Have you ever wondered who is giving money to candidates for office in Utah, but found yourself frustrated with the complexity of searching public records? A local watchdog group is launching a free online system that aims to make tracking money as easy as a couple of clicks.
“Searching for specific donations to candidates, elected officials, or political parties can be like searching for a needle in a haystack,” says Maryann Martindale, the executive director of Alliance for a Better UTAH, the group launching the new system. “Our hope is that this will spread the haystack out in a searchable format.”
All of the information contained in the new database, which has over 127,000 rows of data, can already be found on the Lieutenant Governor’s elections website. But as anyone who has used the site before will tell you, wading through the data can be a difficult task. Financial reports are arranged by candidates, and then broken out into convention races, primary races, and general elections.
With the Alliance’s new program, called “Utah Disclosures Search,” every bit of data available since 2007 has been fed into the system, which will allow anyone to search by donor, PAC, corporation, candidate or elected official. Instead of having to search each race individually, the new search program will let users search for all donations given by a donor, corporation or pac, or for all donations received by a specific candidate or political party. The results can then be downloaded by the user as a CSV file. When new reports are published by the Lieutenant Governor during elections, the Alliance says they’ll have the new numbers into their database within 24 to 48 hours.
“What we’re providing is easy access to the raw data,” says Martindale. “Once you’ve pulled the report you want, you can use the CSV file to filter it by out-of-state donors, total donations given, or anything else you’re trying to find.”
The Alliance tells us that they started building the system back in January of 2013, after reports about the Attorney General John Swallow scandals started to surface. “If we’ve learned anything from this mess with [Attorney General] Swallow,” Martindale continued, “it’s that people need to have easy access to see who is giving money to candidates and elected officials. [The Utah Disclosures Search] can be used by anyone from researchers, to bloggers, to reporters, to general citizens. We’re hoping for full transparency.”
A special demonstration of the tool, given to Utah Political Capitol and other media outlets on Wednesday, showed a quick and easy to use system, but one that may still require a bit of savvy to use. Many donors, corporations or PACs spell their names different ways on donation forms. For example, while most of us think of “Energy Solutions” as two words, on donation forms they’re listed as “EnergySolutions.” “The data is only as good as what is reported,” says Martindale.
We did find it to be a very simple program though, and a trial search showed us within a matter of moments that former chair of the Utah Republican Party, Thomas Wright, has donated $4,250 to Republican candidates in the last 5 years, while Utah Democratic Party chairman, Jim Dabakis, has donated $5,710 to Democratic candidates in the same time period.
The Alliance says their hope is that this kind of easy access for the public, revealing who is giving election money to who, will shed more light on the elections process. The free-to-the-public software is currently being beta tested by members of the media and researchers, and the Alliance says they plan on introducing it to both the Utah Republican and Democratic Parties before it is scheduled to launch to the public in early July of this year.