Who’s trying to sway my vote? How to follow the money in campaigns
Because elections matter, there are plenty of people trying to influence how you vote. Groups of citizens and other elected officials do this by endorsing candidates, small and large donors do this by giving money directly to candidates, and there are Political Action Committees (PACs) that donate money, buy advertisements or sponsor events designed to help get the candidate they favor elected. Understanding how this influence works and how to navigate it can make you a more confident voter.
Follow the money
Money makes its way into our elections through a number of different avenues. There are direct contributions to candidates and PACs by humans, interest groups and corporations. Candidates have to disclose contributions made to them, and this information can be found on federal, state and county campaign finance websites, but not all the groups that donate to candidates have to disclose who their donors are, so it is still hard to know who is actually giving money to candidates. These kinds of donations are called “dark money.”
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. FEC that there can be unlimited and political contributions to IRS 527 organizations, also known as Super PACs. Super PACs can get donations from groups that don’t have to disclose their donors to the public. They don’t contribute directly to candidates but spend money on ads, mailers or other communications in federal races in hopes of electing or defeating a particular candidate.
The Michigan Campaign Finance Act (MCFA) of 1976, governs how money impacts politics in the state and what candidates have to disclose. For example, candidates for governor can receive up to $6,800 per election cycle from individual donors; candidates for State Senate can get a max of $2,000 max; and candidates for state House can get a max of $1,000.
Once people are elected to office and are no longer candidates, they do not have to disclose any financial contributions they get from lobbyists or anyone else, making Michigan one of only two states with such latitude, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
Follow the money from donations
There are a wide range of tax-exempt nonprofit organizations that also raise and spend money to influence elections. Some nonprofits can’t spend money this way. Detroit Documenters is hosted by Outlier Media, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that cannot and does not seek to influence elections. That’s why this voter guide is encouraging people to vote in general, but not specifically for any candidate or proposal.
A 501(c)4 social welfare organization, on the other hand, can spend up to 49% of its annual revenue to support or oppose candidates and other ballot proposals. Other nonprofits like 501(c)5 (labor unions) and 501(c)6 (business leagues) can also spend to support or oppose candidates and ballot proposals.
Candidates running for the U.S. House of Representatives, Senate and President have to file campaign finance reports with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). PACs seeking to influence federal elections must also file with the FEC.
For example, entering the name “George Clooney” into the box under “find contributions from specific individuals”, followed by “Los Angeles” in the city field brings up 101 contributions made between 2003 and 2021 totaling more than $1.3 million.
For state level races, the Secretary of State (SOS) publishes campaign finance reports from all candidates seeking office in a district or jurisdiction that includes more than one county. A complete list of candidates for state offices in the August 2022 primary can be found on the SOS website. Click on any candidate’s name to be directed to their state campaign finance website, where you can review their donations. These disclosures include the name, address and contribution amount of each donor for the reporting period.
County clerks receive campaign finance reports or intra-county offices like county commission, sheriff and for local government offices like city council or township clerk. If you’re interested in who donates to candidates running in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb county elections, go to these sites and look for “campaign finance statements.”
Follow the money in advertisements
If an ad is paid for by a candidate committee, it needs to say so. Likewise, if it is “not authorized by any candidate committee,” it must also say so.
Evaluating the content of political advertising is part art and part science. If you find an advertisement really troubling or compelling, you can review the campaign finance records for the organization running the ad to learn about their priorities and contributors.
The who, what and why of endorsements
Endorsements of political candidates or ballot initiatives are expressions of public support by individuals, political parties, interest groups and media organizations. A common source for discovering endorsements is the candidate themselves. Candidates will proudly list their endorsements on their websites, in TV commercials and on their campaign literature.
Who can make an endorsement?
Individual endorsements can be as simple as a person, maybe another elected official, taking to social media to say they support a particular candidate for elected office.
Political parties usually make their endorsements at their conventions. When a political party nominates a candidate, voters can take that as an endorsement. Local units of political parties can also make endorsements, even if they don’t have the power to nominate candidates on their own.
Any informal or formal collection of humans working toward a specific goal can be called an “interest group,” and many endorse candidates. Interest groups can be professional associations, nonprofits or just groups of individuals like a parent-teacher organization or a rec-league hockey club. Interest groups determine their own criteria for endorsing or opposing candidates. Some interest groups also distribute candidate surveys and publish their results.
In Michigan, interest groups or individuals supporting or opposing candidates in an election are required to register as a Political Action Committee (PAC) once a person or group receives or spends $500 or more in a calendar year in order to influence state or local elections. Spending money publicizing an endorsement is an activity that would seek to influence an election.
In some cases, the interest group or PAC will publish its list of endorsed candidates, perhaps on a website or in their newsletter. For example, an interest group like a labor organization will send a range of communications to its members to make them aware of their endorsed candidates. They may even ask members and supporters to fundraise or volunteer for their favored candidates.
Editorial boards of media organizations can also make endorsements, publishing them before the election. Other media organizations, like Bridge Michigan, have clearly stated reasons for why they do not endorse political candidates.
How much should you pay attention to endorsements?
Endorsements are made by individuals and interest groups with an agenda. Interest groups are trying to influence your vote in an election and their endorsements are a big part of that influence. How much weight you give to an endorsement should align with how much you know about and agree with the group doing the endorsing.