Category Archives: Politics

New site, new datasets.

Since creating Richmond Sunlight and Virginia Decoded, I’ve been building up a public trove of datasets about Virginia government: legislative video, the court system’s definitions of legal terms, court rulings, all registered dangerous dogs, etc. But they’re all scattered about on different websites. A couple of years ago, I slapped together a quick site to list all of them, but I outgrew it pretty quickly.

So now I’m launching a new site: the Open Virginia data repository. It’s an implementation of the excellent CKAN data repository software (which will soon drive Data.gov). The idea is to provide a single, searchable, extensible website where every known state dataset can be listed, making them easy to find and interact with. It’s built on the industry’s best software, in part because I’m hopeful that, eventually, I can persuade Virginia to simply take the site from me, to establish a long-overdue data.virginia.gov.

There are a few new datasets that accompany this launch:

  • The Dangerous Dog Registry as JSON, meaning that programmers can take these records and do something interesting with them. (Imagine an iPhone app that tells you when you’re close to a registered dangerous dog.) Previously I provided this only as HTML.
  • VDOT 511 Geodata. This is the GeoJSON that powers Virginia 511, exposed here for the first time. Road work, traffic cameras, accidents—all kinds of great data, updated constantly, with each GeoJSON feed listed here.
  • Public comments on proposed regulations. Over 28,000 comments have been posted by members of the public about regulations to the Virginia Regulatory Town Hall site over the past decade. Now they’re all available in a single file (formatted as JSON), for programmers to do interesting things with.

There’s so much more to come—good datasets already available, and datasets that need to be scraped from government sites and normalized—but this is a good start. I’m optimistic that providing an open, accessible home for this data will encourage others to join in and help create a comprehensive collection of data about the Virginia government and its services.

Senator Henry Marsh’s big day.

Senate Session

Today was a big day for Senator Henry Marsh. The legislator of twenty years took a rare day off during the Virginia Senate’s 46-day session, to attend President Barack Obama’s second-term inauguration in Washington D.C. For the 79-year-old black civil rights lawyer, attending a black president’s inauguration on Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday is perhaps the most auspicious of occasions. Certainly nobody would object to him missing just one day. Looking at today’s legislative calendar, he would have seen that his absence wouldn’t be problematic, with nothing contentious on the agenda. (With the Senate split 50/50 between Democrats and Republicans, and with a Republican lieutenant governor acting as tie-breaker, that’s no small point.)

Marsh grew up under Jim Crow. He had a ten-mile round-trip walk to his one-room schoolhouse—an awfully long trip for a seven-year-old—while white kids took a bus to a modern school. Marsh didn’t let racism hold him back. He didn’t just graduate from primary school, but went onto college. When he was a senior at Virginia Union University, the Byrd Machine was organizing “massive resistance”—shutting down public schools rather than comply with Brown v. Board of Education—and Marsh got involved, testifying against the policy before the General Assembly. In doing so, he met famed civil rights attorney Oliver Hill; at Hill’s encouragement, he got a degree in law from Howard University, and later went into private practice with Hill, focusing on civil rights law. Marsh and his practice were responsible for huge advances in civil rights over the decades, eliminating “separate but equal,” busing, and racial discrimination in hiring. Along the way he became the first black mayor of Richmond, and was elected to his Senate seat in 1991. Today he chairs the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission and created the Martin Luther King Jr. Living History and Public Policy Center.

So it bears repeating: today was a very big day for Henry Marsh. He must have taken a great deal of satisfaction in seeing his life’s work culminate in the first black president’s reelection, being sworn in on Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. It was a very, very good reason to miss a day’s session.

Today was also a big day for Senate Republicans. They knew that Henry Marsh would be at the inauguration today, and that the 20–20 split in the Senate would become a 20–19 split while Marsh was 100 miles north, among the throngs on the National Mall. So today was the day that they decided—without hearings, advertisements, notifications, or warnings—to take a chunk out of Marsh’s district, along with a handful of others, to ghettoize black voters in a majority-minority district and put 45% of voting-age citizens into new districts.

I sat in the Senate gallery, along with no more than perhaps a half-dozen other people, slack-jawed with confusion (tweeting all the while) as Republican Sen. John Watkins filibustered through the allotted 15 minutes to discuss what was advertised as the third reading of a pretty boring bill, making technical adjustments to district boundaries. Unbeknownst to anybody but the 20 Senate Republicans, the bill had been replaced with a radical redistricting, combining two senators into a single district (eliminating the district of 2009 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Creigh Deeds), reshuffling district boundaries throughout the state to absorb those changes (to Republicans’ apparent favor in a half-dozen districts), and creating a “black district.”

Senate Democrats tried repeatedly to get a word in, but they were blocked procedurally. A series of votes were held (votes about voting, votes about reconsidering voting about voting, and so on), all failing 20–19, during which a few people got to make remarks. One Democratic senator moved to simply put the vote off until tomorrow, so that there’d be time to read this brand-new bill. That vote failed 20–19. Another Democratic senator pointed out that this was simply unconstitutional (“[t]he General Assembly shall reapportion the Commonwealth into electoral districts in accordance with this section in the year 2011 and every ten years thereafter”). One Republican senator insisted that this was simply a racially sensitive improvement, since it was establishing a majority-minority district. Another Republican said that there was no need to hold hearings on this new redistricting, because they held hearings a few years ago, last time they redistricted. Yet it remained unclear throughout what, exactly, this bill did, though Democrats were frantically trying to figure that out as they stalled with round after round of procedural vote, a peeved Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling presiding over the whole affair. Finally there was nothing else to be done—the vote was held, and the bill passed, 20–19.

Lt. Gov Bolling says he would have voted against the bill, if it had been a tie. Which is surely why the bill was introduced today.

Senate Republicans’ MLK Day gift to Senator Marsh and to Virginia is to use the re-inauguration of the United States’ first black president as cover to pass a bill that will make it harder for black candidates to get elected.

Now the bill goes to the House of Delegates, who will no doubt pass it, and then to Gov. Bob McDonnell, who said he was as surprised by this bill as everybody else. We’re about to learn if McDonnell has really become the centrist he’s presenting himself as, or if he’s the same old right-wing extremist. I fear we already know the answer.

Neither Cuccinelli nor McAuliffe can win. And yet one of them must.

When a candidate is described as “divisive,” generally it’s intended to mean that while his own party loves him, the other party can’t stand him. In what’s shaping up to be a race between Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli for the Virginia governorship, there are two wildly divisive candidates who are perhaps more divisive within their own parties than outside of it.

Four years ago, McAuliffe came in a distant second in a three-man race for the nomination for governor (despite raising $8M), won no geographic portion of Virginia, and endeared himself to nobody in the process. He’s never been elected to public office and has no constituency. The percentage of Democrats who would definitely not vote for him exceeds the percentage who would vote for him. That’s not in the primary—that’s in the general election. McAuliffe is a Clinton-era Democrat, the sort of old-school Democrat accustomed to winning elections by sucking up to power brokers, the sort who was purged from positions of power in the party round about 2005. It’s his turn to run for office, you see. He’s a glad-hander (it’s always “good to see you,” never “good to meet you”), always ready with the grip-and-grin. His performance at the 2009 Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner really said it all.

And the Bill Clinton thing. Good Lord, the Bill Clinton thing. Guess who McAuliffe just got off the phone with? Guess who he just played golf with? You know who told him the funniest thing the other day? McAuliffe cannot stop mentioning Clinton because it’s all he’s got. Terry McAuliffe : Bill Clinton :: Marge Simpson : Chanel suit.

McAuliffe’s business bona fides aren’t much better. Global Crossing. (Need I say more?) His current business, Greentech Automotive, recently established an auto plant…in Mississippi. Despite that McAuliffe knew full well that he’d be running for governor of Virginia, touting his business experience on a platform of creating jobs. (“The main reason Terry is running for Governor is to make it easier for companies to create jobs right here in Virginia,” says his spokesman.) Why didn’t he build the plant in Virginia? Oh, it’s not his fault—it’s the fault of Virginia Economic Development Partnership! “It was their decision,” McAuliffe spinelessly informed The Note. How was the location of his factory a decision of tiny state agency? They wouldn’t pay him enough to locate his plant in Virginia. Yes, McAuliffe believes that states should bid for businesses (an economic loser just about every time), even his own business, not by creating environments conducive to running businesses and recruiting employees, but by just offering cash. This, of course, is why this company was located in Hong Kong when he bought it—in a globalized economy, a lowest-bidder approach will leave manufacturing out of the U.S. permanently. Mississippi, you see, is the U.S.’s version of a third-world country. Perhaps McAuliffe will be running on a platform of making Virginia more like Mississippi? In their defense, VEDP says that McAuliffe never even completed their application. McAuliffe shopped around for a state in which to open a factory the same way that he shopped around for a state in which to run for governor. Virginia’s apparently great for running for governor, but not so great for building “cars” that are legally identical to golf carts.

Not one Democrat in a hundred is excited about McAuliffe. Democrats are fired up about him the same way that Republicans were fired up about Mitt Romney. The base will fake it through November and, if he loses, they’ll all say how they never really liked him in the first place. If he wins, of course, they always believed in him!

Then there’s Ken Cuccinelli. Christ, what an asshole. “Extremist” has seldom been a more suitable word to describe a candidate. He supports a no-exceptions ban on abortion, opposes homosexuality (period), thinks Virginia needs Arizona-style anti-immigration laws, believes that global climate change is a conspiracy theory, and thinks that President Obama didn’t really win reelection last month. He has 95% of the traits that have been laying waste to the Republican Party in recent years, save one—he’s not dumb. In fact, he’s an intelligent guy, and a too-common mistake made by Democrats is to believe that just because he professes wildly retrograde, utterly contra-factual beliefs, that he must be a fool. He is not. (This is in sharp contrast with Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, etc., who, even collectively, are dumber than a sack of hammers.) Unlike McAuliffe, he actually has a base, and he’s been elected to office repeatedly. He represented Fairfax in the General Assembly for two terms and, of course, successfully ran for attorney general. While McAuliffe is a generic sort of a centrist-ish Democrat who is hobbled by a terrible personality and the perception that he’s a carpetbagger, Cuccinelli is hobbled by holding views that are wildly out of step with Virginians, Americans, and the facts. I’d guess about 20% of the electorate probably adores him, but far more deplore him (or will, come next October).

Cuccinelli is the sort of social conservative that’s driving a wedge into the Republican Party. Regular ol’ fiscally conservative Republicans have tolerated allowing this type into the tent so long as they’ve furthered the same collective goals, but it’s started to get embarrassing (e.g., the Tea Party). Those regular Republicans were victorious in the nomination process for the presidency this year, allowing Romney to defeat a field that consisted largely of crazies, but after Romney’s loss, it’s not clear which side will be running the party soon. Dick Armey’s departure from FreedomWorks (one of the the Koch-funded companies that created and bankroll the Tea Party) is the latest evidence that the conservative power brokers have lost control over their own creations—the inmates are running the asylum. Cuccinelli is proudly on the inmates’ side of the fence, and unless he’s prepared to tamp down that image, he’s going to have a tough time getting support from the kind of Republicans who supported Mark Warner over Jim Gilmore. This, of course, is why Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling is flirting with running as an independent. His is the wing of the party that thinks that the grassroots need to be trimmed back (to abuse a metaphor), the wing that Cuccinelli is going to have a tough time wooing, and a tougher time still if Bolling gets into the race.

Power-brokers on both sides are pooh-poohing talk of primary challengers and third-party candidacies. When former congressman Tom Perriello demurred a few days ago, that was the prompt for Democrats to declare that it’s time to get behind McAuliffe as our candidate. This has not been greeted with enthusiasm.

All of this reminds me of the Republican presidential nomination process in 2008 and 2012. Reviewing every candidate, there was a clear and obvious argument to be made as to why they couldn’t possibly win the nomination. And yet somebody had to win and, indeed, somebody did. Neither Cuccinelli nor McAuliffe can possibly win a gubernatorial election. And yet—unless somebody else enters the race—one of them will.

This is the worst kind of election, the kind in which a supermajority of the voters in each party have to support not their preferred candidate, but the one whom they loathe the least. (To be fair, this is how some voters feel about every election.) That may be what makes it such an ideal race for a solid third-party candidate like Bolling to take a run at election. Russ Potts’ 2005 gubernatorial candidacy was a threat to Republican nominee Jerry Kilgore, but there was never any danger of him winning the election. Republicans were OK with Kilgore, and Democrats liked Tim Kaine. Things are different this time. If Bolling can trim his sails a bit (he is a conservative Republican after all), he can take votes from both candidates, money from both sides, and I think it’s entirely possible for him to win. At least, then, it’ll be possible for somebody to win.

Government can’t create jobs. Except when McDonnell does it.

A press release from Gov. Bob McDonnell’s office one year ago contained this quote:

If we’re going to lead America’s economic recovery, we have to remember that small business, not big government, creates jobs.

That’s a familiar refrain, heard often during the recent election, most frequently uttered by people seeking a job leading that very government that cannot create jobs.

A press release from McDonnell’s office today:

“The opening of the 495 Express Lanes means opportunity for Virginia,” said McDonnell. “The project not only helped create jobs during construction, but will continue to make Northern Virginia a more attractive place to work and live.”

Last year, McDonnell told us that government couldn’t create jobs. But today, he tells us that, it could and it did. I wonder what happened in the intervening year?

What’s next for the Republican Party after last night’s many defeats?

Barack Obama reelected by an overwhelming electoral vote. Both Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan lost their home states. All the rah-rah-rape U.S. Senate Republicans defeated. George Allen defeated by Tim Kaine. Scott Brown defeated by Elizabeth Warren. Tommy Thompson defeated by Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay member of the U.S. Senate. Gay marriage approved in two, maybe three states. Recreational marijuana approved in two states. All of this forecast precisely in polling, polling that Republicans overwhelmingly rejected the very science of, utterly convinced that, mystically, Romney would win. The nation took a big step to the left, and everybody but the Republican Party saw it coming months ago.

Where does the Republican Party go from here? If past is prologue, it goes farther still to the right, finding yet more sciences to reject, new bogeymen on whom to blame their woes, new RINOs to eject from the party in ritual purification.

But if the grown-ups can step in, perhaps the Republican Party has a different future. They’ve got to tamp down the strong anti-intellectual strain in the party that makes it the welcoming home of Donald Trump, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Sarah Palin. Drop the battle against science and facts. Drop the fight against the demographic tide and stop opposing gay marriage and Latinos. And drop the no-taxes-ever schtick—often the opposite of fiscal conservatism—in favor of the economic conservatism that the Republican Party espoused for a century.

Equally important, Republicans in Congress need to stop putting their ideological opposition to some of the president’s policies before the good of the nation. Taking the nation to the brink of bankruptcy to make a muddled point, Mitch McConnell’s famed “single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president” remark, opposing every little thing just for the sake of opposing it. This is why Congress has a 10% approval rating, which ranks below support for the U.S. becoming a communist nation. They’ve got to start leading instead of opposing.

The country has changed. So has the Republican Party. But the two are moving in opposite directions. This nation needs a second party to participate in the political process. We’re facing some big problems right now, and we need two parties working towards solving them, rather than one working towards solutions while the other works towards undermining those solutions. I hope last night’s defeat will help the Republican Party become that party.

On the proposed constitutional amendments.

A lot of people have been asking me what the deal is with the two proposed constitutional amendments that we Virginians will be presented with Tuesday. Here’s a brief explanation of each.

Amendment 1: Eminent Domain

Shall Section 11 of Article I (Bill of Rights) of the Constitution of Virginia be amended (i) to require that eminent domain only be exercised where the property taken or damaged is for public use and, except for utilities or the elimination of a public nuisance, not where the primary use is for private gain, private benefit, private enterprise, increasing jobs, increasing tax revenue, or economic development; (ii) to define what is included in just compensation for such taking or damaging of property; and (iii) to prohibit the taking or damaging of more private property than is necessary for the public use?

That’s the question that will actually appear on the ballot. Here’s the text that would be added to the constitution:

That the General Assembly shall pass no law whereby private property, the right to which is fundamental, shall be damaged or taken except for public use. No private property shall be damaged or taken for public use without just compensation to the owner thereof. No more private property may be taken than necessary to achieve the stated public use. Just compensation shall be no less than the value of the property taken, lost profits and lost access, and damages to the residue caused by the taking. The terms “lost profits” and “lost access” are to be defined by the General Assembly. A public service company, public service corporation, or railroad exercises the power of eminent domain for public use when such exercise is for the authorized provision of utility, common carrier, or railroad services. In all other cases, a taking or damaging of private property is not for public use if the primary use is for private gain, private benefit, private enterprise, increasing jobs, increasing tax revenue, or economic development, except for the elimination of a public nuisance existing on the property. The condemnor bears the burden of proving that the use is public, without a presumption that it is.

This is in response to the 2005 Kelo v. New London decision, in which the Connecticut city condemned private land to transfer it to another private owner for an ostensibly higher economic purpose. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of New London, and the decision was not entirely well received by the public. In the 2007 session of the Virginia General Assembly, they responded to this decision by passing SB1296, which created § 1-219.1—Limitations on eminent domain, providing a narrow interpretation of the definition of “public use” as used in the constitution, so as to prohibit a New London-style taking. That settled the matter. And yet this proposed constitutional amendment.

A lesser problem with this amendment is that it doesn’t fit in at all with the rest of the constitution. Constitutions are for broad, simple statements to be built upon in statutory and case law. This amendment is very, very wordy, and very specific. It’s 250% as long as the Article I, Section 12, which guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom to petition the government. All too often, the legislature uses Virginia’s constitution as a dumping ground for reelection fodder, converting statutory laws into constitutional law to no apparent benefit (e.g., constitutional regulation of oyster beds—seriously).

This a poorly written, overly specific amendment that does nothing. It’s opposed by nearly every locality in Virginia. I intend to vote against it. It will almost certainly pass.

Amendment 2: Legislative Sessions

Shall Section 6 of Article IV (Legislature) of the Constitution of Virginia concerning legislative sessions be amended to allow the General Assembly to delay by no more than one week the fixed starting date for the reconvened or “veto” session when the General Assembly meets after a session to consider the bills returned to it by the Governor with vetoes or amendments?

The legislature meets in January and February, and then they go home for a while while the governor considers the bills that they passed. Then they get together again in early April, generally just for one day, to vote on whether they want to override any of the governor’s vetoes. They’re constitutionally required to meet on the sixth Wednesday after the session ends.

The problem here is that the veto session date often falls during Passover, the week-long Jewish high holiday. My guess is that there were zero Jews in the General Assembly when this bit of the constitution was written. That’s no longer the case. This amendment lets them pick a different day within a week of the constitutionally prescribed day. This amendment passed the House and Senate unanimously, and there is no organized public opposition to it (or disorganized opposition, that I know about). I can envision no harm in it, and I’m happy to support it.

Don’t average voters deserve a little representation?

Here’s the thing about Rep. Robert Hurt: he’s a perfectly average congressman.

It’s tough to campaign against average. There’s a reason why just a shade less than 100% of Congressmen seeking reelection are successful: they keep their mouths shut and try not to do anything, while their staff dutifully arranges tours of the Capitol, mails out American flags, and expedites agency responses to constituents’ requests.

Hurt is one of these congressman. In his first two years in office, he has passed no legislation, and introduced just four bills. He’s cast no brave votes. He’s taken no principled stands. He’s a standard nobody freshman, and as long as he remains in congress, he will continue to be a nobody in congress. He’s not a major figure in the district, certainly not nearly as visible as past congressmen. I’ll wager that there’s a solid majority of congress who could not pick him out of a two-man lineup.

(Keep in mind, being a nobody in congress still makes you a congressman. There are a few hundred nobodies in congress. It’s perfectly ordinary.)

The other day I got a slick, two-page mailer from Hurt—paid for by the Republican Party of Virginia—and nowhere on it does he mention that he’s a Republican. An informed voter would probably figure out that he’s a Republican, based on some of his positions, but a lot of people would have no idea. That’s the point.

Hurt stands in sharp contrast to our last two congressmen: Virgil H. Goode (D/I/R/C) and Tom Perriello (D). Like ‘em or not, nobody could doubt where these guys stood.

Goode was firmly against NAFTA, Muslims, the United Nations, and Mexican restaurants displaying the Mexican flag. He made national headlines on a few occasions, none for reasons that made the district look particularly good, but most of which I’ll wager he was proud of. Goode routinely took unpopular positions, and his legislative priorities were either bold or Quixotesque, depending on one’s perspective.

Perriello distinguished himself by being quantifiably the hardest-working member of Congress, holding more town hall meetings with constituents than any other member. He met with thousands of constituents to discuss healthcare reform, ultimately becoming a notably important vote in favor of the Obama administration’s overhaul. Perriello suspected that his vote would cost him his seat, and he was right—he was one of a handful of freshman Democrats across the U.S. who were unseated in 2010, losses that were attributed widely to backlash over healthcare reform. Casting that vote, knowing that it would cost him his seat, is the very definition of taking a principled stand, regardless of what one thinks of healthcare reform. Perriello introduced 23 bills in the same amount of time in which Hurt introduced four, with seven passing the House (three resolutions, four bills) and one (the Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act) passing into law.

Hurt has distinguished himself among this trio by doing absolutely nothing to distinguish himself.

You’ve got to feel for…Douglass? Is that name of the Democratic nominee? I truly cannot remember the name of the nominee. (I looked it up—yup, it’s John Douglass.) He’s got no purchase on Hurt. Sure, he can run against Hurt as a generic Republican, and that’s what he appears to be doing. This is effective in a wave election, or a demographic-shifting redistricting. but there’s no sign of the former and the latter does not describe last year’s redistricting, which did turn the Fifth District into a sociogeographically bizarre district, but it became only more conservative. Hurt was nominated two years ago by virtue of being the sole non-Tea-Party-aligned candidate, so he can’t even be tied to that fringe group’s fading fortunes.

President Obama has been rising in the polls in Virginia and nationally, and it’s certainly not impossible that he’ll win by the same landslide electoral college margin that he won in 2008. If that’s the case, it’s likewise not impossible that he’d bring Douglass along with him, if only because independents turned off by Mitt Romney’s incompetent campaign decide to toss in for some other Democrats as long as they’re in the booth.

Short of such an event, it’s tough to see how Hurt loses his seat any time soon. He’s got a district that was tailored to him and he’s unlikely to ever do anything interesting. Inertia is a powerful thing.

Hurt is failing his campaign promise of beating Perriello’s accessibility record.

With last week’s news that Rep. Robert Hurt was a no-show at the Senior Statesmen of Virginia’s candidates forum in Charlottesville, I think it’s time to revisit Hurt’s claim of accessibility two years ago, when he was running to unseat Rep. Tom Perriello:

Hurt was also asked if voters should expect him, if he is elected, to hold a similar number of town hall meetings as Perriello has over the last two years. During the run-up to the health care reform debate, Perriello held more town hall meetings with constituents than any other congressman.

Hurt declined to commit to holding a specific number of town hall meetings, but promised to listen to constituents.

“I can promise you this, I will certainly be as accessible if not more accessible than Congressman Perriello has been,” Hurt said.

Note the use of the word “promise.”

When I noted this at the time, I assumed that if Hurt won, I’d need to count his appearances to demonstrate that he was less accessible than Perriello, as he unquestionably would be. But now it’s clear that there’s simply no point—Hurt isn’t even in the same ballpark as Perriello was on this front.

Maybe Politifact can do the math on this one. I’m hopeful that the Daily Progress‘ change in ownership—along with the rest of Media General’s papers—might lead to an editorial board that will make endorsements and write editorials that perhaps vaguely align with the interests of the area. Perhaps they’ll see fit to revisit this claim.

New Virginia Decoded features.

Since March, my 9–5 job has been building The State Decoded, software based on my Virginia Decoded site. Although it would be fun to have spent all of this time adding new features to Virginia Decoded, most of it has been spent adapting the software to support a wide variety of legal structures. I released version 0.2 of the software earlier this week (3 weeks late!), and I’m on target to release version 0.3 next week. Which is to say that I’m finally getting to the point where I have a solid software base, and I’ve been able to start adding features to the core software that are making their way into Virginia Decoded.

Here are some of the new features that are worth sharing:

  • Newly backed by the Solr search engine (courtesy of the good folks at Open Source Connections, who did all of the work for free!), not only does the site have really great search now, but I’m able to start using that search index to do interesting things. The best example of that is the “Related Laws” box in the sidebar. For instance, § 2.2-3704.1—part of the state’s FOIA law—recommends § 30-179 as related. As well it should—that’s the law that spells out the powers of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council. But it’s found clear on the other side of the Code of Virginia—somebody would be unlikely to stumble across both of them normally, but it’s easy on Virginia Decoded. This is just the first step towards breaking down the traditional title/chapter/part divisions of the Code of Virginia.
  • Several hard-core Code readers have told me that they wish it were faster to flip around between sections. I agree—it should be super easy to go to the next and prior sections. Solution: I’ve bound those links to the left and right arrow keys on the keyboard. Just open a section and try out your arrow keys.
  • The indecipherable history sections at the bottom of each law are being translated into plain English. For instance, compare the text at the end of § 2.2-3705.2 on Virginia’s website and on Virginia Decoded. It’s an enormous improvement. This certainly isn’t perfect, but it will be with a few more hours of work.
  • Amendment attempts have detailed information. Whenever a law has had bills introduced into the General Assembly to amend them, whether or not those bills passed, they’re listed in the sidebar. That’s not new, what’s new is a bit of Ajax that pulls over details about those bills from Richmond Sunlight when you pass your mouse over each bill number, showing you the bill’s sponsor, his party, where he represents, and the full summary of the bill. (For example, see § 9.1-502.) This is one step closer to providing an unbroken chain of data throughout the process of a bill becoming law (becoming a court ruling).

There’s a lot more coming, now that I’ve just about got a solid platform to add features to, but these few were just too good not to mention.

Sunlight Foundation “OpenGov Champion.”

The Sunlight Foundation has put together a very kind mini-documentary about my open government technology work. (I can’t see that any of its contents will come as news to anybody who reads this blog.) It was fun to participate in the making of it, and it was a joy to watch filmmakers Tiina Knuutila and the aptly named Solay Howell at work throughout the process. I’m a big fan of the Sunlight Foundation (they funded the addition of video to Richmond Sunlight in the first place), and it’s flattering that they’d even be institutionally aware of me.