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.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Letter from Pete Seeger, received Jan. 28, 2014

Like many Americans, I spent much of yesterday thinking about Pete Seeger on the news of his passing. I listened to his songs, watched YouTube performances, and had an NPR "driveway moment" listening to Terry Gross' 1985 interview with the legendary folksinger who has inspired so many, including me.

I wrote a letter to Pete Seeger back in August 2013 asking for his advice about how to spread the message of making music to more people, and included a printout of my "20 Jam Tips" for making music with friends.

To my astonishment and delight, yesterday, the day after his passing, Pete Seeger's response came back. His letter was written in the margins of mine and signed "Pete" with his iconic hand-drawn banjo.

Here's what he wrote:
Dear Kim - I've read this article several times. I think your article on jamming is wonderful and should be printed, not just in Sing Out, but in other magazines as well and issued as a lovely pamphlet, on good paper, with good drawings on the cover. 
But I'm now 94 and can't help much. My health is not good and I'm being cared for by my daughter Tinya. You stay well, keep on. 
94-year-old Pete (with banjo drawing)   Jan. 2014
After sharing this news with a number of friends, it spread to Jason Verlinde, who wrote this wonderful story for Fretboard Journal, including some photos of the letter. Rachel Leibrock has a nice writeup too in the Sacramento News and Review

Here is a closeup scan for a closer look:

It appears I've got some pamphlet printing to get to! Rest in peace Pete Seeger, and thanks for teaching us how to sing along.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"Learn to Jam!": 20 Tips for Making Music with Friends

Since 2005 I have made a point of getting together with friends on a regular basis to make music. It's always on Thursday nights and it's called "Music Night".
I recently shared my 20 Jam Tips with legendary folk singer Pete Seeger. He urged me to share them with a wider audience. Here's a quick rundown of the material I plan to put into a "lovely pamphlet", per Pete Seeger's advice:

20 Jam Tips

(i.e. Jam Etiquette or “Jamiquette”)

1. Always tune – spend $20 to get a good electronic tuner to clip on your instrument and use frequently.

2. Identify a few songs you want to play and learn them. Find the chords and lyrics online ( is a great resource) and create songsheets. Find YouTube videos of people playing those songs and play along. Memorize the words and chords so you can play those songs without a songsheet.

3. Put together a binder of your songs and start building your repertoire. Bring your binder with you to jams. Keep your songs roughly in alphabetical order so you can find them quickly. Plastic sleeves make it easier to shuffle songs around & keep songsheets weatherproof.

4. Most songs played are made up of three chords and usually begin on the chord of the key the song is in. Learn the chord sets, the 1-4-5 rule, and practice chord changes within each key and you will be able to play 90% of the songs played in any jam. If you play guitar, learn and use “cheater” bar chords (playing only the bottom four strings) to be able to transition more quickly between chords.

(A/D/E – C/F/G – D/G/A – E/A/B – F/Bb/C – G/C/D).

5. A major chord works in place of a 7th chord almost always (i.e. G/G7, C/C7 etc.)

6. If you play guitar and don’t know the chords to a song being played, watch the hands of someone who does. If you play another instrument learn to recognize guitar chords.

7. Let the songleader lead – even if the song sheet in front of you has different words or a different order for the song parts, let the songleader lead it as he/she wishes, with instrumental breaks, changes in lyrics etc.

8. Wait your turn. Jamming is a “small d” democratic pastime. Generally everyone sits in a circle and each person takes a turn to suggest a song. In more casual, established circles it might be more of a free for all, in which case you should feel free to call out a song when there is a lull – the idea is to avoid monopolizing song suggestions.

9. When it’s your turn, it’s your choice. Be ready to pick a song when it’s your turn. You can lead the song, or suggest a song someone else can lead that you want to hear or play along with.

10. Play appropriate to the jam - suggest songs that are in the style the jam group is playing (country, 70’s rock, bluegrass etc.) and play appropriate instruments (ex: don’t bring electric guitars to an acoustic jam).

11. Call out the chords before you start the song and demonstrate how the “A” and “B” parts of the song go before you actually start playing it.

12. Songleading is hard and requires multitasking: singing, playing, keeping the tempo to the song steady, and watching for people who want to do instrumentals. Take breaks for instrumentals if you have people who want to play them. When it comes time to call them to play, call their name or instrument, or just make eye contact and nod your head or point your finger at them.

13. Get quiet for the instrumentals . The act of calling out an instrumentalist can be very subtle which is why it’s important for all players to pay attention and notice when an instrumental is underway. In an acoustic jam, especially big ones, it can be hard to hear the instrumentalists, so to amplify these players other players will “get quiet” on their instruments.

14. Watch for the end – it’s up to the songleader to decide when a song ends, and he/she will let you know the song is wrapping up by sticking their foot out or calling out “repeat that last line!”. Songleaders may also suggest an “a capella” moment in a song when all instruments are silent – be sure to watch for those too!

15. If you are leading a song, play it all the way through, don’t stop in the middle of it. If you forget the words just repeat a verse you already sang, whistle, sing “meow meow meow….” instead, invite an instrumental interlude or improvise in some other way. You can also bring a song to a premature end and skip verses if it’s really not working. If you start out in the wrong key, change it at the beginning.

16. Avoid using a capo, it makes you hard to follow. If you must use a capo, identify someone else in the group who knows the chords who other people can follow.

17. You don’t have to play every song. If you’re having trouble playing a song, don’t play the wrong chords – use your instrument instead to keep the beat, or sing along, or sit it out, tune, refresh your drink, take a break.

18. Ideally, jam songs are three chord or four chord songs. Five chords is about the maximum. Don’t select songs with too many chords or funky chords that no one knows (unless you all have the same songsheets or lots of people know the song by heart). Such songs are affectionately known as “jambusters”.

19. Don’t record or take pictures without permission. Jamming is not a performance, it’s an interactive experience that can be deeply personal and emotional. Taking pictures or recording people while they are playing can be very distracting and change the nature of the jam if players suddenly feel they must perform for the camera. Many jammers are shy and inexperienced, and often feel they are not “good enough” to play in front of others, so taking pictures or recording is also discouraged for this reason.

20. If you are sitting in the circle, you are in the jam. If you want to chat with someone, smoke, text or talk on the phone, respect other players and move out of the circle.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Please support better democracy and donate to CVF!

Another election season is rapidly approaching in California and over the past year CVF has been working on behalf of voters to make the election process better for everyone.
 Give to CVF!
Please contribute to this important work to improve California’s vote-by-mail process, increase voters’ access to online tools and information about proposition donors, and expand voter registration.

Here are the top priorities you can support with your generous year-end gift.

1. Improving the Vote-by-Mail Process
For the first time ever, in November 2012 more than half of California’s voters cast vote-by-mail ballots in a statewide general election. But the growing popularity of vote-by-mail comes with problems. After every major election, tens of thousands of VBM ballots are not counted, mostly because they arrived too late or due to voter error, such as failing to sign the ballot envelope. It is heartbreaking to see these stacks of uncounted ballots piled up in county election offices. California’s vote-by-mail error rate is among the worst in the nation.
CVF is working with election officials and other nonprofits to identify best practices and needed improvements. We are studying the vote-by-mail process in three California counties – Santa Cruz, Sacramento and Orange – and will be recommending voter education and outreach strategies. We will also recommend administrative and legislative changes needed to improve California’s vote-by-mail success rate.
2. Increasing voters’ access to online tools and information about proposition donors
CVF is working to promote and expand access to the online tools and information voters need to cast their ballots and make informed choices. CVF is a member of the Future of California Elections collaborative, a statewide group of local election officials and voting and civil rights organizations working together to share ideas and information about reform and to maximize our effectiveness.

CVF is especially interested in expanding voter access to information about ballot proposition funders. In 2013, for the first time, CVF began supporting two bills – SB 27 and AB 400 – to inform voters about top donors on initiative petitions and in the ballot pamphlet. We also want the Secretary of State to improve Cal-Access, the state’s online campaign disclosure system.
3. Expanding voter registration
California has implemented online registration – a great improvement but there is still much work to do to increase our voter registration rate. We rank 45th among the states in eligible voter registration with almost six million Californians eligible but not registered to vote.
CVF and other nonprofits particularly want to make sure that the public has access to registration applications and assistance through Covered California (the state’s new health care exchange) and other public agencies, as required under federal and state laws. The health care exchange presents an unprecedented, once-in-a-generation opportunity to connect with hundreds of thousands of Californians who are not registered or need to update their registration and, thus, expand California’s number of registered voters.
In 2014, CVF will again provide voters with reliable access to nonpartisan election information and work to see that statewide contests, especially for Secretary of State – an open-seat contest for the first time in eight years – garner the public interest and media attention they deserve.
We hope we can count on you to help! With your generous contribution CVF can continue its long non-partisan tradition of research, outreach and election process oversight.
Tax-deductible donations may be made online via PayPal (you don't need a PayPal account to use your credit card) or by check to:

California Voter Foundation
P.O. Box 189277
Sacramento, CA 95818

Wishing you a happy holiday season,

The California Voter Foundation

Kim Alexander, President & Founder and the CVF Board of Directors: Geoffrey Wandesforde-Smith, Joseph Lorenzo Hall, David Jefferson, Jack Lerner and Stephen Levine

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Why is broken? Blame the government procurement process

"Over the past 10 years, 94 percent of large federal information technology projects were unsuccessful, according to a study by the research firm the Standish Group. More than half of them were either delayed or over budget, or fell short of user expectations. More than 41 percent failed completely."
        - From the Nov. 8 issue of The Week, full story in Computerworld.
The Standish Group study received a considerable amount of media attention, and deservedly so. Its database of 3,555 government projects with labor costs of at least $10 million revealed only 6.4 percent were successful. Fifty-two percent of the large projects were "challenged" (over budget, behind schedule or didn't meet user expectations) and 41 percent were failures (abandoned or restarted).  
"They didn't have a chance in hell," said Jim Johnson, founder and chairman of Standish, of There was no way they were going to get this right - they only had a six percent chance." - Computerworld
I am not aware of a similar study of California government technology projects, but suspect the figures might come out about the same. (And in all fairness, a study of private technology projects might yield similar findings). 

When President Barack Obama promised to find out why the Affordable Care Act website failed miserably, the answer came to me in about two seconds: the government procurement process deserves a good share of the blame. 

It takes years to plan and execute a major governmental technology project. Staff turn over, technology evolves and expires, administrations change hands. It is not flexible or timely in any way, and yet that is exactly what technology projects need to be if they are to succeed.

Here are a few recent large-scale California government technology upgrade failures:
In each instance, tens or hundreds of millions of dollars were spent before the plug was finally pulled. And those agencies continue to serve the public with poor, outdated technology.

The large-scale California government technology project I have been tracking is VoteCal, a new statewide voter registration database to replace the one built in 1995. 

When VoteCal becomes operational, we will have statewide voter lookup tools so all California voters can easily check their registration or ballot status online - conveniences enjoyed by voters in most other states. We will be able to register 17 year olds to vote, and implement Election Day registration. Our registration records will be more accurate and California's embarrassingly low rate of registration (45th in the nation) could increase due to the greater efficiency and accuracy technology improvements can bring.

VoteCal has been in development since 2006 and already failed once. I'm hoping the Secretary of State and Department of General Services will succeed in keeping it on track this time around and so far the updates indicate progress is being made. But the new system is still four years out. It is not scheduled to be in operation until 2017. It's hard to imagine the technology they are planning for today will still be state-of-the-art by 2017 (and that assumes the project is not further delayed). 

Whether the government procurement process itself will ever be modernized to embrace rather than inhibit qualities like flexibility and timeliness remains to be seen. Some excellent suggestions recently appeared in Politico and the New York Times, which highlights the "agile software approach." The Times also reminds us that government technology successes include the creation of the Internet itself, which in turn has brought about online access to a whole host of government services (most recently, and successfully, California online voter registration) whose availability would otherwise be severely limited.

Governments are not like private businesses - we are not governed by autocrats who can push and abuse their employees the way some titans reportedly do. But we must find a way to update our procurement process so government agencies can put technology to uses that best serve, rather than inflame the public.