You can do your own investigations of the campaign finances of candidates for public office, political action committees, party committees and ballot committees. An introduction follows.
State of Michigan records
• Go to the Michigan Department of State’s Campaign Finance Reporting Searchable Database.
• Under ‘Search Options,’ you’ll find links that will allow you to enter search criteria for the various types of committees that file campaign finance reports with the State. In general, you’ll be able to search by partial committee name and the system will retrieve all committees that match your search criteria. Select the committee of interest to you.
• You’ll be taken to a display of the Statement of Organization with a list of reports that have been filed by that committee, with the most recently filed report at the top of the list. Choose the link for the report you want to review. Keep in mind that reports are frequently amended, so look for the most recently filed version of the report you want.
• The next screen will show you the forms in which your chosen report is available. Whenever it is available, you’ll probably want to choose the Internet-filed version of the report. Committees that will not raise or spend $20,000 in the election cycle are not required to file their reports electronically.
• The various elements of a report are displayed on the next screen. There is a summary page that summarizes receipts and expenditures for the reporting period; an itemized list of contributions, in descending order of size; an itemized list of expenditures, in descending order of size; and a list of debts the committee owes. The exception to this rule is that political party committees are not required to show financial summaries – just lists of contributions and expenditures.
• Most people are most interested in who is giving money to candidates, and who PACs support. This may satisfy your research requirements.
There are more powerful search options available to you than the basic search of committee reports. These are the options to Search by Contribution Analysis and Search by Expenditure Analysis. These options allow you to get narrowly tailored responses to more specific search criteria, and save your data in spreadsheet format so you can sort and filter records in accordance with your needs. Keep in mind, these search functions can pull in extraneous data, so you may need to be a bit more plodding in structuring your search. For example, if you search on a common family name, you may generate results that apply to several candidates; or you could generate records of contributions to more than one candidate committee established by a single person when you only want to see records from one committee. Each committee has a unique six-figure ID number, which you’ll want to locate through the basic search if your advanced search is meant to apply to only one committee.
• For example, if you want to know about contributions from members of the DeVos family to Mike Cox, take the link for Search by Contributions Analysis. Enter ‘Cox’ for the Committee Name, or Candidate’s Name; scroll down the search template to the area for Contributor Information and enter ‘DeVos’ in the blank for Last Name/PAC, and hit the ‘Search’ button. Your results are quickly retrieved.
• Or, for another example, you may want to know about the history of Blue Cross’s giving to Andy Dillon. In this case, take the link for Search by Expenditure Analysis; enter ‘Blue Cross’ in the Committee Selection; and scroll down to enter ‘Dillon’ under Recipient Information. Press the ‘Search’ button and you’ll get a display of Blue Cross contributions to Dillon’s gubernatorial committee, his House committee and his leadership PAC.
• The advanced search possibilities are nearly limitless, and this is the best way to track campaign finance relationships between officeholders and interest groups or campaign patrons
527 committees and the IRS
In the national context, 527 committees gained a great deal of prominence in 2004 presidential election campaign as purveyors of electioneering communications, or issue advertisements. Perhaps most prominent among them was Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a committee that set out to attack the presidential qualifications of Sen. John Kerry. In the state context, a number of officeholders have established 527 committees that allow them to raise money from individuals and various types of corporations, and use this money for a variety of quasi-political purposes. These committees report to the Internal Revenue Service.
• To search for Michigan-based 527 committees, go to the Internal Revenue Service’s Search for Form 8872.
• Under the search criteria, ‘From November 2000 to present,’ choose ‘Organization’s State,’ and push the button for ‘next step.’
• On the next screen, choose Michigan from the pull-down menu of states and search.
• On the date of this writing in September 2010, this search generated 641 reports displayed on 65 pages. The most recently filed reports are listed last. Open the reports to see the financial activity of Michigan 527 committees.
Local and county activity
Reports for local and county candidates, ballot committees, PACs and party committees that operate exclusively in one county are filed with that county’s clerk. Local and county campaign finance reports for Ingham, Macomb, Oakland and Washtenaw Counties are available online. Macomb County’s records are searchable. Those in Ingham, Oakland and Washtenaw are scanned documents in portable document format (pdf). In other counties, you must go to the clerk’s office to view or copy the records.
Federal data and records
The most user-friendly source of federal campaign finance data is the Center for Responsive Politics. CRP allows easy searching of campaign finance data for officeholders and candidates, PACs, party committees. If you want to use source data, go to the . Federal Election Commission. At the FEC site, choose from the menu at the top-left corner of the homepage, Campaign Finance Reports and Data. You'll be able to View/Download Electronic Filings for candidates, parties and PACs; or you can View Electioneering Communications Reports. Electioneering communications are to federal campaigns what candidate-focused "issue" advertisements are to state campaigns.
If you need additional help getting started with your research, contact MCFN at: firstname.lastname@example.org.