Our Democracy Un-Spun! #5 - Money in Politics, Part 2

At this phase in the election cycle, political ads are a staple of primetime TV and just about every other sort of commercial communications media. While we're accustomed to hearing the words, "I'm Barack Obama / Mitt Romney and I approve this message," the entities claiming responsibility for ads are often unfamiliar to say the least.

To evaluate claims made in political ads, voters can certainly turn to fact-checking resources but there's a case to be made for recognizing the sources of political advertisements and what biases they bring to the table. In this week's post, we'll consider the mandate for disclosure in political ads and identify ways to determine who put up the money and what they stand for.

The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations mandates the nature of disclaimers in political advertising, while the Federal Election Commission has condensed this information in brochure format. For our purposes, the important lines are these:

In order to give the reader sufficient notice about the person(s) paying for or authorizing a public communication regardless of its medium, the disclaimer notice must be "clear and conspicuous" on the committee's communications, solicitations and response materials. The notice will not be considered to be "clear and conspicuous" if:

  • It is difficult to read or hear; or
  • The notification is placed where it can be easily overlooked.

If the disclaimer is not "clear and conspicuous," and you want to discover who exactly paid for an ad AND you have access to an iPhone or iPad, try the Super PAC App. The brainchild of a journalist and former management consultant, the app allows the appropriately-armed viewer "to hold up her phone to identify the commercial and receive objective, third-party information. The Super PAC App allows the user to rate the ad, while understanding who and how much money is behind the ad, what claims the ad is making, and whether those claims are based on fact."

Want to know more about who, specifically, has donated to a candidate, how much s/he's raised, and how it's been spent? Try Open Secrets. This website is a product of the Center for Responsive Politics "... the nation's premier research group tracking money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy. Nonpartisan, independent and nonprofit, the organization aims to create a more educated voter, an involved citizenry and a more transparent and responsive government." For the 2012 presidential race, information is provided on how much each candidate has raised and spent, sources of funding, top contributors and quality of disclosure. You can also find out about candidates' relationships to bundlers and Super PACs, and search donors by name.

The Federal Election Commission provides searchable campaign finance reports and data on donors of all sorts. You can, among other things, search the disclosure database to determine who is giving to a particular candidate and view/download financial disclosure reports back to 1993.

Last but not least is MapLight, "a nonpartisan research organization [providing] journalists and citizens with transparency tools that connect data on campaign contributions, politicians, legislative votes, industries, companies, and more to show patterns of influence never before possible to see." Check out the video tour to get the most from the site. Among the highlights is The State of Influence: The Five Million Dollar Club, a graphic look at the largest Super PAC contributions, as well as contributions by state.

You'll find more essentials for elections here. If you have questions or want assistance finding reliable information on this or any topic, contact our Reference Services Department on Level 3 of the Central Library by phone at: 720-865-1363 or by email.

New week, more on money in politics!

Written by CJ on September 13, 2012


MapLight on October 16, 2012


Thanks Cathy for using us as a resource. I wanted to lead you to Colorado Voter's Edge, a comprehensive voter guide for Colorado ballot measures. It is run through I-News Network using MapLight's technology and provides summaries, funding information, impacts, endorsements, news reports, campaign advertisements and more.


CathyJ on October 18, 2012


Thank you for the suggestion! We'll work on incorporating it into a later post in this blog series.

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