Here’s how we did it

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By Eli Pales

LANSING – Our recent analysis of the 2017 campaign finance reports filed by Michigan state lawmakers was compiled by seven Michigan State University journalism students working for the Spartan Newsroom.

We set out to discover how much lawmakers relied upon special interest contributions from political action committees to fund their campaigns. The investigation led to fresh questions and other story ideas.

The Inside 83 team. From left: Andrew Birkle, Ian Hawley, Zach Robertson, Jaylyn Galloway, Natalie Dymkowski, Ian Pales, William Thiede.  | Photo by David Poulson

We confined the analysis to 2017, the most recent complete year of data and one that is particularly interesting because it showed significant campaign contributions during a period when there were no regularly scheduled elections.

Inside 83 reporter Jaylyn Galloway and Craig Mauger, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, analyze campaign records. |Photo by David Poulson

 

Craig Mauger, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Networkprovided advice on how to obtain and understand the 2017 campaign finance reports filed by each lawmaker with the Michigan Secretary of State. The Michigan Campaign Finance Network is a non-partisan non-profit watchdog group that tracks funding in Michigan elections.

Mauger provided Committee ID numbers for each legislator and we downloaded all contributions for the 2017 calendar year. Each journalist was responsible for finding contribution data for 21 legislators. Their findings were again verified by a second reporter.

We compiled a spreadsheet with the total contributions for each legislator. We also calculated the amount of money that each legislator received from out-of-state sources and from PACs.

PACs are the tool that special interests like businesses, labor unions and other interest groups use to raise money for candidates in hopes of influencing public policy.

You can view the spreadsheet here. We have made it public so that our methods are transparent, but also so others can use it for further analysis. Some observations relevant to the data collection:

  • We calculated the percentage each legislator raised from PACs by dividing their PAC contributions by the total from all contributions each raised.
  • We included contributions from other campaigns if a legislator was running for a state office other than the one he or she held at the time. If a state house member is running for state senate, for example, the amount raised by the other committee was included.
  • We did not count money raised for federal campaigns. Rep. Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, is running for Congress in Michigan’s 11th Congressional District and the amount raised for his federal campaign was not included.
  • Rather than taking the percentage of PAC money raised from each state legislator and finding the average of those percentages, we took the overall percentage of PAC money raised for the groups. For instance, when calculating the average percentage of money raised for female legislators, we took the sum of all the PAC money raised by all the female legislators and divided it by the sum of all the money raised.
  • Former Sen. Bert Johnson resigned from the legislature after pleading guilty to theft and did not file. We excluded him when calculating averages.

We then examined our calculations for promising stories. Each reporter took on a story to learn why the numbers turned out the way they did. We looked at the differences in fundraising by party and gender. We also looked at the legislators who raised the smallest amounts and the legislators who decided to self-fund instead of doing traditional fundraising.

Some people were easy to interview, but the state legislators themselves were slow to respond or failed to do so. The reporters reached out to dozens of legislators in the state and just a few responded to comment on our stories.

Graphics designer Zach Robertson and reporter Natalie Dymkowski. |Photo by David Poulson

For example, several reporters repeatedly tried to contact Rep. Holly Hughes, R-Muskegon. She is of particular interest because she was one of the top-self funders in the state and also raised the most of any woman. Although her office repeatedly said they would get back to us with more information, we were never able to receive a response from Hughes.

We can speculate that one reason that lawmakers failed to respond is that we are a nontraditional news agency with which they may not be familiar.  The Spartan Newsroom is part of a journalism class at Michigan State University.

But it may have nothing to do with that. It is not unusual for lawmakers to be reluctant to discuss their campaign finances with the press, Mauger told us.

As a consequence, we also sought the perspective of former lawmakers and other political sources who are not lawmakers.

Editor’s note: This story is one of a series produced by a Spartan Newsroom campaign finance data analysis project.  Andrew Birkle, Natalie Dymkowski, Jaylyn Galloway, Ian Hawley, Eli Pales, Zach Robertson and William Thiede contributed to the series. It was produced with the advice and collaboration of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

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