D.I.Y. campaign-finance search? Good luck with that!

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By Rebecca Bowe

This week, the Guardian offers a look at the biggest spenders in local politics, using SF Ethics Commission campaign-finance data from 1998 to 2008. The Ethics’ Campaign Finance Database is an excellent tool for answering questions about which organizations have given money to which causes and candidates over the years, but the system could be a lot more user friendly.

For instance, plunging into the bowels of the SF Ethics Commission database to try and find out who’s opening the fattest wallets come election time isn’t as easy a task as the average voter might hope. Although the information is a matter of public record that’s available to everyone, there is no ranking system that makes the highest donors easy to spot – so researchers literally have to pick through tens of thousands of data rows in order to spot the high contributions. Meanwhile, there are limitations with the short-cut method of finding such information, which is to use the “Advanced Search” function on the city agency’s Web page. That search engine spits back incomplete results: Our No. 2 top donor, for example, doesn’t show up, even though a comprehensive search of the campaign-finance spreadsheet from 2001 reveals that he contributed some $3.5 million to his own run for mayor.

When we queried Ethics staff about the gaps in the data, and requested any information that could further explain the inconsistencies, we learned that the matter had been discussed internally. In a recent email, an Ethics staffer noted:

“We did post a notice on our website that there was a small percentage of irregularities concerning historical data. We have since addressed most of these irregularities and as explained above, we must prioritize how we focus our limited resources. We will not assign further resources to these matters.”

Researchers, proceed with caution. To get accurate and comprehensive information about contributions to local political campaigns, the recommendation is to download the entire campaign-finance database from the SF Ethics Commission Web site for the year you’re interested in, and then befriend an Excel wizard who can help sort through it. Or, you could just read our list of Top 30 Political Donors from 1998 to 2008.