Dan Newman is tall and slender, with dark hair and a steady gaze. Imagine Ralph Nader or Harry Potter in his 30s. From a 700-square-foot office in Berkeley, California, with three colleagues and fourteen interns, he runs a nonprofit website that should give unscrupulous politicians pause. It’s called MAPLight.org. The first three letters stand for “money and politics,” and Newman is illuminating the connections.
As issues go, money and politics (and their cousin, campaign-finance reform) are considered a snooze by most voters. But Newman’s high-tech approach got hearts pounding in Silicon Valley last month. At an event called Netsquared, dedicated to “remixing the web for social change,” the leaders of twenty-one nonprofit organizations presented their best digital do-gooding ideas to tech experts and funders. The causes ranged from promoting US recycling to stopping genocide to empowering Third World women. When a vote was taken on the second day of the conference, MAPLight won first-place honors and a $25,000 grant.
An expert on software that translates human speech into computer text, Newman drifted into politics as a volunteer a few years ago. He soon saw that “activists trying to change society had the deck stacked against them,” he says. “They couldn’t compete with monied interests.” So in 2004, he championed a ballot measure aimed at bringing public financing to political campaigns in the city of Berkeley. To his dismay, the measure garnered only 42 percent of the vote. Even in famously reform-minded Berkeley, “it was taking too much hand-waving to explain to people what money and politics had to do with the issues they cared about,” Newman says. “I decided to build a website that would show them the specifics.”
The specifics can get pretty interesting. If you take MAPLight’s video tour, you learn that last September Congress enacted a free-trade agreement with the sultanate of Oman, one of the few countries in President Bush’s “coalition of the willing” in the war against Iraq. From 2001 through 2006, groups supporting the free-trade deal, including Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical and Occidental Petroleum, gave an average of $163,000 to senators who voted their way on this bill. A MAPLight chart, reveals that donations from such companies surged dramatically just before and after key votes were taken. Groups that opposed the bill, such as the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club and Public Citizen, made campaign contributions to legislators, too–an average of $26,000 for each legislator voting no–but as is often the case, the side making the biggest campaign donations won.