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Follow the money in state, local elections

By Kaitlin Washburn

Journalists from the Sunlight Foundation, National Institute on Money in State Politics, and Voice of OC discussed strategies for following the money in state and local elections.

Melissa Yeager, a senior staff writer for the Sunlight Foundation, started by giving specific reasons why state and local coverage is so important:

  • There’s more gridlock at the federal level.

  • When it comes to officials, there’s a bigger impact for less money.

  • Legislation moves faster and better, partly because people aren’t as involved with their local and state representatives.

When it comes to campaign finances, Yeager suggested journalists find out:

  • How much money has been raised?

  • For any significant contribution: Who made it and where are they from?

  • Who has the campaign paid and why?

  • Who has been issued a refund, why, and for how much?

Don’t forget to look into who is getting paid. You can do that by looking at:

  • Payroll documents

  • Spending on advertising

  • Spending on consultants

  • Research on their opposition: “FOIA their FOIAs”

Denise Roth Barber of the National Institute on Money in State Politics then explained how to track down financial information on candidates using the National Institute on Money in State Politics website.

She demonstrated the “Ask Anything” feature, which allows the user to identify key characteristics of both donors and candidates. There’s also a “Score Card” feature that allows users to get more in-depth information on a state and to find out disclosure rules.

From there, David Washburn, editor of Voice of OC, deconstructed three stories about how money greases the political machinery of Orange County politics.

Washburn started with four “need to knows” about how to navigate political money:

You need to know:

  • State and local laws

  • Disclosure forms

  • The custodians of records

  • All offices candidates hold

He detailed how Voice of OC reporter Adam Elmahrek discovered that some members of the Anaheim City Council were receiving large donations from Disneyland in the form of independent expenditures.

Another Voice of OC reporter, Thy Anh Vo, discovered that Orange County Supervisor Janet Nguyen had received many donations from unemployed Vietnamese residents and that many of her donations came from a series of people and businesses all at one home address.

Washburn’s final example was the story of Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer. Voice of OC reporters Nick Gerda and Tracy Wood reported how Spitzer used an obscure Republican Central Committee campaign account as a slush fund for his political activities.


Kaitlin Washburn is an investigative journalism student at the University of Missouri. She is currently a news intern for Voice of OC.

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