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Sunlight Foundation
Washington, DC

The Sunlight Foundation uses technology and ideas to make government transparent and accountable.

The Sunlight Foundation is:

A think-tank that develops and encourages new policies inside the government to make it more open and transparent.
A campaign to engage citizens in demanding the policies that will open government and hold their elected officials accountable for being transparent.
An investigative organization that uses the data we uncover to demonstrate why we need new policies that free government data.
A grant-giving institution that provides resources to organizations using technology to further our mission and create community
An open source technology community that revolves around the Sunlight Foundation’s core mission

Sunlight Foundation is not verified as a 501(c)3 organization.

Latest News

Feb 27, 2015

A photo of Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., speaking at a Palm Beach County Democrats event that was deleted from her official House Twitter account and caught by Politwoops.
Deleted photo via Politwoops.

This week's roundup of deletions archived by Politwoops includes a campaign-related image deleted from an official account, another possible 2016 contender removing a reference to them as a candidate and more.

We start with the official House account for Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., which deleted the image to the right with the message, "Honored to speak at this morning's special breakfast event celebrating #BlackHistoryMonth." The tweet was deleted after a day, and the image of Frankel standing in front of a Palm Beach County Democrats banner was swapped out for new images of Frankel posing with other attendees.

Thanks to Political Party Time, Sunlight's project to track the fundraising circuit, we can see the special event Frankel was attending was a fundraiser for the Palm Beach County Democratic Party, where a $150 donation got you two VIP tickets. According to materials gathered by Political Party Time, Frankel was listed as part of the host committee. Under House franking rules, official social media accounts operated using taxpayer money may not share "campaign-related political party" information. This deletion likely came out of an abundance of caution, though her account has not respond to a request for comment.

The official account of Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., deleted a retweet of @ThisWeekABC that teased his appearance on the TV show by asking, "Is @SenSanders going to run for president?" The deletion came after just 18 seconds and joins similar slip ups by possible 2016 presidential contenders. In January, Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wis., deleted a retweet referring to him as a "2016 GOP candidate." And last November, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., deleted a retweet mentioning, "Cheers for him to run for president."

The official account of Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., deleted a retweet of the official account of the prime minister of Israel, and repurposed the photo with a slight crop into his own tweet. The deletion came after just five seconds, but Politwoops caught the removal and tracked the social media appropriation seen to the left.

The official account of Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., which is run by the member himself, deleted his response to a Twitter user who referred to him as, "That pond scum nitwit asshole." Cohen said, "so sweetly expressed," but then deleted it after four minutes.

Finally this week, the official account for Gov. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., shared a tweet of him wearing a black cowboy hat with the hashtag #blackisthenewblack and deleted it to change the hashtag to #StateOfCO.

I hope you have a great weekend and please let me know if you find accounts Politwoops is missing!

Feb 27, 2015

Daniel Yankelovich, the distinguished social scientist and chairman and co-founder of Public Agenda, has a new book out that chronicles important issues in contemporary culture and offers an insightful road map to better understanding how to fix our "most wicked" problems.

I encourage anyone who is working to create a more democratic and engaged society to read "Wicked Problems, Workable Solutions." Dan is a true legend, and this book reminds us why he is one of the most insightful social scientists of our time. I’m honored to serve on the board of Public Agenda, and applaud Dan’s lifetime of work to improve our democracy and insure that the public’s voice has been heard.

For more on his new book — part road map and part memoir — visit Daniel's blog post over at PublicAgenda.org.

Feb 27, 2015

As the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in King v. Burwell, a challenge that could make the Affordable Care Act unaffordable in any of the 34 states that didn’t set up an exchange for selling health insurance, a number of industry groups and one hospital company have spoken up in favor of the law. Among those weighing in are America’s Health Insurance Plans, which says it represents companies that insure 200 million Americans, including Blue Cross/Blue Shield, USAA, Humana and a dozen other companies in Sunlight’s Fixed Fortunes list of the 200 most politically active corporations.

Between 2007 and 2012, those 15 companies contributed about $47.5 million to federal campaigns and parties and spent $462.6 million lobbying the federal government. Over that same period, they received more than $262 billion in federal business and support, including contracts, grants, loan guarantees and other aid. And the Affordable Care Act obligates the government and American citizens to send billions more their way — if the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, the drop in subsidies across 34 states would lose them $25 billion, all of which goes to insurers.

The role of America’s Health Insurance Plans, or AHIP as it's known, in health care reform has been a complicated one, but always driven by the interests of its members. In 1994, the trade group got credit for killing then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s health care law with its Harry and Louise ads, in which a middle-class couple detailed the benefits they’d lose under the plan. In 2009, when a coalition of groups that favored passage of the affordable care act the group resurrected the pair, this time touting all the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, AHIP applauded.

Behind the closed White House doors where the provisions of that law were hatched, AHIP, along with other big industry groups, had a seat at the table, acting in partnership with the administration. Karen Ingnagi, the organization’s CEO, attended 10 meetings at the White House in 2009, according to visitor logs. And AHIP was one of six health care organizations that promised to work together to “bend the cost curve down” and “make reform sustainable.” But when Congress proposed doing that by including a public option — a government-sponsored, low cost insurance plan that would serve as an alternative to for-profit, private insurers — AHIP gave tens of millions to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to run ads attacking the idea. The barrage worked; the public option was dropped.

The law Congress passed, as AHIP ably describes in the brief defending it that they submitted to the Supreme Court, reorganizes the health insurance market. It greatly expanded that market by requiring Americans to purchase insurance or face a tax penalty — insurers lobbied for high penalties for not buying their products — in exchange for “guaranteed issue,” meaning companies could no longer deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. The law also makes certain low to moderate income can afford that coverage — by subsidizing the purchase of it with taxpayer dollars.

In other words, the Affordable Care Act significantly increases the numbers of customers for insurance companies and subsidizes that market, which is why they submitted a brief to the Supreme Court arguing for those subsidies to continue, and issuing dire warnings should they not — warning that most consumers “would find their policies unavailable — or substantially more costly than they were before the federal law was enacted.” Left unstated was which companies would be withdrawing coverage or raising the price of it through the roof.

That’s not the only way consumers lose out to insurance companies under the Affordable Care Act. Subsidy payments to insurers are based on estimates of how much an individual will make. Those who did better than they expected in 2014 will have to pay back to the federal government part of the subsidy their insurer received. H&R Block, the tax preparation firm, suggests that 52 percent of people who got subsidies in 2014 will end up having to pay some of it back.

Insurance companies also worked on estimates, setting premiums based on the expanded markets for coverage they faced. But unlike ordinary citizens, companies like UnitedHealth, Aetna and Cigna don’t have to worry if they miscalculated. The law gives health insurers three years of what are known as risk corridors — if they underestimate costs and end up losing money, taxpayers will bail them out. How much that will cost no one can say for certain.

Feb 27, 2015

voting sign

It’s hard to imagine that we lack open data in elections when the 24-hour news media does nothing but shower us with data during election season. It gives us the horse race totals of candidate campaign donations during the election run-up, provides minute-to-minute election results on wall sized interactive displays and can cite the lowest voter turnout rates since fill-in-the-blank as is customary in the post-election rumination.

But the deluge of information doesn’t necessarily mean election data conforms to the standards of open data. If anything, the question of openness might have been obfuscated by its availability. So, Sunlight will examine these issues in a coming series that looks at elections through the lens of open data and explore the following vital questions:

  • What election data is currently available, and what shape is it in?
  • Can the principles of open data be applied to elections data?
  • Does election data outside of the U.S. conform to open data standards?
  • How have innovations in civic tech affected our access to elections data?

With the Knight News Challenge focusing on elections this year, we hope this series will help shine some light on the state of open elections data. From voter registration to election day results (and everything in between), it’s not just the elections that are a vehicle for democracy. The state of our elections data can serve as a gauge on the health of the democracy itself. Just imagine being able to look at a map to see election wait times across the country, or to be able to compare election spending from county to county.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s examine what election data looks like now and how it is being managed.

The vast expanse of election data

The universe of what could be described as “election data” is extensive. It ranges from the requisite figures on voter registration, turnout and election results to the logistical including precinct locations and hours. It includes information that is often hard to access — even locally — such as types of voting machines and lists of voting administrators, including their offices and contact information. It includes information for and about poll workers, such as how to apply, position qualifications, training materials, statistics, reimbursements and budgetary allocations. It certainly encompasses elections processes like data on early voting, mail-in ballots, registration requirements (including deadlines and necessary materials, as well as adherence to special practices like Election Day registration), absentee voting requirements, provisional ballots and accessibility compliance. It must include data about the type of election itself: primary, general or special; single member or multimember; district or at-large; runoffs and recalls. Techniques of determining the winner should be listed: Is it first past the post or a ranked choice listing? It includes information for and about candidates, including requirements, qualifications, registrations and campaign finance.

Texas Office of the Secretary of State's election results for 2012 general election
Screenshot of the Texas Office of the Secretary of State's summary results for the 2012 general election. Click to enlarge.
Screenshot of Washington Secretary of State's 2012 General Election results showing statewide results broken down by state measures, federal offices, state office, legislative offices and judicial. Also have icons to download the data as csv and xml
Screenshot of Washington's Secretary of State's 2012 general election results. Click to enlarge.

Legal requirements mandating the electoral procedures on a local, state and federal level are also elections data, and include the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) and Voting Rights Act compliance. And these are just examples of election data from the administrative side of organizing an election. Data on the voter experience can include such as data on registration errors, problems at the polls, wait time, electioneering, machine malfunction and the list could go on (and on).

Unfortunately, while a number of these datasets would be immensely useful, only some of them are collected in a meaningful way; even fewer are made available for public consumption. Even the requisite election figures — such as voter registration, turnout and election results — vary wildly in terms of accessibility, completeness and formatting. For example, let’s take a look at election results of the 2012 general election. The Texas Secretary of State’s election portal only allows you to navigate this data from a static html, whereas Washington provides a number of visualizations and the ability to export the results in both .csv and .xml. Plus, if you look at the completeness of the data, Texas has county-level election results going back to 1992; Washington allows you to download that data as a spreadsheet from as far back as 1960.

Conversely, voter registration data has improved immensely in the last 10 years, with almost all states allowing voters to check their registration and find their polling location online. Other states, like North Carolina’s Board of Elections, take open data to the next level with a robust FTP site of election data, including results, training documents, ShapeFiles, outreach resources and much more.

With such a range in the quality of state data, it's no wonder it is so difficult to aggregate election information across the United States. Unlike the centralized election commissions in other countries, America's Federal Election Commission (FEC) is really only tasked with the regulation of campaign finance of federal elections and does not deal with election administration. The Election Assistance Commission created under the HAVA does provide assistance, as it is so aptly named, but the actual laws governing elections are determined on the state level; the implementation and mechanics of running elections are mostly conducted on a local level by the roughly 13,000 election jurisdictions in the cities, counties and towns across U.S.

It is in these local offices where election transactions happen: processing voter registration, qualifying as a candidate, printing the ballots, training for poll workers, managing poll sites, tabulating election results and more. In terms of reporting the data, if it pertains to a local election, the transmission stream usually ends here. If it is a statewide or a federal office, local boards then report this data to their respective secretary of state’s office or the state board of elections. The reporting of this data can be challenging, as experienced by the Maryland Board of Elections. In its recent gubernatorial election, precinct captains had to drive to the Maryland Board of Education headquarters since only one-third of precincts had the analog modems necessary to transmit election results.

Beyond the state level, the federal government does aggregate the following official election datasets aside from federal campaign finance:

  1. The FEC publishes Federal Elections, a compilation of certified federal election results for both congressional and presidential elections going back 30 years. (The House Clerk aggregates essentially the same info with six more decades in archival data, but in a less user-friendly .pdf format.)
  2. The EAC has registration and voter turnout data from 1960 until 2002. Since then, it has conducted the Election Administration and Voting survey, which aggregates a substantial additional amount of information regarding the registration and administration of elections (including absentee ballots for Uniformed and Overseas Voters).
  3. The Federal Register maintains historic election results of the U.S. Electoral College going back to the first ballots cast for George Washington.

A cursory look at Data.gov also surfaces 693 datasets for “election” with local jurisdictions uploading poll site locations, district shape files, candidate filings and election results. However, if you are looking for national aggregates beyond the info listed (e.g. national participation rates in local elections), you will have to piece that data together from the individual state and local disclosure offices. That’s a tall task when the data are unstandardized and mostly live in .pdfs.

Outside efforts piecing together election data

The Library of Congress has curated a list of election statistics resources. The efforts listed, while commendable, include mostly academic institutions that have the budget and resources to amass this data. One project of note is the United States Elections Project, spearheaded by Dr. Michael McDonald, which seeks to “provide timely and accurate election statistics, electoral laws, research reports, and other useful information regarding the United States electoral system.” The richest dataset here is the voter turnout data with national turnout rates from 1787-2012 and state turnout rates from 1980-2012 (including spreadsheets!), with both voting-age population and voting-eligible population numbers calculated from census data.

If you are interested in election laws and procedural issues, the National Conference of State Legislators has aggregated data resources for all 50 states on a range of topics from voter IDs, runoff elections and voter databases to electronic transmission of ballots. You can also search for election related legislation from all states going back to 2001 (powered by LexisNexis State Net) and sift through 1,800 reports pertaining to election administration. Despite the wealth of information, there is unfortunately no bulk or downloadable election data on the site. The New Organizing Institute also took a stab at standardizing 50-state election law data through the Electionary project. Its data can be downloaded as a .csv or accessed via API.

OpenElections map of data entered
Progress of state metadata collected for OpenElections.

Another initiative aggregating election data is OpenElections, a project started two years ago by New York Times reporter Derek Willis. The project aims to “provide access to machine-readable, standardized election results” from all federal and state elections taking place since 2000, using the help of volunteers, journalists and civic hackers. With initial funding from the Knight Foundation, OpenElections was able to aggregate metadata from the majority of states’ elections results sites in order to provide the details of elections as well as the source of the data and its location. There’s still a lot of data to be collected, but OpenElections provided quite a departure from the typical format of election data by creating a results site where visitors can download the raw .csv files. The project also created state-based GitHub repositories for developers to use in order to access available data. This is an on-going, herculean, effort — you can even help out yourself.

As you can see, election data currently comes in all shapes and sizes — both within and outside government. In the next post, we’ll look at whether the principles of open data can be applied to this multifarious realm of election data.

Feb 26, 2015

Tom Wheeler, chairman of the FCC. (Photo credit: ALA Washington Office/Flickr)

Today, over one year after the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia struck down the Federal Communications Commission's rules — and after one of the most ferocious advocacy battles in American history — the FCC has formally sided in favor of a neutral Internet.

Net neutrality has proven itself to be a defining point for advocacy in America. Participation in the political process, especially in the more obscure field of administrative procedure, will for generations be defined in the context of the public outcry we've all seen on this issue.

That engagement, led by many groups that Sunlight works with – on both sides of the aisle and on both sides of the net neutrality issue – was stunning. Millions submitted comments into a system utterly foreign to them in an effort to make their voices heard. Voices so thunderous, they broke the FCC's website.

Sunlight's transition to our new president, Chris Gates, also brought a firmer position on net neutrality, inspired in particular by its impact on civic technology. Plainly speaking, our work building tools for better political engagement fundamentally depends on an Internet without tiers, without last-mile prioritization and without limits.

As Gates explained: "The Internet is the ultimate form of civic technology. It’s a shared space for civic participation, information sharing, building networks and organizing community. … [P]reserving the Internet’s open architecture is essential to the health of our democracy."

Congratulations and thanks to all those who won this impressive fight, both for securing an open Internet, and for forever changing the perceived limits on what influence the American people can have when they fight for what they believe in.

Feb 26, 2015

A drawing of a whistle with the word "truth" printed below it
(Image credit: cool revolution/Flickr)

A bipartisan group of Senators came together yesterday to launch the Senate Whistleblower Protection Caucus. Led by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the caucus' aim is to serve as a resource for Senate offices that are interested in whistleblower issues.

According to Grassley, the caucus chair, the group will "help create a culture where the contributions of whistleblowers are valued and their rights respected." To this end, the caucus plans to offer training and consult Senate offices on how to handle whistleblower disclosures and protect whistleblowers from retaliation. It will also serve as a clearinghouse for information on whistleblower issues.

The Government Accountability Project came out with a strong endorsement of the caucus, noting that "historically, whistleblower protections have enjoyed bipartisan support". The caucus' founding members include Republican Sens. Ron Johnson, Wis., Mark Kirk, Ill., Deb Fischer, Neb., and Thom Tillis, N.C., as well as Democrats Barbara Boxer, Calif., Claire McCaskill, Mo., Tammy Baldwin, Wis., and Ed Markey, Mass.

We are happy to see senators standing up for the rights of whistleblowers, who often put their careers on the line to expose instances of fraud and abuse within the government and ensure that valuable information is not unnecessarily withheld from the public.

Feb 25, 2015

At Sunlight, we’ve long been champions of the general idea that access to data makes things better. And we know that’s especially true in specific policy areas such as criminal justice. What we’ve learned over the last year (as we've started building an inventory of criminal justice data from all 50 states) is that while public access to information is the gold standard when trying to establish accountability and transparency, work still needs to be done. Instilling a culture of uniform data collection that takes advantage of technology and digital tools is a very important first step for much of law enforcement today.

Sunlight's criminal justice inventory. So far we have data collected for 18 states and the federal government. Read more about this project.

Earlier this month, FBI Director James B. Comey gave an important and unexpectedly frank speech on his view of police practices and race relations. In his speech, he referenced some of the controversial scenes that much of America has reacted to in recent months, including the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., and the recent shooting deaths of two NYPD officers. The point of the speech was to expand the conversation about how to improve police relations within their communities and how to address racial biases, real or perceived, head on.

Comey’s most concrete call to action in the speech, titled “Hard Truths,” is that we must collect better data so we can better analyze what’s going on in our communities. As an example of what’s wrong with the state of the FBI’s data, Comey admitted that the voluntarily reported data the agency gets on officer-involved shootings is “incomplete and therefore, in the aggregate, unreliable.”

Another truth for people interested in criminal justice data is that there is what seems to be an endless amount of it. And one problem beyond much of the official data being unreliable, is that useful sources of data can be hard to find. With that in mind, we’ve started amassing heaps of information about criminal justice data in order to build an inventory which goes far beyond the FBI's commonly referenced Uniform Crime Report, which regular citizens, advocates, journalists and practitioners in the field can take advantage of. You can see the work we’ve done so far, and even contribute to it, by visiting this page. Further, in the process of this work, we’ve stumbled across a few excellent examples of what good data can do for all of the parties mentioned above, and likely more.

For instance, the story told by journalists at the beginning of this year about the New York Police Department’s work slow-down was an interesting example of how crime and criminal justice data can inform the public and create accountability. In stories by a number of outlets, including the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, reporters were able to access weekly police activity statistics and see that tickets had stopped being issued and arrests had stopped being made, indicating that an informal or unofficial strike had been organized.

In California, an emergency room doctor and gun violence prevention researcher named Garen Wintemute uses data provided to him by the state of California to study ways to prevent gun violence. Wintemute is able to take advantage of criminal history records and firearms purchase records to do his research, something that is largely prohibited on the federal level.

It’s important to highlight that the data Wintemute uses in his research is not available to the public, and by Sunlight’s standards is considered closed. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t understand the reasons behind the closed status of a good number of data sets. Crime and criminal justice data regularly consists of personally identifiable information, or PII, and is protected due to privacy concerns.

In a previous Sunlight Foundation piece, National Policy Manager Emily Shaw explored systems set up within government to share data between agencies and with trusted researchers outside of government. Researchers who use government data containing private and sensitive individual information have to adhere to strict legal guidelines and are held liable when violating those guidelines. The interagency data sharing systems are also setup to ensure privacy is protected.

In Connecticut, after a family was murdered in a horrific scene by two men on parole, the idea that the murders could have been prevented if more information was available at the time of their parole board hearings caused state officials to spring to action and create a system that links many types of criminal history data for internal use. In another Sunlight Foundation post, Research Fellow Damian Ortellado explored the solution Connecticut came to in creating its newly linked system, which aims to empower law enforcement practitioners throughout the state to make good decisions and protect its citizens.

Further, public data has been used by private organizations and nonprofits to create analyses and interactive data visualizations that help to identify such things as racial disparities in incarceration and ways police can improve practices intended to keep neighborhoods safe. The Burns Institute, for example, created an excellent tool last year that allows people to see how many juveniles are detained in each state. The tool combines juvenile crime data with census data to help people understand the rate at which minority children find themselves in jail.

In an upcoming post, Sunlight will look at how data collected and made open by major police departments around the country have improved and in some cases drastically decreased stop and frisk practices.

Cost-saving measures, alternatives to incarceration and an increase in public safety are all reasons for creating better access to and knowledge of the criminal justice data that exists. If any of the data or the issues mentioned here interests you at all, please visit the Sunlight Foundation’s criminal justice inventory to see what might be out there.

Feb 25, 2015

"I voted" sticker

Here's some good news to celebrate: Yesterday, an overwhelming majority of Chicago residents affirmed the role of public financing in their elections. A ballot measure promoting small-donor public financing in all 50 wards of Chicago passed by 79 percent to 21 percent, and was endorsed by a dozen organizations, several alderman and all mayoral candidates, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The campaign finance referendum question was placed on the ballot by Common Cause Illinois, and read:

Should the City of Chicago or the State of Illinois reduce the influence of special interest money in elections by financing campaigns using small contributions from individuals and a limited amount of public money?

We commend Common Cause for providing the leadership needed to help promote an open and accountable government. Empowering small donors can help level the political playing field, particularly at a time when elections are only getting more and more expensive and the political 1 percent are increasingly sought as gatekeepers to the halls of power.

“Special interests may think they can buy Chicago elections, but they could not stop Chicago voters from standing up for their democratic rights,” said Rey Lopez-Calderon, executive director of Common Cause Illinois. “This victory sends a powerful message to City Hall and Springfield that people will no longer stand for a corrupt system that only allows candidates backed by the ultra-rich to win elections.”

It definitely sends a powerful message. We can't wait to see the lasting impact this measure will have.