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.