Text Messaging: Old School

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.

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