Election 2016: The Social Sector and Democracy

A conversation with MapLight 

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With the 2016 Election around the corner, we are interested in examining the social sector’s role in American democracy. This week, we speak with Daniel G. Newman, president and co-founder of MapLight. MapLight is a nonpartisan research organization that reveals money’s influence on politics.

1. What role does MapLight believe the social sector plays in the 2016 US election?

Most communications in elections come from candidates seeking to be elected. These messages are designed to sell the candidate or criticize the candidate’s opponent – not to promote conversation or strengthen our democracy.  It’s vital for the social sector to step in and foster positive public conversations, promote dialogue between different viewpoints, and engage underrepresented groups in civic life.

The social sector can enhance public conversation and build bridges between groups and individuals who may otherwise feel they have little common ground in the following ways: sharing messages that provide reliable information; helping expand the pool of voters; and providing civic information untainted by misleading negative ads. By looking beyond electing one or more particular candidates in a given election, the social sector focuses on improving society for all of us.

When it comes to putting this philosophy into practice, a prime example is Voter’s Edge, our nonpartisan, bilingual voter guide. Voter’s Edge provides unbiased, in-depth information on candidates and ballot measures down to the local level, for voters in California, New York and Illinois. The comprehensive online guide is available in English and Spanish, helping voters access reliable information about ballot measures and candidates – including priorities, endorsements, campaign funding and more. Voter’s Edge is a project of MapLight and the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund in California and a project of MapLight in Illinois and New York. As the 2016 election approaches, information on Voter’s Edge will help improve civic engagement and give voters confidence on Election Day.

2. What problem is MapLight trying to solve in the American political system? How?

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A river of money influences our government’s decisions and the laws we live under, affecting who has the means to run for office, who is elected, and what issues are addressed.  For many of us, that river remains largely hidden from view and the influence of money on politics is obscured.  MapLight provides key information on the nature of money’s influence in politics – including the sources of contributions and how lawmakers vote, exposing patterns of influence never before possible to see.

We provide accurate, nonpartisan information to journalists, citizens, and nonprofit groups in order to focus accountability efforts and reveal the outlines of a broken system, which 90 percent of Americans agree needs to be changed.

Our work helps connect the dots between money and politics with our integrated database of bill support and opposition, campaign contributions, and legislative votes. By combining government influence information that normally exists in “data silos” in a single database, we can systematically reveal political influence more quickly, comprehensively, and efficiently than was ever before possible.

MapLight’s website provides online tools for searching, sorting, visualizing, and finding connections within the database, allowing citizens, journalists, and advocacy groups to track the influence behind the critical social and political issues of the day.

3. If you achieved all your goals as an organization, how would America be different?

MapLight's news, data and research supports all the citizens, journalists, and nonprofit groups seeking to hold lawmakers accountable and shift power away from special interests towards all citizens. We envision an accountable, responsive democracy where a broad and diverse pool of candidates have the opportunity to run for office, where lawmakers represent voters instead of campaign donors, and where our country’s laws reflect the interests of most Americans.

In practical terms, the process to make our vision a reality includes several reforms, including increased government transparency and measures to reduce the influence of special interest money in politics. A constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling would enable governments to put reasonable limits on election spending.  Meanwhile, a growing movement of cities and states across the country are implementing public funding of elections to give everyday voters, not just large donors, a greater voice in elections.

Want more information about the social sector and democracy? Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy is Foundation Center’s data visualization platform that captures the myriad democracy-related activities that foundations have supported from 2011 to present. Foundation Center’s new infographic series takes a deeper dive into the grants data made available through the platform to examine different areas of democracy funding, such as voter turnout.

Read Part II in this series, featuring a recap a recent SF Tech4Good panel discussion.

Read Part III in this series, featuring Virginia Mosqueda, senior program officer at The James Irvine Foundation.