Saturday, January 07, 2017 10:01 pm
Dirty data precludes any clean analysis
Connor Faul, Emily Koval and Sarah Panfil
Under Indiana law, any candidate, party committee or political action committee must report its contributions and expenses at least once a year (candidate and party committees must file more frequently during election years). Committees file their financial reports with the Election Division either electronically or on paper.
The key information included in the finance reports consists of full names and addresses of contributors, the amounts of contributions and dates of any contributions greater than $100 ($200 for party committees).
If filed in writing, Election Division staff members or hired data entry companies manually enter the records into the electronic database.
Division co-director Angela Nussmeyer acknowledges the existence of data entry errors, both by those transcribing the data and by the committees that originally submitted it.
While some errors are minor, the lack of audits of the data also means that potential violations go unchecked unless caught by members of the public or political opponents who search through the data.
In reality, most errors and data entry issues simply go unfixed. For instance, numerous records of contributions are blank – missing names, addresses, dates or other important information. This issue is often indicated by transcribers with the notation "data omitted in report."
And the data that is there is far from perfect. Misspellings and misclassifications run rampant. Indianapolis alone has 210 different spellings, from "Indiandpolsi" to "INDPLSI" – in addition to the 193 different states that are cited. Contributor names also lack standardization, and to further complicate things, corporate, PAC and individual names are lumped together in a single field.
In essence, the data is dirty – a term used to describe data that is incomplete, inaccurate or otherwise erroneous. And the defects serve to defeat any efforts to systematically analyze campaign finance data with sophisticated data analysis tools.
"Dirty data prevents you from getting good results," said Joyce Jewell, a lecturer at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.
Even campaign finance experts have trouble deciphering the faulty data.
"We are keenly aware of the problems with (campaign finance) data," said Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics. "Discrepancies are common… (and) make it hard to really analyze anything."
Solutions to some of the problems are relatively simple, according to Jewell. "Formatting the data would prevent the misrepresentations. A simple drop-down list or form could easily solve the problem(s)," she said.
But Indiana’s Election Division has done little to fix the data issues. The division does have an automated mechanism in place to catch instances of corporations contributing more than their legal limit. But that is the only such oversight tool. There are no independent or in-house auditors.
Nussmeyer said she would be open to having auditors, but she has not seen an interest among Indiana legislators to increase the division’s budget to allow for that. The division would have to hire two additional people – a Democrat and a Republican – to maintain required bipartisanship on its staff.
Nussmeyer said the division does the best it can with the laws that are in place. "We have to live within the means were given," she said.
In the absence of official audits, the Election Division relies on members of the public or rival campaigns searching through the data online to find errors or potential violations.
Massachusetts case study
Stricter campaign finance regulation does exist – in other states. Massachusetts, for instance, offers a host of political financing laws enforced by the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
"The office was opened in 1973, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, when the nation was calling for more government transparency," said Jason Tait, director of communications.
Since then, the agency has evolved to be one of the best run in the country in terms of the standards defined by the Center for Public Integrity. The office’s website offers a slew of useful tools for working through the often-cumbersome financial data, including charts, advanced search filters and help videos. Moreover, the data itself is substantially cleaner than Indiana’s.
The Center for Public Integrity gave Massachusetts an A+ for campaign finance, citing meticulous reports and serious penalties for incomplete filings. Those reports that do prompt an internal audit or penalty are also available to the public in an easily searchable format, a transparency measure Indiana lacks. Resolution letters that detail the conclusions of investigations are also public. Further, Massachusetts offers training seminars on campaign finance filing.
In 2012, Massachusetts’ political finance grade from the Center for Public Integrity was a B. The state’s jump to the top in the nation in just four years shows that progress is attainable.
But Barb Berggoetz, a veteran Indiana journalist who wrote the Indiana installment of the Center’s 2015 integrity investigation, believes change will be difficult in Indiana, since the legislature is set up to self-police and there aren’t many campaign finance reform advocacy groups.
In her reporting on Indiana’s campaign finance regulation, she found that even when fines were administered to violators, they didn’t seem to be enough of a deterrent.
"The people who would change it are the ones who benefit," she said.