The bad news is that the need for billions of dollars in campaign money is perverting and undermining the very nature of democracy. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that we cannot significantly curb this debilitating dynamic. The good news is that we can readily watch it happen. It’s easy to find out how much a candidate or committee or party has raised and from whom.
Campaign finance laws require federal candidates (those running for President or U.S. Congress) to file periodic reports on their fundraising and spending activities with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC). Political parties and political action committees must also file reports with the FEC. This is public information and is accessible.
Instructions about how to obtain information from the FEC is available online here. Although there’s a nominal charge for any documents that may need to be photocopied and sent to you, any information you obtain online is free. Most people find what they’re looking for online.
Visit the FEC web site at Campaign Finance Reports and view the actual reports filed. You can find financial reports of political action committees, political parties and the candidates themselves.
Or download the periodically updated financial summaries for use with spreadsheets and other software programs at downloadable databases.
Campaign and political committees have to collect information about every contributor, no matter how small the contribution, including address, employer and occupation. However, committees ordinarily don’t have to make small contributors’ names available. Therefore only larger contributors are in the searchable databases. For 1977 to 1988, contributions of $500 or more were entered into the FEC searchable database. For 1989 to the present, contributions of $200 or more are included.
You can also look up campaign finance information for state and local elections. Unfortunately, not every state has searchable online databases available. To find out what’s available in your state, visit the FEC’s Combined Federal/State Disclosure and Election Directory by clicking here. Once there, select your state. Each state’s page lists several offices; find the one in charge of campaign finance.
If you need help in understanding how to make sense of the raw data, several not-for-profit organizations, such as the Center for Responsive Politics, can be helpful. Its web site, Open Secrets provides information broken out by individual candidate with a great deal of other campaign finance-related information. It’s an easy site to quickly see the comparative fundraising levels of the candidates.
The Campaign Finance Information Center, a site run by investigative journalists, is another group that has put together a helpful, linked list of research and advocacy organizations at the national and state level.