The Washington Post made a scary, misleading chart about McCutcheon

Campaign finance can be scary. Charts can communicate information in an easy-to-digest format.

So the Washington Post did a chart about campaign finance after McCutcheon v FEC (PDF), which found that federal biennial aggregate political contribution limits failed exacting scrutiny under the First Amendment and improperly abridged the freedom of speech.

The chart looks scary. (It's here.) According to OpenSecrets, 310 contributors (for contributions disclosed as of June 30, 2014) had exceeded the limit, which was previously at $123,000. It explains that an extra $11.6 million has been poured into elections this cycle, contributions that otherwise would have been prohibited prior to McCutcheon.

But the chart is misleading. Here's why.

First, it's important to note that the chart only includes data for these 310 contributors. That means there are thousands of other contributors left out who've been extremely active this cycle.

Second, it's only measuring those 310 contributors who exceeded the aggregate contribution limits. That, of course, is part of the point--it's meant to show the impact of McCutcheon.

But what's the articulated peril of McCutcheon? On the one hand, it's the concern that a few individuals are now capturing the political process with more money than they otherwise would have been able to contribute. That's limited in terms of influence--they can give no more to any individual candidate, but they can give the statutory maximum (per candidate) to every candidate.

But on the other hand, the concern is that these donors will have an outsized influence in the public debate--that their contributions, above and beyond the aggregate contribution limits, will have a corrosive effect on our public discourse. Political parties will be unusually beholden to these donors--even though the donors are capped per candidate, repeated donations to many candidates of a single party may have a more indirect corrupting effect.

So a better chart might be to look at these post-McCutcheon contributions, and compare them to all other contributions within the McCutcheon caps. The chart below uses the post-McCutcheon data from the Washington Post story, and uses the year-to-date contributions from others who comply with the pre-McCutcheon aggregate caps. It includes data from recent midterm elections, too.