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Could Campaign Finance Reform Start in Wisconsin?

The people populating the world of corporate campaign finance keep their moves deliberately quiet, confusing and camouflaged. The resulting web of politics and money becomes a mess of frustrating interrogative pronouns: No one knows who is giving how much to whom for what and when.

A three-person start-up in Madison, Wisconsin, came together to change that, offering a new app and website that makes it a matter of clear public record what companies and their parent corporations spend on political influence and who receives that money.

Goods Unite Us runs political background checks on the companies and brands that consumers engage with a daily basis. A simple check of the free Goods Unite Us app on an iOS or Android smartphone reveals how much money a listed company donates to political parties and campaigns and whether those contributions go to conservative or progressive causes. 

CEO and co-founder Abigail Wuest describes Goods Unite Us as a way for shoppers to buy without undermining their vote.

“The app and the website are really about trying to get money out of politics and to gain more transparency,” Wuest says. “Goods Unite Us lets you look up companies and brands to see who they are supporting and what they’re doing politically. Are they giving money to candidates? Republicans or Democrats? To what extent? The app breaks down how involved companies are and how much money they’re putting into the system.”

Wuest threw out New Balance shoes as an example because it’s a brand that can cut across the sexes, political parties and age groups. It turns out New Balance donates most heavily to the GOP. The app lets buyers know who they will support with their shoe money. If they believe their purchase will support a candidate that could undermine their ideology, they can buy a different pair elsewhere.

The app presents various scores on how much a brand spends on elections, but the best scores are not based on whether a company invests in the left or right. The happiest numbers are reserved for those that stay out of the fray.

Originally an attorney and a lifetime progressive, Wuest came from a politicly active family in Wisconsin and got into politics briefly herself while serving on the Dane County Board in Madison. She grew up caring about the democratic process, how it works and how it needs protection.

[Goods Unite Us] is a way for progressives to come to terms with the reality that big money is now a permanent part of politics, and big corporate money disproportionately favors the GOP because their platform is more attractive to most corporations.

“I saw a mass rush of money start coming [into politics], and it really felt like a huge step in the wrong direction for me in terms of defending our democracy. We needed to start doing something to protect that democratic process. It’s much more fragile than we realize.”

The 2010 Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United Vs. Federal Elections Commission alarmed Wuest and worried her that individual voter influence would greatly suffer. That case held that “political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections.

While corporations or unions may not give money directly to campaigns, they may seek to persuade the voting public through other means.” While the SCOTUS case rattled Wuest, the last presidential election provided the big tipping point.

“Corporate money and [Political Action Committees] played a huge role in 2016. They showed an ability to produce politically swaying materials right up to the election without being accountable. I think our app is a way for progressives to come to terms with the reality that big money is now a permanent part of politics, and big corporate money disproportionately favors the GOP because their platform is more attractive to most corporations.”

Still, Wuest believes campaign finance reform should be a bipartisan value—so the app evolved into a tool anyone from any political bent can use. It allows searches by company name or category, so the buyer can look through appliances, clothing, etc.—potentially making most purchases a matter of political preference.

Co-founder Brian Potts is Wuest’s husband and a law firm partner by day. He works with a researcher to compile the raw data feeding Goods Unite Us. While all the information at the user’s fingertips is legally a matter of public record, that public doesn’t necessarily know where to look for the facts.

“From a practical perspective, we put together a database by hand,” Potts says. “You can get this information from the Federal Election Commission site. Anybody can go and search the name of any company or corporation, but we also rely on a network of non-profits that pool aggregates of similar data. Those non-profits don’t break down what brands individual companies own overall, but we include that.”

Potts brought up Taco Bell as an example of how even the most concerned consumers might struggle to discover a company’s political leanings. If they used most non-profit databases to make a fast food run, Taco Bell probably would not appear as it’s technically owned internationally by Yum! Brands (also owners of Pizza Hut and KFC). If the investigators didn’t know the corporate food chain, they could go away hungry for data. Goods Unite Us allows searches for Yum! and each of its subsidiaries.

I saw a mass rush of money start coming [into politics], and it really felt like a huge step in the wrong direction for me in terms of defending our democracy.

“A lot of what we do is finding out what companies own what brands,” Potts adds. “Then, we collect all of the political contributions given by those companies to present one overall profile of the brands. We want to make it incredibly easy to decide what to buy.”

The startup team reports that one unnamed company did object to the app and the data presented—going so far as to send a cease-and-desist letter in an effort to have its profile removed. Since the program only assembles and presents numbers that are already available and must remain so under federal law, that cease and desist was creased and discarded.

While it’s too soon to say if Goods Unite Us will have an impact on midterms, Potts insists it’s clear the app is gaining traction. According to the startup’s own records, weekly app downloads now number more than 8,000 per week with more than 162,000 users currently using the tool monthly. Those numbers already put the download in the Apps for Android Top 50.

The designers’ standard online analytics say the average session time for a user of Facebook is about 4.8 minutes, with Instagram charting three minutes and Twitter clocking 2.7, Goods Unite Us averages a session time of 5.3 minutes. Finally, with the political season at its peak , the average 90-day retention rate for Goods Unite Us users is 43 percent. Users are picking up the app, employing it and keeping it on hand for this election and beyond.

“For some people, it almost becomes like a video game,” Wuest says. “They’ll just run through companies alone or with friends and try to guess which way a brand leans.”

Chief operating officer Amy Jo Miller fields user comments. She reports they’re getting a lot of gratitude and daily reports from people explaining what companies they’ll be avoiding and why.

“Some people might say it’s a stupid idea,” Miller laughs. “But most people thank us for gathering all of this information for them. Maybe they work for or used to work for a company, and they want to see where the money goes. It’s very much a conversational tool, and we hope they have it out while they’re actively shopping to empower them.”

Miller sees Goods Unite Us as a way for people to have an effect on the issues they care about passed the midterms and beyond any individual election. One vote might cancel out another on a single Tuesday in November, but Americans spend money on goods and services every day. In the near future, as the team works to expand their service into a fully fledged community, Miller looks forward to the Goods Unite Us website opening up to users and companies alike.

“The brands will be able to have a voice on the platform. Let’s say they don’t like their score. They can offer an explanation or a reason for that. Or, they might want to explain some other positive efforts they’re making as a company. We will have a place for them to tell the consumer their story.”

Upcoming additions will also include user-generated content in forums about company or brand ratings. As that evolution continues, Wuest wants to make sure all of the data can be viewed in as many ways as possible as individuals take in facts and figures different ways. “In the future, I’d like to see the app break down the information a little more because the data we have can include categories on where money is going from party to party, between candidates, to what PACs—whatever part of the political world a user wants to see.”

With the first nationwide election during the short life of Goods Unite Us happening now, Miller wants the team’s efforts to leave a positive mark on the midterms. “Our hope is that, if we continue to grow at the pace we’ve been growing, we’ll have an impact not only on Tuesday, but on the next presidential election in 2020.”

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