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.