IU Media School reporting project raises questions about veracity of state campaign finance data

  • Dec. 7, 2016

Editors: The reporting project described in this release is available for publication without cost to news organizations. It is available online for anyone to read at the websites of the Investigative Journalism Education Consortium and The Media School at Indiana University.


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Since 2000, state-level political committees in Indiana have taken in nearly $1 billion in contributions to run campaigns and influence elections. A new reporting project by student journalists in The Media School at Indiana University raises questions about the quality of official data and the state's enforcement of rules and statutory limitations.

Students working under the tutelage of assistant professor Gerry Lanosga examined 16 years of data available through the Indiana Election Division of the Indiana secretary of state's office. They looked at campaign filings for candidates for the Indiana General Assembly, the governor’s office and other statewide positions such as state superintendent of public instruction.

"When people talk about money in politics, they’re usually thinking about national campaigns. But I’ve been intrigued by the massive amounts of money in state politics ever since my days as a reporter covering Indiana government," Lanosga said. "Jesse Unruh was right to say that money is the mother's milk of politics. Here in Indiana, it flows freely thanks to a rather permissive legal environment. It’s important for people to understand how the system works, or doesn’t work."

The students -- James Benedict, Leah Carter, Noah Deitchley, Connor Faul, Paige Ferguson, Kendall Gilbert, Anne Halliwell, Madison Hogan, Mary Jamerson, Emily Koval, Xuan Li, Katherine MacDonell, Lindsay Moore, Sarah Panfil, David Pecar, Shakara Williams and David Wood -- analyzed more than 1.2 million contribution records available through 2015. Complete state campaign and spending data for 2016 won't be available until January.

Committees that raise and spend money on political causes in Indiana -- whether they are candidate committees, political parties or political action committees -- are required to file detailed reports of their fundraising and spending.

"The problem is, the data is riddled with errors and formatting issues that stand in the way of a clear and comprehensive picture of money in Indiana politics," Panfil, Koval and Faul wrote in one of the reporting project's five articles. "An in-depth examination of the data files reveals typographical errors and other data-entry issues that make it impractical to generate reliable totals for individual, corporate or political action contributors.

"What’s more, the state makes little attempt to verify or audit the information provided by committee filers. As a result, the data raises as many questions as it answers," they added.

Election division officials acknowledged the existence of data entry errors. IU student journalists found numerous instances where information was left blank, including missing names and addresses. The "dirty data" undermines efforts to systematically analyze campaign finance records.

"It was shocking because a lot of the errors were for the basics, like the donor’s name or address," said Benedict, a senior from Katy, Texas. "It showed how few resources there must be keeping people accountable for their political spending. If they can’t even ensure every contribution has a name, how am I supposed to trust them to find other violations of the law?

"I hope the quality of the data improves so that more organizations can quickly analyze the dataset," Benedict added. "If records are required by the law, then those records should be accurate."

Under state law, corporate contributions are capped at $22,000 annually, but students identified several ways that companies can get around the limit. While Indiana's online campaign finance database contains contributions dating to 2000, the state did not begin tracking according to donor type until 2011.

Students found that 10,000 companies have made contributions to state political candidates and committees. From 2011 to 2015, corporations made nearly $19 million in direct contributions.

While individual contributions are unlimited under Indiana law, much of the action revolves around political action committees. Jim Walton, son of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, made the largest contribution in 2012 to the American Federation for Children Action Fund, a conservative PAC that advocates for school choice voucher programs. Walton and the Action Fund heavily supported former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett.

National and out-of-state organizations commonly helped influence Indiana elections. The Washington-based Republican Governors Association was the largest contributor -- twice -- with contributions of $725,000 to former Gov. Mitch Daniels in 2008 and $400,000 to the Indiana Republican State Committee in 2010.

Students found that from 2000 through 2015, candidates spent more than $315 million on campaigns, with the largest amount -- $137.5 million -- going toward advertising. Other major expenses include $66.5 million on operations, $63.7 million on contributions to other committees and $12.2 million on fundraising.

Li, Pecar, Williams and Wood found that oversight over campaign fundraising and spending largely is left up to the public.

"Although the election division recognizes the importance of oversight, it doesn’t have enough workers to parse the troves of data that it receives in minute detail. As a result, there are no routine audits, so the onus is mostly on the public to find and report any lapses or discrepancies found in the data," they wrote.

"I would like to see more transparency and governmental oversight in our state's campaign finance structure. I hope that candidates will be compelled to submit more complete records on how they're taking in money and what that money is going toward," said Pecar, a senior from Carmel, Ind., when asked what the students hoped to accomplish.

Students said the reporting project complements the education they are receiving at The Media School, including how to leverage open government laws to access information that should be available to the public.

"I learned an enormous amount about data journalism and analysis, as well as campaign contribution regulation," said Carter, a senior from San Diego. "As the world becomes increasingly tech- and data-oriented, journalism is also moving in an increasingly technical direction. Having these data-analysis and computer-assisted reporting skills prepares me for a future in almost any kind of reporting."

Last year, Lanosga's students investigated the availability of mandatory public records electronically. Projects like this not only serve the public but also inform students about the challenges reporters face in doing their jobs and provide practical, realistic experience, he said.

He also is president of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government. He worked for nearly two decades as a print and broadcast journalist in Indiana, his work receiving honors such as the duPont-Columbia Award, the George Foster Peabody Award, Sigma Delta Chi’s public service award, and the Freedom of Information medal from Investigative Reporters and Editors.

Related Links

Indiana Campaign Finance: 2000-2015 Spending Without Expenditure Codes

Indiana Campaign Finance: 2000-2015 Spending Without Expenditure Codes

Print-Quality Photo

Gerry Lanosga, left, and Kendall Gilbert

Gerry Lanosga, left, and Kendall Gilbert

Print-Quality Photo

From left, Leah Carter, Xuan Li, Anne Halliwell and Noah Deitchley.

From left, Leah Carter, Xuan Li, Anne Halliwell and Noah Deitchley.

Print-Quality Photo

Media Contacts

George Vlahakis

  • IU Communications
  • Office 812-855-0846
  • Cell 812-345-1500
  • vlahakis@iu.edu
  • IU Inc.

Gerry Lanosga

Assistant Professor

  • The Media School at Indiana University
  • Office 812-855-0851
  • glanosga@indiana.edu

Anne Kibbler

Director of Communications and Media Relations

  • The Media School at Indiana University
  • Office 812-855-1705
  • akibbler@indiana.edu