Friday, May 21, 2010

New study finds California lawmakers receive 79% of campaign money from out-of-district

This week Maplight, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization shining a light on money in politics, released a new study, titled Remote Control, highlighting the findings of a data analysis of California lawmakers' campaign contributions.  The study found that 79 percent of the funds raised by California lawmakers come from outside of the district.  Maplight uses data compiled by the National Institute for Money in State Politics, which gets its raw data from California's online campaign finance disclosure data.

The study highlights how many incumbents who are in what would be considered "safe seats" nonetheless raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, generally to ensure their place of power within their caucus in the Capitol.  Not surprisingly, the Remote Control study found that four zip codes in Sacramento rate among the top ten donor zip codes; Sacramento is home to hundreds of lobbyists who attend dozens of fundraisers every year in order to gain the access they need to succeed in the legislative process.

It's exciting to see this kind of advanced analysis being conducted of California political fundraising.  This is not the only eye-opening research study that Maplight has conducted; the web site offers a bounty of fascinating findings as well as the opportunity to look up your own legislator's outside money and donations from interest groups.  While the Secretary of State's Cal-Access disclosure site is a fantastic resource, many voters do not have the time, computing power or familiarity with campaign disclosure to make much sense of raw online campaign finance data.  Maplight is providing a great public service by analyzing that data and turning into knowledge that voters will find useful.

On Monday, May 24 at 10 a.m. I will be on Capital Public Radio's Insight show along with Maplight's executive director, Daniel Newman, discussing this new study and campaign finance trends in California. Tune in online for a live audiocast.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Santa Clara first county in the nation to accept voter registration forms signed via e-signature pad

Last Friday Santa Clara County announced it was accepting voter registration forms completed and signed using a new technology developed by California company VeraFirma.  Earlier this year VeraFirma made headlines when the company attempted to submit initiative petitions signed with an electronic-signature pad such as an iPad or iPhone. San Mateo County rejected those signatures, the matter went to the courts and the ruling came down on the side of the county (Verafirma is appealing the decision).

Things are going much better for Verafirma in the neighboring county, where the company won support from Santa Clara county supervisors, county counsel and registrar of voters Jesse Durazo to use its technology for voter registration.

I'm cautiously optimistic about these developments.  For many young people, using a computer screen to complete a voter registration form will be a much more user-friendly experience than filling out a paper form.  However, the state lacks standards, statutes and regulations to specifically govern these signatures and their use in elections and voting.  All of the election statutes that exist today are based on the presumption that voters are signing on paper, not an e-pad.  And as anyone who has signed with an e-pad knows, the signature that results may only vaguely resemble one made on paper.  If registrars are to verify an absentee ballot request that comes in on paper against a voter registration form signature that was made on an e-pad, will they be able to successfully do so?

Other counties may follow Santa Clara's lead and given the absence of a robust statewide voter registration database that would facilitate online voter registration, the Verafirma technology may be the next best avenue for utilizing new technology to get more of California's 6.5 million nonregistered, eligible voters into the voting habit.

For more on these developments, see Ken McLaughlin's May 14 story in the San Jose Mercury news. Excerpts are featured below.
Some election officials have raised concerns about possible voter fraud, as well as privacy and security issues, in regard to electronic signatures. But the founders of Verafirma point out that Wells Fargo Bank is so confident in the technology that it allows customers to open a bank account with an electronic signature. 
The new technology also appears to be speeding ahead of current election laws. Nicole Winger, spokeswoman for California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, expressed some concern that the state's election codes don't mention things such as the three-year-old iPhones or the brand-new iPad. But Bowen does not have the authority to tell the county registrar to reject the signatures of the Santa Clara County voters who agreed to be guinea pigs, Winger said. Unless someone sues to stop Durazo from registering the voters, the electronic signatures will stand.
Barry, who called electronic signatures "the future of voter registration," said Verafirma has developed new software on a website that will allow people to use the National Voter Registration Act form to produce a "secure electronic signature" in the same way shoppers sign their name after swiping a credit card at supermarkets and large drugstores.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Sacramento County pioneers Ballot-on-Demand in California

Today I became one of the first voters in California to receive a ballot-on-demand.  Sacramento county, where I live and vote, has implemented a new ballot-on-demand voting process where a voter can come to the county election office, request a ballot, and the ballot is printed on the spot.  This new approach to balloting will save Sacramento county potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars each election year by avoiding pre-printing thousands of ballots for early voting purposes.  In the long run, it may open the door to new approaches to voting altogether, enabling county-wide voting centers to serve voters from all precincts.  Kudos to Sacramento County for pioneering this innovation in California voting!