Friday, December 10, 2010

Ten Tips for State Election Website Design

Throughout this year I've been working with the Pew Center on the States and the Center for Governmental Studies on a project assessing the quality, quantity and timeliness of information available to voters on all 50 states and DC's election web sites.  The purpose of this project is to promote election web sites that help voters get registered, find out what's on the ballot, and participate effectively in elections.  It's been an incredible learning experience and I'm looking forward to seeing the results being published in 2011.  In the meantime, Pew's Electionline plans to release a preview of some of our findings later this month.

This week I'm in Austin for a Pew conference with state election web site staff and gave a presentation on our project, featuring ten tips for state web site design.  Here's the list:

1.  Be direct.  Don't fudge your information -- if something is required by law, such as re-registering to vote when you move, say "you must" or "it is required", not "you may wish to....".

2.  Use common terms.  "Early voting", for example, is generally understood to mean casting a ballot in person before Election Day. If states could use common terms and language to describe voting practices it would make the voting process less confusing for voters.

3.  Avoid inadvertently “hiding” information from voters.  In our research we found that many states have created special sections on their web sites for certain audiences, such as election administrators or candidates, but often these sections feature information that would be helpful for voters, too.

4.  Be sure to link information and tools from all relevant pages.  On many sites, voters in special circumstances, such as military/overseas voters, will be directed to a special page that is advertised as a "one-stop shop" for their voting needs.  Too often such pages fail to link to other content on the site, such as voter registration status lookup tools, that would be useful to those voters.

5.  Know your audience.  Review web site usage statistics and search terms and ask someone outside your agency to try using your site (and watch them as they do so).

6.  If maintaining more than one site, be sure to build links between them in both directions.  Some state election offices build secondary sites designed especially for voters but often these sites do not link back to the official election web site where additional, helpful information can be found.

7.  Avoid publishing multiple pages on the same topic.  Too often states add new content without considering similar or related content that already exists on their sites.  This can cause confusion for voters.

8.  Be sure to fully advertise your site tools and features.  Many states have recently added new lookup tools that allow voters to check their absentee ballot or voter registration status.  Such additions will often be announced on the election web site homepage but not linked to from other relevant pages or listed on the tool interface among its functionalities.

9.  If featuring information in PDF format, offer it in HTML as well.  Many states publish forms online in PDF format, such as voter registration forms, and those forms will include lots of information that would be helpful to voters about eligibility and registration.  It's best if this information can be featured in HTML as well so voters can more easily find it.  PDF files are often difficult to search or access for many people.

10. Archive your election content.  Some states remove ballot information once the election is over, but this historical information can be extremely useful to the public.  One way to structure a site so it can be easily archived is to use a redirect address so the ballot information is located in a permanent place online and the redirect page sends web site visitors to the most current ballot information. For example, the state can set up a redirect page at and tell that page to send visitors to

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Capitol Weekly article on slate mailers

On Election Day last week Capitol Weekly published an excellent, comprehensive story by Malcolm MacLachlan about the increased use of slate mailers in California elections, the deliberate confusion and misleading of voters these kinds of publications cause, and the difficulty in tracking the responsible parties.  Excerpts are below.


 “Proposition 19 allows school bus drivers to smoke pot right before work,” according to a mailer from the Small Business Action Committee. Prop. 19, of course, says no such thing, and specifically allows employers to discipline and fire employees who are impaired on the job.

A “Voting Guide for Republicans,” meanwhile, specifically makes the unlikely recommendation that members of the GOP vote for Democrat Bill Lockyer for Treasurer, instead of his Republican challenger, Sen. Mimi Walters, R-Tustin. It also urges “Republican voters” to oppose Prop. 23, even though the California Republican Party and a large majority of Republican voters support the initiative, which would indefinitely suspend the state’s AB 32 global warming law. It also states that Republicans should oppose Prop. 20 and support Prop. 27, the exact opposite of the party’s position on these redistricting measures.

Then there’s the “Californians Vote Green” slate card. It doesn’t claim to have anything to do with the California Green Party. But it’s printed in green, with images of trees. This “green” slate doesn’t endorse any Green Party candidates. Instead, it calls for votes for the entire statewide Democratic slate, except Attorney General, where it endorses Republican Steve Cooley. The card says nothing about the Proposition 19 marijuana-legalization initiative, which has the support of 95 percent of Green Party county chapters in the state. The Green Party allows county organizations to vote on initiative endorsements.

“It’s interesting they need to pretend to be us to get votes, maybe I should take it as flattery,” said Derek Iverson, a spokesman for the state Green Party. He added that his party doesn’t “have the money” to send out large numbers of mailers.

When it comes to propositions, the slate differs from the actual Green Party recommendations on all but two ballot measures. It calls for a no vote on Prop. 20 and yes votes on Prop. 22 and Prop. 27, when the state Green Party takes no position on any of those three. The slate urges a no vote on Prop. 25 and yes on Prop. 26, the exact opposite of the Green Party positions.

The Prop. 26 claim on the slate is particularly egregious, saying “26 makes polluters pay.” Much of the opposition to Prop. 26, which would re-label many fees and taxes and require two-thirds votes to pass them, is that it contains specific provisions that many say would let polluters off the hook when it comes to cleaning up their own messes.

Misleading campaign mailers have been a part of California politics for many years, of course. But Iverson said they seem to be worse this year. This may have something to do with the Citizens United case back in January, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled corporations and unions could spend unlimited amounts on campaigns if they stuck to so-called “issue ads.”

While the case had the least effect on California, which already has that system, Iverson contends the resulting blizzard of money nationwide appeared to make people more brazen.

All three mailers contain a disclaimer, usually in small print, that the mailer was not produced by “an official political party organization.”

Tracking down the companies behind these mailers can be difficult. is registered to Enom, Inc., a Bellvue, Washington-based domain wholesaler which allows the actual buyers of domains to remain anonymous. The “Voting Guide for Republicans” doesn’t even list a website one can visit.

In fact, even though it contains at least one over-the-top lie, the Small Business Action Committee (SBAC) mailer is a model of honesty compared to the others. It at least links back to actual recognizable human beings — in this case, Joel Fox, the publisher of the Fox & Hounds website and the president of the SBAC. It also basically follows the CRP when it comes to propositions, though the mailer takes no position on Prop. 21, which the party opposes, and supports Prop. 22, on which the party takes no position.


Further confusing matters is the recent “Voter information guide for Democrats,” put out by the Voter Information Guide company based in Sherman Oaks. The guides contains the same “not an official party organization” disclaimer, but agrees with the California Democratic Party on everything. 

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

AP report on glitches around the state

The Associated Press' Gillian Flaccus wrote this article about scattered problems and glitches around the state - most notably that many polling locations ran short on provisional ballot envelopes due to a higher rate of provisional voters than apparently was expected. Excerpts about problems in Santa Clara, Fresno, San Diego, and other California counties are featured below.

Midterm elections in California went off smoothly overall on Tuesday, with voters in Fresno County battling long lines due to a cut in the number of precincts and elections officials reporting spotty shortages of ballots and ballot envelopes in some precincts.

In Northern California's Santa Clara County, ink smudges were erased from 100,000 mail-in ballots because they appeared to confuse vote-tallying optical scanners, and in Los Angeles a watchdog group reported that two dozen residents received Spanish language robocalls and mailers instructing them to vote a day after Election Day.

U.S. Justice Department officials were investigating the robocall complaints from the watchdog group Election Protection, the group's Los Angeles hot line director Kathay Feng said. Assistant U.S. Attorney Dennis Mitchell, who is overseeing voting-related claims for Southern California, confirmed he had received "one or more" complaints, but was unable to comment on them.

Overall, Election Protection received 20,000 requests for assistance nationwide, with more than 3,400 of them coming from California voters, said Feng.

"I think that there were problems both at the institutional level as well as with human error and also a few sporadic instances of intentional voter intimidation," she said.

The Secretary of State's election results page crashed because of heavy Internet traffic, but by 8:45 p.m. PDT election officials were posting periodic summaries of results, said Nicole Winger, spokeswoman. The full site, with maps and other interactive features, remained down, she said.

In Fresno County, officials reduced the number of voting locations by nearly half due to budget cuts and saw long lines outside the remaining polling places. An activist group called Communities for a New California called upon the county to set up mobile polling stations and released photos showing long wait times at some precincts.

Victor Salazar, the county's registrar, said his office had Saturday voting at 20 locations the weekend before the election and sent postcards to registered voters alerting them of the changes.

Elsewhere, election officials reported temporary ballot or ballot envelope shortages at a handful of locations.

In San Diego, between 10 to 20 polling locations at San Diego State University and the University of California, San Diego, temporarily ran out of envelopes for provisional ballots because of the number of students showing up to vote, said Deborah Seiler, the county's registrar. The stations did not run out of regular ballots, she said.

Poll workers had voters write their information on slips of paper that were stapled to the ballots until the county could deliver several hundred more envelopes, Seiler said.

In Santa Barbara County, one polling station either on or near the University of California, Santa Barbara, campus ran low on envelopes for provisional ballots, said Billie Alvarez, the chief deputy registrar.

"It's been a pretty steady turnout," she said.

In El Dorado County, several polling places also ran low on ballots but election staff replenished the supply, said Norma Gray, the assistant registrar.

Reports of scattered problems in California on Election Day

Overall things appear to have gone pretty smoothly in California on Election Day yesterday, but there was a report, apparently not yet substantiated, of a dirty trick played on Latino voters in Los Angeles. Excerpts from Jim Sanders' story in the Sacramento Bee are featured below.

California election watchdogs were attempting today to track down reports of a dirty trick aimed at keeping Los Angeles Latino voters from the polls - but no hard evidence of wrongdoing had surfaced by early evening.
Shannan Velayas, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Debra Bowen, said the office could not confirm that Spanish-language robocalls or a mailer had been sent to Los Angeles Latinos urging them to cast votes Wednesday - the day after today's election.
"The secretary of state takes these allegations very seriously," Velayas said. "We are asking anyone who may have a recording to share it with the secretary of state's office because our investigators have not heard an actual recording."
Efrain Escobedo, spokesman for the Los Angeles registrar of voters said much the same thing: The office had received unconfirmed reports of such shenanigans but nobody had stepped forward with proof.
Los Angeles' voter officials routinely contacted the secretary of state and the attorney general's office about the reports. Meanwhile, it is stressing to voters that polls will be open until 8 p.m. today.
Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, said she is participating in a nonprofit coalition, Election Protection, that received from the California Democratic Party the addresses of about two dozen people who allegedly had received a robocall or mailer providing an erroneous election date.
Feng said the affected voters live in south or central Los Angeles, within heavily Latino neighborhoods encompassing about six zip codes.
"We don't know if it's real or not," Feng said, noting that many hours had passed since the initial reports and no hard evidence had surfaced.
Tenoch Flores, California Democratic Party spokesman, described the reports as "rumor and second hand."
"We're looking into (the reports), but more importantly, we're reminding people that today is, in fact, Election Day," Flores said.
The attorney general's office released no information today about the alleged wrongdoing.
Feng said there have been other incidents of political dirty tricks targeting minority communities in years past.
In 2006, thousands of naturalized citizens with Latino surnames living in Orange County received a letter falsely stating that they could be arrested if they tried to vote in balloting for the seat of Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Anaheim.

Secretary of State election results site inaccessible on election night

Last night I, like many other people, hopped on the Secretary of State's election results web site after the polls closed at 8 p.m. to find out what the early vote-by-mail election results would be.  These are the votes normally reported by counties to the Secretary of State as soon as the polls close, and give folks who are watching election results a preview of what's to come over the next hours and days as votes are counted.

But I could not get into the site.  I kept getting a message saying the site was unavailable.  I tried repeatedly over the next few hours with no luck. So I changed CVF's election returns web page to also feature results from the Sacramento Bee, which was providing updated numbers online throughout the night. I tried accessing the site up until 11 p.m. at which point I gave up and called it a night.

Today the Secretary of State's elections results server is operating once again and the Los Angeles Times' Patrick McGreevy reported that the reason it had failed was because traffic to the website was "exponentially higher than what was even projected".  This is surprising to me.  I have been accessing election returns online through the California Secretary of State's web site since 1994, when California became the first state in the nation or world to provide such a service to the public.  Over the many years of presidential elections, special elections, and incredibly high turnout elections such as we saw in November 2008, I have never found the site to be totally inaccessible.  Slow at times, yes.  But never "not available".

For more see excerpts from McGreevy's article below.

The state agency, which has notoriously had problems with its computers, put up an alternative posting of all election results while it tried to work out the problems, according to spokeswoman Nicole Winger.
The state was using a "cloud computing" system in which at least 50 servers outside the Secretary of State’s office were being used to manage the heavy traffic.
"The traffic to the website has been exponentially higher than what was even projected" by the state’s IT experts, she said. "The traffic basically blew up the cloud." She said web traffic at the Secretary of State’s site was higher than experienced during the last presidential election.
Former Rep. Gov. Pete Wilson cited the "crash" of the Secretary of State’s computer site as one reason results were slow in coming in the governor’s race.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Millions of Calif. Vote-by-Mail ballots unreturned

The Associated Press' Robin Hindery reported yesterday that millions of vote-by-mail ballots have not yet been returned.  Many of those voters will be casting ballots at polling places today instead.  Some will bring their vote-by-mail ballots with them, and some won't.  Those who don't will have to cast provisional ballots instead which require extra paperwork and handling so election officials can be sure nobody is voting twice.  All of this means it may be a long wait to learn the final results of contests where the results are close.  See more details in the excerpts featured below.

The state's 58 counties had reported receiving just under 3 million absentee ballots as of early afternoon Monday — less than 40 percent of the 7.6 million ballots requested statewide for the general election, according to the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials.

In some counties, vote-by-mail is expected to exceed in-person voting.

That means a huge number of last-minute returns will not be processed Tuesday, and the most competitive races may remain too close to call.

"The ballots are coming in later than average and there's more of them than average, which means more uncounted ballots on election night," said Contra Costa County Clerk Steve Weir, who estimated that one-quarter of his county's absentee ballots would not be included in Tuesday's tally.  Recent polls show a number of extremely close contests in California, including the races for lieutenant governor and attorney general. In addition, about half a dozen congressional seats and several state legislative seats are thought to be in play.

Gail Pellerin, Santa Cruz County clerk and head of the statewide clerks association, said Monday that the return rate so far was about what she expected.

"When you issue 7.6 million (ballots), you're not going to get 7.6 million back," she said. "Ideally, there would be more at this point, but you take what you can get."

Experts say turnout this year will likely hover around 60 percent — similar to past midterm elections but significantly lower than 2008, when more than 79 percent of registered voters participated.

Counties started sending out vote-by-mail ballots the first week of October. Since then, almost all of the calls received by the nonprofit California Voter Foundation have been procedural questions about how to fill them out, said the group's president, Kim Alexander.

"Even though vote-by-mail continues to be popular, I expect more than half of the ballots will still be cast at the polls," she said.

Some voters may not have returned their ballots early because they lost them or filled them out incorrectly, Alexander said.

Pellerin had another possible explanation.

"I guess we're just creatures of procrastination," she said.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Voter registration in California: 17.3 million are registered, 6.3 million are not

The Secretary of State released a new Report on Registration, reflecting all the registrations that were processed before the November election deadline.  Currently 73 percent of Californians who are eligible to vote are registered, while 27 percent are not, accounting for almost 6.3 million Californians. While some of those who are not registered to vote are people who deliberately sit out at election time, many are people who have been registered to vote before but are not registered at their current address.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ten Great Online Resources for California Voters

There are some fantastic resources on the Internet this election season to help voters.  Here's a round-up of some of our favorites, including those provided by the California Voter Foundation.  

1. California Online Voter Guide

This nonpartisan guide covers all nine California propositions including the top five donors for and against each measure and provides contact information and web links for all state and federal California candidates. A Voter FAQ, political district maps, and voting system information are also featured.

2.  The Proposition Song

This three-minute long music video produced by the California Voter Foundation provides a lyrical overview of the nine propositions on the ballot. Sing along because the ballot is too darn long!

3.  California Choices

One of the most popular election applications of the year, this web site offers a section on the propositions featuring positions from dozens of organizations and a tool that allows you to share your own positions with your friends.


This site is produced by the League of Women Voters of California in cooperation with many California county election offices.  SmartVoter provides a tool that allows voters to call up their own ballot and access information on just those candidates and measures.

5.  Easy Voter Guide

Produced by the League of Women Voters and the California State Library, this is an easy-to-read 16-page pamphlet providing nonpartisan information on all statewide candidates and propositions.  The online version is expanded to include videos promoting voting participation.

6.'s California voter guides features voter guides posted by many different organizations all in one place and allows users to create their own voter guide to share. It's an innovative use of technology to allow the public to effectively disseminate their own opinions.


This site was developed by Adam Kravitz, the same person who developed the "J-Date" dating web site for Jewish singles.  You can put in any address in California and it will turn up a ballot showing all the candidates and choices that will appear on a ballot for that address. Candidates can pay a small fee to have their listing expanded to include a photo and candidate information.  It's an attractive interface and to my knowledge also the first comprehensive online tool providing a personalized voter guide to all California voters.

8. Google Voter Info

Google's Voter Info service allows voters anywhere in the country to look up their polling place location and provides links to government agencies where voters can confirm that location.

9. Roster of County Election Offices

Though not the most exciting resource, it is the one voters with questions are more frequently referred to by CVF, since it is county election offices that administer elections.  CVF's roster provides contact information and web site links to all 58 county election offices, many of which provide online tools that allow voters to check their polling place location, registration status, call up a sample ballot and find out the status of their absentee ballots.

10.  California Voter Information Guide

This is the go-to resource for California voters produced by the Secretary of State and featuring the text, nonpartisan analysis and arguments for and against state ballot propositions, plus statements from many state candidates.  When it's the night before the election and you can't find your printed guide, you can use the online version instead.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Voter registration conflict between Secretary of State and San Diego Registrar of Voters

A reporter with the San Diego weekly newspaper CityBeat has turned up an troubling conflict between Secretary of State Debra Bowen and San Diego County Registrar of Voters Deborah Seiler.

The article by David Maass, published on October 18, called "Voter Beware" reports on the journalist's and others' receipt of a letter from the San Diego registrar stating that their voter registration applications were not fully processed due to the information about their birth place missing from the form.

The reason this information was missing is because Maass and other San Diego voters used the online system set up by the California Secretary of State, which utilizes the National Voter Registration Card.  As I understand it, it is the position of the Secretary of State's office that the California voter registration card cannot be used because to complete it online and print it out on plain paper does not meet the specific printing requirements mandated under California law.  Seiler apparently disagrees, and has made an online version of the California form available on San Diego County's election web site.

However, the federal form does not include birth place, which is required to be provided on the California form.  This is where the difference of opinion between the Secretary of State and San Diego County comes into play.  An excerpt from Maass' story is below.

Thousands of San Diego County residents who downloaded voter forms from the California Secretary of State’s website are receiving letters bearing mixed messages about the status of their registrations. 

In the letters, the San Diego County Registrar of Voters’ office tells voters that their registrations have not been fully processed due to “missing birth place” on their paperwork.

“This form is being sent to you because your original affidavit of registration was not properly completed,” the letter says. “Before we can complete the process of your Affidavit of Registration, we must have additional information from you.” 

The letter is incorrect. 

There are two types of voter-registration forms that are valid in California. The state’s official form includes a blank for a birth place. But the Secretary of State’s website provides the National Mail Voter Registration Form, which does not require the information. San Diego County Registrar Deborah Seiler prefers the state form. As a result, her office automatically interprets a correctly filled-out federal registration form as incomplete. 

By sending out the letters, Seiler is ignoring a November 2009 advisory the Secretary of State sent to county elections officials that unequivocally states: “Elections Officials Do Not Need to Determine Registrant’s Country or State of Birth” if the voter is using the National Mail Voter Registration Form. 

Seiler says that her letter does not actually prevent the affected voters from casting a ballot on Nov. 2. Instead, she describes it as a “soft pend” against their voter registration. In other words, they will be allowed to vote, but the county would still like to collect more information from them.

This is not spelled out the letter. Rather, it says: “IF THE MISSING INFORMATION IS ON LINE 5, THIS FORM MUST BE RETURNED TO OUR OFFICE BEFORE YOU WILL BE ALLOWED TO VOTE.” The letter then lists “birth date” and “place of birth” as lines 5 and 6, but does not clearly state which is which. (
Line 5 is the date of birth, while Line 6 is place of birth.)

After reviewing a copy of the document, a lawyer with Project Vote in Washington, D.C. says the letter would discourage many voters from visiting the polls. 

“There are people who get something like this and say, ‘I guess I screwed up, so I won’t bother to vote,’” Estelle Rogers, Project Vote’s director of advocacy, tells CityBeat. “That’s the problem, especially since the language is so unclear and doesn’t say ‘Go vote!’”

Taking a second look at the language, Seiler acknowledges the letter should be rewritten. 

“We need to separate lines 5 and 6 at a minimum, and reword it to be clearer,” Seiler tells CityBeat

Seiler estimates that between 400 and 2,000 voters per month submitted these national forms throughout the current election cycle, and, consequently, all of them received the automatic “missing birth place” letters. 

While the office must accept the national form, Seiler says she prefers voters use the state’s version. San Diego is one of the few counties to provide the state form online. This move also ignores the Secretary of State’s November 2009 directive.

In the memorandum, state Chief of Elections Cathy Mitchell told county officials that the state registration form could not be distributed online because California Election Code requires forms to be printed on perforated paper of a certain dimension and thickness, use multiple ink colors and include pre-paid postage. The national form is not subject to the same requirements—and that’s why the office uses it on its website. 

Seiler argues that using the federal forms just creates more paperwork. “Here we have a form that’s put out there that doesn’t have all the critical information,” Seiler says. “Then we have to collect the critical information because it’s always missing from the form.” 

This practice is not consistent with the Secretary of State’s interpretation that the law “does not require a person using the National Form to provide any additional information beyond what is contained on the National Form in order to register.” In contrast to San Diego, the Orange County Registrar of Voters does not send out a letter and instead enters “U.S.” on the voter’s behalf in its database. 

No matter the form, Rogers believes the birth-place requirement is illegal. “I would argue that it is a straight-up violation of federal law,” Rogers says. “States are allowed to have their own voter registration forms, but it is supposed to approximate the federal form and require no more information than is necessary to evaluate if you are eligible to vote.”

Since both the state and federal forms ask voters to swear they are citizens, Rogers says a voter’s birth place is “completely immaterial.” Rogers also says that changing the language of Seiler’s letter isn’t enough to satisfy her organization, considering the thousands that have already been mailed. 

“As a minimum, there needs to be a directive from the Secretary of State about how to fix this,” she says. “Also, there should be public-service announcements in the media between now and election day that say, ‘If you got this letter, you are still registered to vote and you should show up at the polls.” 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

17 web resources to help you decide on Election Day

Here's a great roundup by Paul Blumenthal of the Sunlight Foundation and featured on of 17 innovative web sites to help voters make choices in federal contests.  I particularly like, which lets people create their own personalized voter guides and send them out to their friends, and where you can find out the truth behind claims made on political ads.

Monday, October 25, 2010

"Proposition Song" on Capital Public Radio's "Insight" show today

I'm heading over to Capital Public Radio's studio at Sacramento State University this morning, along with Jana Coyle, one of my fellow players on the "Proposition Song".  We'll be on the "Insight" show with Jeffrey Callison to talk about the song, which they will play a recording of during the show.  Tune in on 90.9 FM in Sacramento or online to hear the segment.  The show airs from 10-11 and we're the last segment, around 10:45.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

"Am I registered to vote?" Find out from your county. Oct. 18 is the voter registration deadline!

California is home to more than 23 million potential voters, but 6.5 million of them are not registered to vote.  Some might think this is a sign of apathy, but the truth is that many of those millions of people have been registered to vote before.  A 2004 survey conducted by the California Voter Foundation of eligible, nonregistered Californians found that nearly half - 44 percent - had been registered to vote before but were not registered at their current address.

Californians move around a lot, and that mobility presents a significant barrier to voter registration and participation.  You have to reregister every time you move.   In a few years, California, like a growing number of other states, will offer voters the ability to register and re-register online which will be an enormous convenience to California's mobile citizens.  States are also increasingly offering voters convenient, online lookup tools to verify their registration status; a 2008 study by the Pew Center on the States found that more than half the states are currently offering voters this service.  

Sadly, California is not among them.  However, though we lack a statewide online registration status lookup tool, a number of counties do provide this public service.  The California Voter Foundation's County Election Office roster identifies the 22 counties offering this tool, including many of the most populous counties in the state such as Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego.  Typically all that is required to check your status is to simply enter your street number, birthdate and zip code in an online web form.  The return screen indicates whether the county's registration database includes a voter registered at that address or not.

Unfortunately, it seems many voters don't realize that counties administer elections in the first place.  The most frequent question voters ask CVF is "Am I registered to vote?"  We inform them they need to check with their county election office and direct them to our online roster.  But I wonder what percentage of Californians even know the name of the county in which they live?  

If all California voters had access to a statewide voter registration status lookup tool, the task of determining your status would be much simpler and more straightforward.  In the meantime, Californians living in those 22 counties offering a lookup tool can go online to verify their registration status; the 5.5 million voting-eligible Californians living in the counties that do not offer this tool must call during business hours to check their registration status.  Don't wait - the deadline is October 18.  Voter registration forms are available at most post offices.

California counties offering an online voter registration status lookup tool:  Alameda, Butte, Colusa, Contra Costa, Los Angeles, Marin, Monterey, Napa, Nevada, Orange, Riverside, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Shasta, Solano, Sonoma, Ventura and Yolo.

Tracking California independent expenditures

I've been trying to track down what kind of independent expenditures are being made in California statewide and proposition contests.  I dug around a bit and found a few sources for this information -- one is the Late Independent Expenditure search tool available in the "Advanced Search" section of the Secretary of State's Cal-Access campaign disclosure web site.  Another source is the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) tracking page.  I'm still looking for good sources of this information, particularly for tracking outside money in federal contests.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

New "Proposition Song" debuts on YouTube!

I'm very pleased to announce the debut of our new "Proposition Song", a nonpartisan, educational sing-along song and music video about the nine propositions on California's ballot.

CVF issued this news release today announcing the song's debut.  This page includes an mp3 file of the song, lyrics, photos from recording sessions and more.

Enjoy, and be sure to sing along, "cuz the ballot is too darn long!"

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Four states to weigh calls for constitutional conventions

The latest edition of Stateline, a newsletter published by the Pew Center on the States, includes this story about four states considering ballot questions to undertake a process of rewriting their state's constitution.  Although there was an effort to place a similar measure on the ballot in California, it was not successful in qualifying for the ballot this year.  The Stateline story, by Melissa Maynard, does an excellent job of considering the pros and cons of undertaking such a process. Excerpts are below.

The measures in Iowa, Maryland, Michigan and Montana would be on the ballot this year with or without the Tea Party movement, however. Those four states are among the 14 that ask voters at set intervals of between 10 and 20 years whether they’d like to write a new constitution.

During a busy election season, the constitutional convention ballot questions have received surprisingly little attention. Many voters are likely to hear of the issue for the first time when they step into the voting booth, even though a “yes” vote could have far-reaching consequences and allow a full-scale overhaul of everything from term limits to the fiscal relationships between state and local units of government.

In the past, voters confronted with the question of whether to call a constitutional convention have tended to say no. The most recent convention to be triggered through this mechanism was Rhode Island’s in 1986. But at a time of economic angst, high unemployment and distrust of government at all levels, anything could happen. In Michigan, supporters of calling for a constitutional convention include the outgoing governor, Democrat Jennifer Granholm.

Opponents of calling a convention in Michigan have said it wouldn’t be worth the estimated $45 million cost of bringing delegates together for weeks or perhaps months to hammer out a new document. There’s also a fear that a convention, especially in an angry political environment, might end up doing more harm than good. “I’m really scared by what might happen if there were a convention,” says Michigan state Representative Jim Slezak, a Democrat. “You don’t want bad decisions made based on something that happened a month ago or a year ago instead of focusing on what’s happened over the course of the last 30 years.”

The protocol for throwing a convention and chartering a new constitution varies significantly by state. One common feature is that the delegates of the convention don’t get the last word: Voters must approve the new constitution before it can take effect.

In Montana this year, the idea of holding a constitutional convention isn’t generating much enthusiasm. In part, that’s because the state’s 1972 constitution is among the country’s youngest. It’s also a source of state pride. Montana’s constitution is distinctive in its emphasis on environmental protections, for example. The last time the automatic call for a convention came up on the ballot in 2000, it was rejected by 86 percent of the voters.

Dorothy Eck of Bozeman, Montana, now 86 years old, was among the 100 delegates who produced the state’s 1972 constitution. She remembers the process as challenging but rewarding. “The smartest decision we made was to seat everyone alphabetically, so that you had people from both parties working together,” says Eck, a Democrat who served in the legislature for 20 years before retiring in 2000. “I sat with Republicans on both sides of me. On my left was a Republican who really thought through the issues and was helpful.”

Eck worries that a new constitutional convention might jeopardize some of the provisions that she and her peers worked so hard to put into place, especially the provisions related to government transparency and the environment. “A convention is a hard thing to do, and it was difficult here,” she says. “It’s a threat to everyone’s interests.”

Thursday, October 7, 2010

"Fresh Air" program highlights federal campaign disclosure loopholes

Today's edition of "Fresh Air" hosted by Terry Gross features a fantastic, in-depth analysis of the Supreme Court's "Citizens United" decision and its impact on campaigns and elections -- specifically, how corporations are now able to spend money in campaigns without limits or disclosure requirements.  Her guests include Peter Stone with the Center for Public Integrity, "Politico" reporter Kenneth Vogel, and Center for American Progress blogger Lee Fang.   An audio archive will be available after 5 p.m Eastern.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

CVF Debuts new Fall 2010 California Online Voter Guide!

We are pleased to announce the debut of the latest edition of our California Online Voter Guide!  Way back in 1994 the California Voter Foundation produced the very first California Online Voter Guide.  Our nonpartisan election guide is now in its 20th edition!

Secretary of State candidates debate the issues on KQED

Last Friday KQED FM's Dave Iverson hosted an excellent show on the "Forum" program featuring the major and minor party candidates for Secretary of State.  The first half of the one hour show includes a lively discussion between Democratic incumbent Debra Bowen and Republican challenger Damon Dunn on topics such as election security and the status of the state's voter registration database program.  An archive of the show is available from the KQED web site.

Riverside Press-Enterprise: Online Voter Registration still years off

Last week's Press Enterprise featured this excellent story by Jim Miller describing the obstacles California is facing in implementing a new statewide voter registration database that would enable online voter registration in California.  Excerpts from the story are below.


SACRAMENTO - California residents can go online to pay car fees, check out library books and enroll in college courses.
Yet when it comes to one of the biggest parts of life in a democracy -- registering to vote -- the Internet remains a bit player.
The deadline to register to cast ballots in the Nov. 2 election is a month away. But it likely won't be until the Nov. 4, 2014, election, at the earliest, that voters will be able to sign up electronically.
In May, the secretary of state's office canceled a contract with a Chicago-based company to design a new, federally required database of California's nearly 17 million voters. The state office said the company was in default on parts of the agreement, which was supposed to produce a new database by early 2012.
The cancellation delays indefinitely the implementation of a related state law that calls for online voter registration, but only after the new database is in place. That database, known as VoteCal, now is not scheduled to be finished until 2014.
Inland election officials and others around the state, meanwhile, have rebuffed a recent pitch by a Northern California software company to allow people to register electronically right away using touchscreen devices such as Apple's iPhone. The secretary of state's office maintains that state law currently prevents online registration.
The situation, in the home state of Silicon Valley, where the Internet is a major part of people's lives, frustrates voter groups.
Online voter registration, they say, would increase voter participation by making it much easier for new voters to sign up and voters of all ages to re-register after they move. In addition, supporters say, online registration would save money by reducing the number of paper forms election offices must handle.
Arizona, Washington and Kansas were the first states to offer online voter registration. Louisiana, Colorado, Oregon, Indiana and Utah are expected to have online registration systems up and running for the November election.
One California county already is pushing the envelope.
Santa Clara County has accepted seven electronic voter registrations since earlier this year, a spokeswoman said. The registrations were a test by Verafirma, a Silicon Valley company that has developed software letting people register to vote using touchscreen devices.
"We are in favor of them. We'll definitely continue to accept them," said Santa Clara elections spokeswoman Elma Rosas.
Late last month, Verafirma sent letters to other county election offices asking them to accept electronic registrations, as well. There have been no takers.
"At this time the secretary of state's position is that these registrations are not legal," said Keri Verjil, San Bernardino County's registrar of voters, who received the letter.
In a May 25 memo to counties, the secretary of state's office wrote, "It is clear the law does not provide a framework" for accepting electronic voter registrations right now. The state, though, has not moved to void the Santa Clara County registrations.
Verafirma argues that current state rules require only that voter registration forms be "mailed or delivered."
The rules don't specify that the "delivered" form has to be paper; it would be fine for counties to accept e-mailed forms created by the company's software, the company contends.
Jude Barry, Verafirma's co-founder, said the firm's software "is not only the wave of the future, it's the reality of the present.
"We can do this in California today, without spending millions of dollars or missing two election cycles," Barry said.
Nicole Winger, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Debra Bowen, said Verafirma has a different reading of the law than does Bowen's office.
"We also understand they have a financial stake in that," Winger said.
Database problems
Congress, meanwhile, is weighing a bill that would require states to make online voter registration available by 2016. The measure is pending in the House.
It's the latest federal proposal dealing with election procedures. In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act to prevent the kinds of ballot problems that marred the 2000 presidential campaign.
The measure required states to improve their voter registration databases within a few years; California received more than $50 million for the project. The state, though, is still using an earlier system.
The latest setback came in May, when Bowen's office canceled an $18.3 million contract with Catalyst Consulting Group Inc. of Chicago. It settled with the company for about $1.8 million, Catalyst principal Travis Bloomfield said.
Catalyst had been the only bidder from an earlier bid process. In a May 4 letter to Catalyst, Bowen's office said the company had failed to post a performance bond, missed key deadlines and had other problems.
Recent state history is filled with troubled computer upgrades, such as a botched database project at the DMV. Bowen canceled the Catalyst contract to "avoid the potential of drawn-out process, litigation and delays," Winger said.
Bloomfield, though, said the company had its own issues with the secretary of state's office. Catalyst had built the same kind of voter database in Illinois with no problems, he said.
"We didn't get stupid overnight," Bloomfield said.
Damon Dunn, Bowen's Republican opponent in November, accused her of bungling the VoteCal database project. If he wins, Dunn said, he also would not allow people to register to vote online before the new database is in place.
The VoteCal bidding process is scheduled to start again in mid-2011. It's unclear how many would-be database vendors who didn't finish, or ignored, the last bidding process would participate this time.
Catalyst won't be among them, Bloomfield said. Other companies also will be leery of dealing with Bowen's office, he predicted. "Everyone knows who's there, which might make people reluctant to bid on it," he said.
But Winger said Bowen "is confident there are many talented technology company that have dealt with large IT projects" that will bid on the database work.