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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

Sep 19, 2014

A series of deleted tweets from Arizona congressional candidate Mikel Weisser caught by the Sunlight Foundation's Politwoops project.
Deletions via Politwoops.

This week on Politwoops included an Arizona candidate deleting on purpose to appear on the site, a governor changing their tone when reacting to infant mortality statistics, some lazy copy and pasting and more.

The campaign account for democratic congressional candidate for Arizona's 4th District, Mikel Weisser, spent part of this week deleting tweets on purpose so they would appear on Politwoops. While this is hardly the first time politicians have used the site for their own gain (remember Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., said, "The best way to get a message out is to tweet and delete"), Weisser took it a step farther by sharing and later deleting his own deletions, creating a deletion Ouroboros seen to the right. He ended his fascination with the site with a deletion saying, "Love You, @politwoops,, But wouldn't it be great if folks read my stuff w/out me having to delete it 1st?"

Last weekend, the official account of Gov. Mary Fallin, R-Okla., shared a link to an article announcing new health data showing a drop in overall infant mortality rates (that still lag behind the national average) and an increase in mortality rates for black babies. Fallin's account tweeted, "Great news! More babies are being born healthy in Oklahoma, and our infant mortality rate has hit a historic low" before deleting it an hour later. The account replaced it with a tweet saying, "Infant mortality down, but need to continue to build on positive gains to ensure more babies live healthy&happy lives" and refused to respond to requests for comment.

The official account for Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., deleted a tweet in an attempt to fix a typo and accidentally included the copy and pasted his name, Twitter handle and time stamp in the replacement. Feel free to observe the image of the change below with the appropriate anthem:

A deletion and its replacement by Senator John Hoeven, R-N.D.

Finally this week, the official account of Gov. Mike Pence, R-Ind., deleted a tweet sharing the hourly wage of 30 new employees at a VOSS water facility and $en. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., deleted a tweet mentioning a proposed EPA rule named the "Clean Power Plan Proposed Rule" and changed it to just mentioning "the carbon emissions rule." Neither accounts responded to my requests to explain the deletions. Have a great weekend and as always, shoot me an email with any accounts we're missing!

Sep 19, 2014

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán

Last week, Hungarian police raided the offices of some of the independent and much-respected civil society organizations in Budapest. Yes, you’re reading it right: "Raided" and "civil society" in the same sentence, without Putin being involved. Those of you who follow closely what's happening in Hungary might not be surprised that the latest news from the country could easily be confused with that from Russia. You would indeed be surprised, though, to realize how much of the recent radicalization of Hungarian politics can be traced back to its messy political funding regime.

While tracing the finances of this regime can be difficult, it seems clear that the fight among political groups for resources, when not safeguarded by robust disclosure, can easily lead to significant imbalances in political competition.

Without ignoring all the other relevant social, economical and political factors that contributed to the radicalization of the country, Hungary is a great example for how insufficiently regulated and opaque political funding might turn a relatively stable democracy, with a fragile but balanced competition between political forces, into a centralized and much less democratic system. AKA the "illiberal state" dominated by one single political force that prioritizes long-term political survival over core democratic values.

But let's start from a bit earlier.

After the transition from the socialist regime in 1989, both newly emerged Hungarian political groups and the successors of the former communist party were facing a difficult challenge: They had to (re)build their financial and intellectual “hinterland”.

In this case hinterland describes the less visible infrastructure supporting a political force that is developed and maintained behind the scenes. We all know that running campaigns takes significant financial resources, but elections are only the tip of the iceberg. Political groups, whether or not in power, have to maintain their headquarters, pay their bills and salaries, support think tanks who help them shape public policies, marketing and PR firms who improve their communications, and of course nurture a media empire with national and local news outlets who guarantee constant visibility and ever positive feedback on the party agenda.

Having such background infrastructure seems essential for the long-term survival in a political arena, and the money to support the "hinterland" has to come from somewhere.

In case of Hungary, our knowledge about the sources of money in politics is way too vague. The disclosure of party and election funding in the country is spotty at best, and corruption scandals (for a selection see K-Monitor’s daily updated media database) can never be traced back to the party treasury, in part due to complete opacity, but also thanks to the secretive nature of corrupt transactions.

What we know for sure is that the culture of donating is basically non-existent in the country, and thus, small contributions probably only constitute a negligible part of all the money that goes to political parties and election campaigns. It is therefore most likely that political contributions to elections come from the business sector and wealthy individuals, while in off-election years, parties — who officially cannot accept donations from companies — mostly benefit from kickbacks: The 10-20 percent of national or municipal tenders, subsidies and funds that are assumed to be redistributed to the unofficial party treasuries through various illegal channels.

According to political scientists, the early stages of Hungary’s recent democratic period saw a fragile, but relatively stable financial balance between major political forces. After the transition, democratic opposition groups, including the current ruling party, Fidesz, did not yet have the necessary network and experience to be able to build such a hinterland. In the meanwhile though, the Socialists, major successors of the former communist party, were temporarily unable to mobilize their former social and economic capital, as the Party suffered a huge credibility loss during the transition. Thus, the lack of resources on one side and the inability to mobilize existing resources on the other side resulted in a fragile balance between competing political forces.

By its nature, this balance was temporary, and had to be disturbed at some point.

Why and when exactly Fidesz decided to change strategy, is hard to tell, especially in the absence of reliable facts. However, many experts and journalists think that even though Viktor Orban (currently serving in his third term as Hungary’s Prime Minister) did his best to build a strong financial and intellectual infrastructure around Fidesz between 1998 and 2002, it was not enough to win the 2002 elections. The Socialist Party, in the meanwhile, got stronger and managed to finally mobilize their existing capital. As a result, they won two times in a row in 2002 and 2006.

So by the time Fidesz got back in power in a landslide win in the 2010 elections--in huge part due to the overtly corrupt nature of the eight-year Socialist administration--Orban committed to claim and control not just the Fidesz party’s hinterland, but the financial infrastructure on which all the other parties depended as well. This attack extended beyond the financial, to include the democratic checks and balances that could hinder his ability to stay in power. (It’s worth mentioning here that Hungary’s Prime Minister can be re-elected several times.)

In his attempt to create a strong background infrastructure that helps leave all other political forces in the dust, Orban systematically disabled democratic control mechanisms and launched an attack against independent watchdog institutions, the free press and civil society. He also seemed to have developed a very strong network of loyal businesspeople, who now provide for the hungry party machine.

Again: Poorly regulated political financing was not the sole cause for Hungary's radicalization. But public scrutiny might have helped change the dynamics much earlier, and prevent Fidesz from outcompeting the rest of the political spectrum.

Attempts to reform, however, failed several times.

In 2007, for instance, a group of transparency watchdogs launched an advocacy campaign to raise attention around the problems and introduce a clear set of recommendations based on international good practices. Amongst other things, they proposed stronger book-keeping, separate accounts for parties’ elections campaigns, increased level of public funding, higher spending limits — even modest estimates tell us that ever since the transition, Hungarian political parties have always exceeded the legal campaign spending limits — and strengthened oversight. Reported spending is so clearly inaccurate, a child could tell that something's wrong, yet no fine has ever been imposed on any of the Hungarian political parties and the respective oversight body, the State Audit Office never had strong enough powers to investigate into party reports.

The campaign had no impact.

In 2009, another coalition of anti-corruption watchdogs again tried to scrutinize campaign spending by proposing significant amendments to the existing law - without any success. As a result, some of the watchdogs involved in the campaign decided to pull out of the unsuccessful negotiations and turn into "attack" mode, by starting to monitor campaign spending and making lots of noise around the hypocrisy of Hungary's political funding regime.

Transparency International Hungary (TI) and Freedom House created a website and began exploring innovative ways of crowdsourcing data on campaign expenditures, sharing the information on the estimated costs with the wider public through a real-time repository known as In the most recent elections in 2014, a collaboration of TI, investigative journalism web portal and anti-corruption watchdog K-Monitor (all currently being attacked by the Hungarian government) again pieced together data to demonstrate that political forces are way overspending the official limits.

A screenshot of

But data-driven advocacy might have come a bit too late for the country.

By now, the political spectrum in Hungary is again dominated by one single force, and the state became captured by the private interests of those most loyal to the Party.

Even though Fidesz has the ⅔ majority required to make necessary changes, most recent — and in many other ways outrageous — amendments to the election system created even more loopholes and an influx of secret outside spending in the 2014 elections. As Paul Krugman pointed out, “most of the display advertising space in the country is owned by companies in the possession of the circle of oligarchs close to Fidesz (Mahir, Publimont and EuroCity)” and as a result, the attack billboards skew heavily in favor of the ruling party. And, like dark money ads in the U.S., Hungarian ads were paid for not by the party or candidate, but by an opaque outside group, the Civil Alliance Forum. Supposedly “independent,” the Civil Alliance Forum was funded by wealthy backers of Fidesz, undermining the public funding system and leaving opposition parties without major outside financial backers at a distinct disadvantage.

The tendency is pretty clear: The current Fidesz administration has no intention to shine a light on or more strictly regulate the influence of money in politics. At the same time, civil society and the press are way too paralyzed to pick a battle, while the vast majority of Hungarian society is much disappointed in democratic institutions to want to protect them.

What's next for Hungary is yet unclear. However, let the case of this small country in Central Eastern Europe be a warning sign that a strictly regulated and fully transparent political funding regime is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for a healthy political ecosystem, and that large-scale corruption seriously undermines society’s trust in democratic values.

Sep 19, 2014

GLOW logo with addition of "US State Edition!"

Global Legislative Openness Week represents an amazing opportunity for advocates of open data and open government from all corners of the globe to find common cause in increasing access to the data their legislatures create. All around the world, people agree that open legislative data is fundamental to open government. We need full access to information about bills under discussion, votes taken, and legislatures’ membership and committees in order to meaningfully participate in these central institutions of representative democracy.

Here in the U.S., we are lucky to have a number of examples of governments across the 50 states that are doing a good job making their legislative data available for online viewing, analysis and reuse. This is important, because open legislative data directly improves accessibility for individuals and supports the kind of reuse that can provide us all with better solutions. However, we still have quite a ways to go. As our Open States report card demonstrates, while a number of states are doing a good job getting some of their data online and using formats that maximize their utility, many others are not yet there.

As a way to help spread the word about the significance of open legislative data (and hopefully to spur some change as well!), we have been circulating a letter to ask U.S. state legislatures to make several important legislative datasets available online and in open, structured form. We’ve found support from dozens of advocates and organizations so far. You’re very welcome to join us!

Open legislative data is far from the only piece of the puzzle to address — as D.C. Councilmember David Grosso pointed out in the Free Law Founders’ Twitter chat this morning:

Here at the Sunlight Foundation, we could not agree more.

However, we also believe that one of the first steps to achieving these goals is improving access to the information we need to know who decides, how they decide and what they decide as legitimate representatives of our democratic system.

If you agree, please get in touch with me at EShaw[at]sunlightfoundation[dot]com and ask to sign on to our letter! We will be sending it out to all U.S. state legislatures on Monday, Sept. 22, so please don’t delay if you’d like to be included.

Sep 19, 2014

Image via CounterPAC.

A new super PAC has a different plan to take big money out of elections: Get candidates to sign a 'no dark money' pledge that would discourage money from anonymous sources.

The committee, CounterPAC, launched its first attack ads Tuesday in a Colorado House race. And while the committee doesn't have the nationwide pool of donors of MayDay — another PAC that's embracing the irony of raising big money to get money out of politics, it is making ripples through other means.

CounterPAC, funded by former Kongregate CEO Jim Greer and Google engineer Matt Cutts, is pushing federal candidates to accept a dark money armistice. Under the pledge, candidates that benefited from independent expenditures with undisclosed sources would agree to give 50 percent of the value of that expenditure to charity. Just how that agreement would be enforced is unclear.

CounterPAC's staff said their approach was based on the DISCLOSE Act. It would still allow outside groups to accept million-dollar checks as long as they came from disclosed sources.

The PAC is targeting races in Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa and West Virginia. In West Virginia, where incumbent Democrat Nick Rahall is fighting to hold on to his Third District seat in an increasingly Republican state, Republican challenger Evan Jenkins has gone a step further — pushing the Rahall campaign to disavow all outside spending and PAC contributions.

So far, Rahall hasn't budged. Incumbents tend to rake in heaps more PAC money than newcomers and the Democrat's campaign has pulled in around $1.7 million from political committees, compared to Jenkins' $200,000. Rahall's refusal has given his opponent a new tool to bludgeon his opponent in press releases.

In Colorado, CounterPAC is doing some bludgeoning of its own.

On Tuesday the group went live with its first attack ad, a $120,000 expenditure slamming Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo. went. His opponent, Democrat Andrew Romanoff, agreed to sign the pledge if Coffman would follow suit.

See "Dark Money Mike," below:

The ad suggests that Coffman is beholden to secret donors:

"Mike Coffman is enjoying the support of six-figure campaign ads funded by secret donors. The problem with secret donors is, you just don't know who they are. Big tobacco? Russian oil billionaires? Too big to jail Wall Street bankers? The owner of China's largest casino? We don't know and that's just how Mike Coffman wants it."

Coffman's campaign argues that the ad is in violation of the Colorado law prohibiting people from "recklessly" running false statements in ads meant to sway voters in an election. Lawyers representing the campaign sent a cease and desist letter to Denver's KUSA, a local NBC affiliate running the ad:

"Mike Coffman has not received support from these sources and, as CounterPAC is well aware, their claim of “support” is not even possible because it is prohibited by federal law. The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) “prohibits any foreign national from contributing, donating or spending funds in connection with any federal, state, or local election in the United States, either directly or indirectly.” ... Therefore, CounterPAC’s advertisement is patently false.

Knowingly or recklessly broadcasting political advertisements that include false statements would be a criminal violation under Colorado law ..."

Outside groups like political nonprofits and super PACs are prohibited from coordinating with campaigns.

CounterPAC's Campaign Director Jay Costa said the group is open to brokering agreements about what exactly constitutes adequate disclosure, but operates on the baseline principle that "the public should know who is spending money to influence elections."

Sep 19, 2014

An image of Steve Spiker. Founder, OpenOakland
Steve Spiker, founder OpenOakland. Image credit: OpenOakland   

Fifteen candidates in Oakland’s mayoral race. Nearly $1 million fundraised between them — from more than 3,000 donors. Anyone tracking candidates’ money would have to trawl through some 1,000 pages of public campaign filing PDFs to find anything of interest. The resultant tangle of data inspired Open Disclosure, a new web application that sheds light on campaign money at the local level.

The app displays campaign finance information in easy-to-read, interactive tables, charts and maps. Open Disclosure is the product of a unique partnership between the City of Oakland Public Ethics Commission, which enforces Oakland’s campaign finance laws and OpenOakland, a civic innovation organization.

An image of fundraising stats.
Candidates and Fundraising statistics on the home page. Image credit: Open Oakland   

From Open Disclosure’s homepage, which lists Oakland’s mayoral candidates, users can drill deeper, viewing donations by zip code, top contributors, even searching by donor name.

An image of PDF data after.
PDF data (before). Image credit: OpenOakland   
An image of displayed data
Displayed data (after) Image credit: OpenOakland   

Lauren Angius, the program analyst at the Public Ethics Commission who formed the Open Disclosure team in August 2013, believes the app will help Oakland voters. “We’re trying to reduce the complexity of campaign finance data for the average person,” she said.

“Voters need to know who is funding their candidates in order to make informed decisions in November … Open Disclosure makes it easier for voters to be informed,” wrote Daniel G. Newman, president and co-founder of MapLight, a nonpartisan research organization tracking money’s influence on politics.

The site is updated automatically when candidates submit campaign filings, so reporters will also find it easy to gather and broadcast the latest stats (largest remaining cash on hand, most out-of-city money, etc) at any given point before the November election. The app exemplifies the potential for technology to support political accountability and transparency, as well as the potential for further partnerships between city governments and tech volunteers.

The makeup of the Open Disclosure team drives home the point: city staff (who proposed the concept), long-time OpenOakland organizers and a volunteer cast of local web developers and designers drawn to the project over the last 12 months. “I like any project that takes hard-to-find data and puts it somewhere people can use it,” said developer Kyle Warneck. “And campaign finance data for local races is generally pretty hard to grab.”

An image of the Open Disclosure volunteer team
The Open Disclosure volunteer team. Image credit: OpenOakland   

Originally inspired by a campaign finance chart on New York City’s 2013 mayoral election, Open Disclosure can be adapted for any California state, county or local race; the data schema is the same across the state. To get started re-deploying this app, you can fork the source code on GitHub, as a group called Code for San Jose has already done.

Moving forward, the Open Disclosure team is soliciting feedback, especially from people with backgrounds in campaign finance, open government and journalism to help make this app more usable as well as more accurate.

Spike is the Director of Research & Technology with Urban Strategies Council, an Oakland based social justice nonprofit and speaks nationally on data driven decision making and open data. He is the co-founder and captain of OpenOakland, a Code for America Brigade. An Aussie native, he became a dual US citizen last year and voted in his first ever American election. You can reach him at @spjika or

Interested in writing a guest blog for Sunlight? Email us at

Sep 19, 2014

Keep reading for today's look at #OpenGov news, events, and analysis including big spending on conservation, open data and FOI in the Philippines, and innovation at the DC City Council. 

A newspaper with the headline Open Gov

National News

  • The League of Conservation Voters is going to spend a record amount, $25 million in total, on this year's midterm elections. (Roll Call)
  • Sheldon Adelson has chipped in $10 million to Crossroads GPS and pledged another $10 million to a similar group focused on electing members of the GOP to the House. (POLITICO)
  • The House of Representatives is considering a rule that would force think tanks to disclose their foreign government donors when their scholars testify before the chamber. (New York Times)
  • The House Committee on Government Reform approved of the bipartisan Inspector General Empowerment Act which would, among other things, boost inspectors general's ability to subpoena government contractors and former government employees. (Government Executive)
International News
  • The G20 is planning to consider ways to limit loopholes that result in large corporations locating their headquarters in various countries in order to pay the least they can in taxes. Transparency International is urging the group to take that a step further and address more explicit, illegal forms of corporate corruption. (Transparency International)
  • The Philippines is planning to integrate open data principles into its freedom of information law. (Future Gov)
State and Local News
  • The Washington, DC City Council is hiring an "innovation fellow" who will serve as a "hacker in residence" helping to improve access to public data with open source tools. (Government Executive)
  • The Tumml civic technology accelerator is sending 7 new startups out into the world with $20,000 worth of funding and plans to improve citizen services in cities. (Government Technology)
Events Today Do you want to track transparency news? You can follow the progress of relevant bills, court cases, and regulations using Scout. You can also get Today in #OpenGov sent directly to your preferred news reader. If you would like suggest an event, please email by 7 am on the Monday prior to the event. 

Sep 18, 2014

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., opposes mandatory bans on lead ammunition.

On July 30, 2013, Sen. John McCain placed a call to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) asking to speak to acting director B. Todd Jones. McCain wanted to talk about condors.

Jones didn't come to the phone, in spite of — or maybe because of — the fact that his nomination of the besieged agency was coming for a vote before the Senate the following day. McCain was a key player: He had helped broker a deal with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to end the filibusters that had stymied so many Obama administration nominations.

McCain spoke to Jones' chief of staff. The senator's request? That Jones come to an Arizona summit the following month on the state's program to protect the endangered bird.

Why would McCain take the step of calling Jones at such a sensitive time to talk about, of all things, birds? Why did he think that Jones' participation in this particular meeting was so crucial?

Sunlight found the record of the telephone call placed by McCain to the ATF, which has not been public before, among thousands of pages of documents we received from the ATF via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which we analyzed with the help of Overview, an open source tool that allows journalists to find themes in large sets of documents.

A McCain staffer says the senator's motivation came from a long-held desire to save the birds and to promote Arizona's program that encourages hunters to give up lead ammunition, which has been tied to condor deaths. The state's voluntary program is in lieu of a legal ban on lead ammunition.

But the public record shows that McCain's efforts to intercede mesh with the interests of the National Rifle Association (NRA), which endorsed the senator during the 2008 presidential campaign and spent $7 million opposing his rival, President Barack Obama, and again endorsed him in his 2010 Senate race. The NRA and the ATF did not return requests for interviews for this story.

That summer was a fraught time in the annals of battles over lead ammunition. The California legislature was debating a bill that would ban outright the use of these types of bullets statewide. The ATF, meanwhile, was reconsidering restrictions on certain brass bullets deemed "armor piercing" that are used by hunters as alternatives to lead ammunition. And the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was facing efforts by the Center for Biological Diversity and other conservation groups to ban lead ammunition under federal toxics laws.

McCain felt that these parallel efforts were pressuring Arizona's condor preservation program at all ends. The ATF was considering squeezing out copper bullets, which local conservation groups, such as the Peregrine Fund, were worried would hurt the state's voluntary program to preserve the birds. The NRA fiercely opposed any new restrictions on copper bullets and the proposed bans on lead bullets in California and the federal level. The senator felt, according to his aide, "There is no one thinking about the condor."

With a wingspans stretching nearly 10 feet, the California condor is the largest flying bird on the continent of North America. They once ranged from Canada to Mexico and were plentiful in the Grand Canyon, but, by the time Europeans came to America, most of the big birds lived in California. With hunting, development and other encroachments on their territory, the numbers of condors dwindled fast; in 1967, the federal government listed the condor as an endangered species. Nevertheless, their numbers continued to dwindle, and by 1979, there were only about 30 birds remaining in the wild.

In the 1980s, work began to breed condors in captivity, with the goal of reviving the population. And in the following decade, in both California and Arizona, conservationists began to introduce these birds back into the wild. As of June 2014, 225 condors fly the skies of California and the Vermillion Cliffs in Arizona, while 214 live in captivity.

But wild condors have continued to die — and the evidence points toward lead poisoning. As scavengers, condors frequently feast on "gut piles" left behind by hunters who have shot deer with lead bullets. When they eat, they also ingest lead;indeed more than half of the condors tested are positive for lead exposure, many at such dangerous levels that they must be treated by chelation therapy. "[T]he prevalence of lead poisoning in California condors is of epidemic proportion and ... the principle source of lead poisoning is lead-based ammunition," concluded a 2012 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that utilized isotopic analysis to link the lead found in condors with the lead in spent ammunition.

The California condor. Photo credit: Stacy Spensley/Flickr.

The NRA, however, has never accepted that lead ammunition is a major cause of condor poisoning and strongly opposes any attempts to ban it. In June 2007, when the California legislature was considering a bill to ban lead ammunition in areas within the range of condors, the gun rights group commissioned a study concluding that "lead ammunition as a major source of elevated lead in condors is not supported by the scientific data presented." They urged members to oppose the legislation and then, when it was approved by both the Assembly and the Senate, to contact then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R, and demand he veto it. In that case, the gun rights group lost: Schwarzenegger signed the new law in October 2007.

In 2008, as the presidential race heated up, McCain actively sought the support of the NRA. It was a tricky relationship, because McCain's record, while generally pro-gun rights, included some positions opposed by the NRA — most notably, following the Columbine school shooting, he came out in support of background checks for firearms bought at gun shows. The NRA also fiercely opposes campaign finance reform, which McCain championed in the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. In 2004, the NRA gave him just a 50% "lifetime rating," according to Project Vote Smart, although in the 1990s he'd earned a "100%" rating.

But in the presidential contest with Barack Obama, McCain was the clear choice for the NRA, and the official endorsement came in October. At that point, the NRA had already spent more than $2.3 million on independent expenditures opposing Obama, according to the Washington Times. By the time the election ran its course, the NRA would drop nearly $7 million against Obama and more than $289,000 in favor of McCain, according to

In 2009, McCain addressed the NRA's national convention. He thanked the group for its endorsement, adding, "It also meant a great deal to me personally, and I thank you, and I'm in your debt. I promise you I intend to honor that debt by remaining worthy of the support you gave me and standing with the members of the National Rifle Association as you defend our liberties and resist unnecessary encroachments on them by government."

McCain addresses the NRA convention in 2009.

The NRA endorsed the senator for his 2010 Senate campaign; the support was particularly noteworthy since McCain faced a challenge from the right in the primary, by Rep. J.D. Hayworth. In its statement, the NRA specifically highlights McCain's "commitment to preserving our hunting heritage," and his consistent votes against "ammunition bans." The NRA spent $7,900 in support of McCain, who in the general election far outraised his Democratic rival, just $1.3 million compared to McCain's $5.8 million that cycle, according to Influence Explorer.

In the summer of 2013, the issue of lead ammunition was heating up again. In Sacramento, the state legislature was considering a bill, Assembly Bill 711, which would ban lead ammunition in the state altogether.

Meanwhile, the NRA was also actively fighting against a revived petition by the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups asking the EPA to ban lead ammunition as a violation of toxics laws. The EPA had denied the petition, environmental groups sued and a district court dismissed the suit. In another lawsuit, the Center had argued that the U.S. Forest Service should ban lead ammunition in Arizona's Kaibab National Forest. (Since then, the environmental groups have filed an appeal in federal court.)

And over at the ATF, the agency was considering whether and how to revamp its standards on armor-piercing ammunition. Thousands of pages of testimony, comments and other materials had been collected from the gun rights and gun control groups, law enforcement and wildlife groups, and more, in considering whether to expand exemptions for certain types of brass ammunition popular with hunters — particularly as an alternative to the lead ammunition that had come under scrutiny.

McCain had long championed Arizona's program to revive the condor population and attended the first release of condors into the Arizona sky on Dec. 12, 1996. The Arizona program encourages hunters to avoid lead ammunition rather than banning it outright, as was being considered in California. The Arizona Game and Fish Department makes available this brochure online, which, unlike the NRA, states clearly that lead poisoning is a clear danger for condors and encourages hunters to use brass bullets instead. It reads: "Prove to the critics that this problem can be solved without mandatory measures." With a looming vote on a ban of all lead ammunition in California, promoting Arizona's less stringent program, along with a similar one, in Utah, was all the more important.

An NRA alert urging members to oppose California's lead ammunition ban, claiming it "effectively bans hunting in California."

McCain's staff had already been in touch with the ATF, but were not happy with the responses they were getting, so the senator leaped into the fray. On July 3, 2013, McCain wrote to then-ATF acting director B. Todd Jones, cautioning him that an attempt to expand a ban on non-lead ammunition as "armor piercing" would get in the way of Arizona's program to protect condors. On July 30, the senator wrote again, inviting Jones to a meeting at the Grand Canyon to discuss the "importance of recovering the endangered California condor."

And, that same day — July 30, according to this ATF memo — McCain placed a phone call to the agency asking to speak to Jones. Instead, he spoke to Jones' chief of staff. "Sen. McCain was displeased that ATF had [sic] yet responded to the Senator's letter to ATF [dated July 3] ... inviting Director Jones to the California Condor meeting in Arizona on August 9, 2013."

After the chief of staff filled McCain in about "the issues with pending exemption requests," he said the ATF would be sending a representative to the meeting, but that that person "would be restricted on providing much dialogue on the issue." Then, reads the memo, "Sen [sic] McCain reiterated that the meeting is about saving birds, not about armor piercing ammunition. The Senator also requested that someone with 'decision making power' from ATF be present."

The timing of this phone conversation was interesting. At the time, the Senate was poised to vote on confirmation of Jones as ATF's director. This was no routine matter. Just a few weeks before, McCain had brokered a deal with Senate Majority Leader Reid to allow the confirmation of several nominees by President Barack Obama that had been stalled by GOP filibusters. This included the nomination of Jones, who had been serving as acting director of the ATF since 2011. A McCain aide says the timing was only coincidental; that the senator was preparing for August recess, the natural time for such a meeting to take place.

True to his word, on July 31, McCain voted "yes" on the cloture vote to allow the Jones nomination to proceed, essentially helping clear the way for his confirmation. However, he abstained from voting "yes," or "no," on the actual nomination vote. Jones was nevertheless confirmed that day.

On Aug. 1, Jones himself called the senator "to discuss the confirmation vote from the day before." On the phone, McCain raised the issue again of the ATF attending the August meeting in Arizona on the condor, and "reiterated that the meeting is about saving birds, not about armor piercing ammunition."

In the end, Jones did not attend the Arizona meeting about the condor, sending ATF Deputy Director Thomas Brandon instead. McCain's staff attempted to get an NRA representative to come to the meeting as well, but were unsuccessful. However, there was an attendee from the National Sports Shooting Foundation (NSSF), a gun rights group that is also active in opposing restrictions on lead ammunition. Other federal and state agencies also sent representatives to the meeting, and hunters groups — such as the Arizona Elk Association — also attended.

Official portrait of ATF Director B. Todd Jones. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

As the lead ban legislation moved through the California legislature, McCain made his voice heard again. In an unusual move, the senator made a very public plea that a sitting governor to veto the bill on his desk, in this letter to Gov. Jerry Brown.

"We must address lead exposure in condors but I strenuously disagree with a compulsory statewide ban on lead ammunition," wrote the senator.

Gov. Brown didn't listen. On Oct. 11, he signed the bill, and California became the first state to ban lead ammunition. It goes into full effect in 2019. The NRA and the NSSF are now working to influence the new law's implementation.

To Chris Parish, who directs the Peregrine Fund's condor program and is a fierce proponent of the voluntary approach to condor preservation, McCain has been a key player in trying to bridge the gap between conservation groups like his and the NRA. "I have hope that Sen. McCain ... can get them to take the high road," he says.

Indeed, the NRA's rhetoric on the Arizona program is softer than that on California: "[S]uch programs ... are preferable to a misguided and deeply flawed complete lead ammunition ban ..." reads a fact sheet from the spring of 2014.

But to Jeff Miller, conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, voluntary programs do not nearly go far enough.

"Anyone who suggests that the best gauge of success for protecting condors from lead poisoning is anything other than reducing the number of lead poisonings and condor deaths is not serious about preventing condor deaths," he said in a statement last summer.

Sep 18, 2014

Sunlight is thrilled to mark Global Legislative Openness Week with our global legislative transparency campaign, which culminated earlier this week in a joint letter from the world’s parliamentary monitoring organizations (PMOs) sent to national legislatures across the globe.

The letter calls for increased legislative transparency and parliamentary open data, and affirms the importance of legislative institutions and NGOs as partners in strengthening democracy. It is also an invitation for increased collaboration, offering help to legislatures in embracing new technology.

In the short time since we solicited endorsements, we’ve been nothing short of astounded by the response we’ve gotten from the community of PMOs throughout the world. In part, that’s due to the unique strength of the PMO network we’ve built along with the National Democratic Institute and the Latin American Network for Legislative Transparency; it also demonstrates NGOs’ appetite for both transparency and for coordinated international advocacy.

One hundred nine PMOs from 54 countries have endorsed the letter, along with a variety of other supporting organizations.1 The letter has also been translated into 14 languages, for a total of 20 translations (including regional variations). With groups’ help from around the world, we have submitted the letter to 191 legislative bodies in 130 different countries and the EU.

Many legislatures are demonstrating an eagerness to respond. Our colleagues at Hasadna in Israel have leveraged the campaign to begin conversations with the Knesset about releasing an API for parliamentary data. The Al Hayat Center in Jordan had a personal appointment with the Speaker of the Jordanian parliament to hand deliver our community’s demands for openness. These early conversations mark a new opportunity for dialogue between PMOs and members of parliaments, and we expect to hear of many more examples in the coming weeks.

In addition to these governmental responses, we’re also seeing a big response from our broader PMO community. National level actors are customizing the campaign to leverage it in their own context, through activities including organizing a coalition of civil society organizations (CSOs) for a strong coordinated promotional push (Spain, Burkina Faso, Croatia), crowdsourcing unique translations based on the national parliamentary situations or cultural nuances (Latin America, Netherlands, Chile) and even hand delivering letters to parliaments when contact information is difficult to find (Kenya).

One development we’re particularly excited about is that our approach to legislative reform at scale internationally is also being translated to the subnational level. Sunlight is leading (and will soon be sending) a similar letter to every U.S. state legislature, and PATTIRO — an NGO based in Indonesia — has disseminated the letter nationwide, reaching out to the country’s 34 regional legislatures. OpenNorth, a PMO in Canada, and Public Policies Lab from Argentina have also sent the letter to local legislatures.

We expect that these stories of direct legislature impact and national CSO activity are just a few of the many to come. To track these initiatives, we’ve put together a public document to help build a repository of success stories for the global legislative transparency community. However, to create a complete and inclusive repository, we need your help. If you know of any updates or activities that have resulted from this campaign on the national level, please add it to our spreadsheet.