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Here's What to Know Before Voting in the 2018 Midterm Elections

How to follow the money and see if your politicians are working for you—or lobbyists.

Photo Credit: Carlos Yudica/Shutterstock

Most Americans, it seems, have absolutely no idea who their elected representatives really are. It’s easy to like a politician who is friendly and can talk a good game. It’s also easy to hear about their scandals, usually of the salacious sexual variety. But what do they vote for? Who gives them money? And who do they give your tax dollars to? That’s a different story.

Last month, Mick Mulvaney—a former congressman from South Carolina—admitted that “If you were a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you were a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.”

Today Mulvaney is the interim head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—the government agency that makes sure “banks, lenders, and other financial companies treat you fairly.”

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In the age of dark money—“political spending meant to influence the decision of a voter, where the donor is not disclosed and the source of the money is unknown”—we suppose that Mulvaney’s answer is, at least, a mostly honest admission and might shine a bit of light on his personal priorities for the agency. A follow-up question might be: Who, if any, are the lobbyists who gave him money and whom he didn’t speak with?

But, the point is, it’s important to know who’s paying your elected officials for their ear—and who’s handing out your tax dollars to those groups later.

Thankfully, there are organizations who track that sort of thing, though it might take some time to look at their data.

In Michigan, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy has a scorecard where you can see what subsidies elected officials gave to whom, since 2001. A quick perusal will show how state senator Dave Hildenbrand (R-Lansing) has approved over $5 billion in taxpayer dollars as subsidies, to everyone from car battery makers to developers to Taiwan-based electronics manufacturers. In fact, he’s never turned a subsidy down. And we’re talking about a state with plummeting literacy rates, the Flint water crisis, and a rapid increase in poverty rates in half the state.

Using the handy tools at VoteSmart.org—which covers officials nationwide—we can see that Hildenbrand has received money from the auto, electronics, and developers—among many, many more industries and companies.

Vote Smart has tools that let you see what bills your representatives have voted for—but you’ll want to take a look at what each bill really does. If it has a righteous name, it might not do what it’s advertising.

Open Secrets is another invaluable source to do your research. For example, you can learn all about defense contractor Lockheed Martin (some might call them “warmongers”), the lobbyists they hire, and whom those lobbyists represent. You can also see their bills—the laws they want Congress to pass. And, you can see what candidates and elected officials they are giving money to. In the 2016 election season, for example, they gave Hillary Clinton more than three times the amount of money they gave Donald Trump. The site also has primers on important issues like dark money and PACs, and publishes its own independent investigations.

Each state has its own watchdog groups, and the Center for Media and Democracy’s SourceWatch has a handy directory you can use to start to look for information.

Other websites to check out to learn who your representatives really are—and whose interest they are really representing—include Ballotpedia, which is a handy guide to elected reps, ballot initiatives, and more.

Once you’re armed with some basic info on who your elected officials are, there’s another way to learn about them, and let them know what you think of what you found: Visit them in person. “If you came from back home and sat in my lobby, I talked to you without exception, regardless of the financial contributions,” Mulvaney added in his speech.

And if, and when, you’re not happy with the information you find and response you get, you can always vote them out of office in the next primary, or general, election.

Valerie Vande Panne is an Independent Media Institute writing fellow who contributes to Columbia Journalism Review and Reuters news service, among other outlets. She is the former editor-in-chief of Detroit's alt-weekly, the Metro Times, and the former news editor of High Times magazine. She is the founder of Blackbird Literacy, an organization providing books to residents and literacy programs in Detroit. Connect with her on Twitter @asktheduchess.