Let me ask you something. Do you like politics?
No, no, don't apologize, I won't fault you for it, it's an acquired taste. But before you go, let me ask you something else. Do you like sticking your nose into other peoples' business?
I thought so. Now we're getting somewhere.
For the most part, American political campaigns are privately funded. A particularly wealthy aspiring politician might be able to dedicate significant personal resources to his candidacy, but the high cost of campaigning, especially for positions in the federal government, typically demands more. The majority of campaign treasuries, then, come from contributions by supporters and well-wishers.
If politicians depend on campaign funds to win (re)election, however, and depend on contributors to deliver those campaign funds, there arises a situation in which interested persons or organizations might make their donations contingent on the candidate taking action (or promising to take action) to favor the contributor, by supporting or opposing particular legislation, making sure valuable contracts go to the "right" party, and the like. Even absent such collusion, rational contributors would be expected to support candidates they expected to take such favorable positions of their own will. This might be less morally objectionable, but would still distastefully incline government to favor those segments of society with the greatest amount of wealth available for political "investment".
So as to preclude or at least mute this possibility of excessive influence, federal law limits the amount of money individuals can donate to any candidate in a given election cycle, and also demands that candidates must keep records of donations received and expenditures made. This information includes the name, job, employer, and home address of anyone donating more than $200, and is periodically submitted to the nominally independent, bipartisan Federal Election Commission, where it becomes a matter of public record.
Now, this is nothing new. For decades, American citizens have been able to go to the FEC's Public Records Office in Washington, D.C. and view any candidate's paperwork. Of course, no one but goo-goo groups ever bothered to. More recently, the FEC has been posting disclosure forms on their website, but even this requires navigating through a list of menus and links, with individual forms presented as HTML copies of their paper counterparts, viewable only quarter-by-quarter, campaign-by-campaign. Far from thrilling stuff.
Still, all this information is in the public domain, and there's no law that says it has to be presented that way. Actually, aside from a prohibition against using it for commercial mailings, there's nothing to prevent anyone from doing with it whatever they want. You could aggregate the data, you could collate and cross-reference it, you could make it searchable, and then you could show it to whoever you want. The Center for Responsive Politics, a money-in-politics watchdog organization, was the first to do this, putting online a database searchable by candidate or zip code, available at their website at opensecrets.org. Now, this was nice touch, but it still suffered from poor presentation. If you didn't really care about campaign finance, you weren't going to look at it anyway.
What all these numbers needed was a good interface, good design, and some hook to draw in citizens. In time for the 2004 presidential primary, the Contagious Media Design Lab of art/technology/culture outfit Eyebeam filled this need with Fundrace (fundrace.org). Focusing solely on the presidential contest, Fundrace made a database out of the donation and expenditure filings. Now, this database is nifty in and of itself. Search for any name, and if they've donated more than $200 to a campaign this year, you know exactly how much, and to whom. Looks like Donald Trump, hedging his bets, gave the maximum to both Bush and Kerry. Ben Affleck, demonstrating his knack for picking winners, donated $2000 to Wesley Clark and $1000 to Dennis Kucinich.
Another interesting effect of this system is that, given the address disclosure requirements, you now also have the address (or at least one of them) of your favorite citizen-celebrity. Or, um, you know, citizen-domestic abuse escapee. Er. Well, like they say, we have no privacy, guess we'll have to get over it. What we get in return, however, and what really makes Fundrace what it is, however, is how it leverages this address data. Fundrace has an option to enter your own address. Now, unless your loved ones have been engaging in good citizenship on the sly, you don't need a database to know what contributions came out of your home. But do you know the same about your next-door neighbors? The businessman down the street? The bigwigs at the law firm in town? Fundrace does. The "neighbor search" option will match your address to GPS coordinates and feed back a list of donations from your neighborhood in order of proximity to your house.
Geographical statistics work on a broader scale, too. You can look at a map of the country color-coded by predominance of party donations, or view in greater detail a selected number of major cities. To no one's shock, New York City's Republican donations tend to be clustered in the Upper East Side, and the posh residences bordering Central Park. If your curiosity turns more towards expenditures, you can learn how much each candidate has spent on airfare and hotels, with breakdowns by company and highest outlays for each.
Now, I'm hesitant to say if any of this is really making anyone into all that more informed a citizen, or otherwise fulfilling all those noble goals, but in yoking politics to voyeurism, it makes one of the drier aspects of the great republic fun, and it's hard to find fault with that.