Last updated 5/9/16
Today, we launched our campaign finance news app, which we hope will make it easier for San Diegans to understand who is funding political campaigns in town.
Using data from the San Diego City Clerk’s website, this app allows users to search campaign contributions to San Diego politicians, ballot measures and independent committees. The app is updated every morning.
Academic studies, news stories and common sense tell us that campaign contributions influence politicians. In San Diego, data on campaign contributions has been locked in a user-unfriendly Excel file on the Clerk’s website. While there are worse systems for recording campaign finance data, this meant only the most dogged and tech-literate individuals could make heads or tails of it. Until now.
We have basic instructions on the app’s landing page but in the interest of making it as useful as it can be, here’s a quick guide to finding the information you want. We’ve also written a (relatively) quick primer on campaign finance in San Diego that we hope will help you better understand the results you get as you use the app.
How to use the app
The app allows you to search by the name of the committee receiving the contribution, the name, employer (if applicable) or occupation (if applicable) of the contributor or a combination of terms. By default, the app will sort results by the contribution date, with the latest contribution first. Click on any of the other column headers to sort results by that column. Click on the amount of a contribution for detailed information on that donation.
Contributors are listed as “last name, first name” so if you’re trying to search for someone with a particular first and last name, that’s the way you’ll have to do it. Contributors enter this information themselves and aren’t always consistent in how they enter their names (for example, sometimes including a middle initial and sometimes not) so you’re probably best off just entering the individual’s last name into the search field (especially if she or he has a relatively unique last name).
San Diego’s campaign laws require that candidate-controlled committees (more on these in the next section) include the candidate’s name, office sought and election year so all of those are valid ways to search. For example, if you want to see contributions to all candidates running for city attorney, enter “city attorney” in the committee field and you’ll get all the contributions to city attorney candidates’ candidate-controlled committees.
It’s important to remember that candidate-controlled committees aren’t the only way that money is given to help candidates for office. There are also independent committees — the super PACs of San Diego politics — that can run ads to support or oppose candidates for office (again, more on these in the next section).
Luckily, San Diego’s campaign laws are helpful here, too, because they force such committees, if they’re functioning specifically to support or oppose a candidate or candidates, to include in their name the candidate or candidates they support or oppose.
Not all independent committees trigger that requirement but contributions to those that do will be included in the search results for a particular candidate. For example, typing “Faulconer” gets you both the mayor’s candidate-controlled committee, Faulconer for Mayor 2016, and the independent committee backing him, Communities United for Tomorrow’s Economy.
One last note on searching by candidate names: Sometimes, the committee will only include the candidate’s last name so you might want to leave out the candidate’s first name to make sure you aren’t missing anything.
Finally, this app is updated once every day but campaign finance reports are not all filed regularly.
There are two types of campaign finance reports that list contributions: Form 460 and Form 497. Form 460s are comprehensive reports that list every contribution from a donor who has given a committee at least $100 in a certain election cycle. Form 460s are filed every six months in odd-numbered years and at scheduled deadlines before and after primary and general elections.
Form 497s are more bare-boned but also much more timely. In the 90 days prior to an election (primary or general), a committee must file one within 24 hours of receiving a contribution from a donor who has given at least $1,000 in that election cycle. They are not filed outside of those 90-day windows. In this app, these contributions are described as “90-Day Pre-Election” in the detail tab that pops up when you click on a contribution amount.
How to understand the results you get
There are two main types of committees in San Diego’s campaign ecosystem: candidate-controlled committees and independent committees. Here’s a brief rundown of how they can raise money and what they can do with that money.
- May accept contributions from individuals (and sole proprietorships and personal/family trusts), and political party committees
- Bound by contribution limits
- May make contributions to independent committees
- May make independent expenditures to support ballot measure committees
These are about as plain vanilla as it gets in San Diego politics. Candidate-controlled committees are run by a candidate and function as the primary vehicle for her or his campaign to receive contributions and make expenditures.
Such committees are bound by contribution limits adjusted every other year to keep up with inflation. For individuals (including sole proprietorships), the limits for the 2015-16 election cycle are $1,050 for mayor and city attorney candidates and $550 for city council candidates.
For political parties, the limits for the 2015-16 election cycle are $20,650 for mayor and city attorney candidates and $10,300 for city council candidates. The limits are per contributor, per election and the primary and general elections count as separate votes so an individual could give $1,050 to a mayoral candidate to be used in the primary and another $1,050 to that candidate to be used in the general.
Candidates may accept contributions earmarked for the general election during the primary election campaign but cannot use those contributions until the general election campaign. A candidate may contribute unlimited personal funds to her or his campaign committee and may loan up to $100,000 in personal funds to her or his campaign committee at any time.
These committees may make contributions to independent committees (but not for the purpose of facilitating independent expenditures for or against other city candidates) but cannot make contributions to other candidate-controlled committees.
Examples of candidate-controlled committees in the 2015-16 election cycle are Faulconer for Mayor 2016, Bryan Pease for San Diego City Attorney 2016 and Ray Ellis for Council 2016.
More information can be found in the Ethics Commission’s 2016 candidate manual.
- May accept contributions from any source, including individuals, corporations, unions and other political committees
- Not bound by contribution limits
- In general, may only make contributions to other independent committees (political party committees are an exception)
- May make independent expenditures
Think of these as the super PACs of the San Diego political world. Independent committees include political party committees, ballot measure committees, committees established to support or oppose a single candidate or a group of candidates in the same election and committees that are established to support or oppose a variety of candidates across multiple elections and others.
Regardless of their purpose, all independent committees operate under similar rules and all are run separately from any candidate-controlled committee.
With the exception of political parties, they cannot contribute to candidate-controlled committees in San Diego. They can, however, spend unlimited amounts of money to support and oppose candidates by buying television, radio or online advertising, conducting polls and mailing out fliers with pro- and anti-candidate messaging. They are prohibited from coordinating any of these activities with candidates and so these are considered “independent expenditures.” These committees may make unlimited contributions to other independent committees.
With the exception of independent expenditure committees, such committees are not bound by contribution limits. They may accept contributions of unlimited size from any source (individuals, corporations, unions, etc.). An independent expenditure committee is an individual or entity (like a corporation or nonprofit) that entirely self-funds her/his/its political activities, namely making independent expenditures. It by definition does not accept contributions from sources other than its parent organization.
Examples of independent committees in the 2015-16 election cycle are Rebuild San Diego-Yes on H-Sponsored by the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce; The Infrastructure PAC of the Associated General Contractors; and Communities United for Tomorrow’s Economy supporting the 2016 re-election of Mayor Faulconer sponsored by and with major funding from the Lincoln Club of San Diego County and the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce (yes, that whole thing is the committee’s full name).
More information can be found in the Ethics Commission’s 2016 committee manual.
Help us make this app better
We hope all that helps you get started in digging into the byzantine world of political influence in San Diego’s politics. As a reminder, the campaign finance app is very much a work-in-progress and we’re counting on you, its users, to tell us what you like, what you don’t like, what’s broken and what you’d like to see added. As the app is updated and enhanced, so too will this guide be expanded. Please don’t hesitate to email firstname.lastname@example.org with suggestions. Good hunting.
We'll let you know when big things happen.