Thursday, December 15, 2011

What happened to CAL-ACCESS? Reporters ask, SoS explains

Over the last few days there have been numerous stories about the failure of the Cal-Access online campaign finance disclosure system, operated by the California Secretary of State. The LA Times quotes Derek Cressman of Common Cause calling for hearings, and the Sacramento Bee interviewed Secretary of State Debra Bowen who stated, "We want to get it up as soon as possible, but we also want to complete the fix that will be the most stable over time."

Today, Chris Reynolds, head of the Secretary of State's Political Reform Division, sent around a document explaining why their technical staff believes Internet access to the system went down and what they are doing to restore Internet access to the system as quickly as possible. His email also says the his office is available to assist people in the meantime by phone, email, fax, or in-person visit.  The main number is (916) 653-6224, email address is is (916) 653-5045, street address is 1500 11th Street, Sacramento, CA 95814.

Here is the memo:

What happened to CAL-ACCESS?

CAL-ACCESS (the California Automated Lobbying and Campaign Contribution and Expenditure Search System) is a suite of applications developed in 13 different programming languages.  CAL-ACCESS runs on a server cluster and associated components that are more than 12 years old, and runs on an uncommon version of the Unix operating system called Tru64.

On November 30, 2011, the disk array controller experienced a physical memory failure that led to the loss of its disk array configuration and the loss of three physical disk drives.  The disk array contains a total of 90 disk drives with 15 disk drives installed in each of six drive enclosures.  (The array configuration defines which combination of physical disk drives form the logical disk drive that is presented to the operating system.)  When CAL-ACCESS was originally architected in 1999, it was common to locate the operating system on the disk array rather than on locally attached disks.  This configuration created a single point of failure in the array controller.

After replacing the failed memory equipment, staff were able to reconfigure a very small portion of the disk array that permitted the server cluster to start.  The portion of the disk array that houses the area where the databases reside was not immediately recovered since a more extensive amount of time was needed to remap the entire disk array.  To make the system available by Internet again as soon as possible, staff ported the server cluster to use an alternate network-attached storage device and used a backup to restore the data by December 7.  The configuration functioned for about 30 hours before it failed again on December 9.  Staff tried multiple approaches to recover this configuration throughout Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

On Monday, December 12, staff initiated three concurrent recovery methods to restore services: 

1. Porting CAL-ACCESS off of the Tru64 cluster to a modern hardware architecture, which involves modifying the database and reprogramming websites and applications in as many as 13 different coding languages.
2. Virtualizing the Tru64 Unix environment to move off of the aged equipment, which includes building new servers and installing and configuring software that can emulate the DEC Alpha architecture to run on an Intel architecture.  Once this environment has been established the Tru64 operating system can be installed and configured to match the old production environment, and the databases and applications can be restored from backup.
3. Rebuilding the original disk array, which is expected to take 10 to 14 days.

Work on the first method started on December 12.  The second and third methods require contracted specialists and a state contract approval is expected by December 15. 

Then will CAL-ACCESS be permanently fixed?

Created in 1999, CAL-ACCESS is now very old and fragile, and few people in the United States are familiar with the antiquated technology used to build and operate the system.  The recovery efforts will make CAL-ACCESS stable and get it running, but it can never be more robust or feature-laden.  Ideally, we need a fresh start with an all-new CAL-ACCESS.  

Thursday, December 8, 2011

State election websites assessed in new nationwide Pew study

Today the Pew Center on the States unveiled a new, nationwide assessment of state election websites, "Being Online Is Still Not Enough."
The California Voter Foundation was a major partner in this project and undertook much of the basic research, analysis, and writing, along with the Center for Governmental Studies and the Nielsen Norman Group. Together our three organizations conducted this assessment, which reviewed all 50 states' and the District of Columbia's election websites for content, lookup tools and usability.
An article I co-wrote for, was published today, providing additional details about this important project. It's also available via CVF-NEWS.
Unfortunately, California does not score well in the assessment, primarily due to the fact that our state election website lacks all five of the voter lookup tools the project assessed (voter registration status, polling place, ballot information, and absentee and provisional ballot status).
While many other states have made great progress in recent years utilizing the Internet as an effective and efficient tool to help voters engage in elections, California is lagging behind. At CVF we are working with a number of individuals and organizations to promote a statewide voter registration status lookup tool and hope that someday soon California voters will have as good, if not better access to modern election tools as voters in other states.
It is our hope that this study will help states better understand how their election websites compare to one another, provide useful feedback and ultimately help more voters participate more effectively and meaningfully in the democratic process.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Remembering a hero of California elections

Yesterday a longtime friend and mentor, Tim Hodson, passed away. His departure will leave a giant hole in the fields of elections, government, voting, redistricting, and political reform. His long career in public service is covered by Robert Davila in today's Sacramento Bee.

I knew Tim in so many capacities - most recently as a member of the Fair Political Practices Commission, where he led a project to modernize California's disclosure laws.

Tim was that kind of quiet public servant who just assumed it was normal to work for the general public good - an attitude that stood out in a town where so many people are working for special, not public interests. That's one reason why Tim's commitment to public service stands out so brightly.

I knew Tim for many years, starting back in 1990 when I was working for California Common Cause and Tim was the senior consultant to the Senate Elections Committee. Tim always made time for me, and cared about the issues on our plate.

One of the best parts of my job with Common Cause was working with Ruth Holton, who would later marry Tim and end up living about a block away from my home. I'd sometimes run into Ruth or Tim at our neighborhood market and hear about their plans for dinner that night.

Those simple things, like enjoying a meal with a loved one, deserve to be cherished. Ruth urged her friends and family to treasure those moments and take joy in the simple pleasures of life. It's good advice. I'm going to try to remember it in Tim's honor.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Lively discussion marks 100th anniversary of CA direct democracy

We are rapidly approaching the 100 year anniversary of the California initiative process, an occasion celebrated by some and scorned by others. The centennial of the Golden State’s system of direct democracy is provoking many to rethink this process and consider whether it needs an upgrade.
Many groups are sponsoring polls, public forums and debates, conducting research and cooking up ideas for reform.  But probably no event will be like the one Zocalo Public Square sponsored with New America Foundationand the Bill Lane Center for the American West at San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center last week.
I had the honor of sharing the stage with several people who, like me, have taken some time to think seriously (and occasionally humorously, thankfully) about how the initiative process works. Author and New America Fellow Joe Mathews moderated our panel and brought his lightening fast quips to our spirited discussion. My favorite Mathews line was when he compared enacting initiatives to “adding another room to the Winchester mystery house”.  
Bruno Kaufmann, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe, traveled the farthest to participate. He is a strong proponent of direct democracy for Europe and is involved in the EU’s European Citizen Initiative. That’s why his observation that California is the only place in the world where we need less direct democracy was so astonishing to me. He also observed that California initiatives are about creating and mirroring conflict, not solving it, which I found to be a highly true and astute perspective, the kind you can only get from someone like Kaufmann who has studied direct democracy in many states and nations.
Perhaps the most surprising panelist was James Fowler, medical geneticist and political scientist from UC San Diego.  At first, I could not figure out what a medical geneticist might have to say about direct democracy. Plenty, it turned out. Fowler studies decision-making, has researched the genetic roots of political ideology, and discussed how social networking sites are extensions of real networks and may be the key in successfully moving toward an online signature gathering platform for initiative campaigns.
Perhaps the most enthusiastic advocate for California’s initiative process was Paul Jacob of the Citizens in Charge Foundation. His organization led term limits initiative campaigns in California and several other states, and he believes California’s process works well (particularly in comparison to the majority of U.S. states, which have no initiative process). But he is concerned about the future of California’s initiative process, especially the way our Legislature deals with it, which he called “vindictive” (his case in point, passing a last-minute bill at the end of session that would prohibit initiatives from being placed on Primary election ballots).
My comments focused on the need to move toward publicized disclosure, and how the California Voter Foundationpromotes reforms to ensure information about the top donors in initiative campaigns is readily available to voters when they are asked to sign initiative petitions; when they consult their ballot pamphlets; and when they cast their ballots. 
I also pointed out that on average only one in three initiatives pass, and we would serve voters better by treating the initiative process as the people’s lawmaking arena and ensuring voters have the access to the same kind of information lawmakers have when they vote on bills, such as knowing who the true sponsor of a measure is.
I anticipated a lively, engaged audience and was not disappointed! There were tons of great questions, and the discussion continued over cocktails and music well past the official end time.
Zocalo events aren’t over when the day is done. Zocalo staff write up a review of the session, called “The Takeaway”, post event photos, and make podcasts and video archives of every event. Zocalo deserves kudos for innovating a new kind of public forum for California’s communities that is engaging, interactive and much needed.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Patt Morrison Asks - LA Times interview

On Saturday I was honored to be featured in Patt Morrison's column in the Los Angeles Times. Excerpts are below.

What's a nice girl like you doing in a mess like this?

I love elections; I grew up with elections. My dad ran for Culver City City Council when I was 7. Election night, we had a big party and my dad was the underdog and someone was on the phone getting the numbers and I [wrote] the numbers on the chalkboard. To me, politics has been about community service.

You also learned about the political version of trick or treat.

Someone showed up at the door with a $500 [campaign contribution] check. For a Culver City election, that was a lot of money. My dad sent him away. He said: "I don't know that man, I don't want to know him and I don't want him to think I owe him anything." My first lesson in how money in politics works!

We have former Secretary of State March Fong Eu to thank for banning pay toilets -- and for the California Voter Foundation?

[It was] an offshoot of the secretary of state's office, to raise charitable funds for extra voter outreach. By 1993, it was [defunct], out of compliance with various tax filings. In college I'd worked for Gary K. Hart when he ran for Congress. It was grueling: high stakes, consultants, opposition research -- that stuff is really unpleasant. I wanted to be for all the voters, not just some of the voters. So this opportunity to restart the California Voter Foundation fell into my lap.

Even voter registration has become politicized. Someone on a right-wing website wrote that it is "profoundly … un-American'' to register welfare recipients to vote.

It's unfortunate. In a lot of the world you're automatically [registered] when you become 18 and you're a citizen. Here we have this extra hurdle.

Across the country, voting rights are not shared among all Americans. In California there's a variety of practices between the counties, an unevenness. That's a big problem.

You almost weren't allowed to vote in 2008.

They told me my polling place had moved. I got my sample ballot and went back and said, "This is my polling place." They were turning other people away.

Elections are run as if they're one-day sales. We run polling places for 12, 14 hours, staffed by people with very little training working very long hours on a job they only do once or twice a year. We should have people vote over several days in an environment staffed by well-trained people. I think about elections year-round; most people only think about them for maybe two months. It's hard to sustain the momentum to implement election reform.

continued at

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Videos from Pew's California voter registration conference now online

Last month, on July 14, the Pew Center on the States hosted a conference in Sacramento at the State Capitol to discuss ways to upgrade California's voter registration process.  I participated in one of the panel discussions; videos from the entire conference are now available via the California Channel's web site.  Here's a rundown:

Session 1:  Conference introduction by David Becker, Project Director, Pew Center on the States, with Gail Pellerin, President of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, and Bill McInturff, Partner and Co-Founder, Public Opinion Strategies presenting Pew research findings.

Session 2:  "The Role of Voter Registration in the Democratic Process", presented by Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown.

Session 3:  "Our Current System - Costly and Inefficient", moderated by Catherine Hazelton, Sr. Program Officer with The James Irvine Foundation, and featuring: John Lindback, Former Director of Elections, Oregon/Alaska; Jill LaVine, Registrar of Voters, Sacramento County; and Kim Alexander, President & Founder, California Voter Foundation.

Session 4:  "Achieving the Dual Goals - Protecting the Right to Vote While Maintaining the Integrity of the System", moderated by Amy Dominguez-Arms, Program Director, The James Irvine Foundation and featuring: Kathay Feng, Executive Director, CA Common Cause; Dean Logan, Registrar of Voters, Los Angeles County; Heather Smith, President, Rock the Vote; Edward Hailes, Managing Director, Advancement Project; Rob Stutzman, President, Stutzman Public Affairs; and Antonio Gonzales, President, Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.

Session 5:  "The Potential for Technology to Improve the Way California Maintains and Updates its Voter Rolls", discussing Pew's plans for an Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), featuring: Jeff Butcher, Executive IT Architect, IBM; Pam Smith, President, Verified Voting; Shane Hamlin, Director of Elections, Washington state; Dave Macdonald, Registrar of Voters, Alameda County; and Jim Dempsey, Vice President for Public Policy, Center for Democracy and Technology.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Election bills up in the Legislature Tuesday, May 3

Both the Senate and Assembly's election committees will hold hearings on Tuesday, May 3 to take up a number of bills that would impact California elections.

The Senate Elections Committee is meeting at 1:30 in Room 3191 at the State Capitol; though no webcast is available, there is an audio stream of the hearing offered online.  Bills to be taken up by this committee tomorrow include SB 397/Yee, which would allow counties to implement online voter registration; SB 334/Desaulnier, which would require the Secretary of State to identify and publish in the ballot pamphlet the top five donors supporting or opposing propositions; SB 908/Runner would allow military overseas voters and their families to submit ballots via email; SB 202/Hancock would increase the initiative filing fee from $200 to $,2000; SB 448/DeSaulnier would require initiative petition circulators to wear a badge stating whether their were volunteers or paid; and SB 348/Correa, which make vote-by-mail ballots eligible to be counted as long as they are postmarked by election day and received within six days of the election (under current law, VBM ballots must be received by Election Day in order to be counted); and SB 641/Calderon would provide opportunities for Californians to register and vote after the 15 day voter registration deadline.

The Assembly Elections Committee is meeting at the same time, in room 444 at 1:30 at the State Capitol on Tuesday.  The Assembly's Daily File shows numerous bills will also be heard by this committee, and an audio feed is also available online.  One bill in particular that I am paying attention to is AB 1146/Norby, which would raise the threshold for itemizing campaign contributions and independent expenditures from the current level of $100 to $200, thus enabling more donors to remain anonymous.

SacBee - Online Voter Registration Long Overdue

The May 1, 2011 edition of the Sacramento Bee featured this editorial about the need to implement online voter registration in California.  Excerpts are featured below.

Think about 6.4 million people. That's more people than live in 34 of the 50 states. It's also the number of Californians who are eligible to vote but are not registered.
The Legislature approved online registration in 2008, to no avail. Clearly frustrated with delays and excuses, some lawmakers are plunging ahead with their own solutions.

Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, is carrying legislation that would authorize counties to permit online registration.
A county-by-county system is not the preferred method of registering voters. However, it may be the only solution, given the uncertain status of a statewide online voter registration.

Back to that number, 6.4 million people eligible to vote but not registered. That's more than are registered in all but five of the 50 states. Individuals should take it upon themselves to register. But California should make it as easy as logging onto a laptop.

The Economist looks at what's wrong with California

A recent edition of The Economist features a special report on "California's Dysfunctional Democracy". The magazine is full of fascinating articles about direct democracy and the state's fiscal and political problems.

In particular, The People's Will covers the pros and cons of our state's initiative process; War by Initiative tells the story of Prop. 13 and its impact; Burn the Wagons describes potential structural reforms to California governance (and features a quote from yours truly); Origin of the Species tells the story of how direct democracy came to be; A Lesson in Mediocrity tells how California's initiative process has impacted public education; The Withering Branch explains how the initiative process has weakened California's legislature; Stateside and Abroad compares the initiative process in other states and countries; What Do You Know? describes the shortcomings of California voter education; and Vox Populi or Hoi Polloi? examines the European Union's development of a referendum process.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Top 10 Ballot Design Tips from AIGA/Design for Democracy

As someone who loves Top 10 lists and also cares deeply about ballot design, I was delighted to find this recent blog post by Dana Chisnell highlighting the Top 10 Ballot Design Principles to ensure usability and accessibility, generated through AIGA's Design for Democracy project.

Among the top ten principles -- avoid centered text; use clear, simple language; use contrast and color functionally; and decide what's most important.

I had the pleasure of meeting Dana over recently at the Election Verification Network conference where she and her design colleagues gave an excellent presentation about the importance of good ballot design (slides are available on her blog for downloading).

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Chicago conference for better elections

I've spent the past two days in Chicago at the Election Verification Network conference, where I delivered remarks this morning about the the need to modernize voter registration in California and shared the "sneak peak" findings of our nationwide state election website assessment project for the Pew Center on the States in collaboration with the Center for Governmental Studies.

It's been fantastic to be here in Chicago with all these folks - computer scientists, statisticians, election officials, activists, academics - to discuss the latest challenges and opportunities in election technology and verification.  It's been kind of sentimental too, as I organized the very first convening of this group, also held in Chicago, back in April 2004.  Then, about 26 people participated; now the Election Verification Network (EVN) conference has expanded to close to 100 folks.

One of the highlights of the conference was Reverend Jesse Jackson's address Friday morning, where he described our work advancing election verification as an outgrowth of the civil rights movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that he pushed for and is still being fought for in many ways today.  One of the topics he addressed was the impact that "states' rights" laws have on voting rights nationwide and how difficult it is to give voters any guarantee that their voting rights are protected in every state.

At these election conferences lately I am often left wondering why it is that the federal and state governments don't pay counties for the costs of putting on state and federal elections? If they did then those dollars could come with strings attached that would give voters some guarantee of certain rights and expectations of voting system performance.  There'd be plenty of money to pay for more training and pollworkers and voting centers where people could register on election day and get their registration records updated.

The voting transaction is one of the rare times a person interfaces with the government as a voter and instead of making the most of the opportunity we let people fall through the cracks because we have an antiquated, 19th century system being operated out of people's garages.

Fortunately there are lots of concerned, thoughtful people around this country who care about elections and are putting their minds and hearts to the task of making elections work more effectively (and yes, even in this environment of scarce resources, that's possible to do). It's been a privilege to spend time in their company here in Chicago.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

SF instant runoff voting poll finds voters remain confused on the details

A new poll commissioned by San Francisco's Chamber of Commerce found that a majority of San Francisco voters don't understand how their instant runoff voting process works.  Excerpts from today's San Francisco Chronicle article by John Coté are featured below.
Despite ranked-choice voting being introduced for Board of Supervisors races in 2004 and used in every city election since, 55 percent of respondents to a recent poll commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce said they didn't know whether their vote counted once their first, second- or third-choice candidate had been eliminated.
In that scenario, their vote would not affect the outcome of the race, although 29 percent of respondents thought that their vote would be counted. Only 15 percent of the respondents said that their vote would not be counted, according to the poll, which was conducted by David Binder Research and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
"It's clear that San Francisco voters understand ranked-choice voting about as well as they understand quantum physics," said Nathan Ballard, a Democratic strategist who was a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom when he was mayor.
"It's cloaked in mystery to the degree that most voters find it indecipherable, and will have no idea of the impact of their votes on election day," Ballard said.
Steven Hill, a consultant who helped draft ranked-choice voting systems for San Francisco and Oakland, said the poll, which surveyed 500 registered voters in the city from Feb. 16 to 20, was inconclusive. He also said the poll's questions were skewed to elicit responses unfavorable to ranked-choice voting to lay the groundwork for a repeal of the system.
"Most people don't understand how your car works, or how your computer works or how your phone works," Hill said. "But they know how to use it, and they're comfortable with it."
Also weighing in on the poll is SF Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius, who speculates that San Francisco may be headed for a "ballot box train wreck" this year in the first open-seat contest for mayor since instant runoff voting was enacted.  He writes:
While confusing, the system has stuck so far and it will almost certainly take a ballot box meltdown to galvanize voters - a crazy, unexpected outcome that leaves voters feeling bewildered and disenfranchised. If that's what you want, the good news is all the factors - huge unwieldy field, no clear favorite, and lots of recognizable names with strong core support - are in place for that to happen.
The Oakland mayoral election used ranked-choice voting and Jean Quan defeated former state Sen. Don Perata even though Perata had more first-place votes. The last District 10 supervisor's race, in which it took more than 20 rounds to award the seat to Malia Cohen, who was back in the pack when the counting started, seemed odd.
But November's election for a new mayor could be a much bigger deal.
"It's going to be District 10 on steroids," said political analyst David Latterman, who is advising mayoral candidate David Chiu. "There were really only three candidates in Oakland. This will be a race of several major candidates, maybe as many as 20, and at least 10 are legit contenders."
A landslide of candidates may be the new winning metric for ranked-choice voting. Candidates round up as many choices as possible, build coalitions, and then gang up against the front runners.
"I'm not sure I would want to be in first place going into the election," said political consultant Mark Mosher, who is working with candidate Dennis Herrera. "You're going to get absolutely shelled."

Pew study looks at costs of mailing California voter information guides

A new study commissioned by the Pew Center on the States takes a look at how much money California counties spend on mailing ballot guides to voters and the amount of money counties could save if some voters received these guide electronically instead of through the mail. "The Cost of Delivering Voter Information: A Case Study of California" is a research brief based on a more in-depth publication called "Mailbox, Inbox, Ballot Box; Delivering Information to California Voters in the 21st Century" by Lauren Hengl of the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley.

Some key findings:
  • California counties spent 11 to 46 percent of their total election costs mailing paper sample ballots in the 2008 general election. Los Angeles, the state’s largest county, spent nearly $6 million on this mailing alone. 
  • By disseminating voter information through e-mail or the Web, counties could save up to nine percent of their election expenses if a portion of their voters agreed to cancel paper mailings.
  • San Francisco County could save more than $197,000, or two percent of its total election costs, if 15 percent of voters received only electronic mailings.
  •  Los Angeles County could save an estimated $1.19 million if 20 percent of its voters opted out of paper information.
  • Counties could see further savings if they also mailed one copy of voting information to each registered household—instead of sending individual copies to multiple voters even if they live in one home.
Another way California government could save money is if the ballot guides produced and mailed by the state and by counties could be consolidated into one guide.  Administratively that might be difficult to pull off, but it would sure be a lot less confusing to voters, who are often stumped as to why they receive two different ballot guides, one from the Secretary of State and another from their county election office.

Kudos to CA Clean Money Campaign, LWV and CCC for L.A. victory

Results from Tuesday's Los Angeles election shows Measure H, a political reform measure backed by the California Clean Money Campaign, California Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, passed by a wide margin, with early results showing 75 percent of voters supporting the measure and 25 percent opposing it.

The measure has two key provisions.  The first prevents bidders on city contracts from campaigning for or making donations to the politicians who will decide on those contracts.  The second provision affects the City of Los Angeles' public financing program for political campaigns by lifting the cap on the city's public matching fund.  Public financing proponents hope this will open up opportunities for candidates to be entirely publicly financed in the future.  Supporters of public financing who were disappointed by recent ballot box defeats of statewide propositions will be cheered by this latest victory in Los Angeles.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

New bill would allow online registration through counties

This week Senator Leland Lee of San Francisco introduced a bill, Senate Bill 397, that would allow counties to accept online voter registration applications in collaboration with the DMV.  The Oakland Tribune's Josh Richman wrote this story about this important development, which would provide a way for Californians to register to vote online without having to wait for a statewide voter registration database, called "VoteCal" to be completed.  Excerpts from Richman's story are below.
Some states already offer online registration but California has put it off, awaiting implementation of a "VoteCal" statewide online database system now delayed at least until 2015.
Yee, D-San Francisco, instead wants to allow online registration through county registrars' offices: Citizens would input their voter information online and the registrar's office would use the voter's signature from the Department of Motor Vehicles to verify authenticity.
Yee says county elections officers believe this would save money and eliminate administrative errors from mistyping the data entry from a paper registration; after Arizona implemented online voter registration, he said, some counties saw their costs decrease from 83 cents per registration to 3 cents per registration.
"SB 397 will not only help protect the integrity of the vote, but will allow many more individuals the opportunity to register and participate in our democracy," Yee said in a news release.
If Yee's bill becomes law, it would let counties start using online voter registration for the 2012 Presidential Primary and General Election. Paper registration would still be available.
Contra Costa County Voter Registrar Steve Weir agrees the bill would help with data entry error avoidance.
"We make mistakes in data entry and sometimes, people's handwriting is difficult," he said in an e-mail. "In addition, with the 15-day close of registration, we can still be receiving legitimate registrations five days before an election and for major elections, it is very difficult to get all registrations into our system so that the voter's name appears on the roster (or supplemental roster).
"I like the idea that people register themselves and don't depend upon 'drives' for registration and for signature gatherers, as these folks bend the rules," Weir continued. "We have a drive that did not pay the return postage. The SOS (Secretary of State) sent them to us this month even though the registrants actually registered in time for the November gubernatorial General Election."
Weir said the DMV signature is key. People going to the DMV for the first time must produce an identifying document -- a birth certificate or some naturalization documentation, for example -- whereas standard voter registration cards aren't checked against citizenship or identifying documents.
"I am not convinced that the DMV is able (legally, we're told that a private vendor owns those signatures) to physically attach those signatures to online registrations," Weir said. "So, in concept, we like this option, although we want to see the actual language of the bill. Our Association will have a Legislative meeting on March 4 where we'll go over the details of the bill."

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Governor Brown says he will investigate all vote-by-mail June ballot

Yesterday Governor Jerry Brown said at a news conference he is pondering an all vote-by-mail ballot for the June statewide special election he is promoting.  More details are featured in Sam Pearson's story yesterday in California Watch.  Excerpts are below.
At his press conference today, Brown also said he would consider making the June special election one that uses only mail-in ballots, but would have to investigate whether it would disenfranchise voters and if it would be practical in a state as large as California.
Elections in Oregon already take place only by mail, and the state boasts a 70 percent voter turnout rate. Critics have said that mail-in ballots disenfranchise groups of people that move frequently or do not have a fixed address, like renters, college students and the homeless. A Pew Center on the States study said that requiring people to vote by mail decreased the odds of someone voting by 13.2 percent and had negative effects on urban and minority turnout.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Gov. Brown proposing cuts to state-mandated election programs

The Sacramento Bee recently published this article by Torey Van Oot about some cuts that Governor Jerry Brown is proposing to make to programs that have been mandated by the state and are therefore subject to reimbursement by the state. The big question is if they go through, will the programs continue?  Some county registrars have suggested, for example, that if the state no longer helps pay the cost for moving the registration deadline to 15 days from Election Day (from the prior 30-day deadline) then the counties will no longer offer a 15 day deadline and revert back to 30 days.  It's a crazy suggestion but then again, these are crazy budget times.

Excerpts from the story are featured below.
Nearly 5 million voters chose to cast their ballots by mail when Gov. Jerry Brown was elected in November, representing almost half of all votes cast in the statewide contest.
Now election officials are warning that a piece of Brown's budget proposal could put the increasingly popular form of balloting, and the integrity of the voting process, in jeopardy.
As part of his plan to close a projected $25.4 billion deficit, Brown wants to stop reimbursing local governments for the costs of complying with various state laws, including the 1978 law that gives all California voters the option of casting their ballots by mail.
Department of Finance officials have scored roughly $32.6 million in savings by not paying the tab for several years' worth of reimbursement claims for specific costs associated with six election mandates. They include establishing a permanent absentee voter system, extending the voter registration window to 15 days before an election and processes for registering voters.
Ending the reimbursements makes the associated laws optional for local governments in the coming fiscal year.
County election officials are still assessing the actual impact Brown's proposal would have on election departments and voters if adopted by the Legislature, but California Association of Clerks and Election Officials President Gail Pellerin called the move "not a wise policy."
"Everyone is going to have to take a cut, everyone is going to have to give a little bit, but I think suspending these vital programs voters have come to rely on is not a good direction," said Pellerin, the Santa Cruz County clerk.
Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer cautioned that suspending the mandates does not necessarily mean counties will suspend the services.
Palmer said the proposal is meant to save money in the next fiscal year by freezing reimbursements for claims filed for past years. Past years' claims, but not costs in the next fiscal year, could be reimbursed later if the mandate is reinstated in future budgets.
But Pellerin and others doubted whether they could keep the programs running without the money. They warned that changes could create confusion among voters accustomed to voting by mail.
"I can already hear the screams if I take 220,000 to 230,000 permanent absentee voters and tell them, 'I'm sorry, but you're voting at the polls,' " said Contra Costa County Clerk-Recorder Steve Weir.
Kim Alexander, founder and president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, said failing to fund the mandates could compound the existing problem of "uneven access to the voting process at the local level."
"Given how little money counties have already to fund elections, it would be a huge blow," Alexander said.
In Sacramento County, the funding loss would be an estimated $800,000 to $1 million in the next fiscal year, according to Sacramento County Registrar of Voters Jill Lavine.
"It definitely will add to the stress if I have to find another million dollars in my budget just to maintain the level of service I have right now," she said.
Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association, said while he thinks the state should reimburse counties for costs it forces on them, there are some cases in which removal of mandates could have a beneficial effect.
"In many instances, the state mandates things that the local governments don't want to do and sometimes the local governments find a cheaper way to do it," he said. "If there's a removal of the mandate and counties can revert to the old way of voting, there might be a better way to (provide those services)."
And some say the more costly policies, including the absentee voting and permanent absentee list laws, still merit review.
"I know the way it's working right now is not in everyone's interest and is wasteful," Alexander said, noting a report that found more than 23 million absentee ballots have been lost or never returned since California created a permanent vote-by-mail system in 2002.
The list of more than 50 mandates slated for suspension include costs related to AIDS testing for inmates, holding periods for stray pets at animal shelters and a provision of open-meeting laws requiring public notice of meeting agendas, amounting to a total projected savings of $227.8 million in the next fiscal year.
Election mandates Gov. Jerry Brown wants to suspend:
Absentee voting: Requires that absentee ballots are available to all voters. Projected savings: $28.6 million 
Tabulation by precinct: Requires county collection officials to tabulate absentee ballots by precinct and make that information available to the Legislature. Projected savings: $46,000 
Brendon Maguire Act: Requires that a special election is called in certain cases when a candidate dies before Election Day. Projected savings: $3,000 
Permanent absentee voter: Requires election officials to maintain a list of permanent absentee voters and automatically mail them a ballot. Savings: $1.9 million 
Voter registration: Covers voter registration activities, including allowing voters to register by mail and processing costs. Savings: $2.1 million

CA Secretary of State Debra Bowen considers run for congressional seat

It's possible California Secretary of State Debra Bowen will run for a Los Angeles-area congressional seat according to a story reported today by Torey Van Oot of The Sacramento Bee's Capitol Alert.  Secretary of State Bowen was sworn in for a second term in January after her re-election last November.

Excerpts from the Bee's story are below.
Secretary of State Debra Bowen is considering running for the congressional seat expected to be vacated by Democratic Rep. Jane Harman.
"She is very, very seriously considering running for Congress," Bowen campaign consultant Steve Barkan said. "It's brand new news, and so she needs to take all factors into consideration."
News broke today that Harman, 65, will leave office to take a job as president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, setting the stage for a special election in the 36th Congressional District.
Bowen hails from Marina Del Rey, which is part of the district, and represented the area in the state Assembly and Senate from 1992 to 2006. She will be termed out of her job as the state elections chief in 2014.
An added incentive for seeking a job in the Beltway? Her husband Mark Nechodom works in Washington, D.C., as the deputy director for energy and climate in the office of environmental markets at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Once the seat is vacant, Gov. Jerry Brown will have 14 days to call a special election. The election will be the state's first congressional contest conducted under the top two primary rules created by Proposition 14.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Rumors of an all vote-by-mail June Special election unattributed

I can't help but notice that a dramatic headline in Wednesday's San Francisco Chronicle, that has been widely reproduced by several online news organizations is based on a column that includes no attribution for the "story" itself.  The headline reads (and I am reluctant to even repeat it because it is clearly a mere rumor at this point):  "June special election may be vote-by-mail only".  It is attached to a column by Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross, who actually report that the idea is being "batted about" but don't say who is doing the batting.

My guess is that it is the county registrars of voters doing the batting.  They have pined for an all vote-by-mail system ever since our neighbors to the north, Oregon and Washington, adopted the process and have sponsored legislation numerous times to try it out.

The thing is, California isn't Oregon or Washington.  We are a nation-state, home to 17 million registered voters with multiple language requirements, many who rely on assistance at the polls.  And we have none of the streamlining of vote-by-mail procedures that exists in our neighboring states.  What we have is 58 counties running 58 different vote-by-mail systems that, while based on state laws, vary greatly in every detail, from the color of the envelope a vote-by-mail ballot is returned in to whether the cost of postage is covered and even the "rules" counties follow on accepting vote-by-mail ballots.

For example, under current state law it is not legal for someone else in your family or household to return a vote-by-mail ballot to your polling place for you unless you are ill or physically disabled.  But many people have someone else in their household return their ballot to the polls for them on Election Day because they are out of town, or "something came up".  Technically, this is not legal under state law.  Whether counties actually enforce that law is left up to them to decide.

These varying procedures make it difficult for groups working to maximize voter participation, such as the California Voter Foundation, to provide instructions that all voters can follow and rely upon statewide.  In an election where our Governor hopes to see a demonstration of voting rights similar to what is taking place in Egypt and Tunisia, it is unimaginable that polling places would not be open across the state.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Good reads from the New Yorker

A few months back CVF's board chairman, Prof. Geoffrey Wandesforde-Smith, sent me two articles from the New Yorker that I have been meaning to read and finally got around to finishing yesterday.

The first one, "Small Change" by Malcolm Gladwell, considers what effect, if any, Twitter and Facebook might have had during the civil rights struggle.  He describes the differences between hierarchical and network structures in social change, and how ultimately a hierarchical structure (such as the one Martin Luther King and his colleagues built) is more effective than a decentralized network structure.  Even more interestingly, Gladwell summarizes the essential difference between today's online social activism and that of the 1950's and 60's:
Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.
The entire story is available from the New Yorker's web site (thanks, New Yorker!).

The second article is "Win or Lose", a book review by Anthony Gottlieb from last summer (like I said, I am behind on my reading), the book being "Numbers Rule:  The Vexing Mathematics of Democracy, from Plato to the Present" by George Szpiro, a journalist and mathematician.

Apparently mathematicians have been plotting the math behind voting systems for a long time, at least since Venetian elections dating back to 1268.  Gottlieb's story delves far into the mathematical differences between "winner take all" or (as they call it in Great Britain) "first-past-the-post" systems where the person with the most votes wins even if he or she fails to get a majority, proportional representation and instant run-off systems that are used in many places today and something entirely new to me called "range voting".  

Hearing about the benefits and drawbacks of different voting systems from the perspective of mathematicians gives the whole debate a different and fresh perspective.  Gottlieb's story is available online from the New Yorker's web site.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

SoS Bowen unveils four-year strategic plan, priorities

At her inauguration ceremony today, Secretary of State Debra Bowen made a point of acknowledging the important role her agency's staff play in her success.  She also highlighted the fact that she is only the sixth woman to be elected to California statewide office, and how happy she was to be sworn in by the seventh woman to join the ranks, Attorney General Kamala Harris.  

She was joined on stage by her agency chiefs, and several of them spoke during the ceremony.  The auditorium was nearly full, and the ceremony appeared to be well-attended by agency staff.  

Secretary Bowen's comments were fairly brief.  She announced her office was implementing a four-year strategic plan focused on three priorities:  ensuring fair and secure elections, doing business, and protecting rights and state treasures.  She also listed six values that will guide the work of the office of Secretary of State: service; integrity; teamwork; openness; innovation; and consistency.  She concluded by saying that standing up for the workers in her office is the most important thing she can do to make sure they deliver excellent public service, so "let's get back to work."   

Gov. Brown's inaugural speech highlights importance of the people's trust in government

Much of the commentary about Governor Jerry Brown's inaugural speech focused on the heavy themes of our state's budget crisis, and that's not so surprising given the yawning deficit our state faces.  But what I noticed, and appreciated, is how Governor Brown continues to focus on the importance of the public's trust in a democratic system.

In his 1975 address, he remarked early on in his speech about the fact that less than half of the Californians who could vote in the election did so, and that "our first order of business is to regain the trust and confidence of the people we serve."

Yesterday he spoke again of how important it is the public have trust in the government.  After describing the inability of Democrats and Republicans to agree on a path forward on the state's budget deficit, he suggested that this is perhaps "the reason why the public holds the state government in such low esteem.  And that’s a profound problem, not just for those of us who are elected, but for our whole system of self-government. Without the trust of the people, politics degenerates into mere spectacle; and democracy declines, leaving demagoguery and cynicism to fill the void."

Of course solving the state's budget problems is the biggest crisis on the governor's plate, but the need for improvements in the ways Californians participate in elections and government need attention as well.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Inauguration week in Sacramento - a look back, a look ahead

It's a new year and there's a sense of "back to the future" in Sacramento.  Jerry Brown will be inaugurated this morning as California's new Governor at 11 a.m.  and is even taking up residence in an apartment within walking distance of the Capital, just as he did the last time around.  

I first met Jerry Brown in Santa Barbara in 1989, shortly after working for state Senator Gary K. Hart's campaign for Congress. We talked back then about how to get young people more involved in politics.  

In Brown's 1975 inaugural address, dug up recently by KQED's John Myers, he begins by noting the lessons learned from the last election, namely, that "More than half the people who could have voted, refused, apparently believing that what we do here has so little impact on their lives that they need not pass judgment on it. In other words, the biggest vote of all in November was a vote of no confidence. So our first order of business is to regain the trust and confidence of the people we serve." 

Although turnout in the November 2, 2010 election was higher than it's been in the past 16 years, it's still the case that less than half of Californians who were eligible to participate did in fact vote. I'm hoping election reform and expanding voter participation will also be on his agenda in this go-around.

Gov. Jerry Brown does in fact have a longstanding interest in election and political reform.  He served as Secretary of State, California's chief elections officer, before being elected Governor, and championed the Political Reform Act of 1974, which established campaign finance disclosure laws for California.  

Meanwhile tomorrow, across town, another constitutional officer will be sworn in for another term.  Secretary of State Debra Bowen will take her oath of office on Tuesday at 10 a.m. in the Secretary of State's auditorium with a live webcast.  I plan to attend and am eager to hear what will be on Secretary Bowen's agenda.