Knight News Challenge Injects $3.2 Million into Election Tech

The contest invests in 22 projects that seek to increase engagement and provide voters with richer information during elections.

by / July 24, 2015
The Center for Responsive Politics Political Nonprofit Investigator Robert Maguire speaks out about an initiative to create one of the first databases to track non-profit political spending. The Knight Foundation

Is it right for half the population to decide what happens to the other half?

For better or worse, that’s exactly what poor voter turnout means in the United States. Statistics show that in the 2012 presidential election, only about 55 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.

The dearth in voter participation is one of the many electoral issues the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is attempting to remedy with its Knight News Challenge on Elections. The $3.2 million contest announced its 22 winners this week, projects that aim to educate voters and increase participation in the coming 2016 election.

Knight made the announcement at the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communication.

“We have many projects that are trying to unravel the complexities of the money, politics and messages that are happening during campaign cycles,” said Knight’s Director of Media Innovation Chris Barr. “The challenge is really a mechanism for us that’s about discovery, so we try to make the call as broad and as open to as many people that have ideas as possible.”

Despite a diversity of submissions, Barr said two underlying themes emerged: providing educational resources on candidates and political issues and driving citizens to action through voting and engagement in the election process. To supercharge such projects, generated by both individuals and organizations, Knight awarded 10 winners $200,000 to $525,000 each and 12 early-stage projects received $35,000 from the Knight Prototype Fund — a financial reservoir to develop concepts for early-stage media and information endeavors.

“I think we’ll see people testing and hopefully rolling these projects out methodically to larger audiences in the future,” Barr said.

Of the 22 projects, compelling solutions included ideas like Revive My Vote, a project awarded $230,000 to create a site that restores voting rights to Virginians with prior felonies with help from local law students. Another project, Lenses by NYC Media Lab, was awarded $35,000 to create an open-source toolkit for journalists to visualize information and election data on websites and blogs.

Yet, if there was one project that stood out from the rest, it had to be “Inside the 990 Treasure Trove,” a project named after the IRS 990 tax form. Knight honored the submission with $525,000 — the largest award of any project — to help voters and journalists see through the murky waters of campaign finance.

Political Nonprofit Investigator Robert Maguire submitted the entry as part of his work at the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) to cut through the bureaucratic elections paperwork that often conceals political donation sources. Guidestar, a nonprofit intelligence company that partnered in the submission, will enable the CRP to construct a database of nonprofit donation sources to illuminate motives behind nonprofit political donations. This, in turn, will be published on a CRP website and affixed with an application programming interface to channel the data, free of charge, into the apps of interested developers.

The idea for the project dates back three years when Maguire said CRP discovered many nonprofits were contributing to political campaigns without clear records of their own financial supporters.

“What we’re doing now is we’re basically going to start with the whole universe of nonprofit digitized data,” Maguire said. “We’re not looking at a subset of the tens of thousands of 501(c) organizations in existence. We’re looking as close as you can possibly get to the whole universe of nonprofits.”

Maguire said the new intelligence, gained from comparing IRS tax fillings with Federal Election Commission Data, is expected to identify a wealth of insights, things like loopholes to duck political contribution limits by relabeling donations under grants and other types of financial transcriptions.

The sources of the so-called “dark money” could be substantial. According to the CRP and Guidestar, nonprofit spending has skyrocketed from $6 million in 2004 to $309 million in 2012, and trends indicate that there’s no reason those figures won’t continue to escalate.

“The aim is to get his information out in as many ways possible,“ Maguire said, “To have custom downloads available and APIs, and anything that will help people take this information and run with it."

Knight News Challenge on Elections winners from Knight Foundation on Vimeo.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.