Money & politics: The map Elections NS didn’t want you to see

Here at last is Contrarian’s searchable map of 2011 political donations in Nova Scotia:

[Direct link to map] Each dot represents a donation. The dots are color-coded by party: orange (and brown) for NDP; red for Liberal; blue for PC; green for Green; and white for Atlantica. The larger dots stand for donations of $1,000 or more. Clicking on an individual dot reveals a pop-up table listing the name and address of the donor, the party to whom they donated, and the amount and type of donation. Use the + and – slider on the left side of the map to zoom in and out; click and drag the map to focus on a particular town or neighborhood.

The 2011 map is more complete that the 2010 map [direct link], because it includes donations to riding associations and byelection candidates as well as to the provincial parties, which the 2010 map does not.

For those who have not followed the issue, Contrarian’s election map project began when Elections Nova Scotia degraded the usefulness of the annual donations report it is required by law to release. It did this with an unannounced switch from the standard, searchable, text-grabbable PDF files it had traditionally used, to a scanned PDF file consisting of images that cannot be searched or copied to a text file or spreadsheet.

When Contrarian complained about the change, then-Chief Elections Officer Christine McCulloch responded with a bracing declamation on the paramount importance of privacy, coupled with an admonition that election donation data is no longer all that important to voters, now that corporations and unions are barred from contributing, and individuals are limited to $5000.

This is an attitude as old as bureaucracy. Even in a democracy, functionaries like McCulloch and her successor, who has so far continued her practice of kneecapping the data, quickly form the impression that the information they gather and manage on our behalf belongs to them.

It does not. It belongs to us, particularly when  it concerns a matter so vital as the impact of money on elections.

With help from many readers, Contrarian responded by republishing the 2010 data in the searchable, text-grab-friendly format used in previous years’ reports, then as an Excel spreadsheet, and finally, after some delay, as a searchable map. We also produced examples of interesting ways you could view election donation data once it was geocoded.

This is a tedious process, with most of the tedium arising from the inept, citizen-unfriendly way Elections Nova Scotia publishes its reports. Deliberate degrading by the use of scanned PDFs is part of the problem, but only part. The commission also divides each spreadsheet into individual page-sized chunks, so the document ends up containing more than 100 separate tables.

This year, these problems were compounded by the Liberal Party’s discovery, after the initial election donations report was published, that it had made a mistake in its filing. The party promptly refiled the correct information. The commission responded, not as any rational organization would do, by publishing a revised and corrected report, but by republishing the original report, still containing the same, incorrect Liberal data, and appending the correct Liberal data in 19 separate tables at the end.

A spokesperson said the commission had handled the mistake in this way on the advice of its lawyer, who, it seems, comes from the firm Dumb, Dumber, and Dumbest.

[Placeholder: One of the most far-reaching and helpful reforms any government could implement would be to persuade bureaucrats they don’t always have to follow the advice of government lawyers, particularly when that advice is patently wrongheaded and flies in the face of common sense and the organization’s mission.]

DISCLAIMER: There are almost certainly some small errors in this map. Errors may arise from when the parties transcribe and report the numbers, when Elections NS assembles and publishes its report, during the optical character recognition (OCR) process required to liberate the data, and from the manual transfer of more than 100 separate tables published by the commission into a single spreadsheet.

One common error arises when a party lists both a donor’s civic address and their postal box. Sometimes these are in different communities, and Google cannot correctly geocode them. In one case, we found (and corrected will soon correct finally corrected) a donor from Fall River NS whom Google placed in Fall River, Massachusetts. In another, a postal code error moved a donor from Petit de Grat to a wilderness location deep in the Cape Breton Highlands.

Please report any errors you notice by email to comment [at] contrarian.ca.

Hearty thanks to Contrarian’s fusion table guru, WCR, without whom these maps would never have sprung to life. How about a nice lunch at Chicken Burger some respectful restaurant?


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