Washington State’s Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) was established in 1972 when voters passed Initiative 276—the “Washington Public Disclosure Act”—by an overwhelming majority, with 72 percent in favor of the law. Since its creation, the PDC has become a model of how to disseminate campaign finance data to the voting public, hailed by the Campaign Disclosure Project as offering the most accessible and user-friendly database of campaign finance information of any state. The following describes some of the features and services offered by the PDC.
What is the public disclosure database?
Like many other states, Washington makes all campaign contributions and expenditures publicly available in an online database. As with other, similar systems, the PDC’s database allows users to search for contributions to, and expenditures by or on behalf of, candidates using several different search criteria.
What search criteria can be used?
These criteria include searching based on contributors’ names and zip codes, or by the date or dollar amount of the contribution.
Are there other features available to help make the funding of Washington state elections more transparent?
Yes, the PDC also offers a number of features that significantly increase the database’s usefulness to journalists, researchers and members of the public:
- Data grouping and stratification: In addition to listing all filed contributions and expenditures, the PDC allows users to break down the data using several different criteria. For example, its public database of contributions not only lists the total amount raised or spent in all state elections (including referenda), but also allows users to group the data using other variables, such as by contributor type (e.g., individual, PAC, corporate), candidates’ parties, or whether expenditures were made in support of or in opposition to a candidate.
- Data visualization: The PDC’s website can automatically generate data visualizations (such as pie charts and bar graphs) using the information in the database, even enabling users to generate their own charts and graphs based on user-defined parameters. For example, users can generate pie charts to show the breakdown of campaign expenditures in a given election year and further narrow the chart’s dataset to specific candidates, organizations or elected positions. (See Figure 1.)
- Exportability: For many social scientists and other researchers, publicly disclosed campaign finance data can be an invaluable resource for studying the influence of money on campaigns and elections. The PDC’s database integrates buttons that allow users to export the data on their screen into a number of different formats, including PDF and CSV files, the latter of which is compatible with Microsoft Excel and most statistical software packages. By allowing users to export its campaign finance data quickly and efficiently for use in other programs, the PDC enables researchers to organize and analyze the data in greater depth while avoiding the time and cost associated with manual data entry.
- Last-minute contributions: Under Washington law, contributions in excess of $1,000 that occur less than either 7 days (for primary elections) or 21 days (for general elections) prior to the election constitute “last minute contributions” (LMCs). Rather than only listing them alongside other contributions in the database, the PDC separates out LMCs to candidates on a dedicated page in order to increase access to information that is otherwise much more likely to escape scrutiny in the days leading up to an election.
- Widgets: Integrated into the disclosure database are a number of “widgets”—reproducible code that media outlets and private citizens can integrate into their own websites—that detail financial data from a given campaign or election. Using these widgets, journalists, bloggers and other members of the community can quickly and easily include illustrative statistics that update automatically with data from the PDC.
What other reports, summaries and studies are available?
Beyond simply reporting contributions and expenditures, the PDC also prepares and publicizes reports intended to provide a more “holistic” view of the role money plays in state elections:
- “Most Money” journal: The PDC produces and periodically updates a “Most Money” journal, which provides historical context and longitudinal data on the amount of money raised and spent in Washington elections. The journal includes lists detailing (from 1976 onward), among other things, the candidates for state offices who raised and spent the largest amounts of campaign funds, the most expensive state elections and the candidates who have spent the largest and smallest amounts on their campaigns.
- Annual reports: Every fiscal year, the PDC releases an annual report summarizing its activities and the campaign finance-related resources it makes available to the public. This report includes statistical overviews of the year’s campaign spending and fundraising, descriptions of Commission rulemakings and other regulatory actions and summaries of enforcement actions and litigation taken in response to complaints. (See Figure 2.)
- PACronyms: Since official campaign filings and other disclosure data often make use of organizational acronyms and technical terms that are unfamiliar to most members of the public, the PDC publishes and maintains an index of “PACronyms.” This index lists all registered political committees alongside the acronyms with which they are associated in official filings, as well as the full names, addresses and contact information for the PACs themselves.
- Money maps: One of the unique features offered by the PDC is its money maps, which geographically break down contribution totals for gubernatorial and legislative elections, as well as statewide ballot initiatives, and then display the contribution data projected onto a county map of the state. (See Figure 3.) Visual representations of data allow members of the public to quickly discern and understand patterns and trends in data that otherwise may be less apparent.