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Open Government

Tax returns could be thorny transparency issue for Democratic contenders

Democrats have spent three years castigating Donald Trump for not allowing the public to peruse his tax returns in the name of transparency and good governance, but the party's presidential candidates have so far been slow to release their filings.

In fact, just two have disclosed anything recent. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York publicly released her forms for 2018 on Wednesday, a relatively uncomplicated filing showing $214,000 in adjusted gross income – her $167,634 in congressional salary augmented by a $50,000 payment for her campaign autobiography. And Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has posted all her returns since 2008 on her campaign website, although she hasn't filed for last year.

"The Democratic candidates now find themselves in a potentially challenging spot. They face pressure to release years' worth their returns, to emphasize to energized primary voters how different they are from Trump and how they reject his approach to government service," the Washington Post wrote in detailing how the 2020 field is handling the matter so far. "At the same time, tax returns can sometimes include embarrassing information or disclose data at odds with a candidate's political self-portrait – such as a lofty income that might not sit well with Americans living paycheck to paycheck."

Three other senators – Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Kamala Harris of California and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota – and former Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas have promised to release returns but have not committed to a timetable or a depth of disclosure.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey has given some access to his filings before past elections but has not made clear what he will do this time. And Joe Biden, who is expected to announce his decision within a month, has released tax returns from 1998 through 2015, his penultimate year as vice president.

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The House on Friday passed legislation to restore a provision of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. The bill would require advance approval of voting changes in states with a history of discrimination. Here President Lyndon Johnson shares one of the pens he used to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Passage of historic voting rights law takes a partisan turn

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.

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Big Picture

TV stations fight FCC over political ad disclosure

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.

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1952 Eisenhower Answers America

On TV, political ads are regulated – but online, anything goes

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.

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