Elon Poll: North Carolinians in the dark about ‘sunshine’ laws

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY, RESULTS and METHODOLOGY

When it comes to trust in government, North Carolinians place more faith in their local leaders rather than those they send to Raleigh and Washington, according to the latest Elon University Poll. And nearly two thirds of residents are unaware that their state has “sunshine” laws to make government documents, records, information and meetings accessible to citizens.

However, a majority of respondents do believe that certain types of information should be made public or kept public, including government officials’ expense accounts, annual salaries of public employees, criminal records and gun permits. They also stated their opposition to making or keeping other records open to inspection: public utility records, political party affiliation records and government employee work emails.

A slim majority (51 percent) believes records should cost nothing to obtain. The average suggested fee from those who believe a charge should be levied for a government employee who takes a half hour to fulfill a request? $14.04.

The live-caller, dual frame (landline and cell phone) survey of 732 North Carolina residents was conducted Nov. 15-18, 2013, and has a margin of error of 3.62 percentage points.

Respondents expressed greater levels of trust in their local governments compared to state and federal governments. The poll asked residents how much they trust governments to do what is right:

“Just about always.”
FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: 3%
STATE GOVERNMENT: 3%
LOCAL GOVERNMENT: 8%

“Most of the time.”
FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: 11%
STATE GOVERNMENT: 23%
LOCAL GOVERNMENT: 41%

“Some of the time.”
FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: 67%
STATE GOVERNMENT: 62%
LOCAL GOVERNMENT: 42%

“The greater trust in local government is likely a product of two factors,” said Assistant Professor Kenneth Fernandez, director of the Elon University Poll. “Residents are more likely to have contact with local officials, and there is far more media attention on the failings of state and federal governments.”

OPEN GOVERNMENT

Sixty-five percent of North Carolinians said they were unaware the state possesses “sunshine laws” that make public records and certain government meetings accessible to all citizens. And more residents than not believe the state government has grown less open (41 percent) than more open (33 percent) over the previous five years.

Just 38 percent of respondents have attempted to get any public documents or information, and most (87 percent) were successful in their pursuit of that information. The most requested documents among North Carolinians are deed/real estate records, birth certificates and criminal/police records.

Sixty percent of respondents agreed it’s important to get any document they want from the government, though slightly more (64 percent) also agreed that sometimes government officials are justified in keeping some information a secret.

Most North Carolinians (79 percent) agree that it’s important to know from whom elected officials receive campaign contributions. Sixty-eight percent believe all government meetings should be open to the public. Pollsters asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed about the availability and accessibility of several types of public records.

A majority of North Carolinians said they believe the following should be accessible:

Records Identifying Type/Amount/Location of Hazardous Chemicals: 87%
Government Officials’ Expense Accounts: 85%
Criminal Records Detailing Someone’s Past: 78%
Salaries of Public Employees: 75%
Gun Permit Applications: 60%
Property Tax Records: 53%

A majority of North Carolinians said they believe the following should not be accessible:

Voting Records: 63%
Public Utility Records, Which Include How Much Water a Person Uses: 62%
Government Employees Work Email Messages: 58%
Political Party Affiliation Records: 58%

“It is clear that the public strongly believes access to most records is critical, but they do not always agree that all documents should be made available to the public. In addition, they understand that governments may have a legitimate reason to keep some information a secret,” Fernandez said. “The findings from our survey suggest the public has a nuanced understanding of the complicated relationship between transparency, privacy, and a well-functioning government.”