Two roads cross at “The Busiest Intersection in Virginia”: Money and politics.
So says the promotional brochures for the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), the 13-year-old non-profit founded by David Poole to shine the light on political contributions and political expenditures in Virginia.
The organization, which now boasts three employees and may soon be adding a fourth, recently added data from local elections, and has already begun tracking the progress of the decennial redistricting process.
Don’t visit VPAP’s website (www.vpap.org) if you’re not willing to be sucked in for a half-hour minimum.
The site is jam packed with cross references, facts, data, cross references, names, maps, graphs, more cross references.
In fact, it’s the cross references that make vpap.org so addictive. Click here and find out how much Candidate Y has raised for his reelection campaign. Click there to see each individual donor or political action committee. Click here to see who else that PAC has given money to. Click there to see which lobbyists give to that PAC. And so on, and so on.
The data VPAP collects, the way they slice and dice it, the way they present it: it’s all really well done and arguably done better than anyone else could have dreamed of.
The unfortunate thing about VPAP, though, is that it had to be created at all. That is, unlike many other states, candidate disclosure statements in Virginia (how much they raise/how much they spend) are not automatically made public online for all to see. Sure, anyone can file a FOIA request for a report, and the State Board of Elections (SBE) is now mandated to create its own database for statewide offices, but most localities still do not offer online access.
VPAP started with records and databases obtained from the SBE. Not content to post the reports as-is, VPAP began adding value to the reports by breaking them down into unique identifiers that allowed them to mix and match the data, to present it all in unique and previously unseen ways.
As the site grew in popularity, VPAP itself grew in stature and influence. Citizens, politicians, corporations, everyone came to rely on the data VPAP provided. VPAP was able to parlay its growing reputation into a consistent and reliable conduit of data between it and the SBE. Even then, VPAP staffers were often required to manually enter the data they collected, and that is still true with some of the local elections. But for state officeholders, the forms they file with the SBE go to VPAP at the same time. The data automatically populates VPAP’s analytical tools.
So you see, though Poole’s vision and his staff’s dedication is certainly critical, the real key to VPAP’s success is access to public records. Without public records, without access that is guaranteed through state law, VPAP may not have have grown to the heights that is has.
VPAP demonstrates the power of information. The content within public records is neutral. It is not good or bad. Some may interpret the data one way or the other, but the data itself does not tell you how to feel about it.
In VPAP’s case, it’s up to the individual citizen to decide whether the intersection of money and politics is a dangerous one. Public records are the vehicles to get us there.