Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Introducing MAPLight to the Berkman/Sunlight conference

Dan Newman, the executive director of MAPLight, shows off some of the work he’s done, linking voting and funding information in California. MAPLight brings together two data sets: money given to legislators and a record of how every legislator votes.

We look closely at Assembly Bill 83, a bill designed to regulate the bottled water industry and ensure that bottled water meets the environmental standards of public drinking water. MAPLight’s coverage shows how everyone voted on the bill, and how groups who supported or opposed the bill gave money to legislators. MAPLight also has a timeline facility, which is able to demonstrate a payment from the bottled water industry to a legislator the day before he voted to kill the bill.

MAPLight also lets you see what interest groups contribute most heavily to the campaign of a legislator, and how often that legislator voted with that particular interest group.

The room as a whole is pretty excited about MAPLight, and about the fact that the project will start covering national politics in the next three months with support from Sunlight. I’ve got some concerns that complement my interest. Correlation is not causation, as good scientists always remind us – there’s an overwhelming sense that comes from MAPLight of interest groups buying the votes of politicians. There’s other explanations for voting patterns as well – if you support labor unions, you’re a lot more likely to become a democrat than a republican, and your party affiliation – as well as your personal beliefs – can help explain your votes as well as your campaign contributions. But there’s no doubt that MAPLight is a fascinating way of presenting information in a provocative and helpful fashion and that US voters would benefit from having this information about their congressional representatives.

One Response to “Introducing MAPLight to the Berkman/Sunlight conference”

  1. Sean says:

    Hi Ethan. I’m the Research Coordinator at MAPLight.org. You are absolutely right about correlation being distinct from causation, and a money/vote correlation brings up the familiar “which came first” question.

    It is nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly why someone votes the way they do, but consider this: Two left-leaning candidates are competing in a primary. For whatever reason, Candidate A always sides with Labor and candidate B sides with Labor only part of the time. Who will Labor support (with $$) in the primary? Will candidate B be able to get her message out as effectively without Labor’s support dollars?

    Another case: Suppose an elected official generally holds free-market, deregulation views, but is in favor of a particular piece of regulatory legislation (say, to curb predatory lending). If some of her major supporters are adamantly opposed to this bill (say, credit companies), will she risk a good chunk of campaign cash to vote yes (as she would have in the absence of financial pressure)?

    Even with direct causation nearly impossible to prove, we think high correlation is interesting in itself.

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