Tag Archives: Brennan Center for Justice

Rays of Hope from Sunshine Week 2013

It’s eight years now since the first Sunshine Week, celebrated this week, March 10-March16.  Sunshine Week  is a national initiative to promote discussion about the importance of freedom of information and open government.  The week was chosen to coincide with the birthday of James Madison (more about the Mr. Madison later).  At the national level the prime mover behind Sunshine Week was the American Society of News Editors, later joined by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

In those eight years change on every front has transformed the very context in which we celebrate Sunshine Week 2013.   Change has occurred at such a dizzying pace that government, the press, and citizens may be at a loss, seeking for some framework to understand how open government could and should work in the 21st Century.

The fact that it is the press that initiated the concept of Sunshine Week is significant.  The media environment of today bears scant resemblance to what it was a decade ago.  Investigative reporting is more honored in the breach than in the observance.  Warp speed journalism doesn’t allow time for deep investigation.  The print press has faded in the wings as everyone with a smart phone is both a source and consumer of what passes for news.

The flow of information between government and the general populace is totally changed.  The government both gathers and produces information online – and with the change in format come challenges that confound agencies and constituencies alike.

Though the current administration has established policies to promote openness, the wheels of government grind slowly, and a strict diet of transparency is problematic at best.

So it is interesting to note what’s happening this week as the watchdogs of open government grapple with open government circa 2013.  Some examples:

  • Monday morning started with the Fourth Annual Department of Justice Sunshine Week Celebration at which the DOJ’s chief Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) officer led a discussion of federal agencies’ improvements in FOIA administration.
  • Symbolic but important, at the same time there was a rare viewing and discussion of the Freedom of Information Act at the National Archives, including a demonstration of the multi-agency FOIA portal.  Despite the bold pronouncement that “all agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure” charges of recalcitrance on the part of agencies will undoubtedly surfaced at this session.
  • On Tuesday, the Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch) and the Electronic Privacy Information Center  (EPIC) will host two panel discussions examining transparency and national security in the Obama administration’s second term.   These are all-star panels on hot topics.  This is one of two Sunshine Week sessions that will be webcast – reservations requested.  The webcast is Noon-3:00 p.m.  RSVP to www.foreffectivegov.org/webcastsrsvp
  • Also on Tuesday, March 12, the National Press Club’s Freedom of the Press Committee will hold a panel discussion, 6:30 p.m., about the effect on the press  of laws enacted globally after 9-11.
  • On Wednesday, March 12, there will be a hearing of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, “We the People: Fulfilling the Promise of Open Government Five Years after The OPEN Government Act.”
  • At the same time Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and the George Washington University Law School will be asking the question: Does U.S. Secret Law Threaten our Democracy?
  • Thursday the Brennan Center for Justice will host a panel discussion on the topic “Secrecy and Security: The Future of Classification Reform.”  Meanwhile the Cato Institute is holding a workshop looking at legislative data and Wikipedia and the National Press Club will host a panel discussion on using FOIA.
  • Friday is the Annual National Freedom of Information Day conference, this year at the Newseum.  In morning sessions Open the Government will presents its eighth annual Sunshine Week examination of the state of openness in the federal government, focusing this year on the outlook for the President’s second term.  The day includes a keynote discussion with First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams and a discussion of the new documentary Whistleblowers. The American Library Association will also presents it James Madison Award.  This FOI Day observance is the second of the week’s events that will be webcast beginning at 8:30 a.m. (7:30 CST)

It may tempting to think that these Sunshine Week activities are only for the Beltway Insiders and government geeks.  Still, without these Insiders, the watchdogs, the whistblowers and the faithful attendees at hearings and endless meetings,  the public right to access would surely be thwarted.

We depend on the eyes and ears – and collaborative efforts – of these observers to keep the decision-making processes remains open to the press and to the public.  They keep a watchful eye to be sure that the exigencies of the day do not interfere with the assumption of openness.  Though it may seem remote, consider these stories of the ways in which access to government information play out in the real world, the real world where it makes a difference to every one of us.

We may not be there to keep an eagle eye on the day’s decisions, but we live with the consequences.

 

 

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Voting Procedures Still on the Public Agenda at State and National Levels

Voter registration, an issue that some had optimistically assumed was resolved two decades ago by the  National Voter Registration Act  has emerged – no, erupted – as a major issue, a mighty weapon wielded by forces that are only too well aware that the place to stifle the democratic process is the voting booth.  Tinkering with the electoral process has taken various forms shaped to the vulnerability of the venue.   In Minnesota, the pressure point was the Voter ID Amendment to the State Constitution.  Originally portrayed as a benign detail the pernicious proposal was soundly trounced by the electorate in the last election.

An unintended consequence of that ill-fated rush to exclude has awakened Minnesotans to the importance of voters’ rights and inspired elected officials scrutinize the details with unaccustomed care.

The first legislative measures to take stage center are related proposals to allow early voting and to eliminate a requirement that people have a valid excuse to vote by absentee ballot.   Thirty two states offer some form of early voting in which there is no requirement for a valid excuse.  In some cases the votes are counted immediately; in others votes are not tabulated until election day and voters have a chance to change their vote. Many Minnesotans consider early voting a non-issue since they have assumed that Minnesota has had early voting in place all along.

The proposal now before the state Legislature would allow Minnesota voters to vote up to 15 days before an election.  On-site registration would still be available following the same requirements as are currently in place for Election Day registration.  While opponents fear easy early voting gives too much power to parties and voter fraud, proponents of absentee voting argue that it is more convenient for voters and that it would shorten the lines on Election Day.  Governor Dayton has not weighed in except to be very clear about the fact that any decision will have to have bipartisan support.

With heightened awareness of the import of the electoral process per se, Minnesotans may be interested to learn more about what is happening in other states and at the national level.  The Brennan Center for Justice which has long studied voting practices recently produced a major proposal to “modernize voter registration and bring America’s election system into the 21st Century.”  The plan, known as the Voter Registration Modernization (VRM), is the centerpiece of the Voter Empowerment Act introduced last month by a raft of legislators and prominently mentioned in the President’s State of the Union Address.

Those who hatched their nefarious plans to skew the American electoral process by tinkering with the “details” may find that shining light on those details has illuminated the gaps in a system that is now enjoying unprecedented attention.

Minnesotans out-voted every state in the nation in the last election.  We captured the national headlines with defeat of the Voter ID Amendment, once on its way to easy passage.  We have reason to be proud of our record.  We have a concomitant responsibility to follow what is happening in the State Legislature and in Congress.  We know from experience what it takes to keep a collective eye on the electoral process — constant vigilance is the price of liberty.