How to track campaign cash

A guide to navigating the state and federal websites where politicians’ contributions and expenditures are publicly available

(BW Images/Getty Images)
(BW Images/Getty Images)

Our elected representatives (and wannabe representatives) strive to build and exercise power, of course, and a primary way they do so is through campaign fundraising and spending.

That has conferred power on big campaign contributors, who enjoy special access to elected officials and win lucrative contracts from governments at all levels.

You can see that power at work if you know where to look—namely, in campaign finance data and filings.

You’ll be able to see who your city council member’s allies are, whether they have big money or grassroots support, or if they’re backed by unions, developers, contractors or others.

Finding all of this is easier than you might think. But first things first: find your local (for Metro Nashville), state and congressional representatives.

Where to look

Campaign finance information data for local and state candidates—Metro Council, the General Assembly and other offices—is on the Tennessee Online Campaign Finance page. It can be picky, so be patient.

(Photo: Tennessee Registry of Election Finance)
(Photo: Tennessee Registry of Election Finance)
(Photo: Tennessee Registry of Election Finance)
(Photo: Tennessee Registry of Election Finance)

From the home page, click “Search” under “Public.” Then, fill in the required fields to search for PDF reports or contributions and spending data. You can download the data in CSV or Excel form. It’s best to limit your search as little as possible to get more results.

(Photo: Tennessee Registry of Election Finance)
(Photo: Tennessee Registry of Election Finance)
(Photo: Tennessee Registry of Election Finance)
(Photo: Tennessee Registry of Election Finance)

As you can see from just this first page, Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton accepted a big chunk of change from the pharmaceutical industry in 2018.

Congress and Senate

Campaign finance info about your representatives in Congress can be found on the Federal Election Commission website.

Click on the Campaign Finance tab, then on Raising, Spending, Filings and reports or another tab. As you did on Tennessee campaign finance site, you can download raw data or PDFs for candidates, PACs and anyone else financially involved with a political campaign.

(Photo: Federal Election Commission)
(Photo: Federal Election Commission)
(Photo: Federal Election Commission)
(Photo: Federal Election Commission)

What to look for

A lot of meaningful information is hiding in plain sight.

For example, high-dollar contributors often coordinate with their spouses, family and colleagues to circumvent Tennessee’s limits for contributions to a single candidate in a four-year presidential cycle.

In Tennessee, an individual can spend at most $1,600 on local candidates and $4,200 for state-level, statewide races. You can find more info on contribution limits here.

Campaign donors frequently use obscurely-named LLCs to conceal their contributions. Search addresses, rather than names, to find multiple contributors with the same address.

When you come across an obscure-sounding LLC, you can use Tennessee’s Business Entity Search to find the name of the owner or registered agent. You can also search the address from which an LLC contributed using the Tennessee Property Data Home Page. Click through to a county page to search an address

By patiently perusing campaign data, you can begin to see patterns and become a better informed voter ahead of the August 6 primary and beyond.

Register to vote in the primary by July 7. Early voting begins July 17. More important dates here.