Tool will allow the public to follow the money in Ohio politics

Ohio may be the first state in the nation to make campaign finance records so accessible to the public.

If you want to know what’s going on in politics, the old adage is: follow the money.

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, whose office controls a database that tracks of hundreds of millions of dollars flowing through Ohio politics, is rolling out a new tool that will make it easier to do just that.

Husted’s staff worked in conjunction with the Dayton Daily News to create a campaign finance API — application programming interface. It will allow anyone with an API key to automatically grab whatever up-to-date campaign finance data they want from the Secretary of State’s website. The data can then be analyzed or displayed as the keyholder wishes.

"This is different and important because it kind of gives people the ability to use the information the way they want to use it, rather than how folks in the Secretary of State's office might think they will use it," said Derek Willis of ProPublica, a non-profit investigative journalism website that offers an API key to access federal campaign finance data.

Husted and Willis said they aren’t aware of any other state in the nation offering such a tool for accessing campaign finance data.

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The new tool comes out just as a race for Ohio governor, which is expected to cost each side at least $20 million, heats up. The next round of fundraising and spending reports are due Jan. 31 for statewide, legislative and judicial candidates.

Husted, a Republican, had been running for governor but is now Attorney General Mike DeWine’s running mate.

The Secretary of State database holds campaign finance records filed electronically over the past 20 years for legislative, statewide and judicial candidates as well as political parties, political action committees, legislative caucuses and other political entities.

The data is currently publicly available — reports filed in the past six years are accessible through a search tool and all reports can be downloaded into spreadsheets via an FTP site. The new API tool will allow easier, automated access in a different manner and let users display the information in charts, graphs or other easy-to-understand formats.

“This allows the ability to have a more robust tool at organizing the information and making sense of it,” Husted said.

Related: Ohio election 2018: Races for governor, Senate to heat up

Willis said there is a learning curve to using an API but online tutorials are available to get people started. “At first it’s going to be a little slow in adoption because people haven’t seen it before, but once people start build things with it, it’ll get a lot easier for others to come in and do the same thing,” Willis said.

He added: “It is a great thing to see because it puts the power to getting access to government information in the hands of people and the public. That’s an important step and a really useful thing to see.”

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Those who want access to the portal must request a key from the Secretary of State’s office. Users will be asked for a domain name and other information. Husted said the tool will likely be used by news media organizations, political parties and campaigns, and good government watchdog groups to analyze fundraising, donation and spending trends and to inform the public.

Dennis Hetzel of the Ohio News Media Association said: “Ohio has been a leader among the states in making it easy to track government spending at a meaningful level of detail. Programs to provide timely, detailed access to the millions of dollars that go to political campaigns and candidates are equally important.”