Vast information about who gives money to people running for office and how those candidates spend the money is available for free online.
But the state and federal websites that compile campaign finance information can be clunky and far from intuitive. For people who aren’t candidates, campaign treasurers or political journalists who use ORESTAR or the Federal Election Commission website daily, it can be hard to find information and even harder to make sense of it.
With primaries fast approaching and a general election that’s already on track to be the most expensive Oregon has ever had, the Capital Chronicle produced this guide to how normal Oregonians can use these public tools to learn more about the candidates on their ballots.
It focuses primarily on ORESTAR, the centralized state filing system used by candidates for governor, the Legislature and all local offices. Candidates for Congress or the U.S. Senate file in a separate federal system and follow different rules.
For people who have moved from other states, Oregon’s campaign finance laws are quite different. Oregon is one of only five states with no limits on how much money any person or organization can give to a campaign.
That results in headlines every election season about Nike co-founder Phil Knight dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars on his preferred candidates. He’s up to $2.75 million this year, split between independent gubernatorial candidate Betsy Johnson and a political action committee that aims to elect more Republicans to the legislature.
Critics say the lack of limits gives wealthy individuals, business groups or labor unions too much power over elections. Efforts to enact limits have been repeatedly stymied.
Oregon also has a rolling campaign finance reporting system. Instead of all candidates reporting all their contributions and spending for a quarter or month on a specific date, they have to report transactions within 30 days of the transaction, or within seven days closer to a primary or general election.
Federal candidates, who file their campaign finance reports with the Federal Election Commission, are subject to different rules. They can only accept $5,800 from any individual during an election cycle – $2,900 for the primary and $2,900 for the general.
Federal candidates report contributions and spending quarterly and also file additional reports immediately before and after elections.
Getting started with ORESTAR
Anyone running for a non-federal office in Oregon who expects to raise or spend more than $750 must create a candidate committee and report all campaign transactions using ORESTAR, the state’s online campaign finance tool. Oregonians have a few ways to find candidate transactions.
ORESTAR defaults to a search by name. “Committee/Filer Name” is the designated name of a committee, which usually but not always contains all or part of the candidate’s name. For Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tina Kotek, that would be “Friends of Tina Kotek.”
The Committee/Filer ID is a short series of numbers assigned to each candidate. “First Name” and “Last Name” are self-explanatory, but using those fields requires checking one of the boxes on the left side of the digital form.
Sometimes searching by name isn’t the best option. A sidebar also gives the option to search by election, which makes it easier to view all candidates for a specific race and find committees controlled by candidates.
One caution: ORESTAR does not allow users to open multiple tabs or windows.
Making sense of candidate pages
As an example, a voter finds the candidate page of Christine Drazan, one of the Republicans running for governor. The landing page shows contact information for Drazan and the campaign treasurer in charge of tracking transactions, information about which office she’s running for, her occupation and party affiliation, and a set of links at the bottom of the screen.
The two most useful are the account summary, which shows how much money she raised and spent this year and how much is still available, and the link to campaign finance activity. The second takes voters to a sortable database that can be used directly in ORESTAR or downloaded to Excel.
For candidates like Drazan and Kotek who have run for office before, ORESTAR shows campaign finance history for every election.
For a particular campaign, details provided include when a contribution was received or expense paid,, who gave or received money, how much money was involved and the type of transaction.
- Cash contributions: money given to a campaign.
- Cash expenditures: money paid by a campaign, usually for things like buying ads or mail.
- Personal expenditure for reimbursement: the campaign is reimbursing the candidate or staff for expenses like campaign travel.
- In-kind contribution: a person or an organization gave something other than money to support a campaign. Maybe a restaurant provided free catering for an event or a political organization provided staff.
As seen in the screenshot below, contributions from out-of-state are highlighted in red. Contributions from other political action committees or candidate committees include links back to that source.
Each transaction has a unique numerical ID, which functions as a link. Campaign treasurers provide additional information about the transaction that can be found by clicking that link.
For contributions, users will see an individual’s name, address, occupation and employer. Expenditures often list how the money was used, such as for television advertising, paying staff or printing campaign literature.
The top of the page contains the committee ID and a way to conduct a new search. If a voter wants to find more specific information, such as how much money Kotek spent on television ads, how much Knight has given this year or whether any of the roughly 40 residents of the small town of Unity have given money to candidates, this search tool allows users to narrow search terms.
Following the money
All the data is available, but it can be difficult to make sense of, especially in nonpartisan local races. While party politics may not seem like they have much to do with the mundane tasks of patching potholes or setting school budgets, both major parties often back specific candidates for city councils and school boards and money flows in accordance with a candidate’s political alignment.
In Deschutes County, where a slate of conservatives running for the Bend-La Pine Schools Board found a national audience on Fox News last year, Eric Lint has maintained a blog in recent years to help people understand local politics, and especially how money is involved.
The interest groups that spend money to elect local candidates vary depending on the region and specific issues. In statewide races and in rural areas of western Oregon that were long defined by the timber industry, logging companies tend to support Republicans and more conservative Democrats. Labor unions and environmental groups line up behind more progressive Democrats.
In Deschutes County, home builders and Realtors are among the biggest players in local elections, though their power has diminished as the area grows more progressive. Their influence and their ties to Republican officials aren’t immediately obvious.
For instance, people looking at contributions to a city council candidate might see several thousand dollars from the Central Oregon Small Business PAC. Clicking through to the PAC’s page shows that it’s controlled by Tim Knopp, a state senator from Bend who leads the Republican caucus. It also shows that the PAC’s purpose is to support candidates who support the housing industry, not small business in general as the name would suggest.
Democrats, also, control fundraising committees with unclear names. The Facts and Fairness PAC, for instance, says it provides “facts and information about candidates for state legislature.” That might sound like a description of a newspaper or the state-issued Voters’ Pamphlet – but a closer look shows that the political action committee is run by House and Senate Democratic leaders, it shares the same treasurer as many other Democratic campaigns, it mainly gets contributions from PACs associated with legislative Democrats and it spends most of its money on a progressive political strategy firm.
Voters can use ORESTAR to recognize similar patterns in local races in their own communities, Lint said.
“They’re only disclosing what the state requires,” he said. “You get a treasurer’s name, a director’s name, and that’s about it. But thankfully, these guys have a lot of the same staff, and if you see that same name, you know they’re in the same orbit.”
A simpler tool
ORESTAR provides a lot of data, but it’s not always easy to visualize. A recently launched Portland-based news site, the Portland Record, created a tool that makes viewing data simpler.
The Campaign Finance Funderator shows daily and monthly contributions or expenditures by all committees and allows users to see at a glance how much candidates are raising, spending and have in their bank accounts.
Founder Jacob Fenton, a data journalist who previously worked to make federal campaign finance data accessible for the Sunlight Foundation, said he plans to soon add a way to connect the separate systems for candidates and their campaign finance committees so users can choose a race and see who’s filed, background information they provided and their up-to-date fundraising.
His tool also shows how much money a candidate raised and spent during an entire two-year election cycle, while ORESTAR separates that data by calendar year.
Candidates for Congress and the U.S. Senate file their reports with the Federal Election Commission. This year, because the site hasn’t fully updated since Oregon and other states completed their redistricting process and Oregon added a congressional district, users can’t find the 6th Congressional District from an interactive map on the site’s homepage but can find it by going directly to Oregon’s page.
Selecting a race will show every candidate running. The FEC uses slightly different language than Oregon. “Total receipts” is money the campaign received during the two-year election cycle that began Jan. 1, 2021, “total disbursements” is money it spent and cash on hand is how much money is in the bank.
Clicking a candidate’s name takes users to a page that details individual or committee contributions, refunds, loans and expenditures. Users can also browse or search individual transactions, seeing dates, names, addresses and employers of contributors and how money was spent.
A sidebar includes links to information about the candidate and independent spending to support or oppose the candidate. Independent expenditures aren’t used often in state or local races in Oregon because it’s more efficient to give money directly to candidates or candidate-controlled committees, but campaign contribution limits in federal elections mean outside money is used more frequently.
It often takes some time for data to be visible on the FEC website. As of late April, the site doesn’t list any independent expenditures for Democratic candidate Carrick Flynn – but voters in the 6th District have spent weeks watching ads about him paid for by the Protect Our Future PAC.
To find that information, users need to go into the FEC’s search tool and look for raw data. Searching for the PAC will bring up a long list of documents, and clicking through will show how much money the committee spent to support or oppose a candidate and how that money was used.