Black bars with the words For the Reocrd

For the Record: How to research political candidate’s background ahead of the 2024 election

Written by
Edited by Derek Kravitz

Once a standard practice for most newsrooms covering their elected officials, “backgrounding” and fact-checking political candidates has, in many ways, become a lost art.

For our new elections project with the nonprofit research organization, Sunlight Search, MuckRock is providing tips and ideas on how to thoroughly investigate political candidates during the 2024 election cycle. Part of this research includes submitting records requests to state and federal agencies, pulling basic property and business records and obtaining and analyzing personal financial disclosure reports.

MuckRock’s editorial team produces original investigative pieces on these candidates. Most recently, we’ve published a story on Republican candidate Margarita Wilkinson in California’s 49th congressional district and the New York race to replace former U.S. Rep. George Santos.

MuckRock and Sunlight Search hosted a training on how to use these skills to build a candidate’s timeline and dig into their personal finances, and we talked through some challenges reporters may face when trying to track down and analyze public records.

Establishing a candidate’s timeline

Creating a chronological timeline of a political candidate’s history provides a framework for a journalist’s research and can provide clues on what records to request to continue your deep dive. And for political novices running for Congress, like Margarita Wilkinson, creating a timeline can fact-check a campaign’s messaging.

To start out, using search, including Google and social media, can start filling in some of the blanks in a candidate’s background. Using Google advanced search operators provides a more precise search that can search through a singular website or find an exact match in your search.

Deleted posts from social media or historical websites can be found using tools, such as the Wayback Machine and

“It helps you as you’re doing the research to understand where the pieces are missing in this puzzle that you’re putting together,” Brandi Swicegood, Sunlight Search’s Executive Director said in the training.

To visualize your timeline, TimelineJS is an open-source tool, created by the Knight Lab at Northwestern University, that uses a Google spreadsheet to make a shareable timeline that can help you through your reporting process.

Analyzing campaign finance records

For any political candidate, personal financial disclosures are filed with the Federal Election Commission and lists a candidate’s assets, earned and unearned income. These disclosures can provide insight into potential conflicts of interest for a candidate running for office and how they’ve obtained their wealth.

Campaign finance records can provide a wealth of information, if you know where to look. Starting out, reporters should understand key campaign finance jargon and how to navigate the FEC’s site. The FEC provides a resource guide for journalists that explains the basics of campaign finance law, candidates, political action committees (including super PACs and leadership PACs) and FEC’s response to possible violations.

Reporters can also follow a candidate’s new and amended electronic reports and filings submitted to the Federal Election Commission by signing up for FEC Notify. For day-of-filing data, ProPublica’s FEC Itemizer lets you browse through electronic campaign finance filings.

In the case of Margarita Wilkinson’s financial disclosure statement, Wilkinson, and her husband Philip, listed their assets to be at least $21 million and having a net worth of at least $21.1 million and as much as $83.7 million, according to an analysis by MuckRock and Sunlight Search. This provided a look into how Margarita Wilkinson was able to largely self-fund her own campaign.

While many political candidates running for office may not have the type of wealth as the Wilkinsons, analyzing these disclosures

Obtaining public records for your investigation

Once you’ve established a background and timeline of a political candidate, it’s time for the fun part: obtaining public records.

Once you’ve created a timeline, there may be opportunities to file a public records request, including obtaining property records, marriage license and business licenses.

Each state has its own laws about making documents, data and other records accessible to the public. MuckRock provides an overview of the public records law for each U.S. state, potential fees related to a request and resources to help you file your own public records request.

When researching Margarita Wilkinson, our team filed public records requests in multiple states. Beginning in New Mexico, we filed and obtained divorce documents from Wilkinson’s first marriagi’m se, foreclosure and debt filings.

In California, we were able to obtain Securities and Exchange Commission documents stemming from her husband selling at least $60 million from stock from his employer, Entravision. In addition, we were able to obtain property deeds to better understand the assets of the Wilkinson family.

Watch the full elections backgrounding training:

Over the coming months, we’ll be reporting on political candidates who are running in the 2024 election as part of a new investigative project. If you have a tip or want to collaborate with us, email us at

The Update

  • National Archives to host Sunshine Week panel: For Sunshine Week, the National Archives and Records Administration will host a panel discussion on “Artificial Intelligence: The Intersection of Public Access and Open Government’‘ Thursday, March 14, at 1 p.m. Eastern. The event will be in-person and livestreamed on the Archives’ YouTube channel.

  • City of Detroit wants to charge thousands of dollars in public records fees: The City of Detroit wants to charge the Detroit Free-Press more than $17,000 for records regarding the “Detroit Be the Change” mural project by the New York-based art group Street Art for Mankind, reports Dana Afana in the *Detroit Free-Pres*s.

  • What’s killing local news: Following the shuttering of the DCist by WAMU and American University, 1A takes a look into the causes of “news deserts”, layoffs in journalism and how the public can continue to be informed during an election year.

FOIA Finds

  • How doctors accused of abuse continue to work in Illinois: A new investigation by the Chicago Tribune revealed how gaps in Illinois lets doctors accused of abuse continue to see patients, reports Emily Hoerner and Lisa Schenker. The reporters obtained allegations against doctors that led to discipline by filing public records requests with a state agency and various police departments.

  • Body cam footage show police investigations at libraries: Body cam footage, obtained through a public records request, shows Idaho Sheriff Robert Norris hunting for “obscene’ books” at a library, reports Jason Koelber at 404 Media. Experts say police officers doing these types of “investigations” at libraries could create a “chilling effect” on librarians and the public.

  • Inside Kentucky’s prisons: Reporters at the Lexington Herald-Leader used Kentucky’s Open Records Act to request internal affairs investigative reports submitted to the Department of Corrections concerning the state’s prisons. The staff at the Herald-Leader faced numerous challenges during their public records request process and the investigation ultimately revealed that, in several prisons, there were documented incidents of inappropriate relationships between employees and inmates, including employees smuggling contraband into prison for inmates.