Help shine a light

It's election time again, and that means campaign ads will bombard us from every direction and on every medium, from television to the Internet. This year, thanks to the Sunlight Foundation, everyone has an opportunity to help track those ads and who is paying for them.

That's especially important now, because of the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission. That decision said that corporations and labor unions may spend unlimited amounts of money on political advertising right up to Election Day, as long as they do not coordinate with candidates.

Regardless of your opinion about that ruling, it is now the law of the land. But the FEC has not yet adopted final rules to track the money being spent and who is spending it. And Congress has not enacted legislation that would require public disclosure of the new spending.

That's where the Sunlight Foundation comes in.

The foundation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to making government as transparent as possible. The foundation has created a new website called Sunlight Campaign Ad Monitor — www.sunlightcam.com — where anyone can be an ad monitor.

When you see a political ad, you can log on to the site, enter your zip code and report when you saw the ad, whether it was on TV, on the radio or on the Internet, whether it was for or against a candidate, what was said and who paid for it. The information appears on the site identified by state and zip code. The database, which is small so far but growing by the minute, can be downloaded in spreadsheet format.

Visitors to the site also can flag inaccurate information or abusive or offensive posts, and the Sunlight Foundation staff will look into it.

The site also contains helpful tips and links for those who want to do their own research.

The Sunlight Foundation was founded in 2006 in response to multiple corruption scandals in Washington, D.C., and the explosion of social media. The organization is dedicated to the proposition that not only should detailed information about government be available to the public, but it should be available online, in real time when possible.

Campaign Ad Monitor is just one of the group's projects. Others include online access to government data in easy-to-use formats, and even a list of fundraising parties scheduled for members of Congress and who is hosting them.

The key to all of this, especially the ad monitor, is participation by ordinary citizens. The more people get involved in shining a light on government and those who run it, the more likely government is to work on the public's behalf and not its own.

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