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Sunday, May 3, 2015

Activists Lobby Albany for Election Reform


On April 22, 2015, the second annual "Vote Better NY" Advocacy Day for Election Reform organized by NYC Votes, a non-partisan voter engagement initiative run by the New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB) and its Voter Assistance Advisory Committee.

The delegation, of about 100 students, volunteers, and good government activists, left the New York City at 6 a.m. with the carefully defined objective of pushing state Senators and Assembly members on three voting issues: online voter registration, better ballot design, and early voting.

Splitting into groups of five or six, activists worked the halls of the Capitol and the legislative office building, participating in back-to-back pre-arranged meetings with legislative staff or legislators themselves.

The numbers in yesterday's delegation are an indicator of an increasing consciousness among New Yorkers that reforming the voting process is necessary, particularly considering that New York hit the historically low point of 28.8 percent voter turnout in the 2014 gubernatorial election.

At the end of the day, NYC Votes had made its mark.  The delegation was recognized both in the Assembly and Senate sessions for its work in promoting voting reform.  "We do know the politics still plays after we leave their four walls," Onida Coward Mayers said with cautious optimism. "I'm very proud of the message that we sent that we will be heard," she said. "There needs to be election reform, citizens matter and citizens want change.  New Yorkers want an easier, friendly, 21st century democracy."

2015 agenda focuses on broad, common sense reforms:

Online Voter Registration: We have a pen-and-paper voter registration system that is stuck in the 19th century.  It’s time we bring voter registration into the 21st century.  We do so many things online, from banking to paying bills to buying our groceries.  Registering to vote should be no different.  According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), 21 states currently offer online voter registration. (Bills: A05564/S00859)

MHD: I would be against any bill that did not start with first having your picture taken and citizenship checked at the DMV.

Better Ballot Design: Poor ballot design not only frustrates voters and causes problems on the day of an election, it’s the reason why thousands of votes are “lost or miscast” during every election cycle.  In New York, specifically, the 2010 elections saw thousands of votes invalidated because of ‘over votes’ or the incorrect selection of multiple candidates. (Bills: A03389; A05622/S02154)

MHD: The current optical voting system catches over-voters.  So the voter would have to accept the error, that would then invalidate their ballot.

Early Voting: New York is one of just 15 states that does not allow voters to cast a ballot prior to Election Day without providing an excuse.  In 2012, nearly one-third of U.S. voters opted to cast their ballots prior to Election Day.  Advantages include avoiding long lines at the polls, and the flexibility of voting on the weekend.

Pre-registration of 16 and 17 Year Olds: The NCSL lists 22 states that allow teens to register to vote prior to turning 18 and automatically adds them to the voter rolls on their 18th birthday.  Pre-registration is a practical, proactive way to encourage participation and turnout among the youngest voters.

Vote by Mail: The desire for convenience permeates every facet of our modern-day lives and the act of voting should be no different.  Mail-in voting allows voters to cast their ballot from the comfort of their own home, ensuring they have ample time to review their choices and make an informed decision.  Colorado, Oregon and Washington have all converted to universal vote-by-mail systems.  During the 2014 mid-term elections, voter turnout in those states exceeded the national average.

MHD: This is were voter ID fraud can take place.  For this type of voting to work, there has to be a to generate a unique code to be used to identify the voter with the received mail ballot, but a separate way to deliver the code and the mail ballot.

Compulsory Voting: While many Americans are passing up their right to vote, some countries don’t give their citizens that option. Australia and 13 other countries have compulsory voting laws.  Since 1924, Australians have been mandated to “mark a ballot” in federal elections.  Those who do not comply are subject to a small fine.  Australia boasts a 95 percent voter participation rate.  In Brazil, when you turn 65, voting becomes optional.











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Saturday, May 2, 2015

Maine Looking to Open Primary to Independent Voters


Maine’s independent voters have long outnumbered voters who declare themselves Republican, Democrat or Green Independent.  But independent voters have little say in primary elections because Maine is one of only 11 states that limit primary voting to party members.

At least two proposals before the Legislature would change that requirement, which has existed since 1954 or earlier.  Supporters told lawmakers on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on April 29, 2015 that the efforts are designed to reverse the disenfranchisement of Maine’s largest voting block and, perhaps, lead to the election of moderate candidates less wedded to party ideology and aligned interest groups.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, the sponsor of L.D. 744, said that these types of bills had failed in the past because the initiatives are perceived as threats to the two major political parties.  Katz’s bill and another, L.D. 720, from Rep. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, arrive at a time when many voters appear to want electoral reform.

Rep. Deane Rykerson, D-Kittery, told the committee that his constituents are increasingly unhappy.  “Voters seem to want to elect people, not parties,” he said.  “The biggest political party in Maine is the unenrolled.”

Activists are organizing a 2016 ballot initiative to establish Ranked-Choice voting, a system in which voters rank their preferred candidates to ensure that the winner receives a majority of the vote, not a plurality.

In Maine, independents have accounted for about 37 percent of registered voters since 2007.  The past two gubernatorial elections were contentious contests that some critics say made the campaigns more about appealing to party loyalists than motivating Mainers who don’t fully endorse either side.  “Let’s face it, there is a large block of people out there who do not have a great deal of confidence in either political party and just do not want an R or a D next to their name,” Katz said.  That is really unfortunate, and perhaps not fair, but we must face that as a reality.”

Katz said his proposal is designed to encourage participation by allowing unenrolled voters to cast ballots during primary elections.  He noted the “pathetic” voter turnout in the 2014 primary.  It was 10 percent statewide and 14 percent nationally, according to the Center for Study for the American Electorate.  Last year, Maine’s 58.5 percent turnout led the nation in the general election, when unenrolled voters participated.  Under Katz’s proposal, Maine would join the 24 states that have hybrid primary systems.

Mainers who want to vote in a primary now must enroll in a political party.  Those who do must remain affiliated with the party for three months before unenrolling or joining another party.  Katz’s bill would allow unenrolled voters to show up during a primary election and request either a Republican or Democratic ballot.

Maine is now one of 11 closed primary states, and the only one in New England, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.  However, the definition of a closed primary and semi-closed primary varies.

In New Hampshire and Rhode Island, voters must temporarily choose a party to vote in a primary.  However, they can fill out a form that allows them to unenroll immediately after the primary election.

Vermont is one of 11 open primary states.  Any registered voter can vote in a primary, regardless of party affiliation or enrollment.  For example, a registered Democrat can vote for a Republican candidate or vice versa.

Critics of open primaries say political parties can game the system by “party crashing,” a tactic in which a political party coordinates to vote for the opposite party’s least electable candidate in the primary.

Daughtry’s proposal would create what’s known as a top-two primary system.  California, Nebraska, Louisiana and Washington have adopted some form of that system, which lists all candidates on a single ballot, regardless of party.  Voters pick their favorite candidates and the top two vote-getters move on to the general election.

Neither proposal generated any opposition during Wednesday’s public hearing.  However, support was limited to co-sponsors.  Ann Luther, testifying on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Maine, told lawmakers that the desired result may not come from either proposal.  She noted that the barriers to participating in Maine elections are already low, and that unenrolled voters can already participate in primaries if they enroll in a party.

According to the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, the states with the highest voter turnout in the 2014 primaries were Montana (open primary), Kentucky (closed primary), Nebraska (semi-clsed), Mississippi (hybrid), Oregon (hybrid) and California (top-two primary).  Arizona, which has a primary system like the one Katz has proposed, had a turnout rate of 10 percent, the same as Maine’s.

Luther also noted that a top-two primary system could make it harder for independent candidates to get elected because it eliminates the current system of gathering signatures to get on the ballot.  The only way to get on the general election ballot, she noted, would be to win the primary.

The top-two system could have other unintended consequences that lead parties to handpick candidates before voters have the chance.  Luther cited a congressional race in California in which a crowded field of Democratic candidates split the district’s liberal vote, resulting in two Republican candidates appearing on the ballot for the general election.

In the 2013 Los Angeles mayoral race, a contest between two liberal Democrats with few policy differences was described by Time magazine as “a vicious negative campaign.”  Nineteen percent of the city’s 1.8 million registered voters participated, according to election results.

The two proposals will face work sessions before going to a full vote by the Legislature.











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The Current Perpetual Stalemate of the FEC


In 1975, Congress created the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to administer and enforce the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), the statute that governs the financing of federal elections.  The duties of the FEC, which is an independent regulatory agency, are to disclose campaign finance information, to enforce the provisions of the law such as the limits and prohibitions on contributions, and to oversee the public funding of Presidential elections.

The Commission is made up of six members, who are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.  Each member serves a six-year term, and two seats are subject to appointment every two years.  By law, no more than three Commissioners can be members of the same political party, and at least four votes are required for any official Commission action.

This structure was created to encourage nonpartisan decisions.

The Chairmanship of the Commission rotates among the members each year, with no member serving as Chairman more than once during his or her term.

But the current Chairwoman says she has largely given up hope of reining in abuses in the 2016 presidential campaign, which could generate a record $10 billion in spending.

“The likelihood of the laws being enforced is slim,” Ann M. Ravel said in an interview.  “I never want to give up, but I’m not under any illusions.  People think the F.E.C. is dysfunctional. It’s worse than dysfunctional.”

Her unusually frank assessment reflects a worsening stalemate among the agency’s six commissioners.  They are perpetually locked in 3-to-3 ties along party lines on key votes because of a fundamental disagreement over the mandate of the commission's response to political corruption.

Some commissioners are barely on speaking terms, cross-aisle negotiations are infrequent, and with no consensus on which rules to enforce, the caseload against violators has plummeted.

The F.E.C.’s paralysis comes at a particularly critical time because of the sea change brought about by the Supreme Court’s decision in 2010 in the Citizens United case, which freed corporations and unions to spend unlimited funds in support of political candidates.  Billionaire donors and “super PACs” are already gaining an outsize role in the 2016 campaign, and the lines have become increasingly stretched and blurred over what presidential candidates and political groups are allowed to do.

Watchdog groups have gone to the F.E.C. with complaints that probable presidential candidates like Jeb Bush and Martin O’Malley are skirting finance laws by raising millions without officially declaring that they are considering running.

Ms. Ravel, who led California’s state ethics panel before her appointment as a Democratic member of the commission in 2013, said that when she became chairwoman in December, she was determined to “bridge the partisan gap” and see that the F.E.C. confronted such problems.  But after five months, she said she had essentially abandoned efforts to work out agreements on what she saw as much-needed enforcement measures.

Now, she said, she plans on concentrating on getting information out publicly, rather than continuing what she sees as a futile attempt to take action against major violations.  She said she was resigned to the fact that “there is not going to be any real enforcement” in the coming election.

“The few rules that are left, people feel free to ignore,” said Ellen L. Weintraub, a Democratic commissioner.

Republican members of the commission see no such crisis.  They say they are comfortable with how things are working under the structure that gives each party three votes.  No action at all, they say, is better than overly aggressive steps that could chill political speech.  “Congress set this place up to gridlock,” Lee E. Goodman, a Republican commissioner, said in an interview.  “This agency is functioning as Congress intended.  The democracy isn’t collapsing around us.”

Experts predict that the 2016 race could produce a record fund-raising haul of as much as $10 billion, with the growth fueled by well-financed outside groups.  On their own, the conservative billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch have promised to spend $889 million through their political network.

With the rise of the super PACs and the loosening of legal restrictions on corporate spending, campaigns and groups are turning to creative new methods of raising money.  Writing in March in The Washington Post, Ms. Ravel charged that some candidates, she did not name names, appeared to have been amassing large war chests at fund-raisers this year without acknowledging that they were at least considering a presidential run, which would trigger campaign finance limits and disclosure.  She said it was “absurd” to think that such politicians were not at least considering a White House run under federal law.

“It’s the Wild West out there in some ways,” said Kate A. Belinski, a former lawyer at the commission who now works on campaign finance at a law firm.  Candidates and political groups are increasingly willing to push the limits, she said, and the F.E.C.’s inaction means that “there’s very little threat of getting caught.”

She said she was particularly frustrated that Republican commissioners would not support cases against four nonprofit groups, including Crossroads GPS, founded by Karl Rove, accused of improperly using their tax-exempt status for massive and well-financed political campaigns.

A surge in this so-called “dark money” in politics, hundreds of millions of dollars raised by nonprofits, trade associations and other groups that can keep their donations secrets, has alarmed campaign-finance reformers who are pushing to make such funding public.

But Mr. Goodman said the problem was exaggerated.  He and other Republicans defend their decisions to block many investigations, saying Democrats have pushed cases beyond what the law allows.  “We’re not interested in going after people unless the law is fairly clear, and we’re not willing to take the law beyond where it’s written,” said Caroline C. Hunter, a Republican commissioner.  Democrats view the law “more broadly,” she said.

These days, the six commissioners hardly ever rule unanimously on major cases, or even on some of the most minor matters.  Last month at an event commemorating the Commission’s 40th anniversary, even the ceremony proved controversial.  Democrats and Republicans skirmished over where to hold it, whom to include and even whether to serve bagels or doughnuts.  In a rare compromise, they ended up serving both.

Standing in front of a montage of photos from the F.E.C.’s history, Ms. Ravel told staff members and guests that there was a “crisis” in public confidence, and she stressed the F.E.C’s mandate for “enforcing the law.”  But the ranking Republican, Matthew S. Petersen, made no mention of enforcement in his remarks a few minutes later, focusing instead on defending political speech under the First Amendment.

As guests mingled, Ms. Weintraub, the commission’s longest-serving member at 12 years, lamented to a reporter that the days when the panel could work together on important issues were essentially over.  She pointed to a former Republican commissioner standing nearby, Bradley A. Smith, who left the agency in 2005, and said she used to be able to work with commissioners like him even when they disagreed on ideology.

With the commission so often deadlocked, the major fines assessed by the commission dropped precipitously last year to $135,813 from $627,408 in 2013.  But like most things at the F.E.C., commissioners differ over how to interpret those numbers.

Republicans say they believe the commission’s efforts to work with political groups on training and compliance have kept campaigns within the legal lines and helped to bring down fines.  The drop in fines “could easily be read as a signal that people are following the law,” said Ms. Hunter, the Republican commissioner.

Ms. Ravel scoffed at that explanation.  “What’s really going on,” she said, “is that the Republican commissioners don’t want to enforce the law, except in the most obvious cases.  The rules aren’t being followed, and that’s destructive to the political process.”











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Friday, May 1, 2015

Possible Campaign Finance Reforms


Congress depends on a tiny number of funders to run their campaigns.  Each of the following five proposals would decentralize the funding of elections, either through matching funds or democracy vouchers, so that Congress is dependent on ALL citizens.

Building a Government Of, By and For the People
The Government by the People Act - H.R.20 is a proposed bill to reform the campaign finance system, introduced into the House in 2014 by John Sarbanes (D-MD).  A companion bill, the Fair Elections Now Act - S.2023, was also introduced into the Senate by Sen. Dick Durbin [D).

Under the proposed bill, political contributions of up to $150 would be matched by a factor of six times more than the original donation as long as candidates meet certain requirements.  They must not use their own money, not accept donations over $1000, have already received at least $50,000 from 1,000 in-state donors, and decline most political action committee money.

CLICK HERE for more information.

Match Campaign Donations up to $250 at 5:1 Ratio
The Empowering Citizens Act - H.R.270 is federal public financing legislation, introduced by David Price (D), modeled on New York City’s small donor matching fund program.  It aims to amplify the voices of small donors in congressional and presidential elections by matching contributions up to $250 with public funds at a 5-1 ratio. The legislation encourages candidates to run grassroots-oriented campaigns by cutting contribution limits in half for candidates who choose to accept public funding.

CLICK HERE for more information.

Vouchers and Transparency Plan
The Political Money Reform Proposal, introduced by Jim Rubens (R), a Candidate for Senate, NH, suggests that each voter be given a $50 tax rebate voucher usable to fund congressional candidates, that all contributions over $200 be immediately searchable, and that all political spending and contribution limits be lifted.

CLICK HERE for more information.

$200 Voucher to Support Small Dollar Funded Campaigns
The Taxation Only With Representation Act proposes that each taxpayer should be allowed to earmark the first two hundred dollars of his or her tax payments to support election of one or more candidates to public office.  It was created in 2012 by Richard Painter (R), President George W. Bush’s Chief Ethics lawyer.

CLICK HERE for more information.

Fundamental Lobbying Reform and Funding for Small Dollar Funded Campaigns
The American Anti-Corruption Act (AACA) is a piece of model legislation originally crafted in 2011 by a bi-partisan team lead by former Federal Election Commission chairman Trevor Potter.  The addresses political corruption in three main areas:

- Stop political bribery by overhauling lobbying and ethics laws
- End secret money by dramatically increasing transparency
- Give every voter a voice by creating citizen-funded elections

The Act is primarily supported by Represent.us, a Non-partisan, Anti-Corruption Non-profit independent organization.

CLICK HERE for more information.











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The Non-Campaign Finance Rules in the 21st Century


He's making speeches, collecting checks and wooing voters.  But don't be mistaken, Jeb Bush isn't running for president.

The former Florida governor is taking pains to sit on the sidelines as someone merely exploring a presidential campaign, not waging one.  The strategy is so persistent that it's becoming the object of jokes as Bush introduces himself on the stump.

It's not that Bush is indecisive, virtually everyone believes he'll launch a campaign this year.  Instead, campaign finance laws are effectively encouraging him to slow-walk an official presidential announcement.

Until Bush says those magic words, "I'm running for president", he can raise money for the Right to Rise super PAC backing his candidacy himself.  Once he becomes an official candidate, he'll have to steer clear of the fundraising juggernaut, relegating it to an independent, outside group.

This past weekend in Miami, Bush told his biggest donors that he expected to beat previous early Republican fundraising records, pledging that he had raised more money for the super PAC in his first 100 days than any prior Republican has ever done for their campaign in the early stages.  Left unsaid were the different rules Bush plays by as he tightly skates around campaign finance rules that would make the massive hauls impossible.

"It's probably not a fair comparison, but it doesn't really matter, because he's still eclipsing anybody else by three or four," said Fred Malek, a top Republican fundraiser.  "In past years, the super PAC was not the dominant fundraising figure, and you couldn't raise in six or seven digit figure increments."

Once he becomes an official candidate, Bush can only raise $2,700 from each donor in "hard money" for his campaign committee.  His super PAC can continue to rake in record sums, but that will be without Bush, who legally won't be allowed to coordinate with the super PAC, though it is expected to be run by advisers clued into the official campaign's thinking.

Even if Bush admitted he was "testing the waters", a Federal Elections Commission term for candidates who are gauging support for a future run, he would still be subject to that $2,700 cap.

But campaign-finance critics and Democrats eager to charge impropriety are shouting that Bush's actions are allowing him to effectively flout all campaign laws.  After all, they say, Bush has hired top-level staff, locked down influential donors and volunteer fundraisers, and traveled around the country to deliver policy speeches that surely will resemble the rhetoric spoken when he sheds his coyness.

"If Jeb walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, he should raise money like a duck," said David Donnelly, the president of the pro-reform group Every Voice.  "Jeb Bush is remaking campaign finance law before our eyes."

On Monday, the liberal American Democracy Legal Fund asked the FEC to investigate Bush for violating existing law.  In March, leading campaign finance groups filed their own complaints against Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Martin O'Malley, the former Governor of Maryland likely to challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nod.

Yet with the FEC stalled by a 3-3 partisan split, few expect it to reach the consensus needed to penalize any candidate.

Longtime GOP hand Ron Kaufman, who is close with the Bush family, said he thought these new structures would improve campaigns by reducing the need for candidates themselves to pass the hat for donations.  "They can go out campaigning and do what they should be doing, talking to voters rather than raising money," Kaufman said, arguing that everyone from Bush to Clinton was merely following what the laws allowed.

He continued, "If folks have a problem with campaign finance laws, you know what they should do?  Change the laws."

Guy Cecil, a top Democratic strategist with close ties to Hillary Rodham Clinton, is poised to take on a major leadership role at the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA Action, a move designed to send an unequivocal signal that Clinton wants donors to rally around the independent group.

Cecil, a seasoned field operative who served as political director of Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid, is in final talks to join the organization, a move that would diminish the role of board co-chair Jim Messina, according to two people familiar with the negotiations.

Another super-PAC pledging to promote Sanders' candidacy, "Ready for Bernie Sanders 2016" is ramping up its visibility now that Sanders is in, and renaming itself "Bet on Bernie."  The founder, a man named Cary Lee Peterson, said he expects to spend about $50,000 on a Times Square billboard supporting Sanders.  Peterson, in a telephone interview, said he doesn't actually know Sanders but admires his background and positions, and that, with Sanders now an official candidate, he's been contacted by about 5,000 volunteers and received about $58 million in pledges, but so far has only about $2,000 in hand.











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NYC Office of Immigrant Affairs and President's Blocked Immigration Plans


Even as President Obama’s immigration programs are held up in a court battle, New Yorkers are getting screened to see if they can apply, and large numbers are learning they might already qualify for other visas and benefits.  “That by itself is game-changing, regardless of the lawsuit,” said city Immigrant Affairs Commissioner Nisha Agarwal Thursday as she visited the 13th Annual Daily News/CUNY Citizenship NOW! call-in.  “Despite the injunction, we want to go forward and help families who think they might be eligible,” she said.

About 54% of the nearly 600 people who recently shared their immigration situations at a legal screening hosted by the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs event learned they will potentially qualify if a court fight ends in the administration’s favor and benefits go forward for undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and a greater number of immigrants who came to this country as kids.  More striking, 40% of those screened learned they might be eligible for other types of relief, according to city officials.

The screening information is preliminary, but even if half of those identified as likely qualifying for other benefits are able to successfully secure a green card, it signals a huge potential, said Baruch College law professor and Daily News columnist Allan Wernick, who runs the Daily News/CUNY Citizenship NOW! call-in each year. 
“It’s a very large number if you think of all the undocumented people that are in New York City,” said Wernick, adding that an estimated 750,000 immigrants in New York City are here illegally.  “If you say 20% of them qualify for some kind of immigration benefit, if they could get legal status, that's an astounding number.”

Undocumented immigrants may qualify for little-known benefits like visas for crime victims or abandoned kids.  Spouses of US citizens who entered illegally may also have options, Wernick said.

Callers to Citizenship NOW! who might benefit from Obama’s programs are signing up for a May 16 in-person CUNY screening at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Wernick hopes they might also uncover benefits that they are unaware of during the event.  It’s also important for people who don’t have options right now to learn this outright, Wernick said, so that they won’t be taken advantage of by unscrupulous lawyers or people posing as attorneys who falsely promise green cards.

The week-long Daily News/CUNY Citizenship NOW! call-in, the largest program of its kind in the nation, provides free and confidential immigration and citizenship help by phone.

Since the Citizenship NOW! program began, volunteers have helped more than 141,000 callers, organizers said.  During the 2015 call-in alone, more than 5,100 people have gotten assistance.











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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Measures for Deaf and Blind on Tap for FCC'S May Agenda



The FCC will vote on a pair of proposals to help the deaf and blind during its May 21 open meeting, according to the commission's agenda published Thursday.

The first proposal would take steps to make emergency video information available to blind and deaf people on tablets, smartphones and laptops.

The second vote would be on a proposal to make permanent a program, ‘iCanConnect’ Program, that provides $10 million a year to from, the Interstate Telecommunications Relay Service Fund, tp "support programs that distribute communications equipment to low-income individuals who are deaf or blind."&nbs[' This program is part of the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program.

The Open Meeting is scheduled to commence at 10:30 a.m. in Room TW-C305 of the Federal Communications Commission, 445 12th Street, S.W., Washington, D.C.











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