Corruption and voter suppression leave a paper trail
Evers is executive director American Oversight, an ethics watchdog focused on the Trump administration.
Americans are confronted each day with corruption. It blares from the Trump administration and many state governments. Public evidence alone helps explain why Americans feel that the system is rigged and that corporate and shadowy interests write policy to entrench their power at the expense of regular people. It is seen as politics as usual, a contest mediated through inane and exasperating punditry.
But in reality, the corruption is often starker, spelled out in black and white, in ways that are hard to write off. And when exposed it can be truly shocking — and can break Americans from viewing it as routine.
For that reason, open records laws should be elevated as crucial tools for making corruption resonate. My organization specializes in using such laws to expose primary-source evidence of corruption. But more organizations advocating against governmental misconduct or special interests should use those tools to make their arguments tangible.
The three years of the Trump administration have revealed the power of such tangible evidence, a notable recent example being the summary transcript of the president's call with his Ukrainian counterpart at the heart of the impeachment inquiry. The release of damning text messages exchanged by State Department officials regarding President Trump and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani's efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens very likely had a greater effect on the poll numbers than secondhand reports would have.
And it's not just Trump. The paper trail from administration agencies has also revealed his Cabinet officials' self-dealing, bias and aloofness. After Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson steadfastly claimed he had nothing to do with the purchase of a $31,000 dining set for his office, we uncovered documents showing he and his wife were, in fact, involved in the selection. Though Carson was recently cleared of legal "wrongdoing," his lies stand. And over at the EPA, Administrator Scott Pruitt found it impossible to stay in office after American Oversight and others used open records requests to show profligate spending on unnecessary office upgrades and personal errands.
Just as receipts can reveal misuse of public resources, calendars that show how Cabinet secretaries spend their time reveal their priorities better than press releases. We have litigated to obtain the calendars of many Trump officials, and in 2017 we exposed how Pruitt had spent his first year in office catering exclusively to regulated industries, ignoring environmental groups or vulnerable constituencies. The release of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao's calendars revealed how she has turned her agency into a Friends of Mitch McConnell operation.
The paper trail also gives texture to the way the administration's anti-immigrant policies take shape in real life, especially when coupled with abuses of power. For example, emails we uncovered show that in 2017 Kris Kobach, then the Kansas secretary of state, attempted to use his connections at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to find out the immigration status of nearly 300 residents of neighboring Nebraska. Think about that: He was shopping an unverified list of suspected undocumented immigrants to the deportation authorities. We also uncovered documents — including emails that show immigration officials cutting a question that would have allowed asylum-seekers to avoid having to wait in Mexico if they feared for their safety — that demonstrate how the administration's immigration policies are designed to close America's doors.
The success of open-records requests and litigation against the Trump administration points to the promise of the tactic elsewhere. Too often, coalitions fighting for democracy reform and voting rights engage in battles at the policy level, issuing dueling legislative proposals and organizing opposition to voter-suppression measures, and do not invest in exposing the paper trail left behind by opponents. But when evidence comes out that shows the inner workings of those anti-voter campaigns, the results are explosive.
Consider the files of Thomas Hofeller, which detailed gerrymandering efforts in North Carolina as well as the partisan motivations of adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census. As noted in the "Corruption Consultants" report by the Center for American Progress, consultants' and officials' own public statements exposed the political motivations of North Carolina's 2013 voting law and cut down claims the law was merely about preventing fraudulent voting.
Those comments, along with incredible documents that exposed the law's discriminatory intent, drove a panel of federal judges to conclude North Carolina Republicans engaged in voter suppression with "surgical precision." Many already "knew" about the intent behind redistricting efforts, but the shock of seeing it in black and white helped make the jump from common-sense reasoning to irrefutable evidence.
Open-records laws are citizen statutes; any organization operating in this space can utilize them to obtain more evidence like that. And they should. American Oversight recently launched an initiative to add open-records capacity to the voter-suppression fights in Florida, Georgia and Texas, with more states on the horizon. In addition to uncovering evidence of corruption, our hope is that other organizations — local and national — will see the value of open-records work to expose the misconduct and misguided motivations of opponents.
Bad actors aren't just making bad policy; they're leaving behind records that often reveal corrupt intentions. And Americans should see that corruption in black and white.
In a partisan vote on an issue that once was bipartisan, House Democrats pushed through legislation Friday that would restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House 228-187, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all but one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting against it.
The bill faces virtually no chance of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission after the agency made clear it wants broader public disclosure regarding TV political ads.
With the 2020 election less than a year away and political TV ads running more frequently, the FCC issued a lengthy order to clear up any ambiguities licensees of TV stations had regarding their responsibility to record information about ad content and sponsorship. In response, a dozen broadcasting stations sent a petition to the agency, asking it to consider a more narrow interpretation of the law.
This dispute over disclosure rules for TV ads comes at a time when digital ads are subject to little regulation. Efforts to apply the same rules for TV, radio and print advertising across the internet have been stymied by Congress's partisanship and the Federal Election Commission being effectively out of commission.
Laura Williamson says her career was shaped by growing up in North Carolina, which she describes as being historically at the center of the best and worst of American democracy. She spent seven years working with young people at progressive groups and got a master's in public affairs at Princeton before joining Demos in the summer of 2018. The think tank aims to combat "threats to democracy, racial equity and economic inclusion" and as a senior policy analyst she's focused on voter registration, voting rights, money in politics and civic participation. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What's democracy's biggest challenge, in 10 words or less?
Abolishing all disenfranchisement schemes and achieving an inclusive, multiracial democracy.
Describe your very first civic engagement.
Testifying at the North Carolina General Assembly against cuts to funding for vocational education. The woodworking classes I took throughout high school were among the most formative of my public school education, so as a high school senior I advocated for their continued funding to lawmakers in Raleigh.
What was your biggest professional triumph?
It's actually a triumph-in-progress. At Demos, we are privileged to work with powerful grassroots leaders redefining democracy and pushing the reform conversation across the country. Alongside these Inclusive Democracy Project leaders we are dreaming and scheming about what it would take to build a truly inclusive democracy — without limiting ourselves by what's perceived as politically feasible or reasonable — and to chart a radical reform agenda that meets the challenge. Our agenda is in progress and, like all real victories, is benefitting from the efforts of many smart and talented people. Stay tuned, it'll be ready for public consumption soon!
And your most disappointing setback?
They have always come after I've not listened well enough, have brought too much ego and taken things too personally, or not followed my gut about when a process or decision felt off.
How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?
I'm from North Carolina, where we pioneered multiracial, pro-justice fusion politics during Reconstruction, civil disobedience during the civil rights movement and franchise-expanding voting reforms since the 1990s. More recently, we have also been home to the vanguard of voter suppression and other democracy stifling tactics since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. I stand on the shoulders of giants and against the abdication of our identity as democracy leaders. I also do this work because, as a white woman, I know the exclusion of entire communities from our democracy was — and is still — led by my people and, often, in my name. I work every day to undo that legacy and ongoing reality.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
Learn to simultaneously practice patience and show up with urgency in all the work I do.
Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
Impeaches and Cream
West Wing or Veep?
West Wing — for the sometimes-too-earnest belief that government can be a force for good, not the centrist politics!
What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?
Turn on do not disturb.
What is your deepest, darkest secret?
I'm deeply terrified by karaoke.
Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.
With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.
Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.
Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.
I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.
Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.