Powerful and a little scary

January 20th, 2009 by Ilya Marritz


During the 2004 election, opensecrets.org, Fundrace, and some big newspapers rolled out clickable maps of campaign donations, based on publicly available records. The maps revealed a few interesting things graphically:

  • The vast preponderance of money raised comes from places like the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Chicago’s Gold Coast, and wealthy neighborhoods of L.A.
  • Data showed some donors hedge their bets by donating to opposing campaigns, both in the primary and in the general.
  • Despite the whole red state-blue state thing, there’s not really so much residential segregation between wealthy Democrats and Republicans.
  • There IS such a thing as setting information free. How many citizens would comb through reams of Board of Elections data? But clickable maps are fun!

It was only a matter of time then, before the defeated-but-fired-up opponents of Proposition 8 posted their own interactive campaign donation map.  (Prop 8 is the measure that banned gay marriage in California, it passed, narrowly, last November and is now in legal limbo).

What’s really striking is that this “mash-up of Google Maps and Prop 8 Donors” opens in San Francisco, and the city is covered with scores of pins signifying each pro-8 donor. Click on a pin, and you get the name, address, and amount of money contributed. The map even reveals that a couple of people living in the Castro (!?!) gave to the Yes on 8 campaign. Fed up with the neighbors, eh? Other hotbeds of Pro-8 giving include Republican enclaves like Orange County and Utah (clearly, California has no law forbidding out-of-state donations).

There’s a lively debate going now about whether this kind of thing invites vigilantism.  (Andrew Sullivan has been hosting opinions and posting his own.)  Even before the Prop 8 map was created, an online database of Pro-8 donors, antigayblacklist.com, claimed a victim: the artistic director of the California Musical Theater, who resigned his job when a furor erupted.

There are victims, and there are victims, of course. Thousands of anti-gay crimes happen every year, without the help of interactive maps. And I’ve seen no reports of anything worse than a resignation resulting from setting this information free.

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