As part of Research Weeks (March 17–April 29) we are highlighting some of the remarkable research done by undergraduates at VCU. Research Weeks features a wide variety of projects in multiple disciplines from across the university.
When Erika Misseri began studying campaign finances for Richmond’s 2020 City Council and mayoral elections as part of a lobbying class at Virginia Commonwealth University, she and a classmate created a Google Doc that developed into a complex web of information on corporations, donations and votes – like newspaper clippings on a bulletin board held together with string, Misseri said.
As she became more engrossed in the topic, she felt a desire to share the findings so others could be informed as they prepared to vote in local elections.
“I think the more that I realized how connected money and politics are, the more that it just makes you feel like there’s something that has to be done,” Misseri said. “And I feel like one of the best ways to keep people accountable is to follow the money. Especially in politics, it’s following the money and making sure that elected officials are representing people the way that they are supposed to be – the way that we’ve elected them to.”
As the document grew, Misseri and her classmate approached their professor, Andrea Simonelli, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences, with a larger question.
“We asked Dr. Simonelli, ‘Hey, is there a software that exists that can organize all of this so we can look at it all in one place?’” recalled Misseri, a senior who is majoring in political science, with concentrations in international relations and U.S. government, while earning a baccalaureate certificate in fundamentals of computing. “And she’s like, ‘No.’ And we were like, ‘OK, well we’re going to build one.’”
The experience spurred Misseri and her classmate, Sophia Cocke, to found The National Transparency Project and pursue independent study, fellowships, grants and 501(c)(3) status – currently in the works – to establish it as a nonprofit, all while finishing their undergraduate degrees. The software they’ve set out to build will become The National Transparency Project’s mobile app, geared toward voters across the U.S., particularly young people.
As the project’s co-executive director and co-founder alongside Cocke, who graduated with a B.A. in political science from VCU last year, Misseri envisions a user-friendly mobile app that will make it easy for voters to learn about local candidates, issues and lobbying influence.
“You could pull up, for example, the mayor [of your local community] and see his stockholdings, if he has them, who he is married to, his recent tweets, his vote history, who’s donating to him based on what industry they’re in and who else [those donors] are donating to,” Misseri said.
The idea, Misseri said, is that the app will help individuals better understand how the campaign funding candidates receive might influence how they’ll respond to potential policies or issues presented to them when they’re in office.
“When people are informed, they can make those decisions to have people lead them in the direction they want for their communities, people that know what those communities need ideally,” Misseri said. “Giving people the tools and the knowledge to make these decisions – it’s critical not just for these communities, [but] for the survival of democracy.”
Simonelli, who served as the students’ adviser during their independent study and now serves on The National Transparency Project’s board of directors in an advising role, has watched Misseri’s curiosity grow and seen her pour her time into the project, as she studied political literacy and took coding courses in VCU College of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science to help build the user interface and database the team hopes will become the backbone of the app.
Misseri’s approach of shining a light on campaign finances at the local level has enormous value, Simonelli said, as local elections generally have lower turnouts but can have a greater impact on voters’ day-to-day lives.
“The person who is supposed to fill your pothole is always going to be more influential in your life than the president,” Simonelli said. “People don’t realize that so many policy decisions are locally based like that.”
Misseri built the project while working toward her degree through an independent study and through a fellowship from VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, which Misseri said gave the team the initial support needed to get the project off the ground.
But as Misseri looks toward the project’s future, she can’t help but reflect on the support she got from the very beginning in that lobbying class with Simonelli two years ago.
“It was instrumental. It was like the spark. That class started a chain of events, so it’s not hyperbole to say that class changed my life. It did,” said Misseri, 30. “It opened up opportunities for me that I don’t think I would have known about otherwise as an older student, as a mom, as a nontraditional student.
“For me, having a professor that cared enough to spend the extra time to work with me on this research question – having somebody in your corner like that – has been invaluable.”