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Tracking Money in Politics

How does money influence U.S. elections and public policy? Whether you are a voter, journalist, activist, student or interested citizen, you should be able to easily see who and what is paying for a campaign, and how that might influence the outcome.
People Impacted
$ 273B
Potential Funding
I have this challenge
the problem
Nature and Context

The Citizens United v. FEC (2010) ruling enabled corporations, including nonprofits, and labor unions to spend unlimited sums of money in support or opposition of political candidates and measures. The decade since the ruling was the most expensive in U.S. political history, with billions of dollars having been injected into politics from outside sources, leading to an unprecedented influence of money in politics. The 2020 election cycle alone is anticipated to surpass $11B in expenditure, over 50% more than the races in 2016 (Open Secrets).

Symptoms and Causes

The decision in Citizens United v. FEC (2010) reversed a century of campaign finance regulations and allowed corporations and outside groups to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections.

501(c)(4) status

Politically active nonprofits, such as 501(c)(4)s are generally under no legal obligation to disclose their donors, even if they spend to influence elections. When they choose not reveal their sources of funding, they are considered dark money groups.

the impact
Negative Effects

Super PACs

Super PACs are a type of political action committee which may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, and individuals but is not permitted to contribute to or coordinate directly with parties or candidates. Super PACs may also spend unlimited sums to overtly advocate for or against political candidates (Open Secrets). While Super PACs are required to disclose their immediate donors, they are allowed to accept unlimited funds from groups who are under no legal obligation to reveal their donor base.

Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs)

LLCs can also be used for political purposes, including hiding donors and obscuring large payments to consultants and media firms. LLCs are even more opaque than 501(c)s because of the short paper trail they leave.

Economic Impact

The three presidential elections prior to 2016 have seen dramatic growth in dark money spending.

  • 2004: $5,900,000

  • 2008: $102,400,000

  • 2012: $308,700,000

Between 2008 and 2014, grants between nonprofits have facilitated >$278,000,000 in reported dark money political spending (Open Secrets).

Success Metrics

Successful tracking of political expenditure includes:

  • Mapping money flow

  • Visually representing 501(c) fundraising and expenditure

  • Revealing significant expenditure metrics such as tv ads, out-of-state contributions, and correspondence

who benefits from solving this problem
  • Constituents

  • Democracy-interested organizations

  • Proponents of free and fair elections

  • Data-interested organizations

financial insights
Potential Solution Funding

The Center relies on financial support from a combination of foundation grants, individual contributions, income earned from custom research, and licensing data for commercial use. The Center accepts no contributions from businesses, labour unions or trade associations.

Ideas Description


OpenSecrets pursues its mission largely through its award-winning website, This is a comprehensive resource for federal campaign contributions, lobbying data and analysis. For other organizations and news media, the Centre's exclusive data powers their online features.


Dossier is a realtime analysis of the US Federal 2020 Election Cycle as it unfolds. Campaign finance is by design, engineered to be confusing and obtuse. This barrier to entry gives insiders and allies a powerful advantage, while outsiders remain convinced that they are unable to make sense of a rigged system. This public data comes from the Federal Election Commission; a Federal agency created in the '70s to enforce campaign finance law. We analyze and aggregate raw filings in bulk to give you the most complete, accurate, and up to date analysis.

Democratizing access to election expenditure data is critical to achieving a clear description of money-flow in the political fundraising landscape.

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