Money in Politics: A Massive Design Problem

Following political expenditures is a lot like hunting a mouse in a labyrinth where the walls are constantly moving.

by Jon Lewis on March 17th, 2016

A few short years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States voted on a case that would change the face of modern politics forever. It found that the government has no right to restrict an organization from making political expenditures. Spending any amount of money in support or opposition of any candidate or issue actually constitutes free speech. Unlimited fundraising and unlimited political spending from organizations outside of the government was deemed a Constitutionally-protected right.

Fast forward to the first few months of 2016 where the presidential race has just fired the starting gun. Today headlines consistently report Candidate X having a massive super PAC (Political Action Committee) funded by Billionaire Y. Or Candidate Z is aggressively outspending their opponent in Battleground State X. The fabric of elections has shifted from classic campaigning to juggernaut fundraising and big-dollar spending. As a result of the fiscal floodgates being opened, we’re now looking at an election cycle where political expenditures are forecasted to hit $10 billion dollars before election day.

So what does this have to do with design?

As more and more money starts to pour into our country’s political process, the need to follow and understand the flow of funds becomes more and more of a necessity. Information about super PACs — including registration and all expenditures — are filed and made public by one government organization: The United States Federal Election Commission, or FEC. We often look to publications like the New York Times for clear, reliable reporting on this data, but even our nation’s newspaper of record faces insurmountable odds when it comes to making sense out of election spending — so much so that they’ve recently published inaccurate reports without even knowing it.

Icon-like illustration of a circular maze, with a icon of a mouse head at the center.

All illustrations are original creations of the author.

However, we can’t just shoot the messenger and call it a day. It may come as a surprise to learn but the FEC, like many government entities, is not the most efficient when it comes to managing data. Following political expenditures is a lot like hunting a mouse in a labyrinth where the walls are constantly moving, and a minotaur is hot on your heels.

A super PAC can change its name at the drop of a hat; all of the sudden you’re hunting a totally new mouse.

A committee can file a large report and not include their candidate’s name on the filing; all of the sudden the minotaur is swinging an axe at your neck.

The barriers that exist for understanding the data that ultimately influences our nation’s future are higher than ever. Everyone has access to the same information within the system, but accessing this information is incredibly complicated. Even the FEC has trouble keeping track of what’s happening from day to day, and you can’t blame them: they were never set up for this sort of situation. Campaign managers and media organizations have to rely on armies of interns and staffers to sift thru millions of documents a week in order to have even a semblance of clarity. Getting the data that you want out of the FEC is hard enough, but once you’re sitting on a mountain of data, what do you do next? In most cases by the time that you find what you’re looking for it’s already too late to take action.

Illustration of a line-drawn cube, the unseen edges depicted with a dotted line.

This is where design comes in.

It’s not enough to simply be in the possession of big data, the goal is to understand what you’re looking at. Political expenditure filings make their way into the FEC in any combination of up to forty-two different forms. When you look under the hood and investigate the filings you will almost certainly start to find anomalies in the data that will make your skin crawl. For example, the Republican National Committee (RNC) files all of their paperwork thru some sort of proprietary software that they had developed in-house. When their data enters the FEC, it’s formatted slightly differently than what you might see if you were looking at the paperwork from a presidential candidate, or a small house race in upstate New York. The fact that everyone is forced to use the same forty-two forms to file with the FEC doesn’t make the situation any more clear. All of these forms are different, and all of them have specific relationships to each other.

Once you start to comprehend the relationships, then you can truly understand how money moves in and out of politics. But this is such a massive undertaking that even the firms that presidential candidates hire to do their paperwork or research their opponent have to expend significant resources to accomplish their goals. To them everyday is a struggle to find the data that they’re looking for while attempting to remain nimble and competitive. If a campaign has five or six million dollars to throw at polling and campaign finance research you’d expect them to be pretty good at it. But you’d be surprised to learn that even in this case, throwing money at a problem doesn’t exactly solve it. If anything it cements the problem into something that never goes away: after all, there will always be money in creating order out of chaos.

As it stands today, we have a handful of organizations that are actively working towards closing the gap between obscurity and clarity within election data. Both OpenSecrets and The Sunlight Foundation provide summary data from the FEC which helps journalists and average people hold the political system accountable for lack of transparency. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight is doing an incredible job at visualizing election data and telling stories with the information. Even the FEC itself is taking baby steps towards opening up their data to the public with their recently launched

These are all solid attempts in the right direction, but they’re also a lot less useful to people that want to take action after they’ve found what they’re looking for. We’re standing at a massive fork in the road where we can decide what the public is able accomplish with this data. With more powerful tools comes a better way of life. If the FEC’s infrastructure was setup to accommodate modern data consumption, we’d be able to build incredibly empowering tools for average people all over the country that want to effect change in their community. The more that we can make it accessible, the more opportunities people will have to build useful tools on top of the apparatus.

Illustration of a question mark, an eyeball depicted in the center of its curve to create an eye.

These are problems that I struggle with everyday as a designer working in politics. It’s not as fun as designing a new way to share photos, or helping people find a new trendy restaurant, but these are problems that have exponential benefits once solved. Money in politics, and the FEC’s growing pains, are just a few examples of many problem sets in our society that can benefit immensely from design thinking.

I’ve always felt that as professionals in the tech industry we have a profound and inherent responsibility to build the future in the most ethical way possible. We happen to be equipped with tools that empower us to create useful things out of thin air. The way we work is fine tuned for gathering information, solving complex problems, and overcoming institutional obstacles. The interesting part is that, as a community, we are just starting to wake up to the real problems ahead of us at a societal level.

Government is not just an institution worth improving: it’s an infrastructure with the potential to have the most impact on people’s lives — positive AND negative. That is impact at scale.