The NC Open Government Coalition collaborated with data journalism experts across the country to produce a network analysis of campaign spending in North Carolina during the November 2020 election.
The North Carolina Open Government Coalition supported and released a new project Friday that allows for a new understanding of the players that fund campaigns in North Carolina and how federal money plays a role in state politics.
The project, a collaboration with data journalists and data analysis experts from across the country, focuses on the push by Democrats to win state House and Senate elections in order to hold more sway over the redistricting process. Coupled with a presidential and U.S. Senate races, the 2020 election season is likely the most expensive election cycle on record in North Carolina.
Analysis reveals that corporate political action committees (better known as “PACs”) representing healthcare, energy, and real estate interests contributed in all of the ten closest races during the November 2020 election cycle. Donations tended to favor campaigns for incumbents, which are largely controlled by North Carolina’s Republican Party.
Even when candidates did not receive money directly from PACs, money often ended up in their campaign coffers indirectly as the campaigns passed money to one another. The analysis shows that some Democratic candidates in safe races donated money to challengers in more competitive races to help boost their chances of gaining power in state politics.
The project also provides a glimpse into how entities that spend big on federal races route money to state-level races. On the Democratic side, PAC money from Democratic Party-aligned groups often supports candidates directly. On the Republican side, money often flows through in-state power brokers, such as House Speaker Tim Moore. Speaker Moore’s campaign committee, serves as a hub for a significant amount of PAC money, re-routing money to prop up other campaigns by members of the Republican Party.
“Money has been central to the political process for as long as anyone can remember, and its power has only grown with the proliferation of PACs and SuperPACs following Citizens United,” Brooks Fuller, the Director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition, said. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is the 2010 Supreme Court case that overturned federal campaign finance laws that limited corporations’ power to influence elections through independent expenditures in favor of or against candidates for federal office.
“This collaboration shows how data can help us better understand the political interests that funnel money into North Carolina and how those interests tend to align in hard-fought elections,” Fuller said.
The project also found significant deficiencies in data made available by the N.C. State Board of Elections. Specifically, candidate committees and PACs are required by law to report receipts and expenditures to the State Board of Elections on a quarterly basis. But while the Federal Election Commission (FEC) collects unique identifier codes for both the contributor and recipient committees for federal transactions, North Carolina’s State Board of Elections collects a free response entry for the names of recipient committees.
This means that there can be significant ambiguity in identifying recipient committees when there are differing committee name formats or typos on disclosure reports. While this can be annoying for traditional campaign finance analyses that total amounts contributed or received, it makes it nearly impossible to build a comprehensive network of campaign spending in the state without significant amounts of manual labor de-duplicating committee names and matching them to their appropriate State Board of Elections identifiers.
Network analysis visuals and an accompanying story have been published by the national campaign finance watchdog publication Sludge. Jeremy Borden, Kathy Qian (Code for Democracy), and Michael Taffe contributed to the data analysis and reporting. “We are extremely grateful to Michael Taffe for taking on the majority of this intensive labor,” Borden said.
The project text and associated network analysis visuals are being made available to media outlets in North Carolina at no charge with attribution and links to the original works. Please contact Brooks Fuller at email@example.com for more information.