Insider combed through hundreds of thousands of campaign finance disclosure records made by 76 state legislators in Arkansas to build a first-of-its-kinds database from raw records. Those legislators were responsible for the passage of two of the most restrictive anti-LGBT laws in the entire country, one of which barred medical access for trans children. We then looked at the companies that had backed those legislators financially, and identified multiple high-profile publicly-traded companies that had claimed to support LGBT causes but nonetheless directed tens of thousands of dollars in support to the legislators behind the Arkansas laws.
Insider was able to get an explanation for the donations from dozens of companies, getting an on-the-record explanation for why they backed the legislators despite their public-facing statements.
In multiple cases, companies indicated that the vote would impact future political donations. Walmart stated they adjust their political giving strategy each cycle and in this case that was ongoing. Arvest bank said “As a company, we paused all political contributions in January and any future contributions will be carefully vetted to ensure they support Arvest’s values.” Merck said they recently took the opportunity to review the governance of their PAC.
This involved extensive data cleaning and data import, and the construction of a standard database in spreadsheet software. Hundreds of PDF files were converted into usable spreadsheets.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The data did not exist in any machine-readable format prior to this, and the obscurity of the contribution data – often on hand-written forms – meant that the companies were not being held accountable for their contributions. The effort to collate and compile this data into a database where it could be understood was a significant and time-intensive task.
What can others learn from this project?
This project proves that just because information isn’t easily accessible in an online-first world doesn’t mean the data doesn’t exist or, more importantly, that it doesn’t matter. Though collating and compiling the data for this project was time-intensive, it allowed Insider to hold major companies accountable. Also, when confronted with this information, many organizations gave on-the-record responses. Some companies indicated that the vote would impact future political donations. This type of response shows other journalists that this kind of work matters, and taking the time to do it right can have real, possibly life-saving, impact.