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A bit different from the usual sort of post here.  Below is the testimony I just submitted to the Federal Election Commission in response to their Internet Initiative.  Essentially, they're considering a complete revamp of their website and disclosure tools.  Turns out we have a lot to say about it!  I hope to expand on these comments next week when the Commission holds their public hearing on the matter.

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Dear Sir:

I applaud the Commission's effort to improve the FEC website and disclosure tools.

Much of the Commission's request for public comments revolves around the access to and presentation of disclosure information.  This is my particular area of expertise: since 2004, ActBlue has reported over two million individual disclosure events to the FEC.  A software engineer by training, I have been variously responsible for architecting ActBlue's novel use of earmarked contributions, designing and implementing the software that processes these individual transactions, and managing the task of integrating that activity into ActBlue's monthly disclosure filings.  I have also worked with the equivalent disclosure systems in over 20 individual states, again both from a campaign finance perspective as well as a software engineer.

It is in this context that I submit the following testimony to the Commission.  I would welcome the opportunity to expand on these comments by testifying to the Commission at its hearing on this matter next week.

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I believe the Commission can use a technology refresh as an opportunity to establish  the FEC database as the gold standard of Federal compliance data while fostering a thriving ecosystem of independent software tools designed to query the FEC master data for specific information or to conduit specialized analysis.  The Commission has a unique ability to serve as a kind of "neutral data warehouse" for compliance information, establishing standard data formats and online protocols, providing canonical identifiers for individuals and vendors that appear in compliance filings, ensuring interoperability, and publishing reference implementations of its own software where appropriate.

A clear data model opens the door to third parties who can build their own independent tools for submitting, analyzing or visualizing committee disclosure data.  Some tools may prove useful to many committees or other interested parties; indeed, the Commission should search for ways to encourage developers to publish these tools.  Others will be developed privately, perhaps on behalf of a individual committee to answer strategically important questions, or a third-party watchdog searching for hidden trends or archetypes.  These tools may potentially remain far from the public's eye.

While the Commission will almost certainly build its own analysis software on top of this new foundation, a rich and well-documented data model relieves the Commission of many of its own software burdens.  With appropriate formats and protocols in place that leverage open industry standards and development tools – both free and proprietary – the Commission is no longer in the unenviable position of gating access to disclosure data behind its own software.  In other words, while the Commission may continue to develop and support its own systems for uploading or analyzing disclosure data, these would no longer be required for other groups to develop their own systems.

From this perspective, the data itself reigns supreme and the toolkits are merely supporting players.  The Commission is the only custodian of the data itself, and should focus its efforts on providing clear, complete, and well-documented data to its clients.

The Data Warehouse Model

An excellent starting point for defining a clear data model are standard techniques developed for data warehousing in the commercial world. The universe of disclosure data that the Commission intends to publish should be integrated into a comprehensive schema.  Such a schema would revolve around "facts" such as contributions to a committee, and "dimensions," which might include committee information, individual donor information, election information, and other metadata relevant to the disclosure toolkit itself.

A successful data warehouse places the focus on individual facts and their supporting dimensions.  The commission must target its greatest efforts here.  If the data definitions capture the important meanings of each disclosure event, then there are numerous opportunities for a richer analysis framework, either developed in house by the Commission or by independent for-profit and non-profit groups.  On the other hand, without a clear model and standards-based access to it, the Commission must carry the burden of developing and maintaining the toolkits used to upload compliance data (such as FECFile) and retrieve information (such as the custom search features of the current website).

In the language of data warehousing, one of the critical roles of the Commission is to canonicalize and aggregate incoming data into standard forms before publishing them in the warehouse.  Canonicalization is the process of converting various similar representations into a single, standard value.  A good example is converting postal addresses into a standard format with a ZIP+4 code.  Once data is canonicalized, the commission may perform one or more aggregate calculations and provide those values to the warehouse alongside the individual disclosure database.  In no case should aggregates replace the underlying facts in the warehouse, which are essential for third-party analysis that may be impossible when starting just with the aggregate information.  The commission already does much of this canonicalization and aggregation today.  The key is to precisely document the rules that are used, so that there is certainty about the final result and an opportunity for third party tools to align their own business logic.

Another critical role for the Commission is to develop standards for coding contributors, employers, industries, locations, purposes, and vendors with unique and consistent identifiers.  Continuing with the language of a data warehouse, each of these attributes of a disclosure event is a dimension.  Much of the challenge of a warehouse is in maintaining a comprehensive database of these dimensions, particularly as new values are added over time.  This task is essential, though: these dimensions form the backbone of virtually all the sophisticated analyses one might wish to attempt.  In contrast to the value of independently-developed front-end tools with distinct strengths and weaknesses, there is no value in competing techniques for identifying repeat contributors or common vendors across multiple disclosures.  Indeed, disagreement over whether two donor records refer to the same individual is singularly unhelpful.  The Commission's internal system is the natural place for such an effort.

Formats and Protocols

The Commission has a clear opportunity to define standard formats for disclosure data and standard protocols for the transmission of disclosure data.  Naturally, these standards should build on modern software engineering best practices.  Any new website and disclosure toolkit should accept incoming disclosure data in these formats, and provide canonical disclosure data to the public using them.

Two formatting standards would be particularly valuable: a standard XML representation of campaign finance events, committee records, and comm
unications between the Commission and committees; and an XHTML microformat standard appropriate for use in an interactive website.  Microformats are particularly well-suited for committee records and contribution and expenditure data.  A successful microformat standard would allow both generic and purpose-built search engines to easily index disclosure data, offering an end-run around many of the search challenges the Commission raises in its RFP.

On the protocol side, it is critical that the Commission replace the closed software systems currently used to upload disclosure data with standard network protocols that third parties can easily tie into their existing systems.  This work paves the way for more sophisticated reporting tools, real-time disclosure, and fewer translation errors caused when committees struggle to force disclosure data into FECFile.

Open Systems

Finally, I urge the Commission to publish the disclosure system itself.

The Commission has an opportunity to improve campaign finance disclosure not just at the Federal level, but in states and local municipalities.  The improvements I've suggested Ð and indeed the challenges laid out by the Commission in the RFP Ð are as applicable to state and local election commissions, many of whom have far fewer resources than does this Commission.  While not a formal part of your mission, I would suggest that offering a template for disclosure systems to others in need of these tools is not at all in opposition to the FEC's charter.  Standardizing formats and protocols grows the market for tools built against these standards, and will inexorably lead to a greater variety of higher quality tools.

The process should begin with a public collaboration to ensure a robust standard that meets disparate needs.  The software components that define the data warehouse schema, accept incoming data, canonicalize and aggregate records, house the disclosure warehouse, support client queries and downloads, and Commission-developed front end tools should all be made available to the public in source form, with clear documentation and change histories.  Many of the search and analysis tools currently offered by the Commission, such as the widgets on the current website to view data by House and Senate Elections, can be re-implemented using the new warehouse tools and again be made available in source form for others to modify and build on.  And the process by which these tools were developed, including internal deliberations over formats and techniques are all valuable material that also deserve to be made available to the public.

Thank you again for the opportunity to contribute to the Commission's request.  I look forward to a productive conversation.

So, as you may know, we just celebrated our fifth birthday.

Over the past five years ActBlue has grown tremendously, with our total volume in the 2008 cycle exceeding 400% of the volume in 2004. Democrats have raised nearly $100 million through our system, and we have more fundraising pages, candidates and committees than ever before.

The summer after federal elections is a natural opportunity for political organizations to evaluate their needs for the next cycle, and we’re doing exactly that. We constantly analyze our technical structures in order to provide the best performance, tools and services possible. As part of that process we’ve decided to start working with a new technology provider that works exclusively for us: ActBlue Technical Services (ATS).

Why the change?

Well, we’ve gotten really large. We’re the only 50 state platform for online fundraising in the country and as such we have very specific needs. We’ve got to display 10,000 different committees and 16,000 individual fundraising pages. We’ve got to get all the information from those sources and make sure it gets to the appropriate people with each campaign and organization. And on top of that, we’ve got to innovate. We’ve got to make sure that Democrats have the very best tools available to them so that they can stay competitive across the country, whether they’re running for a seat in their state legislature or the Oval Office.

We take on all that responsibility because we’ve got a commitment to increased transparency and participation. We want more people to run, more people to give, and more people to fundraise. That’s the way we’ll change politics.

Don’t believe us? Judd Legum, founder of Think Progress and candidate for the MD legislature, had this to say:

It can be daunting for a candidate to pull back the curtain on their fundraising efforts and embrace ActBlue, but the rewards are worth it. The transparent, real-time numbers available on ActBlue have been instrumental in generating buzz and momentum for my campaign, and I’m excited to continue to growing with ActBlue as the election approaches. I’ve worked with ActBlue for months now, and I’m a firm believer in what they do. I just received my first contribution through ActBlue’s Twitter application!

And now we’ve extended our commitment to transparency to our technical operations. ATS is a political nonprofit and will file with the IRS just like ActBlue files with the FEC. We practice what we preach.

We made the change at the end of Q2 so that campaigns wouldn’t be inconvenienced at the reporting deadline. There won’t be any change on the front end; everything is going work the same way it did before. ATS will continue to take a processing fee from each contribution and that fee gets the money from the plastic card in your wallet to the appropriate committee.

That said, all of the organizing and outreach we do is still supported exclusively by your tips and direct contributions to ActBlue. It’s a wonderful model because it keeps us accountable to a broad swath of Democrats. When you call to ask about a donation you made or get your campaign set up, you’re speaking to someone who is supported by your commitment to Democratic politics. That’s not going to change; we’ll still be by Democrats, for Democrats.

We’re working with all ActBlue Democrats to keep them up to date on what this change means for them. If you have any questions, feel free to email us at info@actblue.com. We read every email.

Just a few words about our strategy behind last week’s Twitter integration project.

Certainly, we hope it’s a big benefit to campaigns.  There’s no doubt that Democratic candidates have jumped into Twitter.  It got to a point where we were couldn’t ignore the clamor.  But let me highlight three specific motivations that go deeper than “serving candidates and fundraisers any way we can.”

  1. We are eager to drive adoption of our ActBlue Express donor accounts.  Express donors can review their full contribution history at any time, track progress against a personal giving target or aggregate contribution limits, make new contributions with just a few clicks, and — of course — now have the option to contribute via Twitter as well.  You’ll see us doing more with these donor accounts over the next months, both in terms of their capabilities and how we promote them.
  2. Twitter represents our first attempt at a mobile giving platform for Democratic fundraising.  It’s a challenge whose solution has thus far remained out of reach in politics.  We can put a stake in the ground claiming the first honest mobile giving platform generally available to Democrats, but I also hope it is only the first of many innovations in that space.
  3. Grassroots fundraising shines when donors become fundraisers, reaching other donors that candidates themselves can’t reach.  We’ve preached that gospel from our first days five years ago.  What’s so unique to Twitter is that the contribution tweet serves two roles: a contribution instruction to ActBlue and the fundraising ask itself.  We’ll watch that dynamic closely, and perhaps try to bake in support for retweets as a way for donors to augment a contribution with a few bucks of their own.

Ultimately, we’re looking for a new culture of online giving, not driven solely by asks from candidates and their fundraisers, but a mesh of activity underlying each day’s online political discourse.  With ActBlue and Twitter, we can go beyond sending out “attaboys” when a Congressman votes the right way.  Imagine instead if those votes drove a flurry of micro-contributions, or a matching pledge implemented as a Twitter bot that automatically responds to contributions with the matching donor’s own gift.

Let us know what you think, and please do give it a whirl!

Like many of you, I spent Tuesday morning waiting for the Prop 8 decision to come down. The result was a disappointment, but it got me thinking about where we go from here. I think that the biggest lesson I’ve taken away from this struggle is that organizing is crucial to success. You’ve got to get the money, then the people, and then the result. And you’ve got to start early.

With that in mind, I wanted to talk a little bit about what we’re interested in doing in ’09 and ’10, and the role that all of you can play in that process.

For starters, we’re very interested in ballot initiatives. While every cycle a few of these enter the national media consciousness, far too many slip through the cracks, their likely effects on the community obscured by confusing language. We’d like to become a place where Democrats can raise the money they need to support or oppose these often esoteric measures.

So what can you do as just one person?

It’s pretty simple: when you discover a ballot initiative that affects your community, shoot us an email about it. Let us know who's supporting/opposing it and suggest that they get set up on ActBlue.

In the same vein, we've also started up a pilot program for local races in Boston, San Francisco, Houston, Cleveland, Charlotte and Cook County (IL). We've gotten an enthusiastic response, but we'd like to reach every Democratic candidate we can. So if you know of someone running for office in those cities, please urge them to get listed with ActBlue. We're all familiar with the old saw that all politics is local, and we figured it's time someone started taking it seriously.

The next big issue we’re interested in is the coming round of redistricting. To make a long story short, in 2010 we’re going to take a census. In 2011, the states will begin the process of redrawing federal congressional districts based on the results of that census. As we all remember from the Tom DeLay shenanigans circa 2003, the GOP isn’t inclined to play fair on this issue. Democratic leaders in Washington are preparing for another round of protracted legal wrangling after the fact. We have a slightly different prescription:

Winning.

Redistricting is the next major strategic battlefield in Democratic politics, and your help is essential. In 36 states, redistricting plans are voted on by the state legislature. So figure out who your state representative is, and give them a call. Encourage them to get set up on ActBlue. Do the same for your state senator. If either of those people happen to be Republicans, find out who their Democratic challenger is and point them our way. Ditto for the gubernatorial race in your state.

This is a battle we’ll help you fight in all 50 states,* and we’re the only ones out there who can.

Best, 
-Adrian

P.S. Among the many reasons I work at ActBlue is that I think what we do here is pretty cool. We’re expanding the pool of people engage in political activity, breaking down barriers to entry in Democratic politics, and helping Democrats organize support for the causes that matter most to them. We do what we do in all 50 states, and I like to think we do it well. Apparently, so does James-freakin’-Bond. It’s nice to know he feels the same way as I do.

*Okay, okay, it's only 43 if you want to get all technical. Seven states have only a single congressional representative, and therefore no need to redistrict.

Scott Murphy won his special election today for the NY-20 seat after James Tedisco conceded (TPMNYT).

ActBlue was there from start to finish.  His early numbers at ActBlue demonstrated his viability in the first weeks of the race.  As the race tightened in the final weeks, Senator Gillibrand and General Wesley Clark added to the momentum with fundraising asks.  And within hours of the initial election results, we set up the New York Victory Protection Fund between the state party and the campaign to protect the election.
Each of these successes contributed to the next because of our commitment to transparency.  Donors, fundraisers, and the press could all see the campaign building strength each day.
We’re proud to play a role in every step of Democratic victory.  Congratulations, Congressman Murphy.
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As we head into Election Day, we wanted to highlight a closely watched election in the state of Nebraska, where Scott Kleeb is running for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Republican Chuck Hagel.

After a near-win for Nebraska’s 3rd Congressional District seat in 2006, Kleeb scored a landslide victory in the Democratic primary election for the U.S. Senate seat, winning almost 70 percent of the vote in a four-candidate race.

<pScott Kleeb's roots in Nebraska are strong: he is a fourth-generation Nebraskan and currently teaches at Hastings College in Hastings, Nebraska. After attending the University of Colorado at Boulder and graduating summa cum laude, he went on to Yale University, where he graduated with both a Master's degree in International Relations and a PhD in History. Kleeb is married to Jane Fleming and has two children.

Kleeb has successfully raised over $730,000 on ActBlue from an astounding 10,000 supporters. He has been endorsed by Daily Kos’ Orange to Blue program, the Nebraska State Education Association, and has received support from Senators Ben Nelson, Claire McCaskill, Barbara Boxer, and John Kerry, among others.

We were thrilled when we caught up with Scott a few weeks ago in Denver. Despite less than ideal filming conditions (the background is a little noisy and dark), Scott took time to send a message to about ActBlue.

Please forgive the conditions, ActBlue Democrats. Here’s Scott Kleeb:

With less than a week left until the election, it is time to head back to the West Coast and profile Democrat Russ Warner, who is running for Congress in California’s Twenty-Sixth District.

Russ Warner and his family have lived in the Twenty-Sixth district for nearly 27 years with his family. He runs Warner International Periodical Services, a magazine distribution company that he started in the 1980s.

Warner is running in part because of a challenge from his son. Warner’s son Greg returned from serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq for seventeen months and asked his father to make a difference in Iraq by running for Congress.. He decided to challenge Republican incumbant David Dreier who has been in office since 1980. Warner could be the first real threat to Dreier’s seat in almost 30 years.

We feel so lucky to have been a part of Russ Warner’s success!

ActBlue Democrats, Here’s Russ Warner:

We are more than excited to profile one of our top fundraisers, Dan Seals, who has raised nearly 1.5 million dollars on ActBlue since 2005.

Dan Seals is running in Illinois’ 10th district, where he is challenging Republican incumbent Mark Kirk for the second time after winning 47 percent of the vote in the 2006 election. Seals, who received a masters degree in International Economics and Japan Studies from Johns Hopkins, and an MBA from the University of Chicago, has raised almost $1 million dollars from nearly 8,000 contributors on ActBlue this election cycle.

With formal endorsements from Barack Obama and U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, fervent support from the DCCC and the Netroots community, and a rating from Time Magazine as one of the top 15 House and Senate Races of 2008, Dan Seals is undoubtedly tough competition for incumbent Mark Kirk in Illinois’ 10th district.

ActBlue Democrats, here’s Dan Seals:

We’re back again with another voice from the field.

In the third part of an occasional series, we’re traveling to Washington State, where the formidable Darcy Burner is running for Congress. We had a chance to talk with Burner for a bit at Netroots Nation about the race, an unexpectedly eventful summer, and the power of small donations.

Author of the much-noted "Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq," Darcy Burner is challenging Republican Dave Reichert for the Congressional seat representing Washington’s Eighth District. A Harvard graduate, Burner worked for software companies in Boston and San Francisco before settling in Washington State, where she worked on Microsoft’s .NET project. She grew up in a military family in rural towns across the United States.

Darcy Burner made headlines earlier this summer when her family’s home was consumed by fire. A powerful photograph portraying the candidate in an "end the war" shirt written in computer code (</war>) sparked bloggers nationwide to rally behind Burner. In a matter of weeks, they raised more than $150,000 from hundreds of contributors on ActBlue, enough to give Burner "the breathing room she needs to tend to her own affairs without worrying about neglecting her campaign."

ActBlue Democrats, here’s Darcy Burner.

(*ActBlue does not take sides in a contested primary, and does not endorse particular candidates for office.)

Small contributions have fueled Burner’s ActBlue success, averaging less than $38, but totaling more than $400,000. And that’s what we’re all about here: putting power in your hands, and changing the way candidates win.

Make a difference. Go to http://www.actblue.com today and do your part.

Thanks for stopping by. Stay tuned for next week’s candidate profile!

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