Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Governor and reform groups celebrate redistricting reform victory

This afternoon I attended an event at the California Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento sponsored by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and featuring speakers from numerous groups that worked to get Proposition 11, the redistricting reform measure passed. Under the new law, an independent redistricting commission, rather than state legislators, will draw political districts lines for legislative seats following the 2010 census.

Kathay Feng, one of the lead organizers of the initiative campaign and director of California Common Cause, said Prop. 11 passed for three reasons: 1) proponents did their homework; 2) they built a strong, politically diverse coalition; and 3) they had the backing of the governor.

The Governor spoke and said that he was back at the Railroad Museum celebrating this victory because it was the place where he announced his reform agenda back at the beginning of his first term as governor in 2003. He commented that when he expressed interest in reforming the redistricting process he didn't know how hard it would be, noting the defeat of his earlier measure, Prop. 77 in 2005. Gov. Schwarzenegger said Prop. 11 passed this time because people are fed up with government and politicians, and that now we will see elections that are more competitive and reward politicians for performance.

Gov. Schwarzenegger said that some people say California cannot be governed and suggest splitting it up, but that he disagrees, and said it has been proven that we can fix a broken system, pointing to worker's comp reform, the passage of $42 billion in infrastructure bonds, and California's global warming law.

Janice HIrohama from the League of Women Voters also spoke and said that the fight for Prop. 11 isn't over, and that now we have to ensure the measure is implemented well and the guidelines articulated in the measure realized. Other speakers included representatives from AARP and the California Conference of Carpenters; both groups had numerous members in the audience for the event. More details about the Prop. 11 victory and the Governor's thoughts on new political reforms to push for, such as an open primary process for California elections, are featured in this excellent article by John Howard published in Monday's Capitol Weekly.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Software glitch in Humboldt County yields inaccurate election results

Humboldt County, California implemented a new election transparency project this year, which has produced some startling results. According to this story in the Dec. 5 Times-Standard (a local paper serving Eureka and the North Coast) by Thaddeus Greenson, the project uncovered a glitch in the vendor's (Premier, formerly Diebold) vote-counting software that left nearly 200 ballots out of the certified results. Details are provided in the excerpts below.

Kudos to Humboldt registrar Carolyn Crnich for implementing the transparency project in the first place and going above and beyond the call of duty to provide the public with confidence in the accuracy of election results. And kudos also go to local election verification activist Kevin Collins, who has worked for years in Humboldt County to advance election transparency, as well as volunteer MItch Trachtenberg, who wrote the software that allows Humboldt's ballots to be publicly analyzed online. (According to the blog site for the project, ballot images for the recent election will be available online in the next few days).

The first of its kind Humboldt Election Transparency Project has uncovered a glitch in the county election's software that resulted in almost 200 ballots not being counted and the county certifying inaccurate election results.

The 197 uncounted ballots would not have changed the outcome of any of the election's races, according to Humboldt County Registrar of Voters Carolyn Crnich.

Crnich said the company that provides the county's election software, Premier Elections Solutions (formerly known as Diebold Election Systems, Inc.), seems to have known about the glitch at least since 2004.

Crnich said a discrepancy in vote counts came to her attention after the election was officially certified by the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, while she and volunteers were preparing ballot images for the transparency project.

The basic idea behind the first-of-its-kind transparency project is fairly simple: every ballot cast in an election is passed through an optical scanner after being officially counted and the images are then placed online and available for download.
Software, created by volunteer Mitch Trachtenberg, then allows viewers to sort the ballots by precinct or race to conduct recounts at their pleasure.

Shortly after the election was officially certified Monday, Crnich said she got an e-mail from Trachtenberg saying something was amiss.

”(Eureka's) Precinct 1E-45 seemed out of kilter,” she said. “The count justwasn't adding up.”

After double checking all of the precinct's logs and ballots, Crnich said she discovered a deck of 197 vote-by-mail ballots for the precinct that had been run through the ballot counting optical scanner, but did not seem to appear in the final vote tallies.
After exchanging several calls with Premier Elections Solutions, Crnich said she was told that the software begins counting decks of ballots at zero, and that sometimes when a deck is deleted from the machine due to normal complications, the software also deletes the Deck Zero, which in this case was the vote-by-mail ballots from Precinct 1E-45.

Crnich said she then called the Secretary of State's Office.

”They were very interested and actually offered great congratulations on this project,” Crnich said.

Crnich said she later learned from the Secretary of State's Office that two other California counties, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, use the same version of GEMS elections software (version 1.18.19), as well as several entire states, including Maryland.


Crnich said it appears that Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties had been informed of the software glitch, and were told how to work around it to avoid having any effect on the election counts.

The Secretary of State's Office, however, had not been notified of the problem despite having conducted a top-to-bottom review of the state's elections systems in 2006, according to Crnich.

The scariest part of all this, said Trachtenberg, is that the issue would have never been uncovered without the transparency project.

”Has this happened in other counties or other states?” he asked. “How can we know?”

Crnich also said she was informed by the Secretary of State's Office that this version of Premier Elections Solutions GEMS software was in use in the highly contested 2000 Florida election before the problem surfaced.

Uncovering the glitch also seems to lend credence to groups of people across the country who, for years, have criticized placing the nation's elections in the hands of private companies that dispense vote counting machines that operate with secrete, proprietary codes that, in many cases, leave no paper trail.

Kevin Collins, who volunteers with the transparency project and is one of its charter members, said this never would have been uncovered without Crnich's dedication to transparent elections.

”She deserves a huge amount of credit for devising a system for doing something in Humboldt County that isn't being done anywhere else, and that's auditing 100 percent of the ballots,” Collins said.

The uncovered glitch means little for Humboldt County's election, as it won't change the outcome of any races and, consequently won't even require a re-certification of the election's results, but it has implications that could reverberate throughout the world of elections.

”You just can't trust a secret program to count this stuff because programmers make mistakes,” Trachtenberg said. “People have been complaining about secret machine counts and the companies have said these folks are nuts. But, the first time (the transparency project) is done in a general election, it comes up with a problem -- a problem (Premier Elections Solutions) has known about for four years.”

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Please donate to the California Voter Foundation!

The California Voter Foundation is seeking your support as we wrap up another incredibly successful year. Please read our appeal and donate generously either via credit card or by check. All contributions to CVF are tax-deductible and greatly appreciated! Please show your support for the work CVF does by making a generous contribution today.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Still counting the votes in California.....

Votes are still being counted in many California counties, which have 28 days to certify the election. According to the latest numbers available on the Secretary of State's web site, approximately 12.5 million ballots have been cast and counted as of this afternoon. The Unprocessed Ballot Status report has not been updated since November 13, when it showed 1.8 million provisional and vote-by-mail ballots remaining to be counted. It is likely we will end up with about 14 million voters having participated in the November 4 Presidential election, which would represent an approximately 80 percent turnout of registered voters and exceed the both the number and percentage participating in the 2004 Presidential election (when approximately 12.6 million Californians, representing 76% of registered voters voted.)

As of November 13, nine counties had completed their ballot counts. All nine of these counties (Alpine, Colusa, Del Norte, Glenn, Lassen, Modoc, Mono, Plumas and Sierra) are relatively small; among them, Lassen has the greatest number of precincts, with 44 in all, compared to the largest county, Los Angeles, with 4,883 precincts. While the election is over for many people, in several large California counties employees are working hard to get the remaining votes counted and results finalized by the December 2 certification deadline.

On November 6, I visited the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters' office to get a first-hand look at the operation. There were dozens of people at work all throughout the office on various tasks - duplicating ballots that could not be read by scanners, scanning signatures on vote-by-mail ballots, comparing vote-by-mail and provisional ballot signatures to registration signatures on computer screens (with campaign staffers standing over their shoulders watching them do it), sorting through vote-by-mail ballot envelopes to make sure every ballot is removed, and inputting participation data from pollbooks into the county's computerized voter participation database, among other tasks. It is a herculean administrative undertaking, and it will be an incredible feat for the larger counties in the state to get the job done by the deadline.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Manual tallies of ten percent of the ballots required in CD 4 & SD 19

Folks who paid attention to California Secretary of State Debra Bowen's 2007 "Top-to-Bottom Review" of California voting systems and subsequent decertification of those systems may recall that one condition placed on continued use of mostly all voting systems in California, whether electronic or paper-based optical scan, was the requirement that additional hand-counting of ballots be conducted in extremely close contests. These requirements are summarized in the Secretary of State's Post-Election Manual Tally (PEMT) requirements.

These requirements were initially implemented as conditions for certification of most California voting systems. The registrar of voters of San Diego County sued the Secretary of State for imposing them, claiming that Bowen overstepped her authority and had issued "defacto" regulations. Bowen and her legal team argued they weren't regulations because they did not apply to all counties (Lake, Sonoma and Madera counties used older voting equipment that did not go through the 2007/08 recertification process). Bowen won in the lower court but that decision was overturned by an appellate court in August 2008. That decision led Bowen to seek emergency regulations to be approved by the state Office of Administrative Law, which would enact the Post-Election Manual Tally requirements as regulations. OAL granted the Secretary of State her request on October 20, putting the regulations into effect for 180 days.

Now that the PEMT requirements are in effect, they will in fact apply to some November 2008 contests. Under state law, all counties must select at random and count by hand, in public, one percent of their precincts' ballots and compare those hand-counted results to the computer-tallied results. Under Bowen's new PEMT requirements, in any contest where the semi-official results are within .5 percent, the counties where the contest took place must randomly select ten percent of the precincts' ballots that included that contest and recount the votes in that contest by hand to further verify the accuracy of the computer-tallied results.

So far, it appears that Congressional District 4, the contest between Democratic candidate Charlie Brown and Republican Tom McClintock, will be subject to this escalated, ten percent manual tally. One legislative contest, for Senate Distrct 19, between Democrat Hannah-Beth Jackson and Republican Tony Strickland, also appears subject to the ten percent manual tally.

Congressional District 4 is a sprawling, Northern California district that includes the counties of Modoc, Lassen, Sierra, El Dorado, Plumas, Nevada, Placer, and parts of Butte and Sacramento counties. Senate District 19 is in Southern California and includes Ventura, Santa Barbara, and a small part of Los Angeles counties.

There may also be other local contests around the state where the ten percent manual tally is required. While candidates are always entitled to recounts, requesting one can be politically unpopular and paying for one can be an expensive proposition. The new Post-Election Manual Tally requirements enacted by the Secretary of State provide an important, new level of vote-counting security that should give all California voters and candidates, whether they were on the winning side or the losing side of a battle, peace of mind that the computerized vote count is accurate.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Associated Press' Amy Taxin authored this article this afternoon on the status of the vote count in California.

A record number of voters and last-minute flood of absentee ballots left millions of votes to be counted Wednesday and several California races too close to call.

Election officials worked through the night and morning to finish counting roughly 10.4 million ballots cast by voters at the polls or in early mail-in voting.

But California officials will spend the next month poring over several million absentee and provisional ballots — which could hold the key to a tight race over a state proposition to revamp redistricting procedures and for a Northern California congressional seat.

Election experts say between 2.6 million and 3 million remain to be tallied among absentee ballots that arrived too late to count, were dropped at polling places or provisional ballots handed out to voters whose status could not immediately be verified.

"If we did succeed in even just keeping pace with 2004 turnout levels, we added half a million voters to the process this election — and the counties felt that," said Kim Alexander, president of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation.

California voters faced long lines, scattered problems

Associated Press reporter Amy Taxin wrote this articlesumming up the experience for California voters yesterday. Excerpts are below.

LOS ANGELES—California voters showed up hours early at the polls and waited in lines into the night, but they only encountered isolated problems in a historic election expected to set turnout records.

Overall, voting ran smoothly at polling sites throughout the state despite the logistical challenge of running an election for 17.3 million registered voters, many of whom were eager to elect an African-American president and vote on whether to ban gay marriage.

Vote tallies lasted into Wednesday for many counties because of heavy turnout and the shift to paper ballots after the secretary of state limited the use of touchscreen machines last year over security concerns.

In Los Angeles County, home to a quarter of the state's registered voters, an estimated 82.4 percent of voters cast ballots—up from 78.6 percent in 2004, according to a sample of precincts.

"Historical practice would lead us to believe this is going to exceed our previous record," said Dean Logan, the county's registrar of voters.

Record-breaking voter registration—which pushed the state's voter rolls 5 percent higher than in the 2004 presidential election—led officials to add precincts and poll workers and order more ballots to meet the demand. Voters were eager to cast ballots in the contentious race between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain.

Power outages after light rainfall forced three Los Angeles area polling places to move outside, but the only other problems were reports of some poll workers showing up late, said Kate Folmar, spokeswoman for the secretary of state.

At many polling places, voters lined up hours before the polls opened after seeing hours-long lines at county registrar offices during early voting over the last week.

"People are waiting in a long line and are proud of it" said Patti Negri, who found people lined up at 6 a.m. at the Hollywood polling place she has overseen since 1990. "I've never seen anything like this."


In Los Angeles County, some poll workers feared they would run out of ballots due to the crowds. About 100,000 additional ballots were delivered to poll sites to meet heavy demand, Logan said.

Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, said many voters were not on the rolls at their polling places and ended up submitting provisional ballots, which must be verified before they can be counted in the coming weeks.

"I think it was clearly a day where the huge voter turnout overwhelmed Los Angeles County's voting system," she said.

In Stanislaus County, a voter asked for help when he saw his Spanish-language ballot was marked for Obama. He said a second ballot he received had been similarly marked.

Registrar Lee Lundrigan said a field inspector checked all the remaining ballots, which were "unmarked and clean." Both ballots were voided and sent to county offices for examination.

In San Diego County, several voters reported electioneering near polling places over the proposition to ban gay marriage. In Santa Clara County, some touchscreen machines—which are provided for disabled voters—broke down and had to be replaced.
Nearly 4.3 million people had cast their ballots by mail by Tuesday afternoon, according to a statewide association of election officials. But that leaves nearly 3 million mail-in ballots outstanding—many which may have been dropped off at polling places before they closed.

Election officials in San Bernardino and Riverside counties—which shifted to paper ballots this year—expect to be tallying ballots into Wednesday or Thursday.

Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, said voter turnout could reach 80 percent. About 76 percent of the state's eligible voters cast ballots for president in 2004.

"We had no major meltdowns," Alexander said. "I think, overall, we had a successful election today."

57 Sequoia touchscreen machines fail in Santa Clara county

The San Jose Mercury News reported this morning in this article that 57 Sequoia touchscreen machines failed to work in Santa Clara county polling places yesterday. Excerpts are below.

Record-high voting in the Bay Area on Tuesday mostly defied predictions of unwieldy waits and overwhelmed polls. But in Santa Clara County, concerns about touch-screen voting machines will likely increase following significant malfunctions.

Fifty-seven of the county's Sequoia Voting Systems machines failed on Election Day, resulting in hourslong delays before replacements arrived. State officials decertified electronic machines for widespread use in California last year amid reliability concerns; on Tuesday, each of the county's 785 polling places was equipped with a single machine for use by the disabled.

"We've had technical problems before, but we haven't had to resort to getting a replacement out or leaving a polling place without a machine at all," said election office spokesman Matt Moreles. He noted that voting at the affected precincts continued on paper ballots.

California Voter Foundation president Kim Alexander called the glitch "concerning" and said it marred an otherwise largely problem-free election statewide. "It underscores the ongoing challenges we face in California attempting to implement computerized voting," she said. "If Santa Clara County were still using touch screens as its primary election system, you bet it would have been a huge problem."

Loose printer connections, as well as dead batteries and broken screens, caused the failures.

Long lines and scattered snags surfaced across the Bay Area on Election Day and an expected record number of voters anxious to cast ballots. From San Jose to Oakland, poll workers were greeted by a steady stream of voters. Some problems emerged, but the overall mood was one of excitement.

ABC News story provides overview of U.S. voting technology shifts

This November 3 ABC News article by Kurt Keiner provides a good overview of how voting technology changed between the 2004 and 2008 presidential election, and some examples of touchscreen voting problems found in early voting this season. Excerpts are below.

As the US heads into a historic and contentious presidential election, concerns over electronic voting technology could be about to stir up controversy over the legitimacy of some results.

Ironically, electronic voting machines were meant to make elections more reliable and secure. After the 2000 presidential election, when spoiled ballots and "hanging chads" sent the disputed result all the way to the Supreme Court, Congress began dispensing billions of dollars to help states replace punch-card ballots with more-sophisticated voting technology. Since then, however, concerns over the trustworthiness of electronic voting system have steadily grown.

Already in several key states, early voting has seen touch-screen voting machines "flip" votes from one candidate to another. Some voters casting early ballots in Virginia, Tennessee, and Texas say that machines have flipped their votes. All were able eventually to correct the mistake, but this has added a sense of urgency to long-held unease over the security and reliability of electronic voting systems.

Earlier this month, a report from Election Data Services (EDS), a Washington, DC-based firm that tracks election administration, said that electronic voting machine usage will drop this year for the first time ever. In Tuesday's election, 32.6 percent of all ballots will be cast using an electronic voting machine, compared to 37.6 percent in 2006, the equivalent of 10 million fewer voters. "Basically, the activists and the political scientists have kind-of won that battle," says EDS president Kimball Brace. "Most election administrators don't find it worthwhile trying to fight the battle and are trying to move on."

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Watching the election online

I've spent most of this election day watching for election stories and problems on various web sites. Fortunately, so far things seem to be going pretty smoothly in California. The biggest problem being reported has been long lines earlier this morning, due largely to the fact that a record turnout approaching 14 million voters is expected for this election.

According to the vote-by-mail chart compiled by the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials (available on this page), 7.2 million VBM ballots were issued to California voters, and as of yesterday, at least 4.5 million had been returned to county election offices. In 2004, 8.5 million voters cast ballots at the polls in the Presidential election; this time, it may be more like nine or ten million polling place voters (including many vote-by-mail voters who return their ballots to the polls). Given the high level of turnout, voters may find themselves waiting in long lines this evening to vote.

But long lines because of huge enthusiasm for an election is not the worst kind of problem to have. The worst kind of problem is long lines because voting equipment is malfunctioning or because too many voters are assigned to a polling place, or because the supply of ballots has run out. Fortunately, California has drastically reduced the use of electronic voting machines, state law requires no more than 1,000 registered voters per precinct, and California counties appear to have done a good job estimating the number of ballots needed on hand (and are required to have a contingency plan in place if supplies run short). But in other states, voting equipment malfunctions are causing delays for many voters, along with insufficient polling place staffing or too many voters assigned to one polling place, or a failure to have a contingency plan if equipment fails.

One of the sites I've been visiting today to track problems is CNN's Voter Hotline map, which shows the calls coming in to CNN and the kinds of problems voters are having across the country. Over 94,000 voters have called CNN's Hotline, 800-GOCNN-08. According to the data posted on the CNN site as of 4:30 p.m. Pacific this afternoon, registration problems account for 29 percent of the calls received, followed by mechanical problems which have been reported by 14 percent of callers. 13 percent report problems accessing the polling place, primarily due to long lines.

Another great online resource for tracking election problems around the country is the Our Vote Live Blog and Map. This information is provided by the Election Protection Coalition, which has 10,000 volunteers answering calls made to the 1-866-OUR-VOTE hotline. So far over 40,000 calls have been received on Election Day. According to recent blog postings, voters in some areas of Virginia are waiting as long as seven hours to vote, and voters in some areas of Florida are reportedly waiting five hours.

Once the polls close in California, I will start watching the returns on the Secretary of State's web site, which I expect will be posted here . CVF will also provide links on our home page to all of the county returns. While the presidential election is not expected to be close in California, there are several hotly contested statewide ballot propositions, as well as legislative and congressional contests that will be decided.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Verifying the Vote in 2008 Presidential Election Battleground States

Pam Smith of Verified Voting and I put together this document, Verifying the Vote in 2008 Presidential Election Battleground States to help voters and the media track the vote counting process in thirteen battleground states. The summary includes Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.

A lot has changed since the 2004 Presidential election. Many states that initially embraced paperless, electronic voting systems have replaced those systems with paper ballots, or have added printers to electronic voting machines that produce a voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) of electronic ballots.

Paper ballots and VVPATS are important tools for verifying the vote, and many states have enacted automatic, post-election manual audit laws that require paper ballots or VVPATS be used to verify the accuracy of computer vote counts. This is accomplished by hand-counting a sample of paper ballots or VVPATs and comparing the hand-counted tallies to computer vote counts.

Manual audits of election results are important because, while most states allow candidates to request a recount, actually doing so can be expensive and politically unpopular. Automatic manual audits of election results means those results will be verified regardless of the election outcome or whether a recount is sought.

Friday, October 31, 2008

How many vote-by-mail ballots will get cast and counted?

Given the high rate of vote-by-mail ballots being requested and returned in California (See the California Association of Clerks and Elections Officials' vote-by-mail tracking sheet for county by county details) many are wondering how many of the seven million ballots requested will be returned? And how many will go uncounted because of voter error or because they didn't arrive in time?

The Sacramento Bee sought to answer these questions in an excellent article published yesterday by Robert Lewis. The article took a close look at Sacramento's vote-by-mail ballots, and including this graphic showing how, in the February 2008 presidential primary in Sacramento County, approximately 171,000 vote-by-mail ballots were requested, and nearly 2,000 of them were disqualified, primarily because they were either received after the close of polls on Election Day (920) or the voter had failed to sign the ballot return envelope, preventing the ballot from being validated (613).

Voters who want to check if their vote-by-mail ballots have been received can go online this year and find out on county election web sites, thanks to a 2006 law authored by Secretary of State Debra Bowen that took effect this year.

Here are excerpts from the Bee story:

The Sacramento County election office, which mailed out almost 300,000 absentee ballots, has been getting between 8,750 and 17,500 of them returned a day. Monday the office got about 16,000; Wednesday there were 12,500.


"We're processing more than I've ever seen processed here," said Jill LaVine, the county's registrar of voters.

The operation is not without hiccups. Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, said that as more voters choose to cast a ballot by mail as opposed to going to the polls, it is safe to assume the number of disqualified ballots will also increase.

"I think we need to find out if this is a significant number of (disqualified) ballots or not," Alexander said.

In the 2004 presidential election, Sacramento County disqualified about 3 percent of mail ballots – although that number is slightly high since it included ballots that had a wrong address. A 2005 secretary of state ruling changed that. In the February 2008 election, Sacramento County disqualified about 1 percent of mail ballots, which is about the same percent El Dorado County disqualified in the June primary.

There are no statewide statistics. The only person who appears to be tracking the issue is Steve Weir, the Contra Costa County clerk and past president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials.

In November 1996, his county disqualified almost 4 percent of its absentee ballots. After a concerted effort to educate voters on voting absentee, that number is down to between 1 percent and 2 percent an election, he said.

"They can be statistically significant," Weir said.

Thanks to a state law that took effect this year, voters can find out if their county received the returned absentee ballot. The governor, however, just vetoed a bill that would have required counties to let voters know if their ballot had been counted.

"Voters don't know if their ballot is disqualified or not," Alexander said.

Weir estimated that about 6 million voters will cast ballots by mail this year. If 1 percent of those ballots are disqualified – a conservative estimate – about 60,000 ballots will not count statewide.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The California Voters' Experience

Just in time for the election, the California Voter Foundation has published a new paper I authored, "The California Voters' Experience, What Works for Them, What Does Not Work, and Where to Go From Here."

I've spent the past three months working on this paper, at the request of California Forward, which is working to make structural and governance changes to improve California.

"The California Voters' Experience" is 40 pages long and takes a close look at the four stages of the voting process from the perspective of the California voter: registration; preparation; voting; and results. It also includes analyses about key barriers to improving voter participation in California, such as the digital divide, and concludes that greater uniformity and consistency in voting practices and procedures would help improve the voting experience for Californians.

Our Vote Live web site for 866-Our Vote Hotline

This week the Our Vote Live web site debuted. This is a fantastic site featuring data from reports being filed by the staff who are working the phones at the nationwide 1-866-OUR-VOTE hotline, sponsored by numerous voting rights organizations.

The Our Vote Live site provides up-to-the-moment information on problems and questions being asked by voters to the staff and volunteers working the hotline. It also features blog posts from folks who are providing some analysis of those reports. The idea is to make it possible for the public to get a sense, in real time, of how things are going on Election Day and in the days leading up to it and be able to identify any places experiencing significant problems.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Assorted presidential election web picks & stories

It's Friday, and that means some folks are killing time sitting in front of their computers waiting for the weekend to arrive. I know this is the case, because such folks send me links to web sites promising to entertain me. I could use a little entertainment, since election time is my busy time and my days are filled with calls and questions from reporters. Below is smattering of links to some of those stories plus the fun stuff that's been arriving in my mailbox this election season (in no particular order...)

Paper is America's High-Tech Solution, a Reuters story by Mary Milliken featuring this comment from me: "The rules should be the same everywhere and people should know what to expect. Instead, we have this rabbits' warren of systems and procedures out there that is infinitely complex."

Interview with Cyrus Musiker, on KQED FM yesterday (the third piece in the clip) about potential problems in California this election.

A piece about my News 10 Live Online segment, which I'll be doing again on Nov. 3.

From the good people at Wired, Threat Level, featuring a map of voting problems and great reporting on the election from expert journalists such as Kim Zetter and Sarah Lai Stirland.

From the good people at Google, 2008 US Voter Info, a map-based service that allows you to look up your polling place and election information along with lots of other neat features.

The McCain/Obama Dance-Off video. Who knew those guys could break dance?!

The "Palin as President" interactive web page - a truly clever use of Internet technology.

The leaked Homer Simpson video, showing him trying to vote on an electronic voting machine. This is not the whole video, it's a link to a French video featuring the original clip, which circulated a few weeks ago and appears to have been taken down. The episode the clip is from is said to be airing on Sunday, Nov. 2.

From the folks at Mother Jones, Beyond Diebold, 10 Ways to Steal This Election.

From Greg Palast and Bobby Kennedy Jr., Steal Back Your Vote, a comic-book style voter guide to election security.

All in all, there are lots of incredibly creative, useful and innovative voter outreach and education activities this election season. Happy surfing!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Ballots with incorrect postage to be delivered

Today's San Francisco Chronicle features this excellent story by John Wildermuth reporting on the variations in postage rates for vote-by-mail ballots in bay area counties. In some counties, such as Sacramento and Santa Clara, the ballot is so long that a 42 cent stamp won't cover the postage; 59 cents is required. In other counties, such as San Francisco, the postage is covered by the election office. The variation in postage rates and rules among California counties is incredibly confusing for voters and voter educators, such as myself. According to the Chronicle story, all ballots will be delivered even if there is insufficient postage.

Bay Area voters who send their ballots by mail can relax. Correct postage or not, their votes will get counted.

There's even more concern in Contra Costa, Napa and Santa Clara counties, three of the state's counties where ballots are so long or bulky that a single 42-cent stamp isn't enough postage.

"It costs 59 cents to mail our ballots back this year," said Matt Morales, a spokesman for the Santa Clara County elections office. But he said virtually all the ballots received so far have proper postage, adding that "a single-stamp ballot is more the exception than the rule."

But while local elections officials don't advertise it, Santa Clara, Napa, Contra Costa and most other counties in the state have arrangements with the Postal Service to deliver ballots and other election-related mail - even if it is short on stamps.

"We have an agreement with the post office that they'll deliver the election mail, but we keep urging people to use the proper postage," Morales said. "We don't want to subsidize the entire ballot."

Santa Clara County typically spends about $2,000 a year to cover ballots with insufficient postage, he added.

That arrangement means the Postal Service moves not-quite-paid-for ballots directly to the county, rather than returning them to the voter for more stamps, which could mean that some of the ballots wouldn't be returned in time to be counted.

"The way it's supposed to work, there shouldn't be any delay with the ballots, even if they don't have sufficient postage," said John Tuteur, Napa County's registrar of voters.

It's national policy to get ballots to their mailing address, regardless of postage, said Gus Ruiz, a spokesman for the Postal Service's Sacramento district.

Postage costs most often go up when a lengthy ballot requires an additional ballot card, boosting the weight. In Napa, however, the weight meets the one-stamp limit but the oversized envelope used for the election materials raises the cost, Tuteur said.

Nearly half the voters on Nov. 4 are expected to cast ballots by mail, and the percentage is going up in almost every election. If voters don't attach the proper postage, vote-by-mail can become an increasingly expensive proposition for counties.

Some counties, including San Francisco, have decided to pay the return postage for all ballots.

"It's a good thing we pay," said John Arntz, the city's election chief, joking that "as long as some of our ballots are, people could be paying 50 bucks in postage."

LA Times reports on voter registration fraud; man arrested in case

Over the weekend, the Los Angeles Times ran this article by Times reporters Evan Halper and Michael Rothfeld about an organization hired by the California Republican Party to register voters. The Times investigated a number of the registrations and found several voters who said they were duped into re-registering as Republican or changing their voting status to vote-by-mail.

Voters contacted by The Times said they were tricked into switching parties while signing what they believed were petitions for tougher penalties against child molesters. Some said they were told that they had to become Republicans to sign the petition, contrary to California initiative law. Others had no idea their registration was being changed.


It is a bait-and-switch scheme familiar to election experts. The firm hired by the California Republican Party -- a small company called Young Political Majors, or YPM, which operates in several states -- has been accused of using the tactic across the country.

Election officials and lawmakers have launched investigations into the activities of YPM workers in Florida and Massachusetts. In Arizona, the firm was recently a defendant in a civil rights lawsuit. Prosecutors in Los Angeles and Ventura counties say they are investigating complaints about the company.

The firm, which a Republican Party spokesman said is paid $7 to $12 for each registration it secures, has denied any wrongdoing and says it has never been charged with a crime.


The Times randomly interviewed 46 of the hundreds of voters whose election records show they were recently re-registered as Republicans by YPM, and 37 of them -- more than 80% -- said that they were misled into making the change or that it was done without their knowledge.

Lydia Laws, a Palm Springs retiree, said she was angry to find recently that her registration had been switched from Democrat to Republican.

Laws said the YPM staffer who instructed her to identify herself on a petition as a Republican assured her that it was a formality, and that her registration would not be changed. Later, a card showed up in the mail saying she had joined the GOP.

The founder of the company, Mark Jacoby, was arrested over the weekend on voter registration fraud charges, but not for the fraud allegations described by the LA Times. According to this press release from the Secretary of State, the charges brought against him are due to the fact that he registered himself to vote in California at an address that authorities say is not current. The Los Angeles Times published this follow-up article about Jacoby's arrest, which included comments from the California Republican Party stating that the charges were "politically motivated."

Monday, October 20, 2008

Today on KXTV Channel 10's "Live Online" - a walk through the props

I'll be Sharon Ito's guest today from 11:00 - 11:30 a.m. on KXTV Channel 10 in Sacramento's "Live Online" program, discussing the 12 state propositions on California's ballot. You don't have to be in Sacramento to watch it, though, since it is broadcast online - you can watch it here.

Voter Registration Deadline Today: LA County allows online lookups

Today is the deadline to register to vote for the November 4 election. At the California Voter Foundation, we've been receiving a ton of calls and emails from voters asking about their status. Currently, the only to way to verify your status is through your county election office. Some, but not all counties allow online voter registration status lookups, and we have noted those providing this service on our County Election Offices roster.

I'm pleased to report that Los Angeles County recently added this service to its web site. Now Los Angeles County voters can look up their registration status online, which will save voters from having to make phone calls that tie up the county's phone lines (last week CVF staff waited on hold for thirty minutes to get through to the county). While the county election staff is always extremely helpful, it is frustrating to voters to have to wait so long, or not be able to get through at all. Hopefully this service will help relieve some of the pressure on the county election office staff. Kudos to Los Angeles Registrar of Voters Dean Logan and his staff for making this invaluable service available to voters. In the future, all voters in California may have the convenience of verifying the registration status online if California is successful in creating an online voter registration system.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen seeks emergency regulations for post-election verification measures

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen has issued proposed emergency regulations that reflect her post-election verification requirements originally imposed on counties through the voting equipment certification process. That approach was challenged by the San Diego County Registrar of Voters, who filed a lawsuit claiming the orders were actually regulations that had not gone through the regulatory process. San Diego lost in the initial court round, but won on appeal.

The additional requirements direct counties to count more ballots in extremely close contests (within one half of one percent), to count additional ballots when variances are found during the initial post-election manual count process, and to account for overvotes and undervotes. They also address the public's right to observe and record retention. As is explained in the above-linked memo to county registrars of voters (posted online courtesy of Joseph Lorenzo Hall - thanks, Joe!), the Secretary of State is seeking emergency regulations from the California Office of Administrative Law because her initial orders were recently struck down by an appeals court and there is not sufficient time to go through the normal regulatory process to get regulations in place in time for the post-November 2004 election period.

Election reform groups issue report assessing state election preparedness

The Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause and Verified Voting issued a report last week, Is America Ready to Vote?, examining state preparations for voting machine problems in 2008. According to the news release, the report "evaluates each state by four criteria: procedures for issuing emergency paper ballots, reconciling ballot tallies, providing paper records of votes cast, and post-election audits. The report reveals a broad range of preparedness across the country to address Election Day voting system meltdowns." Specifically:

• Of the twenty-four states that use voting machines, eight states, including Colorado and Virginia, have no guidance or requirement to stock emergency paper ballots at the polls. In contrast, twelve states, including Ohio and North Carolina, recommend emergency paper ballots to be given to voters if machine failures are causing long lines.

• While all states do some form of ballot accounting and reconciliation, the 50-state report card finds that the requirements in ten states (Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, New Jersey, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia) fall far short of best practices – meaning there are insufficient provisions to make sure that every vote is counted, and only once.

• 28 states get "inadequate" on post-election audits because they lack paper records from which to conduct audits (like Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia) or because they do not mandate manual audits even where paper is available (like Michigan, Montana and others).

The report includes lots of color-coded maps that make it easy to see which states did well or poorly on the assessment. I'm pleased to say that California rates extremely well. Just four years ago when 40 percent of California voters were casting ballots on paperless, electronic voting machines, that would not have been the case. Kudos to Common Cause, Verified Voting and the Brennan Center for issuing this report.

Forum show on Election Protection on KQED last week

I'm a bit behind on my blogging and have a few items to add, one of which is the archive of Forum, a one-hour radio talk show hosted by Michael Krasny on KQED FM in San Francisco. I was one of the guests last Tuesday who spoke about election security issues heading in to the November election. An archive of the show, which included calls and emails from listeners, is available online.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

CVF launches new California Online Voter Guide!

Today the California Voter Foundation debuted our new California Online Voter Guide to help voters get ready for the November 4 election. See today's news release for more details. The guide will be frequently updated throughout the election season.

Online voter registration bill signed into law

Yesterday California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Senate Bill 381, authored by State Senator Ron Calderon (D-Los Angeles), which will allow the Secretary of State to implement an online voter registration system.

Last December, I testified at a State Senate informational hearing on online voter registration, and raised numerous concerns about the security of such a system and how voter privacy would be protected. SB 381 was amended to address these concerns, and was supported by a wide range of groups, including the Secretary of State, who issued a news release yesterday praising the Governor's signature .

It is newsworthy that the Governor signed this bill. His own Department of Finance had recommended a veto due to the bill's up-front start-up costs, and the day prior the Governor vetoed several election reform bills, including AB 2953, which would have required pollworkers to inform independent voters in writing of their right to cast partisan ballots in primary elections. Following the record- setting budget impasse, the Governor said he would only sign bills that are of "the highest priority for California", and the election reform bills, according to his veto message, did "not meet that standard".

But apparently online voter registration does meet the governor's "highest priority" standard. While it will certainly be
technologically challenging to set up the system, the California Voter Foundation board and staff have been studying the feasibility of online voter registration and we think it can be done in a safe and secure manner.

The system called for in SB 381 is similar to the one Arizona has established. It will utilize the Department of Motor Vehicles'
database to verify the eligibility of potential voters and will use a digitized image of the DMV signature for the registration record. The system, which will only become operational after the state's new VoteCal database is functioning, will include functions that allow voters statewide to check their registration status online, a convenience currently offered to voters in only a handful of counties.

Some may think online voter registration will lead to online voting, but that is not CVF's opinion. Voter registration records, unlike ballots, are public records and therefore the risks associated with transacting them online are not the same as transacting ballots online. A voter registration record transacted online can be verified by election officials and voters in a way that an online ballot, the contents of which must remain secret, cannot.

CVF looks forward to working with the Secretary of State, the Department of Motor Vehicles, county election officials, and other
public interest groups to develop a state-of-the-art online voter registration process for California. And we congratulate Senator Calderon, Secretary of State Debra Bowen, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for their bipartisan leadership in moving forward an important election reform for California voters.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Online voter registration bill pending before Gov. Schwarzenegger

Senate Bill 381, authored by State Senator Ron Calderon, which would allow the Secretary of State to implement online voter registration, is pending before Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He has until September 30 to sign or veto the bill. The governor vetoed many election-related bills over the weekend, as was noted in this news release from Secretary of State Debra Bowen, but SB 381 was not among them.

According to this Senate floor analysis, the bill is supported by a wide range of groups and also received some support from a few Republican lawmakers; however, Department of Finance opposed the bill and it is unclear whether the governor will sign it or not. While it has some initial, up-front costs, the proponents and supporters have noted that there a substantial long-term savings for counties if online voter registration were implemented in California, as such a system would reduce administrative time and data-entry costs.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Presidential debate season begins this Friday

This Friday, Sept. 26, presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama will meet for the first of three presidential debates. Vice-presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sarah Palin will debate next Thursday, Oct. 2. This presidential debates page from George Washington University provides details about the dates and locations of all of the debates this election season. Friday's debate begins at 8 p.m. eastern.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

40 states pass campaign disclosure assessment; 10 fail; 26 earn higher grades

Campaign disclosure in the states is improving, according to a study the California Voter Foundation and its Campaign Disclosure Project partners released today. Grading State Disclosure 2008 shows Washington State has the best disclosure program in the nation, followed by California and Michigan. Below are excerpts from news articles published today in a number of states covering the report.

• The Detroit News: Michigan campaign finance disclosure among the nation's best, by Deb Price. Excerpts:

Michigan is one of the nation's top three states in terms of disclosing campaign finance information about statewide and legislative office seekers, a good government group reported Wednesday.

* * *

Michigan received an "A plus" for both its electronic filing program and its ease of use.

The report praises Michigan, noting, "The Secretary of State's online, searchable databases offer excellent options for searching, sorting, and downloading campaign finance data and are accompanied by an excellent description of the data available."

• The Oregonian: Oregon ranks 4th in campaign finance disclosure, by Dave Hogan, September 17, 2008. Excerpt:

Oregon ranks fourth in campaign finance disclosure, thanks to the state's searchable online database that debuted at the start of 2007, says a nationwide study released Wednesday.

The Campaign Disclosure Project gave Oregon a B+ grade in its fifth national report, after getting a B+ and the designation of "most improved" in last year's report. Washington has ranked first in each of the five studies. California placed second in the latest report and Michigan placed third.

Tuesday's report noted that public access to state-level campaign finance data has improved dramatically due to the increase in electronic filing of campaign disclosure reports. A total of 24 states now require statewide and legislative candidates to file electronically, up from 12 in 2003. In all, 42 states permit candidates to file electronically.

• Associated Press: Alabama gets an F on campaign finance disclosure. Excerpt:

Alabama has received another "F" in an annual study of states' campaign finance disclosure laws.

The new Grading State Disclosure report says Alabama's grade has been unchanged since the annual reports began in 2003. Alabama ranks 49th among the states.

The report notes that the secretary of state's office has made improvements in the state Web site that shows candidates' campaign finance report, but there is still no online searchable database of contributions.

• Lexington Herald-Leader: KY boosts campaign finance grade, but slips in ranks, by Ryan Alessi. Excerpt:

The national Campaign Disclosure Project boosted Kentucky's grade for the state's campaign finance transparency up to a B- from last year's C+ even as it continued its slide in the national rankings.

Overall, Kentucky scored the 21st best campaign finance disclosure system in the United States, according to the project that is a collaboration by the California Voter Foundation, the Center for Governmental Studies, and the UCLA School of Law and is supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

That is down from 20th last year, 13th in 2005 and 10th in 2004 as other states have improved their election laws that govern donations.

But the B- is Kentucky's best grade yet from the project. The improvement stemmed mostly from the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance's redesigned Web site that made it even easier for citizens to navigate and search, the project's summary for Kentucky said.

• Deseret News: Utah's campaign disclosure laws lacking, by Lee Davidson. Excerpts:

A grade of D-minus usually is not cause for celebration. But when Utah received that Wednesday in an annual report card on state campaign finance disclosure systems, it was the highest grade the state has ever achieved.

"A D-minus is poor, obviously. But I think we're at least moving in the right direction," said Joe Demma, chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert, whose office collects and distributes data from disclosure forms. He says a new, more user-friendly system for searching that data online should be ready early next year.

The grade is for more than just the performance by Herbert's office. It is also evaluates how much information Utah disclosure laws require. And all of that was blasted in the annual report card by the Campaign Disclosure Project, which is run by a coalition of good-government groups.

"Utah earned its first overall passing grade and ranked 40th (out of 50 states) in 2008," the report said. It was ahead of 10 states that received Fs, but 24 states managed to receive As or Bs — showing Utah that it can be done.

The report gave a sub-grade of D-minus to Utah's disclosure laws. That was up slightly from an F last year because of a law passed in 2007 that requires office holders to file disclosure reports annually instead of only in election years. They now must also itemize contributions of $50 or more.

* * *

Demma said his office also looks at reports such as the one issued Wednesday to see what other states are doing, and learn from their best practices.

"Our goal is to make everything as easy for public to find as possible. We are always striving for improvement," he said.

• The News & Observer: N.C. gets B- on campaign disclosure, by Ryan Teague Beckwith. Excerpt:

North Carolina received a B-minus on campaign finance disclosure.

In a regular report card by the Campaign Disclosure Project, the state Board of Elections received higher marks on campaign finance laws and accessibility of its Web site. Last year, the state received a C-plus, and in 2003 it received a D-plus.

The state was graded well for requiring detailed information about contributors of more than $50, including occupation and employer data, as well as vendors used by candidates.

However, it received lower marks for its electronic filing program, which is required of statewide candidates who raise $5,000 or more but not legislative candidates.
A redesign of the Board of Elections Web site was praised.

"The site offers a fair amount of contextual information, such as detailed candidate lists and a thorough campaign finance manual explaining the state’s disclosure requirements and contribution limits," the group wrote.

North Carolina was ranked 23 of U.S. states.

Wired article explores problems with state voter registration databases

Wired features this story today by Kim Zetter exploring how technical problems with statewide voter registration databases could lead to problems and potential disenfranchisement for thousands of voters in the upcoming November 4 presidential election.

This year marks the first time that new, statewide, centralized voter-registration databases will be used in a federal election in a number of states.

The databases were mandated in the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which required all election districts in a state or U.S. territory to consolidate their lists into a single database electronically accessible to every election office in the state or territory.

But the databases, some created by the same companies that make electronic voting machines, aren't federally tested or certified and some have been plagued by missed deadlines, rushed production schedules, cost overruns, security problems, and design and reliability issues.

Last year, in Larimer County, Colorado, election workers got an error message when they tried to access the state's database to process absentee ballots, and had to log off for 20 minutes. In a mock election four months ago, clerks in other counties had trouble accessing the database from polling locations. Those who could connect said the system was sluggish.

Election officials in several counties said they didn't trust the system, and planned to load the database to county computers and use printed poll books on Election Day rather than access the central database in real time.

"The voter-registration databases are an underlying part of the voting technology revolution that has taken place in this country that has been the least noticed," says Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Governor says he will veto budget bill

In yesterday's post I said that the governor and lawmakers reached a budget deal - apparently I was only half right. While the legislative leaders struck a deal, the governor is not on board. The Los Angeles Times' Jordan Rau and Evan Halper reported this afternoon that the governor is planning to veto the proposal that lawmakers passed around 2 a.m. this morning.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced this afternoon that he will veto the state budget passed by the Legislature early this morning, setting the stage for an unprecedented confrontation in California's Capitol.

"When they send me the budget, I will veto it," Schwarzenegger said at a Capitol news conference. "If my veto is overriden," he said, " ... hundreds of bills will be vetoed."

Schwarzenegger had warned lawmakers in a letter last night that he would veto their spending plan -- 78 days late today -- if it did not include three provisions to ensure the state a reliable rainy day fund for times of fiscal trouble. This year, California has developed a $15.2-billion budget gap.

The Legislature agreed to two of his three requests.

A budget veto would be a first for California, but legislative leaders in both parties said early this morning that it is likely the Legislature would override it.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Legislature approval rating at record low; budget deal in the works

The news today in Sacramento is that the legislative leaders and the governor have worked out a budget deal, 2 and a half months past the deadline. This has been the longest-delayed budget in the state's history, and according to a recent Field Poll, California's lawmakers are also earning record low marks in public opinion polls.

As reported in this article by Dan Smith in the Sept. 12 Sacramento Bee:

"This is the lowest job (approval) rating recorded for anybody from any institution," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the 62-year-old Field Poll. "No one has ever gotten this low. Even Richard Nixon."

The record budget standoff – now 74 days into the fiscal year – clearly has contributed to the Legislature's slide in the eyes of the public, DiCamillo said. Eighty-two percent say the budget impasse is a "very serious" problem, up from 68 percent in July.

DiCamillo told KQED's California Report last Friday that various proposals have been made in the past, to make the legislature part time, or do a constitutional convention in which "major changes could be made in terms of how the legislature functions". He went on to say that while those kinds of proposals seem off the wall, and perhaps not in the mainstream, "in an environment where voters are almost uniformly negative I think those kinds of things might get a greater hearing.”

According to the Bee article, "Jim Wunderman, president of the San Francisco-based Bay Area Council, a business group, recently called for a constitutional convention to overhaul the state's budgeting and tax systems, among other things." It was surprising to hear DiCamillo also comment on structural governmental reform for California. Perhaps this year's budget stalemate will help move such ideas forward.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Capitol Weekly blog from Denver

My friend Anthony York, who is editor of Capitol Weekly, is in Denver this week blogging about the Democratic Convention. He is an astute political observer, has a clever way with words, and his convention blogging is off to an entertaining start. I will be checking in with his blog throughout the week to see what's happening in Denver from the perspective of a California journalist with a nose for news and whatever else he finds entertaining.

Here's an excerpt from today's blog, "Why We Blog":


It becomes abundantly clear why there are 8 zillion bloggers swarming like little gnats around downtown Denver this week. If ever there was an event made for blogging, it is a major party political convention.

Because, in case you were wondering, there is no news here.

But there is plenty to see, to observe -- plenty of sketches to draw, snapshots to capture. There is no shortage of color. It’s news that’s in short supply.

Blogs are notorious for elevating the mundane. That’s the only way to survive a week like this one in Denver.

Friday, August 8, 2008

EAC voter registration database workshop webcast and report

This week the U.S. Election Assistance Commission held a workshop during its public meeting on statewide voter registration databases, featuring presentations by Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and National Academy of Sciences chief scientist Herb Lin. Mr. Lin provided a summary of a report the National Academies is producing on voter registration databases, and Secretary of State Richie discussed how his state's voter registration database is working effectively to enable accurate voter registration.

California is in the process of developing a new statewide voter registration database, called VoteCal. Since California's database is among the last to be developed in the U.S., our state will benefit from learning from other state's successes and failures. A webcast of the EAC workshop is available online. The National Academies' interim report for the EAC on statewide voter registration databases is also available.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

California Election Preview from CVF now online

CVF's web site now features an Election Preview for the November 4, 2008 Presidential election. CVF staff are working on a new California Online Voter Guide, which will debut in the Fall; in the meantime, the Election Preview features a list of the propositions on the ballot and links to key election information sites and resources.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Online voter registration bill moves forward

A bill to allow the Secretary of State to implement online voter registration, SB 381, is receiving bipartisan support in the Legislature according to an article by John Wildermuth in Wednesday's San Francisco Chronicle, featured below.


Californians may soon be able to use their computers to register to vote and they can thank the state Department of Motor Vehicles for the chance.

The bill to allow online registration, SB381, co-authored by state Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, has rolled through the state Senate with few complaints and awaits final approval by the Assembly before going to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Arizona and Washington already have such systems, and online registrations there are surging. While would-be California voters now can fill out the voter registration form online from the secretary of state's Web site, they must print the form, sign it and mail it to their county election office.

Calderon's bill would computerize the entire process by allowing the secretary of state to replace the personal signature with the digitized signatures already online for people who have received California driver's licenses and identification cards.

Signatures that appear on the licenses and cards are as secure as those on voter registration cards, Calderon said, because Californians have to appear in person at the DMV, present a birth certificate or other identification, sign the application and have their photo and thumbprint taken.

"While there were some early security concerns, we eased them by requiring the driver's license number, date of birth and the last four digits of the Social Security number to be entered on the online registrations," the senator added.

The bill passed unanimously in the Assembly's election committee, with the support of two Republican members, while the Assembly appropriations committee approved it on an 11-4 vote along party lines.

"My main concern is that voting security is not tight enough as it is and allowing online registration won't help," said Assemblyman Doug La Malfa, R-Biggs (Butte County), who voted against the bill in committee. "We should set a high bar for people looking to vote and there are already a lot of fake IDs out there."

Calderon, chair of the Senate elections committee, came up with the bill after talking to Secretary of State Debra Bowen last year about ways to increase voter registration, which has held steady at about 70 percent of the state's eligible voters.

"This will help people registering close to the deadline or who are traveling or in the military," he said.

Bowen is supporting the bill, which she believes will especially appeal to young people who are accustomed to conducting much of their business online.

"Secretary Bowen believes this is the next logical step for voter registration," said Kate Folmar, a spokeswoman for the secretary. "You can file tax returns online, you can register your car online, so you should be able to register to vote online."

The programs in Arizona and Washington have had few, if any, problems. Arizona's EZ Vote system has been in use since 2002 and more than 70 percent of voter registrations are now done on the Internet.

Washington's Legislature approved online registration last year and the system went live in January. Already, 40 percent of new registrations are done online, said Katie Blinn, assistant director of elections in the Washington secretary of state's office.

"It's really been very popular here," she said. "Both voters and local election administrators like it because it's so much faster."

Despite complaints from some GOP legislators, the lack of organized opposition to California's online registration plan is surprising given concerns about the security of voting machines, ballot results and everything else connected with elections. Several states, including Arizona, already require identification from everyone showing up at the polls to cast a ballot.

But online voter registration is different from online voting and presents a much lower level of security concerns, said Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation.

"It's a different challenge, since voter registration cards aren't secret and ballots are," she said. "There are a lot of things about voting that don't work online, but voter registration is one thing that might."

Even if Calderon's bill sails through the Legislature and is signed by the governor, it's going to be awhile before it takes effect. The bill first requires that a new statewide voter registration database be operating, which isn't expected to happen until next year.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Robocalls violate state law according to CA PUC

Yesterday's San Jose Mercury News featured this story by Frank Davies reporting that the California Public Utilities Commission recently issued a ruling that political robocalls, which use computers to dial phones and play automated messages, violate the state's utility code. The California Voter Foundation routinely receives numerous complaints from voters about these automated calls. Up until this week I, and I expect many others in the political field, assumed these calls, while annoying, are protected under the First Amendment. Based on the news being reported, it looks like campaigns will have to alter their tactics in how they deliver such calls to voters. An excerpt from the Mercury News story is below.


California's rules against robocalls are little-known and widely ignored. Susan Carothers of the PUC said Tuesday that commission staffers recently reviewed the code, which says such calls are legal only when introduced by a real person who asks for your consent to hear a recorded message. That rarely happens.

But enforcement is not easy. Consumers must first complain to their phone company, and if nothing is done, file a complaint with the PUC. Only two such complaints were filed with the PUC in the past two years, Carothers said.

That may change. An advocacy group, the National Political Do Not Contact Registry, is seeking complaints from California voters to present to phone carriers and the PUC.

"It's time that California voters are able to protect their privacy. Otherwise, campaigns will turn to robocalls, particularly in California, which has a very large and expensive media market," said Shaun Dakin, founder of the group.

In the February presidential primary, candidates for both parties used the get-out-the-vote calls. Actress Scarlett Johansson and comedian Chris Rock urged voters to back Obama, and Bill Clinton urged support for his wife.

Political consultants and operatives defend the calls as a low-cost alternative for candidates who don't have money for major TV and radio ad campaigns, but they concede that repeated calls at all hours can be counterproductive.


Voters who wish to file complaints can access a PUC fact sheet or seek to be added to a registry of people who do not want automated calls at, which also features a California-specific complaint form. Voters can also contact their county election office and ask to have their phone numbers removed from their voter registration record.

The newly-redesigned California voter registration form is also likely to help cut down on unwanted political calls for new registrants, since the new form makes it clear to those filling it out that providing a phone number is optional.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

New California voter registration form debuts

Secretary of State Debra Bowen announced yesterday that a newly redesigned California voter registration form is now available. I was one of several people who served on a working group to redesign the form. Together we came up with a number of improvements: the number of words on the card has been reduced from more than 1200 to about 730; the word "optional" has been added to the specific fields on the form that are optional (such as phone number and email address) rather than buried in instructions at the bottom of the page; there is no longer an instruction section - rather, instructions are included with the specific fields to be completed; and the political party selection section has been modified to make it clearer to voters how to register as a nonpartisan voter.

Scanned images of the new form and the old form are available on the Secretary of State's web site. Congratulations to Secretary of State Debra Bowen for taking the initiative on this process. I'm confident the new card will be easier and less intimidating to complete.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Talking about the 2010 race for Governor on NPR's Day to Day

Madeleine Brand of National Public Radio's Day to Day program interviewed me today about San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's potential bid for governor in 2010. Today's newspapers were filled with stories of the Newsom news, and many of the articles give a preview of how the contest is shaping up. In particular, check out the stories from the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sacramento Bee and the Associated Press for a preview of what's to come in the next election cycle.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

PBS' P.O.V. documentary on Election Day in the USA

Just in time for the Independence Day holiday, the folks at PBS' Point of View (P.O.V.) series are airing a new documentary featuring footage from a number of cities around the U.S. taken on Election Day in November 2004. Judging from the trailer (available online from the PBS web site), the film does a good job of showing the drama and stress that voters and pollworkers alike experience on election day. "Election Day" debuts on PBS tonight - check local listings for times and channels.

November ballot proposition numbers assigned

Last week Secretary of State Debra Bowen issued this news release assigning numbers to the eleven statewide propositions that have qualified for the November 4th ballot. Here's a quick rundown:

Prop. 1 - $10 billion high-speed rail bond act
Prop. 2 - treatment of farm animals
Prop. 3 - $1 billion children's hospitals bond act
Prop. 4 - minors' abortion rights/parental notification
Prop. 5 - decreases sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders
Prop. 6 - increases penalties for gang and drug crimes
Prop. 7 - requires 20% of utilities' power to come from renewable resources by 2010
Prop. 8 - bans gay marriage
Prop. 9 - requires informing and involving victims in parole decisions
Prop 10 - $5 billion bond to subsidize alternative vehicle purchases & research
Prop 11 - transfers the power to draw legislative districts from the legislature to an
independent commission

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

SB 381 sails out of Assembly Elections committee

Senator Ron Calderon's bill to allow the Secretary of State to implement online voter registration, SB 381, sailed out of the Assembly elections committee today. The one lone Republican lawmaker present at the time the bill was taken up, Sen. Roger Niello, surprised the room when he said he would be voting yes for the bill.

Sen. Niello asked the author and his staff a good question during the hearing: how do you know when someone registers online that they're registering for themselves and not for someone else? Calderon staffer Darren Chesin pointed out the safeguards in the bill, that it requires a voter to provide their date of birth, California drivers license number, and last four digits of your social security number in order to process the request. He noted that Arizona's system, which has been running since 2002, is fraud-free.

Barry Brokaw spoke for the local election officials and said while the group has no official position yet, they like the bill, especially because it will reduce data entry for their staff. The bill is being amended at the request of the Secretary of State, who also supports it, to change the implementation date from 2010 to after the new VoteCal statewide voter registration database is operating.

Senator Niello said he decided to vote for the bill because he thinks it's important to make it easy for people to register to vote, but stop short of doing it for them, and online registration would still require a person to be proactive and take action in order to get registered. Other lawmakers on the committee -- Assemblymember Tony Mendoza and chair Curren Price -- asked to be added as co-authors.

Regarding this bill....a reader asked me why it had been enrolled? The legislative history on SB 381 is somewhat confusing. The bill was enrolled, all the way to the governor's desk, doing something else, then Sen. Calderon "retrieved" it, which required a procedural vote. The bill was amended to enable online voter registration after it was pulled back and now it is moving again in the legislative process. The next likely stop would be the Assembly fiscal committee.

It was noted at the hearing today that this was Chairman Price's last committee hearing, and I believe he will be missed. I have sat through a number of his hearings and admire and appreciate the way he treats everyone with respect.

Assembly elections committee hearing today; online voter registration bill up

Today the Assembly Elections Committee, chaired by Curren Price, will hold a hearing at 1:30 p.m. today in room 444 of the State Capitol. Several interesting and important pieces of legislation are on the agenda. I'm particularly interested in Senate Bill 381 by Ron Calderon, which would allow Californians to register to vote online.

Other bills on the agenda include ACA 15/Mullin which would lower California's voting age to 17, and SB 967/Simitian, which would allow local jurisdictions to accept electronically-filed statements of economic interest. Audio access to the hearing is available online.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Associated Press published this story over the weekend by Deborah Hastings reporting on the controversial history of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, created in the wake of the Florida 2000 vote counting fiasco. Excerpts are below.


It was not an auspicious beginning. The year was 2004 and the newest federal agency had no desks, no computers, and no office to put them in. It had neither an address nor a phone number. Early meetings convened in a Starbucks near a Metro stop in downtown Washington.

Somehow, Congress had neglected to fund the Election Assistance Commission, a small group with a massive task: coordinating one of the most sweeping voter reform packages in decades.

"It sounds incredible, but it's true," said Paul DeGregorio, a Republican from Missouri and former commission chairman. "All we wanted to do was hit the ground running."

But from the beginning, the commission stumbled. Now, long after Congress passed the Help America Vote Act — designed to prevent a repeat of the Florida recount fiasco of 2000 — the four-member, bipartisan commission still struggles under its heavy workload and accusations of playing politics, foot-dragging and whitewashing reports that could appear detrimental to Republican interests.

Under the act, commissioners are required to serve as a clearinghouse for voluntary guidelines and reports on ballot issues. They also audit federal funds awarded to state and local voting officials, and assist states during general elections.

In the run up to November's presidential election, the commission continues to grapple with hot-button topics such as how to test and certify voting machines. Voting advocates say the lack of such standards contributes to malfunctioning touch-screen equipment and long waits, as evidenced in Ohio in 2004, when presidential results were delayed for days.

The agency remains stalemated on other important issues, including whether states can require people to provide proof of citizenship before they can register to vote — an especially touchy subject exacerbated by a Supreme Court decision this spring upholding Indiana law demanding voters present a government-issued photo ID before casting a ballot.

Both past and present commissioners complain they were granted little power to force states to implement reforms, and that they often are battered by the brutal nature of partisan politics in the nation's capital.

"It was the worst experience of my life. It was obvious going in that we weren't going to accomplish much," says former chairman DeForest Soaries, a Baptist minister who served as New Jersey's secretary of state under GOP Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. Soaries, also a Republican, quit the commission 15 months after taking the job in January 2004.

"No one took the agency seriously," Soaries said. "All of the passion and all of the commitment to ensure that 2000 would never be repeated — that was all Washington theatrics. I was running around Congress begging people to take seriously a law they passed. Every time I raised a question about a problem, the Democrats accused me of partisan maneuvering and the Republicans accused me of wanting more power."

Whatever their feelings about lacking power, commissioners faced several mandates under the voting act as soon as they started working together.

One of the most urgent issues was deciding which states would get part a $3 billion pie to overhaul antiquated and problematic voting machines — the first federal money ever awarded for that purpose.

Not helping matters was the fact that nearly a year had passed from enactment of the reform legislation in 2002 to selection of the commission that would oversee it. That meant the clock had already started clicking on some deadlines before the commission members were even confirmed by the Senate.

Eventually, Congress gave the commission a fiscal 2004 operating budget of about $700,000, including salaries, an insufficient sum that limited members from the beginning, commissioners said.

Though funding and staff have increased this year to $115 million and more than 20 positions, election activists say neither is sufficient to keep up with all the work the commission must produce.

"They started out with their legs cut out from under them," said Tova Wang, a research vice president for Common Cause. "It's taken them a long time to catch up with the learning curve. And they're still learning."

Allegations of foot-dragging and whitewashing most notably concerned reports commissioned by the agency on two contentious issues: election tampering and requiring photo ID at the polls.

Commissioners created trouble for themselves by holding on to drafts for months, and by extensively rewriting one without the permission of the authors, according to testimony from election advocates before members of the House Appropriations Committee.

The evaluation of election fraud, by the Century Foundation think tank and an Arkansas attorney, found little evidence of voter impersonation or of felons trying to illegally cast ballots. The commission rewrote the report's findings to say "there is a great deal of debate over the pervasiveness of fraud."


Commissioners acknowledge there have been mistakes on the bumpy road to voting reform, but say they were honest blunders.

"Have we done everything perfect? No, we haven't," said Donetta Davidson, a Republican who previously served as Colorado's secretary of state. She was sworn in two years ago to replace Soaries.

After the fraud report dustup, the commission posted more than 40,000 internal documents on its Web site. Criticized by Congress members as well as the agency's inspector general for lacking procedural rules and operating behind closed doors with little transparency, commission staff now post Web casts of agency meetings and copies of research reports.

"It takes time to get things right," Davidson said.


Soaries, who has no regrets about quitting, nonetheless sympathizes with current members and the obstacles they still face.

"I feel so sorry for them," he said. "They are victims of the way the agency started. They're still playing catch-up. It's a shame. What they're supposed to be doing is critical to the functioning of democracy."

Monday, June 9, 2008

Ninth measure qualified for November ballot

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen announced Friday that another measure has qualified for the November ballot, bringing the total so far to nine. It's shaping up to being a pretty long ballot (and may warrant yet another Proposition Song from yours truly).

According to the Secretary of State, the ninth measure involves victims’ rights in the criminal justice system, and the first eight propositions to "qualify for the November ballot were a high-speed rail bond; a measure relating to the treatment of farm animals; a children’s hospital bond; a parental notification for abortion measure; a measure involving the sentencing of nonviolent offenders; a measure regarding increased criminal penalties and public safety funding; a renewable energy measure; and a measure that would amend the state Constitution to define marriage as “between a man and a woman.”".

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

June 3 will set a record low for turnout in California

Yesterday California held a statewide primary, and it was a real sleeper of an election. While there were a number of contested legislative and congressional primaries going on around the state, and also a number of hotly contested local races, overall this election lacked excitement and garnered little media coverage.

And the turnout numbers show it. Currently the Secretary of State's web site shows a turnout of about 3.5 million voters. While that number will creep up as late vote-by-mail ballots are verified and counted, it probably won't go past 4 million. That's a huge decline compared to the February presidential primary, when presidential candidates were on the ballot and nine million California voters cast ballots.

The June 3 primary will likely set a record low turnout for California. The last time California bifurcated its primary was in 1940 (thanks to KQED's John Myers for pointing this out) and in that year, the second primary, held in August saw a turnout of 45 percent of eligible voters. Yesterday's turnout is likely to be 16 or 17 percent of the state's eligible voters, and in the low twenties for registered voters.

The absence of presidential candidates, the presence of merely two statewide propositions, and the increasingly nonpartisan nature of California's voting public can all be considered causes of this poor turnout. The percentage of the state's registered voters who are registered as nonpartisan, "Decline to State" has doubled since 1992 and is now almost 20 percent of registered voters. When it comes to selecting party candidates for the general election ballot, these voters literally do not have a dog in the fight. Sure they can cross over, but they've chosen to be nonpartisan for a reason - presumably because they are not engaged in partisan politics.

And then of course there is that problem of voter fatigue, the theory that we are asking voters to come out and vote too often. This may have been a factor, but I think that the absence of any hotly contested "top of the ticket" race or any "water cooler" initiatives that get people talking were most likely the cause for yesterday's poor showing.

Given the way the November ballot is shaping up, with the Presidential contest on the ballot (and reports that John McCain is planning to wage a competitive campaign for California's votes) along with eight initiatives already qualified (including another attempt to ban gay marriage) it's a safe bet that turnout will soar again come November.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Flying mud, dirty tricks around the state this election

Next Tuesday, June 3 is California's statewide primary and in some parts of the state there are heated contests underway for legislative, congressional and local offices. Today's San Francisco Chronicle features this article by John Wildermuth and Christopher Heredia spotlighting some of the dirtier political tricks being tried out around the state. Excerpts are below.


Mailboxes across the Bay Area and throughout the state are being stuffed full of nasty mailers taking final sharp jabs at candidates up for office in Tuesday's primary election.

But most of the multicolored attack pieces aren't from candidates taking on their opponents by name. They are bought and paid for by special interests that use independent expenditure committees to do the dirty work for the candidates they support.


As the election draws closer, the attacks grow nastier and complaints from candidates get louder.

Richard Holober, running in the Peninsula's 19th Assembly District, called a telephone news conference Thursday to slam JobsPAC, a political action committee financed by such corporate giants as Chevron, Philip Morris and Safeway, for sending out mailers painting him as a special-interest lobbyist.

"Look behind the veil and see who is funding these attacks," said Holober, a onetime lobbyist for labor groups. "These are the groups that don't want to see me in office."

Also on Thursday, the California Teachers Association and other education groups charged that a new independent expenditure television ad unfairly reports that Assemblyman Mark Leno, a candidate for a state Senate seat representing Marin County and parts of San Francisco and Sonoma County, joined with Republicans in 2004 to cut school spending.

"It's a cheap shot and teachers were shocked," said Larry Allen, a CTA board member. "We supported that cut as the best deal we could get and endorsed Leno. But the ad leads people in a certain way."

The ad gets across a point that the independent group, Protect Our Children, wanted to make, although it didn't mention that the independent expenditure group gets all its money from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and the San Francisco Police Officers Association, which supports former San Rafael Assemblyman Joe Nation, one of Leno's opponents.

Nation also has been under attack from independent expenditure committees representing state employee unions, teachers unions and nurses, which have spent more than $450,000 on mailers attacking him as a tool for corporate interests.

While Nation has sent out his own mailer attacking Leno and incumbent state Sen. Carole Migden for what he said was their unwillingness to take a strong stand against plans for a Rohnert Park casino, it went out under his own name.


In the East Bay, Berkeley Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, who is running in the Democratic primary for the Ninth state Senate District, has been attacked by a group calling itself Education Leaders for High Standards for her voting record on education.

But the mailers don't mention that all the group's money comes from Indian tribes upset with Hancock's opposition to expansion of an Indian casino in San Pablo.


Despite such concerns, independent expenditure committees aren't going away. While the state has set tight limits on direct contributions to candidates and their campaigns, courts have consistently blocked any limits on money given to the independent committees, calling it a freedom of speech issue.

"IE's are a fact of political life," Nation said. "We just can hope they're factual."