Sunday, October 12, 2014

A new proposition song!

Just (barely) in time for the upcoming election, I've come up with a new proposition song. Also a new
tune! I will be recording it with friends soon but in the meantime here are the lyrics.

Musicians and singers are welcome to join us on Thursday, Oct. 16 at Old Ironsides in downtown Sacramento at 7:30 p.m. to participate in the recording and performance.

Thanks to the CVF board, my friends and family, the Gerbode Foundation and undisclosed sources deep within California government for help with this project.

The first Proposition Song was for the 2000 election, followed by songs in 2006, 2010 and 2012. There is also a bootleg 2009 California Special Election song we recorded but didn't release.

Making proposition songs is something that brings me joy and I hope it does the same for you! Mostly I hope you sing and play along.

The California Proposition Blues

Tune: Traditional Blues
Lyrics: Kim Alexander

Just the other day it arrived in the mail,
My official voter guide I said, “What the hell?”
            A7                                           E
Let’s take a look, see what it’s all about
  B7                             A7                            E             B7
I read and read but I still can’t figure it out.

Started with the first one, Proposition One
It’s not in the same guide as the rest of ‘em
It’s “Supplemental” – it arrived later on
That’s why it took a bit longer to write this song

So I went online for the pros and cons
Turns out Prop. 1 is a water bond
It could help address the drought in our state
Seven billion to pay for infrastructure that’s out of date

Prop. 2 is next, it’s a complicated one
Something about the state’s rainy day fund
If it passes, we’ll have to save more
And pay down the state’s debts faster than we did before

Bear with me now, this doesn’t make sense
But Prop. 45 is the one that comes next
It’s confusing, but watcha gonna do?
I’ll vote but still have the California Proposition Blues

See, the insurance commissioner wants more control
The health insurance companies, they say “No!”
As a voter, it’s up to you to choose
I understand if you’ve got the California Proposition Blues

The next one is also a health care prop
46 affects California’s docs
It changes the cap on medical suits
And tries to cut down on alleged doctor drug abuse.

47 is next and it deals with crime
Should non-violent offenders do less time?
Supporters say, vote yes because
They think we should change California sentencing laws

48’s unlike the rest of ‘em
No initiative, it’s a referendum
In support, some tribes they do rally
A yes vote allows a new casino in the Central Valley

If you want more info, you can go online
Try we’re open all the time
We’ll help you decide who should win or lose
And help you avoid the California Proposition Blues!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What we can learn from Netflix to speed up ballot delivery

Last night, as I was putting the final touches on the California Voter Foundation's new report, Improving the Vote-by-Mail Process: A Three-County Study, I heard the mailman outside our door, picking up the Netflix DVD I was returning. It was past 6:30 p.m.

"Hmm," I thought, "He's here kind of late today."

First thing in the morning, while getting our report ready to distribute, I check my email. There is a message from Netflix. "We've received: Frozen" it says. It was timestamped 6:40 a.m. In twelve hours, that DVD went from my porch to Netflix and was logged into their system as received.

This was not the first time I considered how nearly magical the Netflix-U.S. Mail delivery process is. (And I am aware that it is a matter of controversy.) But in the past few weeks, as we have been finishing up our vote-by-mail study and recommending improvements to reduce vote-by-mail balloting errors, I increasingly began to wonder: what is Netflix doing so right that we are getting so wrong with our mail ballots, many of which arrive too late to count?

For starters, Netflix uses first class, postage paid, "Permit Reply" mail. This means the company prepays the postage on the return envelope. And that means the mail piece does not have to pass through a permit office to get dinged off an account before continuing on its postal journey. 

Netflix also has distribution centers all across the country. So the DVD doesn't have to get to one place, it has to get to the nearest Netflix location.

All the pieces weigh the same and look the same. The red envelope is eye-catching and easily recognized by postal employees. Barcodes are used to track the envelope and its contents to the exact customer and address.

The fact is, we could use first class, postage paid "Permit Reply" mail for vote-by-mail ballots. The reason we don't is because it would cost a lot. And voting by mail is a convenience, not a right. 

But our political leaders need to consider what we can learn from Netflix and utilize some of those lessons in how we process vote-by-mail ballots. 

To that end, the California Voter Foundation's new report features a number of recommendations, including one to allow voters to return their mail ballots to any election office or polling place in the state. This would allow ballots to get into the custody of the nearest election official and would help reduce disenfranchisement. Topics for further study include considering ways to standardize mail ballot postage rates and creating a uniform envelope statewide that is easily recognizeable. 

Using first class Permit Reply envelopes for voters living in all mail-ballot precincts would also be an improvement. Our study findings indicate that while these voters get postage paid envelopes (since they have no choice but to vote by mail) they require extra time for mail processing so the postage can be debited from the permit holder's account. 

In November 2012 in Sacramento County, 3.3 percent of voters in all mail-ballot precincts cast ballots that were not counted, compared to 1 percent for mail voters overall. And 81 percent of those uncounted ballots from mail ballot precincts were not counted because they arrived too late, compared to the overall late ballot rate of 45 percent.

A ballot is more valuable than a DVD. It's time we treat ballots as the precious items they are and find ways to streamline ballot delivery so fewer people are disenfranchised and more ballots are counted.

Monday, July 14, 2014

California voters had reasons to skip primary

The lowest percentage of voters in California history turned out for the June 2014 California Primary election, according to the Certified Statement of the Vote released last Friday by California Secretary of State Debra Bowen. Approximately 4.5 million Californians - one out of every four registered voters in the state and 18 percent of eligible voters - cast ballots in the June 3rd election. 

Voters had some good reasons to skip the primary, as explained in this op-ed I wrote which was published the Saturday after the election in the Sacramento Bee. Excerpts are featured below.

Californians have never shown much interest in participating in primaries. Only once in the last 100 years (1938) have more than half of eligible Californians participated in a primary election.

Turnout among registered voters has also dropped dramatically, peaking in 1976 at 73 percent and sliding down ever since. There have been a few high points since then, when we moved our presidential primary to an earlier date to give Californians more say. In March 2000, 54 percent of registered voters participated, and in February 2008, 58 percent participated. But overall, primary turnout, especially in nonpresidential elections, has hovered around 30 or 40 percent.
One explanation is the steep decline in party affiliation and dramatic rise in the number of independent voters. In 1990, 89 percent of the state’s registered voters were affiliated with either the Democratic or the Republican parties while 9 percent were registered as independents and 2 percent with minor parties.
Today, 72 percent of California’s voters affiliate with the two major parties, while 21 percent are independents and 7 percent are with minor parties. While under the top-two primary election system, independents now have a say in whittling down the choices for November, it doesn’t change the fact that until very recently, primaries were intended for parties to select their nominees for the general election. With a growing percentage of California voters choosing to affiliate with neither of the major parties, it should come as no surprise that participation in primaries is dropping.
Today, 72 percent of California’s voters affiliate with the two major parties, while 21 percent are independents and 7 percent are with minor parties. While under the top-two primary election system, independents now have a say in whittling down the choices for November, it doesn’t change the fact that until very recently, primaries were intended for parties to select their nominees for the general election. With a growing percentage of California voters choosing to affiliate with neither of the major parties, it should come as no surprise that participation in primaries is dropping.
Another reason why many people are sitting out elections is that no one is asking for their vote. Political campaigns are extremely sophisticated in micro-targeting their communications only to those voters most likely to vote, and ignoring everyone else.
California’s decline in homeownership rates and relatively low rates of homeownership compared to other states may also be a factor. Homeowners vote in higher rates than renters for several reasons. First, as property-tax payers, they have a greater stake in government decisions. Second, they are likely to be wealthier than the general public and feel a greater need to protect their interests. And, unlike renters, they stay put, and so are more likely to become familiar with their political districts and elected officials.
According to the U.S. census, California’s homeownership rate dropped from 60 percent in 2005 to 56 percent in 2010, which is nearly the same percentage of eligible Californians who voted in the 2012 general election. Other states’ turnout rates similarly match up. Minnesota’s 76 percent turnout rate in 2012 was the highest in the nation, and that state has a 73 percent homeownership rate. New York’s turnout was 54 percent, with homeownership at 55 percent.
Another contributing factor is a lack of funding. Since 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature have withheld money owed to counties to pay for election programs mandated by the state, such as vote by mail. As a result, counties are forced to do more with less, even as the number of eligible and registered voters in California constantly expands. A reduction in state funding can result in reduced election services, such as early voting and voter outreach programs.
And lastly, we have the media’s constant dwelling on the likely low turnout rate leading up to election day. This narrative may well have helped suppress turnout. Occasional voters are highly influenced to vote depending on what others around them are doing, particularly their friends and family. Repeated messages about low voter turnout do little to encourage participation and may in fact contribute to the problem.

Read more here:

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Monday, June 2, 2014

Look up your polling place online & other election day tips

On this election eve the California Voter Foundation has a few election tips to share. 

1. Polls are open 7 a.m. - 8 p.m. tomorrow. Please urge your coworkers, friends and family to participate. 
2. Help spread the word that you don't have to vote on everything on the ballot in order for your votes to count. The important thing is to be a voter.

3. While many pundits have been talking about low voter turnout a better message to share is to let people know what a privilege it is to be able to vote and choose who represents us. 

4. Voters looking for their polling place location have a new tool at their fingertips. California Secretary of State Debra Bowen and her staff recently debuted a new statewide polling place lookup tool, produced in collaboration with Google and Pew's Voting Information Project. It also lists statewide candidates and county election office information. This is the first statewide lookup tool made available to California voters. Check it out at

5. Voters who have vote-by-mail ballots and have not returned them should fill them out and take them to any polling place in your home county on Election Day. Postmarks don't count

6. Late arrival, missing signatures and signatures not matching are the three top reasons why some vote-by-mail ballots don't get counted. Make sure yours does by returning it in person on Election Day, signing the envelope, and signing your name the same way you registered to vote. CVF has more tips to help you make it count

7. There are no dumb questions. Voting can be confusing, and election officials are there to help. Use CVF's Directory of County Election Offices to contact your election office with any last-minute questions.

8. If you need to check your registration status, or the status of your vote-by-mail ballot, or want to view an online version of your county sample ballot you can access these resources in most counties via CVF's Directory of County Election Offices.

9. For information about candidates on the ballot and essential election information, visit CVF's California Online Voter Guide.To follow the money and see who's backing a candidate, visit Maplight's Voters Edge.

10. Wear your "I Voted" sticker tomorrow with pride!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Ten Questions for Secretary of State Candidates

Election season is upon us and the open seat contest for California Secretary of State has drawn a number of candidates, including several who will be debating each other this afternoon at a Sacramento Press Club event

Whenever there is an election for Secretary of State, I'm frequently asked for input on questions to be asked of the candidates. This year I've decided to post a list of suggested questions on my blog - here's hoping a few get asked today!

Ten Questions For Secretary of State Candidates

1. Many voters and would-be voters are uncomfortable with their personal information being made available to secondary users such as political parties and campaigns. As Secretary of State what if anything will you do to address the public’s voter data privacy concerns?

2. Federal law requires state government agencies to offer the public the opportunity to register to vote. What will you do as Secretary of State to ensure this happens?

3. California currently offers no statewide online lookup tools to help voters verify their registration status, locate their polling place or check on the status of their vote-by-mail ballot. What will you do as Secretary of State to provide voters with access to these kinds of tools?

4. There is widespread agreement that the Cal-Access online disclosure system is in need of an overhaul. What specific changes do you want to see made to this system and how will you bring those changes about if elected Secretary of State?

5. Ten years ago California enacted a law to require electronic ballots to be backed up with a voter-verified paper audit trail. Do you support this law?

6. Funding for California counties has been withheld in the state budget since 2011, when Governor Jerry Brown proposed and legislature agreed to suspend the state mandated election programs and no longer provide funding to counties to support those programs. This includes the permanent vote-by-mail program which 43 percent of California’s registered voters are currently enrolled in. As Secretary of State what will you do to ensure counties carry out state election laws in a uniform way?

7. Many vote-by-mail ballots go uncounted in California due to late arrival or voter error. What would you do as Secretary of State to reduce the state’s unsuccessful vote-by-mail ballot rate (among the highest in the nation according to Pew’s Election Performance Index) and get more VBM ballots to be cast successfully and counted?

8. What is your opinion about voting over the Internet?

9. What guarantee can you give to California voters that their ballot was counted correctly? What will you do as Secretary of State to ensure the integrity and accuracy of California’s vote count?

10. Funding for the Secretary of State is provided for in the state budget. As Secretary of State what will you do to ensure that the Legislature and the Governor provide your agency with adequate funding to ensure you can carry out your duties as well as any additional goals and programs you wish to pursue?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

CVF-NEWS Roundup: Disclosure bills, Covered CA, election funding & Secretary of State race

The March 28th edition of CVF-NEWS was jam-packed with lots of important news updates, covering the following topics:
  • Disclosure bills to give voters information about top proposition donors advance in the Legislature;
  • Covered CA agrees to mail voter registration forms to nearly 4 million applicants;
  • California's legislative budget committees hit the "pause" button on continued suspension of funding for state-mandated local election programs; and
  • Secretary of State race gets underway with candidate forums.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

CVF-NEWS: Election reform reports, and a letter from Pete Seeger

The February 3rd edition of CVF-NEWS highlights two important reports that were recently released - one produced by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, the second by the Public Policy Institute of California. Also featured in this newsletter is a roundup of the news clips regarding my correspondence with the late and great Pete Seeger.

Friday, January 31, 2014

More news and thoughts about the Pete Seeger letter

This has been an incredible week. The story of the letter I received from the late Pete Seeger has traveled far and wide. I have been hearing from old friends and making new ones from all across the country. I love how the story is traveling between family members, musicians, music teachers and music lovers from all walks of life.

During this week I met and became friends with a photographer online who took a picture of Pete Seeger writing letters. I received an article from a reporter sharing Pete Yarrow's account of his last day with Pete Seeger, which featured a family/community singalong. It is also now featured in my local paper, the Sacramento Bee.

I've had offers from strangers and friends to help publish the pamphlet of jam tips that I wrote to Pete about and will be working on that in the coming weeks, as well as tips for how to organize music jams. Today, my story was shared on NPR's All Things Considered so it will now reach an even wider audience. The NPR story ends with Pete Seeger singing "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You", which left me in tears.

People are celebrating Pete Seeger as a songwriter, musician and activist, and all of that is well-deserved. But to me his greatest gift was as a songleader, in getting people to sing along and experience the joy of singing and participating and making music together. It is one of the most fundamental joys a human being can experience. Today there are song circles and music jams that happen all over the world, but I believe there are even more people who, because of fear and self-doubt, hold back the music that’s inside them. I want to help let it out. That was what I wrote to Pete about and that is what he asked me to do in his letter. I will carry out his wishes – doing so will be one of the most joyous tasks I’ve ever undertaken.