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.