WASHINGTON - A public database intended to shine light on who's buying political ads will leave some Minnesota voters in the dark.
This summer, the Federal Communications Commission required stations in the top 50 TV markets, including Minneapolis-St. Paul, to post information about their political ad sales on a government website: stations.fcc.gov.
The online database is designed to provide easier access to stations' political files. Before the ruling, the ads could be viewed only by going to the television stations and requesting the documents.
The requirement benefits residents of metro areas, but large swaths of districts featuring highly competitive U.S. House races lie outside a top 50 market.
In Minnesota, for example, the sprawling Eighth Congressional District is split between two markets -- Minneapolis-St. Paul and Duluth-Superior, Wis. The counties in the state's Arrowhead region, including most of the Iron Range, are in the smaller market where stations aren't yet required to post ad information.
That makes it tougher to find out who's behind the advocacy ads that will inundate the district airwaves this fall.
"People won't know if it's a group with serious concerns about an issue or if there are billionaires out there with an axe to grind," said Travis Ridout, associate professor of political science at Washington State University
The database has limitations -- it can only be searched by TV station, not by the groups that buy the ad time -- but is a "step in the right direction," said Ridout, who's also co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, a group that tracks broadcast advertising for federal and state elections.
Granting access to the files is important because groups spending money on ads that don't have to register with the Federal Election Commission must list contact information with TV stations, said officials with the Sunlight Foundation, an advocacy group that pushed for the database.
Portions of the Minnesota's First, Second and Seventh congressional districts also are in smaller TV markets that don't require online disclosure.
Those races aren't considered as competitive as the Eighth District contest, where Democrats have targeted Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack's seat for takeover ever since he won election in 2010.
The winner of Tuesday's DFL primary among Jeff Anderson, Tarryl Clark and Rick Nolan will face Cravaack in November.
Combined, several state and national groups have already bought or reserved more than $1.5 million in air time for fall ads in the Twin Cities market.
Full-scale plans for the ad buys on the Iron Range, the district's Democratic core, likely won't be determined until DFLers know the outcome of Tuesday's primary.
But one thing is certain: When the ads are bought, people interested in knowing who's paying the bills will have to dig up some answers the old-fashioned way.