December 6, 2018

Local Oregon Officials and Community Members Weigh in on Repeated Atta...

Malheur County, Oregon was stunned by terrible violence in recent years. In 2016 a man named Anthony Montwheeler was released from the state hospital, nearly two decades after being found “guilty except for insanity” for kidnapping his ex-wife and child. The Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board (PSRB) accepted his claim that he had faked his mental illness and therefore could no longer be held in state custody. Less than a month after his release, prosecutors allege, Montwheeler murdered his ex-wife and killed a motorist in a car crash. A judge ruled he was not competent to stand trial for these new charges and ordered him returned to the state hospital for treatment.

The incident prompted the Malheur Enterprise to take a closer look at Oregon’s policies and laws relating to people charged with serious crimes who were found “guilty except for insanity,” then released from the state psychiatric hospital or supervised community programs. With funding and editorial support from ProPublica as part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, the newspaper recently uncovered that, of the people deemed legally insane in felony cases and then freed over the past 10 years, at least a third have been charged with new crimes.

“Mental health intersects with public safety in ways that affect all of us in this community,” said Les Zaitz, publisher of the Malheur Enterprise, opening up a local forum last week at Ontario, Oregon’s Four Rivers Cultural Center.

At the forum, Enterprise reporter Jayme Fraser presented her findings on some of the ways that these issues intersect to concerned community members and local officials, including Ontario Mayor Ron Verini, Ontario Mayor-Elect Riley Hill, Ontario City Councilors Dan Capron and Norm Crume, Malheur County District Attorney Dave Goldthorpe and Ontario Police Chief Cal Kunz. Fraser and Zaitz also took questions and listened to ideas for ways to potentially reform the system to better protect public safety while also protecting the rights of people with mental illness.

“We had some guiding questions throughout the course of our work,” said Fraser, who wrote the series. “The first one is pretty basic, and it’s one that the state couldn’t answer after the Montwheeler case. And that is: How often do people freed by the Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board commit crimes once they’re released from state supervision? Then we wanted to know: How does Oregon’s system for managing the criminally insane compare to other states?”

Fraser found that more people use the insanity defense in Oregon than in other states and frees people from all supervision more quickly. “The closest comparison for us is Connecticut,” said Fraser. “They have a professional board just like us, and they have 20 people they are currently supervising. In Oregon, there are more than 500 people under supervision.”

Oregon is also one of five states that caps how long the state may supervise people, with most freed from supervision because of this time cap. Within three years, people freed by the PSRB were charged with new felonies more often than people freed from prison terms, Fraser also found. Family members were most often victims of violent crimes like serious assault and murder.

“I should also note that, it became obvious in our research that there are many people who did not commit new crimes and still struggle to re-enter the community,” said Fraser. “They struggled to find adequate care. A lot of the facilities that serve PSRB clients will only serve people who are under state supervision. … Many people became homeless. Others returned to the state hospital under civil commitment shortly after being freed by the state. And some people died.”

As Police Chief Kunz explained, the problem of inadequate care is exacerbated in the eastern part of the state, where Malheur County is located, because most facilities are in western Oregon. “We are kind of the forgotten island of the state as far as resources,” Kunz said. “There’s not a place to bring these people on this side of the state. … When we have concern from someone, we want to give them the help they need and hopefully prevent crime from happening. But when you don’t have those resources, you’re not able to get the treatment or help somebody really needs. It’s frustrating for police officers because that’s our goal.”

In response to an audience question about how many defendants coming through the courts are looked at for mental illness, District Attorney Goldthorpe estimated that, more than 60 percent of the time, some element of mental illness is brought up by either the defense attorney or the client.

“Our sheriff could tell you about the burden that is on the jail because the jail is no place to try to treat someone who is suffering from mental illness, whether they’ve committed a crime or not,” Goldthorpe said. “We’ve probably only allowed a guilty-but-for-insanity plea to be entered, by agreement of all parties, twice in two years. That’s not a very common thing to agree to. As a prosecutor I hold my personal bar pretty high as to what’s going to convince me that the person truly only committed the crime because of their mental illness.”

While no state legislators attended the Ontario event, the Malheur Enterprise’s report has made waves in the statehouse. Key lawmakers have said they plan to rewrite the state’s policies, including reforming Oregon’s time cap requiring the end of state oversight the moment a criminally insane person would have completed the maximum prison sentence for the crime, in order to have doctors conclude that people can live on their own without posing a danger to themselves or others.

November 28, 2018

How to Get Your Lawmakers to Listen

Hello from the otherrr siiiiide…

You did it! In this month’s midterm election, you and a whole lot of your fellow voters turned out to the polls to make your voices heard. But you’re not done yet. Voting is just the beginning!

The User’s Guide to Democracy has always wanted to help you become not only a more informed voter, but also a more engaged citizen. So, with the winners declared, how do you get your elected representatives in Washington to listen to your voice now?

At a live event on Nov. 13 with the New York Public Library, Derek Willis (my colleague here at ProPublica) and Paul Kane (an ace Congressional reporter for The Washington Post) tackled this question with the help of a panel of Capitol Hill insiders. The event, called “Irregular Order: How Congress Really Works,” was moderated by comedian/actor/writer Wyatt Cenac.

James Wallner, senior fellow for the think tank R Street (and a former Republican Senate staff member); Lindsey Cormack, Stevens Institute of Technology assistant professor of political science; and Stephanie L. Young, communications director for When We All Vote (also a former Democratic House staffer); explained how to get lawmakers to listen to you and act on the issues you care about.

Even as Congress seems stuck, there are still things that you can do to influence your lawmakers. Here are a few suggestions from the panel:

  • Vote. Often. “We literally have the power,” Young said of the clout that comes with voting. “I think we forget that, and sometimes you feel powerless. … This is one opportunity for you to go out and make your voices heard, but you have to do it *every time*, and you have to encourage those that you care about, and the people who are influenced by you, to do the exact same. There’s no one who has greater influence than you do.”

    Even if voting sometimes feels like shouting into the void, the panel also stressed that your elected officials are actually paying attention to who their voting constituents are. “If you email or write something, and they have your address and your name, they’re going to look up your voter file,” Willis said. “The fact that they’re tracking that information should tell you that they’re concerned about hearing from their constituents, and that you’re important.”

  • Visit your district office. Young continued by emphasizing that every member of Congress has a district office you can go to. “There are staff that are there to hear from you. You can write letters. They actually read them; there is someone who is assigned just to do that, and they have to respond to you. I worked for members who were very keen on knowing their constituents — how they felt, what they thought, and they want to read those letters. … Don’t miss those opportunities that we all have because they actually matter. They actually work.”

    Town halls were raised as another opportunity where you can talk to your legislators in person. Kane recounted the example of Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who was moved by individual interaction with her constituents during the “repeal Obamacare” period of 2017. “She described how, throughout that spring and summer, she would have town halls when she got back to Alaska. Over and over again, people would tell their stories about a pre-existing condition they feared they were going to lose [coverage for], or a husband or wife battling cancer who was afraid to lose health care,” Kane said. “By the end, that won her over, and she voted no.”

  • Write op-eds in your local newspaper. “Senators and members of the house really care about their local newspapers,” Cormack said. “If you write an op-ed that describes why you disagree with what your member did, that freaks them out. That’s where they want their press releases to land. They want that space, and if they have constituents within their own district saying they have a problem with that, that’s a really big red flag for them that they need to come back to the district and figure it out, or they’re going to need to focus on whatever that issue is a lot more, or address it differently.”

  • Work with advocacy groups you agree with. Traveling all the way to D.C., possibly taking time off from work, or putting in the time to write and pitch a newspaper op-ed might feel like a daunting amount of investment to be heard by people who are supposed to work for you. Wallner recommended making use of advocacy groups (i.e. organizations like the Sierra Club or the National Federation of Independent Business).

“We talk about advocacy groups like they’re a bad thing, but it’s usually just the ones we disagree with,” he said. “They have people who care about the same issues, who focus [on them] and are paid to go down to D.C. They make life difficult for members; sometimes they help members. … See what they’re doing and try to participate with them. Their voice is going to amplify your voice, and it’s going to make it harder for Congress to ignore the issues that you care about.”

One thing many advocacy groups do is lobby Congress, both by encouraging members to visit their representatives and by hiring their own lobbyists. You can find advocacy organizations working on issues you’re interested in using Represent’s database of lobbying arrangements.

You can watch the full discussion here, thanks to the New York Public Library, or listen to it on NYPL’s Library Talks podcast. I promise, not only will you learn something, you’ll laugh too.

We’ve come to the end of the User’s Guide to Democracy — but, hopefully, this marks the start of your increased participation in our system of government. From Represent to the Facebook Political Ad Collector, you have tools to track what your representatives are actually doing, as well as tactics to hold them accountable. Don’t hesitate to use them. And, remember: Congress works for you.

October 31, 2018

Experts Explore the Consequences of Bad Science on the Justice System...

A panel co-hosted by ProPublica, The New York Times Magazine, Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, and Harvard Law’s Criminal Justice Policy Program looked at the use of unreliable forensic science practices and models for reform.

This year, ProPublica senior reporter Pamela Colloff, also a writer-at-large for The New York Times Magazine, has been investigating the case of Joe Bryan, a former high school principal in Clifton, Texas. Bryan has been in prison for 32 years over the murder of his wife, Mickey, a crime he says he didn’t commit. Colloff found that Bryan’s conviction rested largely on the testimony of a local police officer who took the stand as an expert in bloodstain-pattern analysis, even though he had only taken a 40-hour class in the technique.

Colloff’s reporting focused on the questionable use of blood-spatter analysis in the nation’s courtrooms, but it raised broader concerns about other forensic disciplines (including the analysis of hair, bite marks and tire impressions; dog-scent examinations; and handwriting analysis), how they’re being used in the justice system and the devastating consequences they can have for the wrongfully convicted.

A panel of experts explored these and other issues at a recent event, “How Bad Science Is Corrupting the Justice System,” co-hosted by ProPublica, The New York Times Magazine, Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, and Harvard Law’s Criminal Justice Policy Program. Held on Oct. 25 at Harvard Law School, the discussion convened prominent leaders from across the judicial system — including Nancy Gertner, a retired federal district judge and Harvard Law School senior lecturer; Radha Natarajan, executive director of the New England Innocence Project and former public defender; and Nicole Cásarez, an attorney and board chair of the Houston Forensic Science Center, which oversees the City of Houston’s independent crime lab — and Colloff.

Pamela Colloff, ProPublica senior reporter and writer-at-large for The New York Times Magazine, at right. (Katie Campbell/ProPublica)

“Even among more reliable disciplines, problems can arise when scientific findings are overstated in courtrooms and handled without independent review or input from the scientific community,” said moderator Katy Naples-Mitchell, a Houston Institute legal fellow, whose opening remarks focused on a landmark 2009 National Academy of Sciences report that found that many wrongful convictions derived from forensic evidence that was flat-out wrong, calling for widespread reform.

“The NAS report was from a group of scientists who said, ‘Here’s the measure of what science should be,’” Gertner said. “There should be some way of determining validity. There should be some way of determining reliability. There should be some way to test the individual who is the expert to see what his error rates are. In other words, in this field, which evolved in the four corners of criminal justice prosecutions, we should be able to measure it by what the requirements of science are. … And [the report] had virtually no impact.”

One bright spot might be the city of Houston, the panel noted. Even as most courts continue to resist the scientific community’s criticisms of how forensic disciplines are used in the justice system, Houston has taken heed of a key recommendation: a separation between crime labs and the police or prosecutorial agencies that traditionally oversee their operations. But it took a scandal — and the loss of public trust — to force changes.

“You may have heard of the Houston police crime lab for all the wrong reasons because it had years of scandals,” Cásarez said. “The crime lab in Houston now is overseen by a diverse board of citizen volunteers. We have a technical advisory group of scientists in we need input on scientific matters.” With scientists in charge, she noted, the lab banned a number of questionable forensic techniques, including hair microscopy, bloodstain-spatter analysis, gunshot residue testing and voice spectrography.

Even if a crime lab is not housed specifically within law enforcement, Natarajan pointed out, crime lab analysts face a variety of pressures, both subtle and overt, that can affect whether or not their conclusions are reliable. “The question is: What are the influences and pressures that are coming into your work, and who do you feel like you’re working for? What’s the supervision? What are the biases that you have about that?” she said.

For example, Natarajan said, if a forensic scientist looking at a person’s fingerprint learns that he or she confessed — regardless of whether that information is true — it can influence how the fingerprint is viewed. “You need to shield the scientists from information that is not relevant to the task,” she said.

The consequences of junk science are devastating, the panelists said, detailing the stories of lives ruined by bogus forensics. Natarajan told the story of Victor Rosario, whose murder convictions were based on faulty arson science. He was exonerated last year after 32 years in prison. In another case, George Perrot was convicted of rape based on faulty testimony from a hair microscopy expert. “What was so mind boggling is that this was a case in which the victim and an eyewitness said at the trial, ‘This is not the person who assaulted me,’” Natarajan said. Perrot was exonerated last year after spending 30 years in prison.

As for the case of Bryan, who is still sitting in prison in Texas, the blood-spatter expert whose testimony was key to his conviction recently conceded that his conclusions were wrong.

October 31, 2018

Last-Minute Tips for Figuring Out Your Ballot and Making Sure You Can ...

While there are often reports of problems that can arise at the polls (maybe you’ve seen news of malfunctioning machines and registration purges in states that have early voting), a few simple steps can help make sure you’re ready to successfully cast your vote. Let’s start with figuring out what’s on your ballot.

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What’s On Your Ballot?

You might be surprised on Election Day when you see just how much is on your ballot. In addition to federal candidates for the House and Senate, some states have local judicial elections, municipal races, lengthy ballot measures and more. (Some ballots in Florida counties run up to five pages long, double-sided!) Here’s how to get a game plan ready for when you enter the voting booth.

Read a Sample Ballot

You can learn who and what is on your ballot by checking BallotReady, which provides specific information, from federal candidates down to your local officers, in addition to letting you fill out a mock ballot you can email or print to bring with you to the booth.

Have a Dress Rehearsal

If you’re still nervous about what to do once you get to your polling place, you might be able to get some practice. Many local election boards have an extra voting machine that anyone can come check out before they vote. Give them a call to see if they have a machine you can come try. (But be patient — this is their busiest season, especially if early voting has begun in your state.)

Dig Deeper

Maybe one candidate has already spent some time serving in the position and is up for re-election. If that’s the case, you can look into how they’ve spent their time in office so far. For congressional races, ProPublica’s Represent database pulls together key details about the bills your representatives have introduced, how they’ve voted, the issues they talk about and more. Here’s our guide to making sense of data about your representatives in Congress.

For candidates looking to make their first foray into politics, the League of Women Voters has information on local, state and federal candidates and ballot measures. You can search for your address or state on Vote411.

If you want to watch how the race in your district is changing in these last, final days before the election, ProPublica’s Election DataBot has everything you could ever want — such as polling numbers and news on specific candidates or races. You can even sign up to get email notifications. Read how to use the Election DataBot here.

Where Are You Supposed to Go?

In some states, voting in the wrong polling place can cause your ballot to be thrown out. Confirm your polling place using Google’s polling place locator.

What to Bring With You

ID requirements for voting vary widely by state, a mixed bag that can lead voters to mistakenly believe they don’t have the required ID when they actually do. Look up laws in your state on Vote411, from the League of Women Voters.

Double (or Triple) Check Your Registration

Issues with registration are among the most common problems voters face at the polls.

As we covered in a previous edition of the User’s Guide to Democracy, election officials regularly clean up their voter rolls to clear not only inactive voters but also those who have moved and forgotten to update their information. Voter purges, however, are prone to mistakes, sweeping eligible voters off the rolls. And in June, a Supreme Court case upheld the ability of election jurisdictions to cancel the voter registrations of people who haven’t voted in years and failed to respond to warnings sent by mail.

Make sure you’re registered — go to Vote.org to verify your voter registration.

Never miss a ProPublica investigation — sign up here.

If your registration has been deactivated (or if you haven’t registered yet), it might not be too late, depending on where you live. Fifteen states, and the District of Columbia, offer same-day registration on Election Day, allowing you to register and vote right at your polling location. Two states, North Carolina and Maryland, provide same-day registration during portions of their early voting periods.

If you believe your registration has been erroneously purged and the registration deadline in your state has passed, there are still a few things you can try when you go to the polls.

  • Bring your registration card. Your unique voter ID number is very useful if there’s an issue with your registration when you show up to vote. A poll worker can use that number to check the database for your information. If you don’t have your registration card, you can bring other proof of registration, including an online confirmation of registration or the carbon copy of your registration form if you filled it out by hand. These items help show the date that you registered.

  • If your name’s not in the poll book, you have the right to get help. The poll worker should call your state or local election official to determine where and if you are registered, and direct you to vote at your correct polling place. If poll workers won’t help, you can get help by calling the Democratic Voter Hotline, run by the Democratic National Committee, at 833-336-8683. The Republican Party is not operating a national voting problems hotline this year, but it directs voters to contact state and county G.O.P. officials.

    You can also call the Election Protection hotline for direct assistance from trained volunteers and voting rights attorneys at 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683). This is run by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which provides data to Electionland.

  • Request to cast a provisional ballot. If your name is not on the precinct register, and a poll worker concludes that you cannot vote by regular ballot, then you should request a provisional ballot. The Help America Vote Act requires poll workers to offer a provisional ballot to a voter if their name is not listed on the registration list. If the personal information on your provisional ballot, like your name and address, matches the details of your previous registration, you will likely be re-registered, according to Tammy Patrick, a former election official who is now a senior adviser at the Democracy Fund.

    You might have to take some action in order for your provisional ballot to count. That could include coming to the board of election offices with proper ID, within a period of time after the election. So after submitting your provisional ballot, follow up to make sure you’ve completed whatever action is required. Using the receipt you were given when submitting your provisional ballot, you should also follow up with the election office to find out if your ballot was counted.

Know Your Rights as a Voter

The midterm elections will shape American politics for the next two years and beyond, and this year’s race is especially heated. We’re on track to see the highest turnout for a midterm since the mid-1960s. Voter turnout, however, can be dampened by voter misinformation and restricted access to the ballot. Knowing your rights is key to addressing additional problems you, or your fellow voters, may encounter on Election Day.

If you speak a language other than English and need help...

The Rules: You’re allowed to bring someone with you if you need help reading or casting your ballot. You can get help from any person you choose (except your employer or union representative) including a child, relative or friend. Your helper does not have to be over 18 or a registered voter.

You (probably) have the right to voting materials in a language other than English. Under the Voting Rights Act, any county with more than 10,000 residents whose native language is not English and who indicated on their U.S. Census form a lack of proficiency in English is required to provide election materials — including notices, forms, instructions and ballots — in the communities’ identified languages.

What You Can Do: If you know someone who needs help or see someone struggling at the polls, make sure they understand that, if their county does not have bilingual materials, or if they don’t have anybody to help them, they should ask for language assistance from a poll worker.

If the poll workers can’t help, you can call the following Election Protection hotlines:

  • 888-VE-Y-VOTA (888-839-8682; for bilingual assistance in Spanish and English)

  • 888-API-VOTE (888-273-8683; for assistance in Cantonese, Mandarin, Tagalog, Korean, Vietnamese and English)

  • 844-YALLA-US (844-925-5287; for bilingual assistance in Arabic and English)

If you have a disability and need an accessible voting station...

The Rules: Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, polling places are required to be accessible to people with disabilities. The Help America Vote Act requires polling places to have at least one voting machine accessible to people with disabilities — a machine that can mark the ballot for someone who cannot do so, for example, and features large type for people with visual problems.

What You Can Do: If an ADA-compliant machine is not offered to you, you can ask for it. If the poll workers don’t know how to use the machine, you should contact the election director for your county and make them aware of the situation. You can also call one of the voter hotlines mentioned earlier for direct assistance.

If you see suspect flyers on your car windshield…

The Rules: Misinformation about voting is a common dirty trick in campaigns going back generations — fraudulent mailers, flyers, robocalls and SMS messages claiming that you can vote on Wednesday, for example, or warning that you’ll get arrested at the polls for outstanding parking tickets. Unfortunately, voters often fall for these sorts of deceptive practices.

What You Can Do: Only rely on trusted, independent sources of information, as well as official documents. You can verify that voting information you get in the mail is trustworthy by looking for the official election mail logo.

The U.S. Postal Service only allows this logo on materials sent by authorized election officials. It can not be used for political purposes by campaigns. (And please know that your elections office won’t leave official information on your car windshield or make robocalls.)

If you are still waiting in line when the polls close…

The Rule: Although heavy voter turnout is expected to lead to long lines, the wait cannot strip you of your right to vote. If you are standing in line when the polls are open, you are entitled to cast your ballot — even if your wait extends past the scheduled poll closing time. Most states have laws protecting this right, explaining exactly how the last person in line is distinguished, and poll workers are instructed to allow every person already in line when the polls close to vote.

What You Can Do: If you were in line before the polls closed, and someone tries to stop you from voting, call one of the voter hotlines, or your state or local election officials.

Electionland Is Here to Help

Electionland is a coalition of hundreds of newsrooms around the country that is monitoring all of the problems outlined above, now through Election Day. Led by ProPublica, Electionland uses data and technology to track any issues that can prevent voters from casting their ballots — including long lines, registration problems, purged voter rolls, broken machines, voter intimidation, misinformation, changed voting locations and more — nationwide and in real time. And we need your help to do it.

Here’s how to let us know if you encountered anything that stopped you or others from casting a ballot:

In 2016, the Electionland coalition went through thousands of tips from a legal call center hotline, as well as thousands of text messages and social media posts from voters like you. Local journalists around the country reported 400 stories and helped bring attention to voting problems that were fixed before polls closed.

This year, if you see something, say something. We’re listening.

October 19, 2018

How to “Follow the Money” When It Comes to Political Campaigns...

Why do we care about money in politics?

There’s a phrase that pops up a lot when investigative journalists talk about politics: Follow the money. It won’t lead you to uncover large-scale corruption (but if you do, please holler at us). It will get you better acquainted with which industries are donating to the races you care about, and how your candidates are spending the money they raise. Get more information like this by signing up for ProPublica’s User’s Guide to Democracy.

Money in politics gets a rap for being shady. But campaign finance isn’t just about the bad stuff.

For the times when it is, we have campaign finance laws. A quick history lesson: After the Watergate scandal (which, in addition to a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, involved campaign funds used toward the scheme), Congress passed a law requiring federal campaigns to report their political contributions and spending to the Federal Election Commission. This was designed as a check against corruption but also to empower voters and keep you reasonably informed about money in politics.

Let’s take a look at what money does in a campaign. Seeing where a candidate’s money comes from, as well as which groups are spending on behalf of (or against) their campaign, helps you understand their beliefs, the advice they’re getting and the kinds of policies they’re likely to support.

What does a donation get you?

If you’re a candidate… Receiving donations can help you win an election. It’s not the only factor, but by and large, donations get spent on the day-to-day expenses of running a campaign. Take a look at how your candidates are spending their funds this season here, using ProPublica’s FEC Itemizer.

It’s probably garden-variety stuff: lunch, plane tickets, campaign ads, hotel rooms and venue rentals for campaign events. The choices candidates make tell you something about their priorities: where they’re spending their time, which voters they’re trying hardest to win over (older voters with TV ads or younger folks online) and how much they pay their staff.

Of course, sometimes candidates try to get creative in describing their campaign expenses, like California Rep. Duncan Hunter, who, along with his wife, is under indictment for spending donations on family trips to Hawaii and Italy and private school for their children.

If you see something suspicious in your candidates’ spending, or have questions, let us know at itemizer@propublica.org!

If you’re a donor to a candidate… My colleague Justin Elliott recently reported on a major donor to Donald Trump, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who contributed $20 million to Trump’s campaign and an additional $5 million for inauguration festivities. Since then, the Trump administration has helped advance some of his financial interests. For example, Trump reportedly raised Adelson’s bid to build a casino in Japan during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Mar-a-Lago, and his tax plan included new benefits to companies like Adelson’s.

But this is not the norm.

Most of the time, campaign donors don’t see a “return” on their investment. If you donate to a candidate, chances are you’re getting one of two things:

  1. The satisfaction of backing a potential winner.

  2. Lunch. Or something like lunch, with a chance to share your perspective with the candidate once he or she has taken office.

Campaign donations are not supposed to be transactional — that’s considered bribery, and it’s a crime. But they are a way of establishing a relationship and opening the door to conversations between the donor and the government. This is why, for example, defense industry PACs give to candidates who sit on the Armed Services Committee. They have an interest in talking to the people who help govern their industry. Conversely, when Rep. Charles Rangel stepped aside from the powerful House Ways and Means Committee for ethics violations, his once-stalwart campaign donors disappeared because he no longer had an important role for their interests.

Yes, it’s murky.

But, thanks to the post-Watergate Congressional Class of ’74, we can at least see what’s behind the curtains. If you give $200 or more to a candidate, the campaign is required to report your name, address and employer or occupation to the Federal Election Commision. Based on these FEC filings, along with similar disclosures from political action committees, the Center for Responsive Politics (through their site OpenSecrets.org) determines which industries are funding the candidates in your race.

Take a close look at the types of sectors and interest groups donating to your candidates. These can signal who has their ear.

If you’re a donor to a super PAC… Mostly what you get are negative campaign ads. Some of the biggest players in the campaign landscape are super PACs. These are political action committees that don’t give directly to the candidate but spend independently in support of (or in opposition to) them. This outside spending is completely uncapped, freeing super PACs to raise any amount of money to influence any given race — typically for negative advertising. (You may balk at this, but, even if people claim to hate them, attack ads work.)

Think about the negative ads you’ve seen lately. Chances are they were funded by a super PAC, believing certain voters can be activated based on their message. Knowing who these groups are can help you better understand their motives (and better assess whether you buy what they’re selling). Here’s where you can find out more about independent expenditures in your state’s races.

Super PACs tend to represent three main categories:

  • Single-Issue Groups: Think advocacy groups that focus on abortion, or the environment, or taxes.

  • Partisan Groups: These are super PACs formed at the direction of key House and Senate leaders, like the Congressional Leadership Fund (affiliated with House Republican leaders) and the Senate Majority PAC (connected with Senate Democratic leadership). While lawmakers themselves are restricted from soliciting unlimited donations to the super PACs they’re tied to, the people running these groups can do so on their behalf.

  • Family Interests: Basically, this is when a wealthy family member comes through (like Kansas House candidate Steve Watkins’ loaded dad).

Outside spending from super PACs can have a big impact on an election. ProPublica and Politico recently reported on Mountain Families PAC, a super PAC set up by allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to intervene in this year’s West Virginia Republican primary. The group spent $1.3 million against Don Blankenship, a former coal baron who was considered the wild-card candidate, in a three-way race. Blankenship finished third, and Mountain Families shut down in May. Mission accomplished.

Homework

ProPublica has a tool called FEC Itemizer, which lets you browse electronic campaign finance filings from the commission. Until very recently, Senate candidates kicked it old school by only filing these reports on paper. That changed on Oct. 15, and now you can use the FEC Itemizer to follow the money in your Senate race, too.

Stay up on how the midterm election is going for voters like you across the nation, check out the latest from Electionland.

October 8, 2018

4 Questions to Ask When Comparing Midterm Candidates...

This year’s midterms are getting more attention than usual, with high stakes for both parties. You’ve probably seen a fair amount of “horse race” coverage focusing on competition between rival candidates while downplaying policies and platforms. But if you know how to read these stories, it helps you understand what’s at stake for you and can even inform your own political participation. (Get more information like this by signing up for ProPublica’s User’s Guide to Democracy.)

Think about it this way: The campaigns themselves are constantly watching certain signals — polls, fundraising, public opinion — to understand what’s going on in their races. They want to know, “What should we do next if we want to win this election?” And they adjust their tactics accordingly.

You have the power to adjust your actions, too.

See below for the important questions you should be asking yourself as we get closer to the midterms.

1. How competitive is your district?

The Cook Political Report provides real-time analysis on whether your current representative will have an easy time hanging onto their seat or if a challenger has a shot at defeating them.

The Cook Report is a nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes federal elections and campaigns — watching polls, tracking fundraising and outside spending, and talking to the campaigns and candidates — in order to assign a daily rating on the competitiveness of each race:

  • Solid (Republican or Democrat): These races are not considered competitive and are not likely to become closely contested.
  • Likely (Republican or Democrat): These seats are not considered competitive at this point, but they have the potential to become engaged.
  • Lean (Republican or Democrat): These are considered competitive races, but one party has an advantage.
  • Toss-Up: These are the most competitive; either party has a good chance of winning.

These ratings are updated daily, all based on what’s happening on the campaign trail. Look up where your district is for the:

2. Where’s the money?

Political organizations and nonprofit committees have spent hundreds of millions of dollars influencing the midterm elections, so tracking your candidates’ campaign finances is another insightful metric. Where did they get all that money, and how are they spending it?

One detail that can help you determine the strength of a campaign is the percentage of funds raised from individuals vs. PACs, or political action committees. A PAC is simply a collection of individuals who have pooled their money to donate to candidates. The best funded PACs are affiliated with corporations and interest groups — the NRA, Planned Parenthood and labor unions all have PACs — but they can also be funded by civically engaged folks who aren’t political operators.

A reliance on PACs, versus individual donors, can tell you something about a candidate’s institutional support versus grassroots support. A higher percentage of funds from PACs means a candidate’s donor money comes mostly in fairly large checks, as opposed to donations from individuals. A higher percentage of individual donations, on the other hand, is a sign of grassroots enthusiasm about the campaign.

To look up specific campaign fundraising details by candidate OR race type, check out ProPublica’s Election Databot.

3. But what do the numbers mean?

Most political fundraising amounts sound like a LOT of money to the average person. So, how do you know what those numbers mean?

Campaigns need cash to get their messages out, and in a competitive race it can be hard to be on television or to organize rallies if you’re not raising a ton of money.

That’s where the Cook Report ranking numbers come in handy: More competitive races typically attract more money. A toss-up race is likely to have two candidates who have raised more money than many other candidates in less competitive contests.

You can also look at the money gap between two candidates. If a candidate is at the lower end of the fundraising scale, particularly against a well-funded competitor, that usually indicates their chances are not great. (But there are exceptions — see June’s Democratic primary race in New York’s 14th Congressional District, in which 28-year-old challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated the highly funded incumbent congressman Joe Crowley in a major upset. So don’t stop believin’ if your candidate of choice is outspent. Money is important, but it’s not the only factor in getting elected.)

4. What about the issues?

Back in 2016 the Google trends team worked with journalists to identify a list of the issues and topics that voters might be interested in ahead of the election. The Google Trends team ranks search interest in those topics at the congressional district level. Sign up for the User’s Guide to Democracy newsletter to get the most-searched election issues in your district.

Another way to look into your candidates’ issues is to look up your candidates’ press releases on ProPublica’s Represent database. Done well, press releases are a way for candidates to tell voters who they are and set their positions on issues. (These can also conveniently double as venue for trash-talking their opponents.)

Look up your candidates. Are they speaking to issues that actually concern people in your district?

For your local races, the League of Women Voters has the goods

There’s only so much ProPublica can track with our data on federal candidates — which is why we’ve partnered with the League of Women Voters, which has a trove of information all the way down your ballot. The League is nonpartisan and works to arm citizens with the information they need to confidently vote.

For its Vote411.org project, the League reached out to every single candidate running for local and state office and asked each one a set of identical questions, like:

  • What experiences qualify you to represent the citizens living in your district?
  • What would be your top three priorities if elected?
  • How will you work to increase job opportunities for your constituents?

Because the League has so much juice in the political space, the majority of candidates actually answered, in their own words, allowing you to see where those running for office in your community stand on the issues.

You can get a list of all the information that the League of Women Voters has on local, state and federal candidates and ballot measures by searching for your address or state here.

Homework

Now that you can put race ratings, campaign statements and fundraising into context, use the Election DataBot to look up the latest information in your own House and Senate races.

You can also sign up for DataBot email alerts on changes in your races.

September 27, 2018

How Effective Is Your Representative?

Hello, and welcome back to another edition of A User’s Guide to Democracy! If you’re new here, you can check out our previous pieces on what you need to know about political advertising and our round up of the deadlines, rules, and links you need to vote in this year’s midterms.

Today, let’s talk about who you’re actually voting for in the midterm election: members of Congress. Made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate, Congress is tasked with making laws on our behalf. Since senators keep their jobs for six years at a time, a lot of places don’t have a Senate race this year. But no matter where you live, your congressional district is voting for a House representative in this election. So today I’m going to focus on how you can keep tabs on your representative.

Most of us learned what Congress does back in elementary school social studies (maybe supplemented with some Saturday morning “Schoolhouse Rock”). It probably went something like this:

  1. A senator or representative introduces a bill.
  2. The bill goes to a committee for hearings and approval.
  3. It is debated and voted on from the House and Senate floors.
  4. A compromise version is worked out.
  5. The resulting bill is voted on to become a law.

Ta-da!

It turns out, that’s not exactly true. As my colleague Derek Willis has helped me understand, that’s not how it works most of the time.

Congress does pass a lot of bills through the legislative process. But these are mostly non-controversial: bills to congratulate someone, rename a post office or designate a national week. There’s no debate and no deliberative, committee-driven process required.

When it comes to the legislation you do hear about — big, politically contentious things like immigration, health care and taxes — the process hasn’t been working as planned.

Why Does Congress Seem So Stuck?

One reason for the gridlock is that, these days, bills on big, national issues are written under the supervision of the Senate majority leader and the House speaker (currently Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Paul Ryan). They receive guidance from only a small group of other congressional power brokers, rather than the rank-and-file lawmakers who used to contribute to the process.

Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell in the Capitol in 2015 (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The resulting legislation, crafted behind closed doors, is presented as a “take it or leave it” deal when it’s voted on by everyone else. Faced with legislation on which they’ve had no real input, many members opt for “leave it” — and the bills get stuck in legislative limbo, without enough support to pass a nearly evenly divided Congress.

To evaluate your lawmakers in this new reality, you can look at what they are doing and which issues they’re spending their time on, either through lawmaking (on those topics that don’t necessarily grab headlines) or in public position statements.

One of the ways you can find out what your rep is up to is by checking out the bills he or she has sponsored. This is all public information, and ProPublica’s Represent app can help you navigate to the information that matters to you.

Is Your Rep Getting Things Done?

To understand your representative through their bills, you want to look for three things:

  1. What the bill is about
  2. How far it got
  3. Who else is supporting the bill

What the bill is about: Think about the things that matter to you and your community, and ask yourself:

  • Is your representative sponsoring bills on those topics?
  • If your lawmaker seems to be ignoring your issues, why is that?

How far it got: Every bill that gets introduced is automatically referred to a committee. Many measures never get past this stage and were never intended to — because they are mostly meant to let lawmakers go to town halls and say, “I introduced an important bill.” But virtue signaling is not enough for those of us who want to see things get done. Too see where they’re really focusing their energies, take a look at recent bills that made it beyond the introduction stage.

Who else is supporting the bill: When it comes to bill co-sponsors, pay attention to whether or not it has bipartisan support. Whether you want a lawmaker who’s willing to compromise with the other side, or whether you object to compromise as a sign of giving in to the other side, bipartisan support can mean that your representative has done some work to shop his or her bill around and help get it passed.

Head over to Represent and take a look at the bills your representative has introduced during this term.

One More Thing to Check: Press Releases

Legislation isn’t the only way to compare your representatives’ concerns against your own. There’s also the stuff they talk about. We’ve analyzed every press release from each member of Congress, to identify which policy areas they primarily focus on. These stated priorities are a useful introduction to what they care about, even if they’re fairly broad policy topics. You can find those on Represent under “Policy Priorities.”

But don’t stop there.

We’ve also analyzed those press releases to identify “Distinctive Topics,” which are those subjects that someone talks about in his or her press releases more often than other members of Congress. As the person in the federal government closest to you, working in your district’s name, these more specific issues should, ideally, sound familiar. Do they?

If they don’t, jump back up to the top of this list of questions and get to understanding. The point here is: The more information you have, the more it empowers you to ask better questions.

Homework

Now that you’re familiar with the basics of using ProPublica’s Represent database, this week’s assignment is to look up the legislative work of your lawmakers in the Senate, too. What does it tell you about what they’re doing in your name?

And you’re done! Next week, I’ll walk you through tools to help you evaluate the candidates in your district, head to head. Talk soon!

June 25, 2018

Behind the Headline: María Eugenia Vela

A lawyer from the small Mexican town of Allende, María Eugenia Vela was at work on the evening of March 18, 2011, waiting for a judge to sign off on reports she had written. Her husband Edgar stopped by her office, delivering empanadas and giving her a kiss. It was the last time she ever saw him.

That night, gunmen from the Zetas drug cartel swept through Allende, kidnapping men, women and children. Houses were looted and set on fire. When it was all done, dozens, possibly hundreds, of people were dead or missing, including Vela’s husband, Edgar. The night he disappeared, their daughter was just six years old, and Vela was pregnant with their second child, a son.

“The authorities were totally apathetic,” Vela said of the lack of any investigation into the massacre, even after she filed a report about Edgar’s disappearance. Some in the community suggested that the victims may have been involved with drug trafficking. “I didn’t understand how this disappearance of my husband came to pass. It’s unthinkable.”

Years passed, and Vela rarely spoke about the incident. She never got any answers to bring closure. So it was a shock when ProPublica reporter Ginger Thompson showed up on her doorstep in 2016. Thompson was working on an oral history about what happened in Allende and hoped that Vela would speak with her. “She gave me the reassurance to speak,” Vela said about agreeing to be interviewed. “The way she addressed me, and how she treated the topic, made me trust her.”

The ProPublica oral history, co-published with National Geographic, unveiled the tragic story of Allende through the voices of those left behind. It also revealed a scandal: A botched U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigation had triggered the massacre in the first place.

“The story is proof that Edgar didn’t have anything to do with it,” said Vela, who learned about the U.S. government’s role in the massacre for the first time through Thompson’s reporting. “I have something tangible that I can show my children when they are older. I can explain to them how it happened. It gives me relief that there is, written in full, a journalistic testimony of what happened to their father.”

The story also got the attention of senior lawmakers in Washington. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, citing ProPublica’s reporting, called for an investigation into the DEA’s role in triggering violent drug cartel attacks.

June 25, 2018

Behind the Headline: Demetrius Smith

Demetrius Smith was wrongly accused of shooting someone — not once, but twice.

In 2008, a jury found Smith guilty of murder and sentenced him to life plus 18 years for shooting his neighbor, a crime he maintained he didn’t commit. He served more than five years before he was proven innocent and exonerated.

Because of this injustice, when Smith was wrongfully convicted of another shooting, he reluctantly took a special plea deal that allowed him to maintain his innocence and be released, while the felony conviction was left on his record.

This kind of plea deal is called an Alford plea, in which a defendant enters a guilty plea while also asserting his innocence for the record. The deal allows the inmate to avoid prison time. But he remains convicted of the crime, forever a felon. In her “Ignoring Innocence” series, reporter Megan Rose documented the consequences of this bad deal.

While he avoided prison time, Smith found that the felony conviction had other consequences: “You can’t get housing, you can’t get certain jobs,” he said. “When you try to explain the story [to employers], they don’t want to hear all that. I had nothing to do with the shooting, but I was still paying for it.”

Smith returned to court in 2017, requesting to revise his Alford plea and clear his record. The prosecutor vetoed the request, wrongly claiming that the judge had no power to help him. When ProPublica reporter Megan Rose reached out to Smith about telling his story, he was cautiously optimistic. “I never heard of ProPublica, but I was hoping that people actually read your paper,” he said.

Fortunately, the right people did read the ProPublica story. Weeks after its publication, the prosecutor admitted he’d been wrong and asked a judge to schedule a new hearing. In January 2018, that hearing ended with Smith’s felony conviction cleared from his record.

“I felt so good, like my life was starting,” Smith said of that day. “The story made people see what actually goes on in a courtroom with these prosecutors,” Smith said. “This type of stuff happens all the time and doesn’t get put out there enough.”

Today, Smith is working with partners to launch a business that will train people with felony convictions in landscaping and construction. Its name: Growing Opportunities. “I want to give everybody a shot, no matter what’s on their record, whether they were innocent or guilty, because everybody deserves a second chance,” said Smith. “I don’t think God brought me this far for nothing. There’s a reason.”

June 18, 2018

Behind the Headline: Marie McCausland

Four days after Marie McCausland gave birth to her first child, the hospital sent her and her husband home with their new baby boy. Hours later, she felt awful: severe chest pain, a splitting headache and spiking blood pressure. When she laid down to rest, the symptoms got worse. “I just had this feeling like, ‘If I go to sleep, I’m not going to wake up,’” says McCausland.

The hospital’s discharge materials said nothing about her symptoms, but McCausland remembered the ProPublica/NPR story she’d read one week earlier about Lauren Bloomstein, who died soon after childbirth from preeclampsia, a type of high blood pressure that only occurs in pregnancy or postpartum. Recognizing Bloomstein’s symptoms in herself, McCausland and her husband packed up their four-day-old baby and rushed to the closest emergency room in Cleveland.

The first ER doctor she saw tried sending her back home with blood pressure meds, even as her face had become so bloated she barely recognized herself. But McCausland stood her ground. “I said, ‘I’m not leaving here with this high blood pressure. I really think it’s preeclampsia.’” McCausand waited in the ER for another seven hours before the doctor consulted with an obstetrician at another hospital — who immediately registered her symptoms as severe preeclampsia and directed proper treatment.

“ProPublica’s reporting literally saved my life, and it’s changed the course of my life,” said McCausland, who had spent the better part of her graduate career working to become an HIV researcher. “Now I’m trying to figure out how to get into maternal health advocacy as a career.”

She’s off to a good start: A few months after her near-death experience, she contacted the hospital’s Chief of System Quality for Obstetrics, pushing them to improve its protocol. The hospital updated its discharge papers to include a list of potentially dangerous postpartum symptoms, so new mothers now know what conditions to look out for.

June 18, 2018

Behind the Headline: Christopher Copolillo

Christopher Copolillo was a grad student at the University of Southern California in 2017, when the Trump administration announced plans to cut $3.9 billion from the Pell Grant program for low-income college students. “It felt so wrong, and I wondered how it would play out in our local context,” said Copolillo, a former public school teacher who was majoring in public policy analysis.

A columnist for USC’s student newspaper The Daily Trojan, Copolillo set out to write an article ringing the alarm about the White House’s proposed Pell Grant cuts. “Living in L.A. can sometimes feel like you’re far away from the federal government and the ways these policies can affect real people. I wanted to give people some context and an access point.”

He turned to ProPublica’s Debt By Degrees database, which lets users see how much U.S. colleges and universities financially support (or financially burden) their poorest students. Launched in 2015 by news applications developer Sisi Wei (now deputy editor, news applications) and reporter Annie Waldman, Debt By Degrees came with a “reporting recipe” of journalistic insights and techniques to help student reporters investigate debt at their own schools.

Using Debt By Degrees, Copolillo found that USC was in the top one-fourth of colleges in the amount of aid it provides for students. But a closer examination of the data showed that the university ranked in the middle of the pack when it came to the number of low-income students it brings to its campus in the first place. “I was encouraged by the fact that USC was doing better than some,” said Copolillo, who now works for an education nonprofit in Los Angeles. “But the tool makes it really clear that there’s still so far to go. Debt By Degrees was invaluable to my reporting. I could not have contextualized USC, or talked about it with folks on campus, without it.”

June 18, 2018

Behind the Headline: Noemi Martinez

Noemi Martinez of Jacksonville, Fla., was in a desperate hurry last July, as she ran to catch the bus from one job interview to the next. Along the way, she veered off the sidewalk to avoid a showering sprinkler. She was stopped by a police officer who issued a $62.50 citation for “walking in roadway where sidewalks provided.”

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Martinez, who was unemployed at the time. “I was really overwhelmed.”

Having missed her bus, Martinez headed to the courthouse, where she planned to contest the ticket. Unsure where to go, she stopped Whitney Lonker, a defense attorney who happened to be nearby; Lonker explained the protocol and tried reassuring her that it would be dropped. After all, Lonker (who is white) had been stopped for jaywalking before and there was no ticket. The two parted ways.

Shortly after the women met, Lonker received a call from two reporters, Topher Sanders of ProPublica and Benjamin Conarck of the Florida Times-Union. They were starting a joint investigation on the phenomenon of “Walking While Black,” looking at racial disparities in who gets stopped and penalized for Jacksonville’s pedestrian violations. They asked if she’d ever heard of anybody who experienced it. Lonker told the reporters about the distressed woman she’d just met at the courthouse, who ultimately agreed to talk with them for the story.

After their story was published, revealing that African Americans receive 55 percent of all pedestrian tickets in Jacksonville, while only accounting for 29 percent of the population, Lonker reached out to Martinez and offered to represent her pro bono in contesting the ticket. Martinez was still ruled in violation of the statute, but the judge reduced her fine from $62.50 to $25. Martinez saw no justice in the reduction. “The amount of the ticket is not the issue; the issue is the ticket itself, “ she said. “I shouldn’t have had to pay a penny because I didn’t do anything wrong.”

The reporting, however, made a difference for Martinez in another way. “When Topher and Ben first reached out to me, I was in such an angry space,” she said. “But when they actually listened to me, and advocated for me, they helped me heal a little bit. There are so many people defending the police department, and, until ProPublica, my voice was not being heard. I thank ProPublica for shining light on a dark place for me. The story gave me hope.”

The investigation also prompted Jacksonville’s sheriff to retrain his officers on the pedestrian laws and void several tickets that the reporting showed had been written erroneously. Amid those changes local lawmakers called for the suspension of pedestrian ticket writing.