FEC gives bounce to fundraising data

An inexpensive mapping tool makes campaign contributions transparent

Federal Election Commission's campaign finance application

In expectation of a record demand for 2008 presidential campaign finance data, the Federal Election Commission created an interactive, online application that maps the campaign money trail. People can quickly see where the candidates’ donations are coming from.

Making information more manageable for the public is part of the commission’s mandate, and this program will give citizens access to it all with “three clicks of a mouse,” said Alec Palmer, FEC’s deputy staff director and chief information officer.

FEC created the Web application in about six weeks for a cost of $12,000. It lets people track individual donations by clicking on an interactive map. Its database includes the names of the companies for which the contributors work and the dates they made their donations. 

“Everybody understands a map, everybody knows what state they live in, anybody knows their ZIP code, and if you use the map as the [starting point], you can click on that and then drill down pretty quickly,” Palmer said.

Agency officials said they were able to minimize the project’s costs by doing 99 percent of the work in-house. Buying software to achieve the same capability would have cost $800,000 to $900,000 and taken significantly longer, Palmer said. However, FEC did buy Corda Technologies’ OptiMap Enterprise and PopChart Enterprise software, which generate the map interface.

Wei Luo, the program’s architect and manager of enterprise architecture at FEC, said the agency also saved money by using a flexible architecture that let multiple developers work on different parts of the application simultaneously. The bottom tier is an Oracle Database 10g containing contribution data. The middle tier is an application server that processes people’s requests, retrieves data from the database and passes it to the map interface for presentation by the Web servers at the top tier.

“The beauty of how we’ve architected our core systems now is that we have the ability to tap into it with myriad tools,” Palmer said. 

The Center for Responsive Politics applauded the campaign finance application. The center runs OpenSecrets.org, which tracks campaign financing.

“FEC.gov has never been one of the easiest sites to navigate, and whatever the commission can do to make the raw information more accessible to the public is something that we welcome,” said Massie Ritsch, the center’s communications director.

Later this summer, FEC plans to offer another, more complex application using data from the Senate and House races.

The commission’s flurry of application development comes as individual donations are becoming a significant source of presidential campaign fundraising. Under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, also known as McCain-Feingold, the amount of money candidates can receive from an individual donor during an election cycle jumped from $1,000 to $2,000. For the 2008 cycle, donors are limited to a total contribution of $2,300 in the primaries and an additional $2,300 in the general election.

Major party nominees cannot use individual contributions if they accept the Treasury Department’s grants for the general election campaign, which are valued at about $84 million per candidate this year.

However, given the increase in allowances for individual donations and the growing use of the Internet for fundraising, many experts say nominees could decide to forgo cash from Treasury’s general election fund for the first time in the fund’s 30-year history. If that happens, some analysts say, the candidate who ends up winning the presidential election will need to have raised a record $500 million. That kind of fundraising effort will trigger intense scrutiny.

In anticipation of the traffic such record-breaking fundraising is expected to attract to FEC’s Web site, officials have ordered additional servers. They will be redundant versions of the three primary servers — the Web, application and database servers — that support the campaign finance application. They will be available to take over instantaneously if one of the primary servers fails.
Campaign finance data draws a crowdThe day the Federal Election Commission offered its first interactive campaign finance application, its Web site received 90,000 hits. The site usually gets about 7,000 visitors a month.

The interactive application displays the names of individuals who donated to specific campaigns, how much they contributed and when. It cost about $12,000 to create and took about six months to develop.

— Ben Bain

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