-- Since 2000, state-level political committees in Indiana have taken in
nearly $1 billion in contributions to run campaigns and influence elections.
A new reporting project by student journalists in The Media School at
Indiana University raises questions about the quality of official data and
the state’s enforcement of rules and statutory limitations.
under the tutelage of assistant professor Gerry Lanosga examined 16 years of
data available through the Indiana Election Division of the Indiana
secretary of state’s office. They looked at campaign filings for candidates
for the Indiana General Assembly, the governor’s office and other statewide
positions such as state superintendent of public instruction.
“When people talk
about money in politics, they’re usually thinking about national campaigns.
But I’ve been intrigued by the massive amounts of money in state politics
ever since my days as a reporter covering Indiana government,” Lanosga said.
“Jesse Unruh was right to say that money is the mother’s milk of politics.
Here in Indiana, it flows freely thanks to a rather permissive legal
environment. It’s important for people to understand how the system works,
or doesn’t work.”
The students --
James Benedict, Leah Carter, Noah Deitchley, Connor Faul, Paige Ferguson,
Kendall Gilbert, Anne Halliwell, Madison Hogan, Mary Jamerson, Emily Koval,
Xuan Li, Katherine MacDonell, Lindsay Moore, Sarah Panfil, David Pecar,
Shakara Williams and David Wood -- analyzed more than 1.2 million
contribution records available through 2015. Complete state campaign and
spending data for 2016 won’t be available until January.
raise and spend money on political causes in Indiana -- whether they are
candidate committees, political parties or political action committees --
are required to file detailed reports of their fundraising and spending.
“The problem is,
the data is riddled with errors and formatting issues that stand in the way
of a clear and comprehensive picture of money in Indiana politics,” Panfil,
Koval and Faul wrote in one of the reporting project’s five articles. “An
in-depth examination of the data files reveals typographical errors and
other data-entry issues that make it impractical to generate reliable totals
for individual, corporate or political action contributors.
“What’s more, the
state makes little attempt to verify or audit the information provided by
committee filers. As a result, the data raises as many questions as it
answers,” they added.
officials acknowledged the existence of data entry errors. IU student
journalists found numerous instances where information was left blank,
including missing names and addresses. The “dirty data” undermines efforts
to systematically analyze campaign finance records.
“It was shocking
because a lot of the errorsÊwere for the basics, like the donor’s name or
address,” said Benedict, a senior from Katy, Texas. “It showed how few
resources there must be keeping people accountable for their political
spending. If they can’t even ensure every contribution has a name, how am I
supposed to trust them to find other violations of the law?
"I hope the quality
of the data improves so that more organizations can quickly analyze the
dataset,” Benedict added. “If records are required by the law, then those
records should be accurate.”
Under state law,
corporate contributions are capped at $22,000 annually, but students
identified several ways that companies can get around the limit. While
Indiana’s online campaign finance database contains contributions dating to
2000, the state did not begin tracking according to donor type until 2011.
Students found that
10,000 companies have made contributions to state political candidates and
committees. From 2011 to 2015, corporations made nearly $19 million in
contributions are unlimited under Indiana law, much of the action revolves
around political action committees. Jim Walton, son of Wal-Mart founder Sam
Walton, made the largest contribution in 2012 to the American Federation for
Children Action Fund, a conservative PAC that advocates for school choice
voucher programs. Walton and the Action Fund heavily supported former
Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett.
out-of-state organizations commonly helped influence Indiana elections. The
Washington-based Republican Governors Association was the largest
contributor -- twice -- with contributions of $725,000 to former Gov. Mitch
Daniels in 2008 and $400,000 to the Indiana Republican State Committee in
Students found that
from 2000 through 2015, candidates spent more than $315 million on
campaigns, with the largest amount -- $137.5 million -- going toward
advertising. Other major expenses include $66.5 million on operations, $63.7
million on contributions to other committees and $12.2 million on
Li, Pecar, Williams
and Wood found that oversight over campaign fundraising and spending largely
is left up to the public.
election division recognizes the importance of oversight, it doesn’t have
enough workers to parse the troves of data that it receives in minute
detail. As a result, there are no routine audits, so the onus is mostly on
the public to find and report any lapses or discrepancies found in the
data,” they wrote.
“I would like to
see more transparency and governmental oversight in our state’s campaign
finance structure. I hope that candidates will be compelled to submit more
complete records on how they’re taking in money and what that money is going
toward,” said Pecar, a senior from Carmel, Ind., when asked what the
students hoped to accomplish.
Students said the
reporting project complements the education they are receiving at The Media
School, including how to leverage open government laws to access information
that should be available to the public.