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  • InsideTrack
  • October 05, 2016

    'Tis the Season: Researching Election and Campaign Ads

    No matter how well-financed its advertising, a campaign's success depends entirely on whether voters "buy" what is being "sold" on Election Day. With a little research, voters can become smart shoppers.

    Beth Bland

    Oct. 5, 2016 – When the history of the 2016 election is written, one of the central points is likely to be how little voters knew about the donors who influenced the contests. At the federal level, some groups aren't required to disclose their donors and can spend unlimited amounts on political advertising.1

    So who are these groups running ads on television and radio and filling our mailboxes with literature? Let's do a little research.

    The Federal Elections Commission's Disclosure Portal
    The Federal Elections Commission's (FEC) Disclosure Portal features one-stop shopping for campaign finance data.

    The Hot Topics section is broken out into four subheadings:

    1. Presidential Elections (with finance summaries, statements of candidacy, matching submissions, and "select reports");
    2. House and Senate Elections (with expenditure maps);
    3. Super PACs (expenditures); and
    4. Candidate and Committee Viewer (search for a candidate or committee).

    The Campaign Finance Institute
    The 50 State Policy Interactive Policy Tool "will let you experiment to see how a few changes might alter the balance of money in each of the states." Users choose a state, adjust public matching funds, adjust participation, and use the "no change" button to view options individually or combined. On the state's page, basic campaign finance state law information is available, as well as total contributions to candidates, state government information, and demographics.

    Beth Bland is a tech services librarian at Davis and Kuelthau in Milwaukee. Bland is a current member of the Law Librarians Association of Wisconsin (LLAW), a chapter of the American Association of Law Libraries. LLAW's Public Relations Committee coordinates regular contributions by its members to InsideTrack.

    The Center for Responsive Politics
    The Center for Responsive Politics' Influence and Lobbying page helps users "to learn more about Washington's influence industry and its most powerful players." Six sections are presented, including Industries/Interest Groups, Lobbying, and PACs. In the PACs section, for example, users can search for a committee, contrib​utions by and to them broken out by sector and industry, and view actual documents filed with the FEC.

    Wisconsin Campaign Finance Information Service
    On this site, the public can search for and view filed reports, receipts, expenses, and candidate registrations for different state political offices such as governor, attorney general, and the courts. On the other side of the coin, groups can register their committee, register a conduit (someone who receives, deposits, and disburses a contribution at the direction of the contributor), and report independent expenditures. Links are also available to basic campaign finance information and forms.

    Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
    The website offers a "premier" searchable database of campaign contributions and candidates for state office. Searching is available by a simple or advanced option, such as by individual contributor, specific employer or city/state, or contributions to a specific candidate. In general, records go back to 1993 and in some cases as far back as 1989.

    A campaign is not an election. No matter how well-financed its advertising, a campaign's success depends entirely on whether voters "buy" what is being "sold" on Election Day.2 With a little research, voters can become smart shoppers.


    1 Lee, Chisun and Norden, Lawrence, "The Secret Power Behind Local Elections," New York Times, June 25, 2016 (accessed Sept. 7, 2016).

    2 Laufer, Laurence D., Picture This: Campaign Finance Law and the Question of Values, 43 Seton Hall L. Rev. 1209 (2013).​

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