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Transparent Democracy
Jamais Cascio, 30 Mar 04

Running a political campaign costs money -- lots of it. But where does that cash come from? Many people may presume that the money is the result of backroom deals and the like, or big donations from big organizations. While some of that is undoubtedlly true, a very large part of a candidates funding comes from individual small donations. For the office of president, an individual may donate no more than $2,000 total to a single candidate. But who's giving that money?

Fundrace tells you. Based on information made available by the Federal Election Commission, Fundrace converts lines of data into colorful maps, breaking down contributions by state, by first 3 digits of the zip code, and by county. The top ten donating cities are broken down even further, with maps showing contributions by address.

Yes, by address. And since the data collected on donations (at least those totalling more than $200 per candidate) include names and addresses, Fundrace lets you run searches on those categories as well. Want to know who in your neighborhood has donated to presidential candidates? Easily done (here is a list of people donating in the vicinity of zip code 20500, the White House). Want to know who Bill Gates gave money to? Or Steve Wozniak? Or George Soros?

As cool as Fundrace is, it only tells part of the story, that of individual donations. For institutional donations, you need to dig through the data at the FEC. Here, for example, is the list of political action committees donating to or spending money on behalf of President Bush (fyi, the first section lists those groups spending money explicitly against Bush; bad information design, FEC!). You can see how the various PACs and organizations spent their money, and even find out who donated to the PACs to begin with. The FEC site includes all candidates running for office, as well as historical data. But no cool maps.

As disconcerting as the easy access to political contribution information may be at first, this is a good development. Transparency is key to combatting corruption; as the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant. And while being able to peek at your neighbor's political leanings is a fun bit of voyeurism, the real value of this information is in pulling the covers back on the financing of political power. Who watches the watchmen? We all do.

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