A pile of cash is directed to the Kansas statehouse with the words "Follow the money" overlayed
Left: A pile of money, stock photo. Right: The Kansas state Capitol in Topeka, by Miranda Moore, The Beacon. (Image by Dayma Partida, The Beacon.)

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Follow the money, they say. 

Ever since the Watergate scandal, when then-President Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign funded a 1972 break-in and wiretap at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., the phrase “follow the money” has been shorthand to describe the often fraught relationship between campaign donations and political influence. 

In response to the misuse of presidential campaign funds during the Watergate scandal, Congress enacted campaign finance reforms in 1974, among them establishing the Federal Election Commission, the government agency tasked with managing the public disclosure of federal campaign donations. Most states also require that campaigns submit periodic campaign finance disclosures. 

Now, 50 years after Watergate, campaign finance records are (mostly) easily searchable and widely available online, and just about anyone can follow the money. Here’s what you need to know about searching for those records online, so you can find out who is donating to Kansas politicians. 

In Kansas, people or political action committees (PACs) can donate a maximum of $2,000 directly to campaigns for statewide office, like governor or attorney general, during an election cycle. People or PACs can donate up to $1,000 directly to state Senate or state Board of Education campaigns per election cycle. People or PACs can donate up to $500 directly to campaigns, per election cycle, for the following offices: state House of Representatives, district attorney, district court or district magistrate judge, county office, city office, state board of public utilities and the Wichita School Board. 

PACs are organized to raise and spend money for campaigns either for or against candidates, ballot initiatives or legislation, but remain separate from any official campaign effort. So long as they remain independent from the campaign, there is no limit to what they can spend on their own.

There is also no limit to the amount of money that fundraising committees sponsored by political parties can contribute to a candidate in Kansas, if that candidate is the only one for that party in a race. Nor is there a limit to the amount that people can contribute to state-registered political action committees. 

For congressional or presidential campaigns, people may donate up to $2,900 directly. There are no limits to how much someone may donate to a super PAC, which may campaign for or against candidates so long as the super PAC does not coordinate with a campaign. 

What campaign finance information is published?

Campaign finance reports for candidates should record all the money that comes into a campaign, listed as a “contribution,” and all the money that goes out, listed as an “expenditure” in Kansas campaign filings or as a “disbursement” in federal filings.

If someone donates $200 or more to a federal campaign, or $50 or more to a campaign in Kansas, campaigns are required to disclose that donor’s information to the relevant campaign finance agency, and that donation becomes public record. 

Both the Federal Election Commission and the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission (KGEC) publish detailed information about where the money comes from — like the names of donors — and how it is spent. Other details include the address of the donor, the exact date the donation was made and the exact amount. A donor’s employer information may also be collected, depending on the agency and the amount donated.  

In campaign finance reports on file with KGEC, campaigns are not required to itemize individual donations less than $50, but some do anyway. These smaller, unitemized donations are totaled and listed at the bottom of the contributions list. 

If you search the KGEC’s Campaign Finance Data portal, you can search itemized contributions and then choose a “detailed view option” to see the date of the specific report the information comes from, if you want to find the report to look up the full details of the donation. 

The role of money in politics can take on clearer meaning when you research how those donations are used by a candidate or PAC. Under “expenditures” or “disbursements,” specific details are listed, including the name and address of the person or business being paid, along with the purpose, date and amount of the payment. Most of the money goes to campaign marketing and political consulting companies. 

For PACs registered at the federal level, the FEC collects detailed data for money spent, listed by the total amount given to specific recipients in a given reporting period.

Where do I find campaign finance reports?

If you want to look at money flowing in and out of a specific candidate’s campaign, their campaign finance reports will either be on file with the Kansas secretary of state, KGEC or with the FEC. 

The Kansas secretary of state’s office serves as the official records repository for campaign records, and you can find the information there. But the KGEC’s website is a little more user-friendly and a good place for beginners to start.

On the KGEC’s website, you can find links to digital copies of paper campaign finance forms.   These go back to the 1994 election cycle for candidates running for statewide office, such as governor, attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer and insurance commissioner; candidates running for state Senate, state House and state Board of Education; and candidates for district attorney. 

Also on the KGEC’s website are digital copies of paper campaign finance reports as far back as 2000 for political party committees, which campaign for slates of candidates rather than individuals.  You can also find copies of paper reports filed by state-level political action committees This is the place to also go for  reports filed by people or organizations who campaigned for or against the 2022 constitutional amendment referendum on abortion.  

For any campaign finance reports that don’t fall under any of the above categories — which are often, but not always, national PACs — those reports are listed on the KGEC website under “By A Person Other Than A Candidate or Committee.” 

On the FEC’s website, you can find campaign finance reports for candidates running for U.S. president, U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, as well as political action committees operating at the federal level. Also on the FEC website are candidates’ statements of candidacy, in which they list the campaign committees authorized to raise and spend money on their behalf. This is often the first place you can find out someone is thinking of running for office if they have not yet filed.

In what format is campaign finance information available? 

Those researching campaign finance can either review digital copies of paper campaign finance reports or search online databases of campaign finance information. 

Data searches often give a more comprehensive, big-picture understanding of campaign finance activity. You can search by donor or within a specific range of dates that extends beyond a reporting interval, for example, which you can’t do with copies of paper reports. But be aware: Campaign finance information is not always available in a searchable format.

Campaign finance information comes in two forms: raw or processed. When looking at a full campaign finance report as it was originally submitted, usually as a PDF file submitted by the campaign, you’re looking at campaign finance information in its raw form. Processed campaign finance data means that the information from the report has been uploaded or entered into searchable data on the agency’s website. 

Top, a view of a donation made to House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, as it appears in Ryckman’s October 2020 campaign finance report. Below, the same donation as it appears in the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission’s searchable campaign finance data. Miranda Moore | The Beacon.

For some campaigns, processing happens automatically, but not for all. In Kansas, data from campaign finance reports has to be manually coded and entered by staff at the KGEC, line by line, before they can be searched by the public, said Mark Skoglund, KGEC executive director. 

For hundreds of Kansas political campaigns, this creates a delay — often several months — between the time campaign finance data is submitted and when it is searchable online. This means that often, the only place to find a campaign’s most recent donations is in the full campaign finance report. 

The data entry process, though time consuming, also allows KGEC staff the opportunity to comb through reports for compliance, Skoglund said. Skoglund’s office will move to a more automated process in coming years that will cut some of this processing time, he said.

If you want to know how much a Kansas political campaign spends — and what they spend it on — you have to look at the full campaign finance reports on file with the KGEC. These reports are the only place expenditure information is listed for state-level campaigns in Kansas, since expenditure information is not processed into searchable data.

At the federal level, you can search online to learn how money was spent (“disbursements”), as well as who gave it. This includes disbursement data from PACs, which sometimes give money directly to candidates. PAC money is an important source of funds to members of Congress and the chief way an industry or special interest exerts influence. 

What if I want to see donations made by a specific donor?

When you search campaign finance data by donor, the results will show every recipient  that a donor contributed to within the time period specified. This is helpful when trying to track the political influence of a specific person, company or PAC, to see the breadth of their donations, if they are targeting specific campaigns or if they are donating during a specific period of time. 

For example, this can reveal if a PAC aligned with a certain industry is donating to lawmakers who sit on a legislative committee tasked with regulating that industry while the committee is considering legislation that would impact the industry. None of the additional context about active legislation or committee assignments is listed in campaign finance reports. But it is possible to search to find that information elsewhere.

When will the next reports be filed?

For Kansas campaigns, the next reports must be filed by Oct. 31. 

Candidates for state and county level office must file four regular reports per election cycle: an annual report for 2021, submitted in January; a July report submitted before the primary election; an October report submitted before the general election; and a final report for the remainder of the year, submitted in January. Candidates must also submit reports for last-minute contributions over $300 six days before the primary and general elections. 

Party and political action committees in Kansas follow the same filing deadline schedule as candidates for regular reports, but must file daily last-minute contribution reports the last five days before an election, starting Nov. 3.

Campaign finance reports for the U.S. House and U.S. Senate must be filed with the FEC quarterly. National party committees must file with the FEC every month. Presidential campaigns, PACs and other party committees may file either monthly or quarterly campaign finance reports, and may change their filing frequency once per calendar year. Many file monthly during election years and quarterly during other years. Parties, PACs and congressional campaigns must also file reports immediately before and after the general election. Everyone must file annually.

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Miranda Moore covers the Kansas Statehouse and state government for The Wichita Beacon. Follow her on Twitter @Miranda_Writes1.