Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Please support better democracy and donate to CVF!

Another election season is rapidly approaching in California and over the past year CVF has been working on behalf of voters to make the election process better for everyone.
 Give to CVF!
Please contribute to this important work to improve California’s vote-by-mail process, increase voters’ access to online tools and information about proposition donors, and expand voter registration.

Here are the top priorities you can support with your generous year-end gift.

1. Improving the Vote-by-Mail Process
For the first time ever, in November 2012 more than half of California’s voters cast vote-by-mail ballots in a statewide general election. But the growing popularity of vote-by-mail comes with problems. After every major election, tens of thousands of VBM ballots are not counted, mostly because they arrived too late or due to voter error, such as failing to sign the ballot envelope. It is heartbreaking to see these stacks of uncounted ballots piled up in county election offices. California’s vote-by-mail error rate is among the worst in the nation.
CVF is working with election officials and other nonprofits to identify best practices and needed improvements. We are studying the vote-by-mail process in three California counties – Santa Cruz, Sacramento and Orange – and will be recommending voter education and outreach strategies. We will also recommend administrative and legislative changes needed to improve California’s vote-by-mail success rate.
2. Increasing voters’ access to online tools and information about proposition donors
CVF is working to promote and expand access to the online tools and information voters need to cast their ballots and make informed choices. CVF is a member of the Future of California Elections collaborative, a statewide group of local election officials and voting and civil rights organizations working together to share ideas and information about reform and to maximize our effectiveness.

CVF is especially interested in expanding voter access to information about ballot proposition funders. In 2013, for the first time, CVF began supporting two bills – SB 27 and AB 400 – to inform voters about top donors on initiative petitions and in the ballot pamphlet. We also want the Secretary of State to improve Cal-Access, the state’s online campaign disclosure system.
3. Expanding voter registration
California has implemented online registration – a great improvement but there is still much work to do to increase our voter registration rate. We rank 45th among the states in eligible voter registration with almost six million Californians eligible but not registered to vote.
CVF and other nonprofits particularly want to make sure that the public has access to registration applications and assistance through Covered California (the state’s new health care exchange) and other public agencies, as required under federal and state laws. The health care exchange presents an unprecedented, once-in-a-generation opportunity to connect with hundreds of thousands of Californians who are not registered or need to update their registration and, thus, expand California’s number of registered voters.
In 2014, CVF will again provide voters with reliable access to nonpartisan election information and work to see that statewide contests, especially for Secretary of State – an open-seat contest for the first time in eight years – garner the public interest and media attention they deserve.
We hope we can count on you to help! With your generous contribution CVF can continue its long non-partisan tradition of research, outreach and election process oversight.
Tax-deductible donations may be made online via PayPal (you don't need a PayPal account to use your credit card) or by check to:

California Voter Foundation
P.O. Box 189277
Sacramento, CA 95818

Wishing you a happy holiday season,

The California Voter Foundation

Kim Alexander, President & Founder and the CVF Board of Directors: Geoffrey Wandesforde-Smith, Joseph Lorenzo Hall, David Jefferson, Jack Lerner and Stephen Levine

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Why is Healthcare.gov broken? Blame the government procurement process

"Over the past 10 years, 94 percent of large federal information technology projects were unsuccessful, according to a study by the research firm the Standish Group. More than half of them were either delayed or over budget, or fell short of user expectations. More than 41 percent failed completely."
        - From the Nov. 8 issue of The Week, full story in Computerworld.
The Standish Group study received a considerable amount of media attention, and deservedly so. Its database of 3,555 government projects with labor costs of at least $10 million revealed only 6.4 percent were successful. Fifty-two percent of the large projects were "challenged" (over budget, behind schedule or didn't meet user expectations) and 41 percent were failures (abandoned or restarted).  
"They didn't have a chance in hell," said Jim Johnson, founder and chairman of Standish, of Healthcare.gov. There was no way they were going to get this right - they only had a six percent chance." - Computerworld
I am not aware of a similar study of California government technology projects, but suspect the figures might come out about the same. (And in all fairness, a study of private technology projects might yield similar findings). 

When President Barack Obama promised to find out why the Affordable Care Act website failed miserably, the answer came to me in about two seconds: the government procurement process deserves a good share of the blame. 

It takes years to plan and execute a major governmental technology project. Staff turn over, technology evolves and expires, administrations change hands. It is not flexible or timely in any way, and yet that is exactly what technology projects need to be if they are to succeed.

Here are a few recent large-scale California government technology upgrade failures:
In each instance, tens or hundreds of millions of dollars were spent before the plug was finally pulled. And those agencies continue to serve the public with poor, outdated technology.

The large-scale California government technology project I have been tracking is VoteCal, a new statewide voter registration database to replace the one built in 1995. 

When VoteCal becomes operational, we will have statewide voter lookup tools so all California voters can easily check their registration or ballot status online - conveniences enjoyed by voters in most other states. We will be able to register 17 year olds to vote, and implement Election Day registration. Our registration records will be more accurate and California's embarrassingly low rate of registration (45th in the nation) could increase due to the greater efficiency and accuracy technology improvements can bring.

VoteCal has been in development since 2006 and already failed once. I'm hoping the Secretary of State and Department of General Services will succeed in keeping it on track this time around and so far the updates indicate progress is being made. But the new system is still four years out. It is not scheduled to be in operation until 2017. It's hard to imagine the technology they are planning for today will still be state-of-the-art by 2017 (and that assumes the project is not further delayed). 

Whether the government procurement process itself will ever be modernized to embrace rather than inhibit qualities like flexibility and timeliness remains to be seen. Some excellent suggestions recently appeared in Politico and the New York Times, which highlights the "agile software approach." The Times also reminds us that government technology successes include the creation of the Internet itself, which in turn has brought about online access to a whole host of government services (most recently, and successfully, California online voter registration) whose availability would otherwise be severely limited.

Governments are not like private businesses - we are not governed by autocrats who can push and abuse their employees the way some titans reportedly do. But we must find a way to update our procurement process so government agencies can put technology to uses that best serve, rather than inflame the public.  

Thursday, August 22, 2013

CVF-NEWS: Presidential commission talk, disclosure bills and special elections

The August 22 edition of CVF-NEWS provides an update on various activities we've been engaged in over the summer. It highlights a presentation I gave to the Presidential Commission on Election Administration on California's vote-by-mail balloting process, featuring data such as this chart

showing the rise of vote-by-mail balloting over the last decade. The newsletter also describes two disclosure bills CVF is supporting and features links to our letters of support. Also featured is a recent TV news story about the rise of special elections in California.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Lawmakers stick locals with costs of voting

Today the Sacramento Bee's editorial page features an op-ed I wrote about the state's continued withholding of election funds to local governments in the latest budget. An excerpt is below; the entire piece is online at: 


The new state budget is here, and once again it leaves the state's election system holding an increasingly empty bag.

For years counties have relied on the state to help fund state laws that change the voting process and in turn, make extra work and cost extra money for counties.

The last time election mandates were funded was 2009, when they accounted for about $30 million paid to all 58 counties. The largest in terms of dollars and impact is the permanent absentee voter program, which allows Californians to sign up to vote by mail in every election rather than reapplying each time.

Since then, the money has been withheld by the state and counties have had to make do with less. At the same time, counties no longer get reimbursed for the cost of special legislative elections, despite their growing frequency. 


Monday, April 29, 2013

CA Assembly committee passes Internet voting bill with secret amendments

Last Tuesday at the California Assembly Elections committee hearing, AB 19 by Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) was heard and passed on a 4-3 vote. If enacted, the bill would create a California online voting pilot program.

Over the weekend, while cleaning out some old papers, I had deja vu moment when I came across a December 4, 2000 news release issued by then-Assembly Majority Leader Kevin Shelley announcing the introduction of AB 55, which among other things, as originally introduced would have established an online voting pilot program under the direction of the Secretary of State. 

That provision was ultimately amended out, and Mr. Shelley would go on to become the Secretary of State of California and one of the nation's first political leaders to support a voter verified paper audit trail and mandatory election recounts. 

Shelley, who today serves on the board of Verified Voting, is one of many politicians who activists and technologists have worked with over the years to help expand understanding of the risks and opportunities technology can bring to the voting process. 

When I saw AB 19, my first thought was, "Here we go again." Every election there is a new crop of politicians, some of whom think Internet voting is like any other governmental process that can be migrated online. It isn't. And it can't. And that's why so many people showed up at the Assembly Elections committee hearing to testify against AB 19.

The committee analysis is very detailed and provides an excellent overview of California's recent efforts to upgrade and modernize our voting systems as well as the historic work of California's 1999 Internet Voting Task Force, upon which I served as a member.

The bill was opposed by a variety of good government and election reform groups, including California Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, Verified Voting, computer scientist and California Voter Foundation board member David Jefferson, and many activists from local political clubs and groups. Only one witness spoke in support and only one letter of support was on file with the committee, provided by Everyone Counts which produces and sells online voting systems.

Despite the overwhelming display of opposition, including that of Committee Chairman Paul Fong, the bill made it through the first hearing thanks to support and votes provided by Democrats Henry Perea (Fresno), Rob Bonta (Oakland), Raul Bocanegra (LA Valley), and Isadore Hall (Compton). In expressing his support, Mr. Perea misguidedly stated, "Considering all the technology we have, especially here in California, we should do this."

It appeared that Mr. Bonta and Mr. Perea had worked out some amendments with the author behind the scenes that not even the committee chair had seen. When Chairman Fong stated that the bill had to be voted on in the committee "as is" and amendments could be taken at the next committee hearing, the committee members overrode the chair and pushed the bill through, agreeing to secret amendments that still are not in print. 

It was a highly unusual maneuver and took everyone in the room by surprise. The bill passed on a 4-3 vote, with Chair Paul Fong and Republican Vice Chair Tim Donnelly voting "no" (both lawmakers spoke out strongly against the bill), and Republican Dan Logue also voting against it.

The bill goes next to the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which Mr. Bocanegra and Mr. Hall both serve on - it will be interesting to see if they change their votes on AB 19 or if they continue to give the bill their support.

The hardest part about observing the Legislature's elections committees is that every member thinks he or she is an expert on this topic, since all of them have been through elections. This dynamic can make lobbying on election reform very difficult.

It took Mr. Shelley 20 months to amend his online voting pilot program language out of SB 55 back in the 2001-2002 session. While more than a decade has passed, the security issues remain the same - it is simply not feasible to facilitate secure, online voting while protecting a person's right to a secret ballot and the overall integrity of the election process. 

For more on why Internet voting is not feasible, see this excellent essay, "If I can shop and bank online, why can't I vote online?" by Dr. David Jefferson.

Monday, April 22, 2013

My Gluten Free and Gluten-Reduced Beer Picks!

On my blog I usually write about voting and elections issues, but today I offer something a little more personal and out of the ordinary.

Almost four years ago I went gluten-free after seeing a health care practitioner who suggested I try it to see if it would benefit my health. It did, and I have become an enthusiastic advocate of the gluten-free diet. 

Giving up French bread and pasta were not so difficult, but giving up beer was a big challenge. As a longtime Northern California resident I have grown very fond of all the delicious microbrews produced in and around our region, especially on tap! Sure, there are gluten-free alternative drinks such as cider, wine and anything made with vodka. But there is nothing like a rich, foamy draft beer!

I set out with a goal to try as many gluten-free and gluten-reduced beers as I could. Unfortunately, the ones most widely available at that time (2009) were not at all to my liking. A six pack of Redbridge ended up getting poured down the sink, as did New Grist and Bard's. Clearly my assignment was going to take some extra work.

The first delicious gluten-free beer I ever tasted is Estrella Damm Daura, from Spain. A special brewing process is used to process out the gluten, resulting in a fresh, delicious tasting lager perfect for a Summer day. It's sold in a four-pack for around $8 at Total Wine, Bevmo and Whole Foods.

While I think Daura is delicious, I prefer strong ales. My next favorite GF beer is Green's, a Belgian beer that comes in a variety of flavors. These beers are strong in flavor as well as alcohol content, and though a little pricey (usually about $5 for a 17 ounce bottle), you may not want to drink more than one. But while Green's looked and behaved the way I think beer should, the flavor is a little peculiar, and some describe as syrupy, as it is made from sorghum. My quest continued.

Next came along New Planet, a GF beer company operating in Colorado. The first flavor I tried was their Raspberry Ale. This is one of two GF beers I have tried that are made with fruit (the other is Dogfish Head's Tweasonale, made from strawberries). Not being a fan of sweet beer, I was not initially excited by New Planet. But I went ahead and gave their other flavors a try. I particularly liked their Off Grid Pale Ale. They have created new flavors and packaging and are sold in moderately priced four-packs usually available at Total Wine, Bevmo and Whole Foods. 

After some further digging online, I came across Soba Ale, a beer made from buckwheat that was created by Iron Chef Masaharo Morimoto and produced by Rogue in two 22 ounce bottle flavors - Soba Ale and the darker, Black Obi Soba Ale. Although not gluten free (it still has malt in it), since it is made from buckwheat it is gluten-light. And both flavors are absolutely delicious! 

On a tip from a staffer at Total Wine, I gave Midas Touch, from Dogfish Head a try. This was the first of their "Ancient Ales" series and the ingredients are "based on molecular evidence found in a Turkish tomb believed to have belonged to King Midas. It's a sweet yet dry beer made with honey, white muscat grapes and saffron," according to the DH web site. I don't know exactly is in it, and it's a little sweet and very strong (9%!) but it works for me. It's expensive - a four pack is usually around $10-12 - but it is not hard to find in most specialty beer markets and supermarkets that carry a good selection of beer.

Now a few years into my quest, the beer buyer at my neighborhood market, Taylor's, was keeping an eye out for me. One day he said he said he had something new for me to try - Omission. Brewed by
Widmer Brothers Brewing in Portland, OR, Omission is a wonderful, West Coast microbrew that is produced the way any other beer is, with malted barley, but then an additional step is taken to process the gluten, resulting in a gluten-reduced (though not gluten-free) beer. Omission comes in two great flavors, Pale Ale and Lager, and is fairly widely available in many beer shops and high end grocery stores. We now purchase this beer by the case for our household and bring it to parties where it is enjoyed by everyone!

Finally I had a good, bottled ale to turn to, but still I was pining for the real thing - beer on tap! One evening at Dad's Kitchen, my neighborhood restaurant/taproom, I met the beer makers from Six Rivers and told them about my quest for a gluten-free beer on tap. To my surprise and delight they informed me that Berryessa Brewing Co., located in Winters (a mere 40 minutes from my house!) is producing a gluten-reduced House IPA. I could not wait to try it!

The Six Rivers guys also clued me into a new Belgian ale, called Brunehaut (pronounced "Bruno"), produced by St. Martin. It comes in two flavors - Amber and Blonde Ale - and both are strong and delicious. This is a very pricey, imported beer, usually running around $14 for a four pack, but if you want to splurge it is worth it! Like Omission, this beer is produced like a regular ale then processed to break down the gluten, making it gluten-reduced, not gluten-free. It's pretty hard to find too - so far I've only found it locally at Pangaea Cafe and the Davis Beer Shoppe (though it shows up in Total Wine's inventory no one was able to locate it in my local store on a recent visit). 

Our field trip out to Berryessa Brewing one weekend afternoon was a day I will never forget. Berryessa Brewing is out in the middle of an orchard field, a very simple place that every weekend is packed with happy patrons, musicians, food trucks, dogs, kids, potlucks - it is everything you want in a microbrewery! 

Beermaker Chris Miller is producing the House IPA and other drinks, and adding a special enzyme to break down the gluten and make it easier to digest. (This may be what the other gluten-reduced manufacturers are doing too but just being more secretive about it). Berryessa Brewing's House IPA is available on tap at many establishments in Sacramento, Davis, Winters and a few in San Francisco as well (check their Facebook page for locations). The brewery also sells and fills growlers that are pressurized and capped tight, and will stay fresh in your fridge until you open them for a good week or two. 

It took almost four years for my gluten-reduced beer quest to be achieved, but with Berryessa Brewing's House IPA I can finally enjoy a pint on tap with my friends at many of my favorite places in town. Adding this extra processing step does nothing to take away from the flavor. My only hope is that more beermakers will realize that they too can offer a delicious, gluten-reduced beer and give their patrons more options!

Bottom line:  If you have Celiac, the best beer to try are those from New Planet. If you are gluten-intolerant, or just want to cut back on your gluten intake, there are now a wide variety of choices for you, Omission being the tastiest and easiest to find at this time. Bottoms up!

A well-stocked beer shop in Cole Valley, SF offers Omission & Midas Touch

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

2013-14 Calif. Election Bills to Watch

With spring well underway, the California Legislature is also in full swing, with policy committees now hearing newly introduced bills for the 2013-2014 session. Many bills have been introduced that, if enacted, could significantly impact California voting and elections. 

Below is a rundown of those that have come to our attention, organized by the following topics:  Voting Technology; Voter Registration; Disclosure; Vote by Mail; Disaster Preparedness; Youth Voting; Initiative Process; and Civic Education. Please note that many of these bills are in the process of being amended and the descriptions provided are subject to change. 

Today the Assembly Elections Committee will take up several of these bills at their 1:30 p.m. hearing at the State Capitol, Room 444. The full hearing agenda is available online, along with links where the public can listen to or watch the hearing online. The Assembly committee has additional hearings scheduled on April 23 and May 7; the Senate Elections Committee meets on April 30.

More information about the bills, including texts, co-authors, committee staff analyses, amendments and when and whether they get scheduled for hearing, is from the official California legislative information site, now featuring a new, HTML-friendly display format that makes legislation much easier to read online.

Voting Technology
  • SB 360/Alex Padilla (D) - allows a county to develop or contract for voting system before it has received federal qualification.
  • AB 19/Phil Ting (D) - directs the Secretary of State to implement a pilot program for online voting.
  • AB 813/Melissa Melendez (R) - requires election results to be published online in a format that can be downloaded.
  • AB 829/Paul Fong (D) - requires election management systems software to be escrowed in a manner similar to existing voting system software escrow requirements.
Voter Registration
  • SB 361/Padilla - requires the Secretary of State to provide voters with statewide access to online lookup tools that help voters locate their polling places and verify registration, vote by mail ballot and provisional ballot status, and also allows the Secretary of State to enter into data sharing agreements with other states to maintain accurate registration data.
  • SB 44/Leland Yee (D) - requires state web sites to link to the Secretary of State's online voter registration site.
  • AB 1122/Mark Levine (D) - requires the Secretary of State and Department of Motor Vehicles to fully comply with the National Voter Registration Act (also known as "Motor-Voter").
  • AB 843/Dan Logue (R) - requires proof of residency requirements for a conditional registration application to be deemed effective.
  • SB 111/Jim Beall (D) - allows a signature stamp to be used by certain voters to register to vote online.
  • SB 756/Cathleen Galgiani (D) - allows Election Day registration to begin in 2014 instead of waiting until VoteCal, the state's new online voter registration system, is deployed.
  • AB 1170/Tim Donnelly (R) - changes current law to require rather than permit counties to remove inactive voters from registration roles.
  • AB 938 and AB 149/Shirley Weber (D) - these bills address voting rights for those convicted of felonies.
  • SB 27/Lou Correa (D) - enhances disclosure of proposition campaign donors.
  • SB 3/Yee - makes numerous changes to state disclosure rules and, among other provisions, directs Secretary of State to work toward a state and local unified campaign finance disclosure system.
  • AB 400/Fong - requires initiative, referendum and recall petitions to name top donors to the committee paying to circulate petitions.
  • AB 800/Richard Gordon (D) - strengthens FPPC's pre-election auditing and enforcement authority (bill responds to $11 million anonymous donation in Nov. 2012 initiative campaigns).
  • SB 52/Mark Leno (D) - proposes extensive revisions to the Political Reform Act in order to implement the new "California Disclose Act".
Vote by Mail
  • SB 29/Lou Correa (D) - allows ballots postmarked by Election Day and received within three days of the election to be counted.
  • AB 1135/Kevin Mullin (D) - lets county registrars use other registration documents in addition to registration application to verify voters' signatures.
  • AB 269/Shannon Grove (R) and Jim Patterson (R) - Vote-by-Mail ballots for military and overseas voters would be accepted if postmarked by Election Day and received within ten days.
  • AB 530/Sharon Quirk-Silva (D) - allows counties to accept Vote-by-Mail ballot applications over the phone.
  • SB 589/Jerry Hill (D) - allows counties to use additional election materials besides registration affidavit to very vote-by-mail signatures and also requires counties to provide a free access system for at least 30 days after an election is certified so voters can find out if their Vote-by-Mail ballot was counted and if not, why not. 
Disaster Preparedness
  • SB 362/Padilla - requires Governor and Secretary of State to establish procedures for voting during disasters.
  • AB 214/Nancy Skinner (D) - directs Secretary of State to develop regulations for voting in a disaster (online voting provision has been amended out of bill).
Youth Voting
  • SB 240/Yee - requires polling places on UC and CSU campuses for statewide general elections.
  • SB 267/Fran Pavley (D) - requires polling places on community college, UC and CSU campuses under certain circumstances.
  • ACA 7/Mullin - allows 17 year olds who will be 18 by the General election to vote in the Primary election.
  • SB 113/Hannah-Beth Jackson (D) - lowers the age when Californians can pre-register to vote from 17 to 15 and allows pre-registration to begin immediately instead of waiting for VoteCal to be deployed. 
Initiative Process
  • ACA 6/Mike Gatto (D) - requires initiative constitutional amendments to get 55% of vote to pass.
  • SCA 6/Mark DeSaulnier (D) - requires initiative measures (other than bonds) to identify a funding source.
  • SB 477/Darryl Steinberg (D) - intent is to require initiative campaign committees to receive a certain number of small contributions to demonstrate grassroots support for the proposed initiative before collecting large donations. 
Civic Education
  • SB 619/Yee - requires civics education for state employees. 
  • AB 700/Jimmy Gomez (D) - requires social science instruction in grades 8-12 to include a voter education component. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The power of networks

I'm getting ready to go to Atlanta, GA for the Election Verification Network's conference later this week. It's the ten year anniversary of this conference and network, which has grown into a wonderful community of people over the years. Activists, academics, administrators, elections officials - everyone involved is working toward a common goal of more secure and verifiable elections. We've made a lot of progress over the years simply by talking and listening to one another.

Over the past year and half, I've also had the opportunity to engage in another new network, the Future of California Elections. FOCE is a collective of county election officers, and civil and voting rights advocates working toward a common goal of improving and expanding voter participation in our state. It's exciting to think about the opportunities ahead that I feel confident will emerge when thoughtful people put their heads together and walk in the same direction.

Margaret Mead said to never doubt a small group of thoughtful, committed people could change the world, because really it is the only thing that ever does. I have found this to be quite true. EVN and FOCE are both manifestations of this idea. CVF itself is led by a small, wonderful group of board members who guide our programs and partnerships.

The fact is, we change the world every day simply by connecting people and information to each other.