Text Messaging: Old School

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 06-14-2007

The Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit cofounded by wealthy Washington lawyer Michael Klein, is dedicated to "using the revolutionary power of the Internet and new information technology to enable citizens to learn more about what Congress and their elected representatives are doing," as its mission statement proclaims. The statement adds that Sunlight is "unique in that technology and the power of the Internet are at the core of every one of our efforts."

The uniquely high-tech foundation's latest effort? A billboard along Interstate 65 in Louisville, Ky. The sign shows a lightbulb being shined on the face of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, with text that reads "What's McConnell Hiding?" Sunlight claims the Kentucky Republican has blocked a financial disclosure bill from coming up for a vote, and wants his constituents to pressure him over it. The senator says he merely seeks a floor debate that would give opponents the right to amend the legislation. The bill's supporters say allowing amendments would compromise it.

Ironically, the bill itself is an attempt to move campaign finance reporting into the Information Age; it would require electronic filing of fund-raising reports, which are now filed on paper and then converted by the Federal Election Commission to electronic form—a process that can take as long as two months. So why the low-tech approach to McConnell's home-folks? "You have to be flexible, and when the old way of reaching people is effective, that's what you use," says Sunlight executive director Ellen S. Miller. "You need a combination of the newest tools and other ways of taking arguments to the people."

Sunlight, which has backed projects including a database of legislative information known as Congresspedia and an online networked-journalism project, previously went old school by deploying on-the-ground organizers to enlist candidates in a transparency- in-government campaign. "So much of what goes on in Washington is unknown to constituents," Miller says. "You go with the techniques that work." If that means more billboards, she says, so be it.