The Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, which also refers to itself as the Maine Ethics Commission, helpfully provides a webpage at which any citizen may download campaign contribution data reaching all the way back in time to 2008.  This kind of data sharing has become an essential component of responsive state government.  It’s also helpful that the Commission has provided a key to describe the kinds of information it provides in its dataset.

One of the most important pieces of information to obtain about a campaign contribution is its source.  Is a candidate receiving funds from individuals, political party committees, political action committees, or businesses?  To distinguish between these different kinds of contributions, the Commission includes the variable “Receipt Source Type”:

Excerpt from the dataset key page of the Maine Ethics Commission

I’ve been working over the past week with campaign contribution data from the 2014 election cycle to characterize contributions to members of the current 127th Maine State Legislature on the main Open Maine Politics website.  Unfortunately, the more I work with the dataset, the more I notice that the “Receipt Source” variable is inconsistent.  Let’s take reports of contributions from Citizens for Justice in Maine, Inc.  This group is no fly-by-night organization; it is publicly referred to as a Political Action Committee (PAC) for trial lawyers at least as far back as 1992, and filings indicate it has registered with the state as a PAC since 1988.  The Commission profile page for Citizens for Justice in Maine also firmly declares it to be a PAC.  But entries in the downloaded dataset for 2014, all describing the same entity with the same address, describe campaign contributions from Citizens for Justice in Maine as different kinds of a committee… or provide no description at all:

ReceiptAmount ReceiptDate LastName ReceiptSourceType
100 9/16/2014 CITIZENS FOR JUSTICE IN MAINE Nonprofit Organization
3000 10/17/2014 CITIZENS FOR JUSTICE IN MAINE Commercial Source
500 11/3/2014 CITIZENS FOR JUSTICE IN MAINE INC Nonprofit Organization
500 1/6/2014 CITIZENS FOR JUSTICE IN MAINE, INC.
500 1/6/2014 CITIZENS FOR JUSTICE IN MAINE, INC.
1500 4/18/2014 CITIZENS FOR JUSTICE IN MAINE, INC.
3000 6/6/2014 CITIZENS FOR JUSTICE IN MAINE, INC.
2500 6/9/2014 Citizens For Justice in Maine, Inc. Political Action Committee
1000 8/13/2014 Citizens for Justice in Maine, Inc. Commercial Source
100 9/16/2014 CITIZENS FOR JUSTICE IN MAINE, INC.
1500 9/16/2014 CITIZENS FOR JUSTICE IN MAINE, INC.
100 9/17/2014 CITIZENS FOR JUSTICE IN MAINE, INC.
250 9/17/2014 CITIZENS FOR JUSTICE IN MAINE, INC.
150 9/18/2014 CITIZENS FOR JUSTICE IN MAINE, INC.
500 9/26/2014 CITIZENS FOR JUSTICE IN MAINE, INC.
3000 10/17/2014 CITIZENS FOR JUSTICE IN MAINE, INC.
2000 10/21/2014 CITIZENS FOR JUSTICE IN MAINE, INC.
2000 10/24/2014 CITIZENS FOR JUSTICE IN MAINE, INC.
250 10/30/2014 CITIZENS FOR JUSTICE IN MAINE, INC.
1000 10/30/2014 CITIZENS FOR JUSTICE IN MAINE, INC.
1000 11/1/2014 CITIZENS FOR JUSTICE IN MAINE, INC.
500 12/1/2014 CITIZENS FOR JUSTICE IN MAINE, INC.
500 12/2/2014 CITIZENS FOR JUSTICE IN MAINE, INC.

As I work further to integrate campaign contribution data into the Open Maine Politics website, I’ve been repeatedly finding this kind of inconsistency in “Receipt Source.”  For other variables such as city and name, variation in spelling (such as the occasional “AUGSUTA, ME”) makes it important to check contributions individually and to search for conributions using multiple variables, such as name and address, rather than relying on one variable alone.

3 Thoughts on “Maine Campaign Contribution Sources: Messy Data makes for Messy Work

  1. The data can be frustrating. In the last two years the quality of the data has improved, but it is still riddled with anomalies. This is partly due to the fact that most reports are filed by volunteers who have only a superficial appreciation of the terms, definitions and parameters imported from statute and built into the data collection system. For its part, the Commission also could ensure greater standardization but often cites cost as an obstacle. A dedicated researcher with time and resources can usually overcome many of the challenges with the data. We look forward to the day when the portal will actually be useful not just to researchers and interested parties (opposition candidates), but to the general public.

    • James Cook on April 11, 2015 at 2:54 pm said:

      Thanks for the comment, John. I appreciate your voice of experience. The general public is interested in the issue of money in politics, but if it can’t track the money well, it’s hard to know what the situation is, much less what to do about it. I’m hoping that there’s a way to bridge this gap.

  2. Thank you for this. You always have some killer posts.
    I shared this on Facebook and my followers went crazy about over it.
    Keep the the good work!

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