05/25/11: Tracking your legislators with ease

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

THE VIRGINIA House of Delegates passed a bill (HR 64) on Feb. 4 that will put the voting records of its members online. It is a simple fix, allowing citizens to look up votes by member name, instead of by bill number, beginning with the General Assembly’s regular session next year.

The bill affects only the House; an effort in the 2010 session of the General Assembly to put the voting records of both chambers online also passed the House, but it failed in the Senate.

Fortunately, we already have access to the voting records of each House and Senate member. Richmondsunlight.com is a website that puts in one place information about the General Assembly and its members.

Voting records for all delegates and senators since 2006 (if they were serving then) are available on the member’s page.

But voting records are only one part of the information that is available. A member’s page reflects recent contributions, contact information and, of course, bills introduced.

Legislation is the business of the General Assembly. For each bill, Richmond Sunlight provides a quick visual of its progress, from its introduction to its becoming a law. If the bill fails at any step along the way, that status is reflected in bright red letters.

Related bills are listed. With the click of a mouse, a reader can easily review those, too.

Interactivity is the key to the success of Richmond Sunlight.

You can cast your own vote on the bill and see how others have voted. You also can place tags on the bills, using a word or two that describes in plain language what the bill is about.

One of the tags on HR 64 was transparency. A search of that word reveals 19 other such bills from the 2011 session that were similarly tagged as well as two bills found from searching their titles, summaries and text. You can also leave a comment on a bill.

Where available, video of floor sessions of the bills being debated is included. Full video of the day’s debate is also available, along with the actual minutes of the session and a tag cloud reflecting what the chamber dealt with on a given day.

Perhaps the most interactive part of the site is the ability for any registered user — registration is free — to create a portfolio of bills to follow.

This portfolio, called Photosynthesis, is a quick reference to the status of each linked bill along with any comments that have been made on it. Adding bills to your own portfolio is quick and easy.

For those of us with varied interests, our portfolios quickly become quite large. Fortunately, there are groups that share their portfolios with the public, making it easy to track legislation that may affect that particular group.

For example, the Virginia Society of CPAs’ portfolio tracked all the bills that affected our profession. The Virginia Poverty Law Center had three portfolios tracking bills affecting its work.

Richmond Sunlight was created in 2007 by Charlottesville-area blogger Waldo Jaquith, who spent countless hours coding the site. It was then given to the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and is maintained by a group of volunteers.

The website draws data from a number of sources, including the General Assembly’s Legislative Information System, the Virginia Public Access Project and the State Board of Elections. It is another nonbiased source that helps voters to reduce the costs of obtaining information.

This fall, all 140 seats of the General Assembly are up for election.

When the mail starts to come, citing the way a particular candidate has voted on a given issue, voters will have at their fingertips the ability to determine the veracity of those claims.