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Monday, September 1, 2014

New York State Investigation Unit Ready to Enforce Board of Election Laws


On July 2, 2013, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo appointed the “Commission to Investigate Public Corruption” under the Moreland Act and Executive Law Section 63(8) to probe systemic corruption and the appearance of such corruption in state government, political campaigns and elections in New York State.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman would appoint the members of the Commission as Deputy Attorneys General giving the Commission broad investigative authority to probe matters that “involve public peace, public safety and public justice”.

The Commission would have the power to issue subpoenas and examine witnesses under oath.  They would be tasked with reviewing the adequacy of existing state laws, regulations and procedures involving unethical and unlawful misconduct by public officials and the electoral process and campaign finance laws.  They would also examine whether existing laws and regulations have been fairly and vigorously enforced and what changes must be made to such enforcement.  The Commission is directed to make recommendations to toughen and improve existing laws and procedures.

The Commission is comprised of 3 co-chairs and 22 members.  It also includes 1 Special Counsel and 3 Special Advisors.  The Commission will issue a preliminary report by December 1, 2013 and any additional report(s) by January 1, 2015.

Governor Cuomo announced he was disbanding the panel, known as the Moreland Commission, on March 29.  The governor said at the time that in exchange for terminating the panel’s work, he had won tougher laws on bribery and corruption and improved enforcement of election laws.

The improved enforcement of election laws begins tomorrow.

The new compliance office for the state Board of Elections is designed to independently probe potential election law and campaign finance violations.  For the past several years, the Board of Elections had no investigators on staff to enforce election laws.  The unit was created as part of a deal to shut down Gov. Cuomo’s anti-corruption commission.

The new compliance office is designed to independently probe potential election laws and campaign finance violations.  It will be headed by Chief Enforcement Counsel Risa Sugarman, who was appointed by Cuomo and served him during his days as governor and attorney general.

The unit will begin with three investigators, three lawyers and two support staff.  For the past several years, the much-maligned Board of Elections has had no investigators on staff to enforce election laws.

The unit will also literally be walled off from the rest of the Board of Elections, agency spokesman John Conklin said.  "They had state workers build a closed space for them, which will be a secure area that can only be accessed via their employee ID cards and excludes other board personnel," Conklin said.

Some government reformers are taking a wait-and-see attitude as to how effective the new unit will be.  Blair Horner, of the New York Public Interest Research Group, called it "an interesting idea scotch-taped onto a completely dysfunctional agency."  "Hope springs eternal, but Albany's had such a lousy record of enforcement with both ethics and campaign finance laws that New Yorkers should be skeptical," Horner said. "But we certainly hope they succeed."

It's unclear how many cases await Sugarman as she sets up shop Tuesday.  The state Senate campaign for former City Controller John Liu last week said it filed a complaint claiming a political action committee controlled by a group of breakaway Senate Democrats who help control the chamber violated state spending limits by sending glossy mailings urging support for Queens Sen. Tony Avella in the Sept. 9 primary.  A lawyer for the PAC denied any wrongdoing.

The unit was part of several ethics reforms the Legislature agreed to in late March in exchange for Cuomo's controversial decision to shut down his anti-corruption commission.  That decision, as well as possible interference by top Cuomo aides into the work of the commission, is now being investigated by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.










NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote!

Michael H. Drucker
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Thursday, August 28, 2014

States Tops in the Open Data Movement


The Center for Data Innovation is the leading think tank studying the intersection of data, technology, and public policy.  Based in Washington, DC, the Center formulates and promotes pragmatic public policies designed to maximize the benefits of data-driven innovation in the public and private sectors.  It educates policymakers and the public about the opportunities and challenges associated with data, as well as technology trends such as predictive analytics, open data, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things.  The Center is a non-profit, non-partisan research institute proudly affiliated with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

As more local municipalities join the open data movement, the Center for Data Innovation has assessed which state governments are actually measuring up with the best policies.

A new report ranks states based on progress with open data policies and digital accessibility to data portals.  Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Oklahoma and Utah are the top six states, respectively, in making strides with the open data movement.

The report also finds that 10 states currently maintain open data policies, and all but one offer an open-data portal.  New Hampshire being the exception as the only state with an open-data policy that doesn’t offer complete datasets.  Over the last two years, five states have created new policies while four have amended existing ones.  Overall, 24 states offer some form of an open data portal, including some without policies in place.

The rankings were determined based on four categories including the presence of an open-data policy, the quality of the policy, the presence of a open-data portal and the quality of that portal, according to Government Executive.

The report also explores common elements among those states with the most successful open data campaigns, including data being open by default, which includes public, expenditure and legislative records, as well as being released in a non-proprietary format or a machine readable format.  A universal format is important in order for nonprofits, businesses and other users to process and translate the datasets.  For example, if a state releases data in a PDF or DOC, it may not be considered effective because the format is not machine-readable.

While some states have polices on government transparency, the report points out that often it translates to publishing data on only a few topics, which is a good starting point, but not comprehensive enough.

“While a general transparency portal is a good start, open data portals can help increase transparency and accountability by opening up all government data, non just certain types of records,” the report says.

To Increase Government Transparency, San Diego Joins the Open Data Movement.

CLICK HERE to read the report.










NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote!

Michael H. Drucker
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The Use of Data in a Presidential Election Campaign


It was two weeks before Election Day when Mitt Romney’s political director signed a memo that all but ridiculed the notion that the Republican presidential nominee, with his “better ground game,” could lose the key state of Ohio or the election.

But the claims proved wildly off the mark, a fact embarrassingly underscored when the high-tech voter turnout system that Romney himself called “state of the art” crashed at the worst moment, on Election Day.

To this day, Romney’s aides wonder how it all went so wrong.

But a reconstruction of how the campaign unfolded shows that Romney’s problems went deeper than is widely understood.  His campaign made a series of costly financial, strategic, and political mistakes that, in retrospect, all but assured the candidate’s defeat, given the revolutionary turnout tactics and tactical smarts of President Obama’s operation.

These failures are now the subject of scrutiny by national GOP officials who say they plan to “reverse engineer” the Romney effort to understand what went wrong.  A number of Romney’s top aides stressed in interviews that, while they remain proud of their work, they feel an obligation to acknowledge their numerous mistakes so lessons are learned.

Democrats said they followed the trail blazed in 2004 by the Bush campaign which used an array of databases to “microtarget” voters and a sophisticated field organization to turn them out.  Obama won in part by updating the GOP’s innovation.

President Obama’s national field director, Jeremy Bird, drew his inspiration from the time around 2001 when he witnessed, as a young Harvard Divinity student, a group of African-American students in a Roxbury church, pressing their case for school funding with members of the Boston City Council.  It was a model, in miniature, of grass-roots engagement that would shape Bird’s career in politics and attract him to Obama, who had himself been a community organizer.  Bird was confident that Obama would commit massive resources to building an organization that zeroed in on individual voters.  It would be like that Roxbury church encounter, multiplied a thousand times.

A first-class ground operation in 2012 required leading-edge technology, and here also an early gap opened between Obama and Romney.

The goal was to create the political equivalent of a Facebook or Twitter, a platform that would change the way presidential campaigns are run.  And Obama’s team found just the man for the job: a 34-year-old programming whiz named Harper Reed, who got his start as an 11-year-old pecking on an Apple II and had never held a top job in a political campaign.  As Reed assembled his team, he insisted on being given leeway to hire some of the best techies in the country, from Facebook, Craigslist, Twitter.  Moreover, he insisted the team be largely internal, rather than have the enterprise be divided up among outside consultants.

The group was haunted by the failure of a similar venture in Obama’s 2008 campaign, when a get-out-the-vote computer program called Houdini crashed and could have cost the election if the race had been closer.  This time, Reed and his team created a successor that they named Gordon, after the person who punched Houdini in the stomach shortly before the magician died.

Separately, the Obama team created a system called Narwahl, named after an Arctic whale, which linked disparate computer programs together.  Narwahl and Gordon would be tested repeatedly in exercises that Obama’s team called “game day.”  Every imaginable failure would be thrown at the systems — hacker attacks, database meltdowns, Internet failures — and the team would be challenged to write up a manual for how to deal with each disaster.  It was, they said, more fun than the fantasy war game Dungeons & Dragons.

Zac Moffatt, Romney’s digital director, did not have the luxury of Reed’s time or resources.  Moffatt came from the world of politics, had worked at the Republican National Committee and had long believed Romney would be the best GOP candidate for president.  Moffatt played catch-up from the start.  He had 14 people working for him in the primaries and then, around May 1, he submitted a general election plan that required at least 110 people and would eventually have 160.  Obama was far ahead.  Moffatt recalled his assignment in daunting terms: “Can we do 80 percent of what the Obama campaign is doing, in 20 percent of the time, at 10 percent of the cost?”

Moffatt’s team nonetheless managed to create big projects on short notice.  For example, one of the highest priorities was a Facebook app that would enable the Romney campaign to locate voters who otherwise could not be found by telephone.  By some estimates, half of younger voters do not have a landline or cannot be reached by cellphone.  Three weeks before Election Day, the app was unveiled by the campaign and downloaded by 40,000 Romney supporters.

There was only one problem.  Months earlier, Obama’s campaign had developed a similar app, which had been downloaded by 1 million people.

In campaign postmortems, Republicans have been criticized for spending too much on advertising compared with Democrats, even as some reports said Obama was able to book television spots more cheaply, run more ads in key states, and reach key voters more effectively.

The Obama campaign used a program called “the optimizer” that linked data from its voter databases, focus groups, and television ratings to determine how to reach people who do not typically see campaign ads.  As a result, Obama purchased ads on channels such as TV Land and Hallmark that were watched by voters who rarely saw news programs where ads often appear.

A key difference was the depth of voter contact.  Romney took comfort in polls that showed voters had been contacted equally by both campaigns.  But the polls were misleading, perhaps equating a recorded robocall on the phone with a house call by a worker.

As dawn broke on Election Day, 800 Romney volunteers filled the floor of TD Garden in Boston.  This was the centerpiece of the campaign’s turnout operation, code named ORCA, that was supposed to swallow Obama’s Narwhal program.  But the Romney team was so determined to keep ORCA secret that it had never run a test at TD Garden; it had only gone through some lesser runs in a different building.

The ORCA workers were supposed to be in contact with more than 30,000 volunteers stationed at polling places across the country.  Those volunteers were told to bring a smartphone and go to a secure Web page on which they could report the names of everyone who voted.  In this way, the Romney campaign could determine if supporters had failed to show up and urge them to vote.  But as volunteers on Election Day began tapping in the names of voters, it became clear something was wrong.  The system was so overloaded with incoming data from volunteers that it exceeded capacity and crashed.

The Obama campaign, which had suffered a similar meltdown in 2008 and had been zealous about testing its systems this time around, had no glitches.  Tens of thousands of Obama volunteers across the country sent real-time data from polling places, enabling workers at Chicago headquarters to ensure that expected vote totals were on track.  More importantly, the field organization put in place by Jeremy Bird hit its goals, turning out the needed number of voters to reelect the president.

In the coming months, Romney, ever the data-driven analyst, plans to contemplate how his political life came to an end, and what the party should do next, according to his son Tagg.  The fight for the ideological soul of the party will play out for months.  But recommendations are already pouring in for the party to create a ground-game infrastructure long before a nominee is selected, to catch up to the Democratic advantage in high-tech turnout operations, and to find ways to make the party more inclusive for minorities and women.

So today, the Republican data firms i360 and the Data Trust announced an agreement to share each other’s voter files, providing a possible boost to GOP candidates on the 2014 ballot.  The Data Trust serves as the primary voter data warehouse for the Republican National Committee’s overhauled digital voter turnout program.  The sharing agreement with i360, one of the top GOP-friendly data outfits, means that candidates that have been relying on RNC data to target voters will now have access to i360’s voter file, and vice versa.

The agreement augments the volume and sophistication of the data on America’s 190 million registered voters available to Republican campaigns.  It also helps ensure that all Republicans have access to the same data so that they can avoid strategic missteps.

This has been among the advantages held by Democrats on the data front, as they all primarily use the same firm, NGP VAN.

“For the first time, the Data Trust and i360 will work together to reduce duplication and make right-of-center voter contact efforts more efficient, resulting in our partners having access to more and better data,” John DeStefano, president of the Data Trust, said in a statement.

“i360 is excited that through this data sharing partnership, free market organizations will be able to more effectively use data in their voter outreach efforts,” Michael Palmer, president of i360, added.

Here is how the press release from the Data Trust described the agreement:

“Through this partnership, voter contact information gathered by clients of either The Data Trust or i360 can improve the data shared with all clients.  For example, if a client of either company conducting voter outreach identifies a voter attribute or preference, clients of the other organization will benefit from that information.  As a result, conservative groups and campaigns will have more information about voters at their disposal for their own activities than ever before.”










NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote!

Michael H. Drucker
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The New York Fusion Confusion


Electoral Fusion is an arrangement where two or more political parties on a ballot list the same candidate, pooling the votes for that candidate.  Distinct from the process of electoral alliances in that the political parties remain separately listed on the ballot.  The practice of electoral fusion in jurisdictions where it exists allows minor parties to influence election results and policy by offering to endorse or nominate a major party's candidate.

Electoral fusion is also known as fusion voting, cross-endorsement, multiple party nomination, multi-party nomination, plural nomination, and ballot-freedom.

New York is a Fusion voting state.  All the votes for a candidate under a party label are added for a total vote.  Write-in for an existing candidate are ignored.

Qualified Party
Democratic
Republican
Conservative
Working Families
Independence
Green

Un-Qualified Party
Constitution
Liberal
Libertarian
Socialist Workers

New York allows the creation of a party name for the current General Election.  The Fusion concept allows the voter to select a candidate but also show support for a party or an issue.  So in 2014, the following party labels were created.

Allen for Congress
Life and Justice
Mr. Smith for Congr.
Preserve Hudson
Rent is 2 Dam High
Sapient
Sovereignty P. of A.
Stop Common Core
Tax Revolt
We Deserve Better
Woman's Equity

Some of these party's petitions are being challenged.  So the final list for the General Election may change.










NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote!

Michael H. Drucker
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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

NYC Board of Elections Commissioner Selection


After nearly two months of revealing little to nothing to the public about how it will pick a new Board of Elections commissioner, the New York City Council on Tuesday promised it will make a pick with unprecedented transparency.

“The City Council takes its role in appointing new commissioners to the Board of Elections extremely seriously and the reforms the Council has put in place will ensure the appointment process is fair, transparent and public,” Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said in a statement.

The vow comes one day after the Daily News reported that the co-leaders of the Manhattan delegation, Councilwoman Margaret Chin and Councilman Corey Johnson, threatened to shut out lawmakers who leaked details about the group's private, split vote on a nominee for the job.

The Daily News ran a series of reports on the power struggle between Mark-Viverito and Manhattan Democratic Party Chairman Keith Wright for control of the appointment, which comes with the opportunity to make patronage hires at the Board.

Those reports included stories on Mark-Viverito wresting control of the pick from Wright; his nomination of a replacement for former Board Chairman Gregory Soumas (attorney Lenore Kramer, who later withdrew); the names and bios of those competing for the job; and an account of last week's secret vote to recommend Board supervisor Alan Schulkin to the full Council.

The Council's new open-door process will include, according to Mark-Viverito's office:

- Convening a public hearing of the Council’s Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections, at which candidates will testify and answer questions, and where the public will have an opportunity to testify.

- Providing potential appointees with a detailed written questionnaire which will be available at the public hearing.

- Asking nominees to review and analyze the NYC Department of Investigation's report on problems at the Board of Elections.

The hearing is scheduled for Sept. 17.

Said Councilman Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn), head of the Rules Committee, in the same release:

“I’m proud of the reforms the City Council has put in place to make the Board of Elections appointment process more transparent, including the first-ever public hearing.  These reforms show how serious the Council is about fair elections, and will help bring long overdue changes to the BOE."

Good-government groups have pressed the Council to open the selection process to the public, including offering suggestions for questions any nominee should have to answer before a confirmation.

CLICK HERE to read NYPIRG Statement on the Appointment of New BOE Commissioners.










NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote!

Michael H. Drucker
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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Federal Election Commission Enacts Policies by Not Acting


Under federal law, no more than three members of the commission may belong to the same political party.  Four votes are required to issue an advisory opinion, pursue an investigation or agree on a punishment.  Veterans of the commission say that for many years the arrangement was effective in encouraging commissioners to apply rules consistently to both parties.

But deadlocks have become far more common since 2008, when three new Republican commissioners joined the commission.

According to a study by Craig Holman, a lobbyist at Public Citizen, the commission has not only taken up far fewer advisory requests and issued fewer regulations than it did before 2008, it has also split votes on a greater proportion of the matters it does consider.

“The Republicans on the commission realized they can render the commission toothless,” said Mr. Holman, whose organization favors tougher disclosure rules and is suing the commission for what it says is a failure to enforce existing disclosure rules against Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, a leading Republican outside group.

Mr. Goodman acknowledged that candidates and outside groups were operating in a less restrictive regulatory environment than five years ago.  But he argued that the shift reflected deregulatory court rulings, such as Citizens United, and a proper restraint in applying limits on political speech.

Mr. Goodman also said “If there aren’t four votes to support a regulatory position, it’s not the position of the F.E.C.”

So, the three Republican and three Democratic appointees of the Federal Election Commission had reached yet another deadlock: They would issue no advisory opinion on whether the Conservative Action Fund could accept contributions of Bitcoin, the online currency created to be untraceable.

The Republican commissioner, Lee E. Goodman, suggested that the group could essentially do as it pleased.  The fund “has a clear statutory right to give and receive in-kind contributions regardless of what we say here today,” Mr. Goodman said.

The case was just one of the more than 200 times in the past six years that the commission has split votes, reflecting a deep ideological divide over how aggressively to regulate money in politics that mirrors the partisan gridlock in Congress.

But instead of paralyzing the commission, the 3-to-3 votes have created a rapidly expanding universe of unofficial law, where Republican commissioners have loosened restrictions on candidates and outside groups simply by signaling what standards they are willing to enforce.

Campaign lawyers of both parties say the deadlocks have profoundly, if informally, affected the rules governing campaigns, particularly on questions involving whether political nonprofit groups must disclose their finances and the threshold for starting an investigation.

The splits are consistent enough in spelling out the likely direction of enforcement, they say, that they now advise clients that a 3-to-3 split comes close to official commission policy.

“If you’ve got a client who is not as risk-averse, then you can sit down with them and say, ‘Here’s the situation, you have three commissioners who say this is lawful, and that is something you can rely on between now and November for your campaign strategy,’ ” said Michael E. Toner, a Republican election lawyer and former commissioner.

Some election lawyers have even turned the deadlocks into a kind of marketing spiel. As Anthony Herman, a lawyer at Covington & Burling, put it in an article on the firm’s website: “The F.E.C.: Where a ‘Tie’ Can Be (Almost) a ‘Win.’ ”

In an interview, Mr. Goodman, the commission chairman, described the guiding principle as one of deference to First Amendment political speech.  In case of a deadlock, he said, the “tie goes to the speaker.”

F.E.C. deadlocks have transformed the regulatory system intended to ensure that outside groups operate independently of the candidates they support — the distinction that, under the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, permits them to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money.

Twice the commission has reached an impasse on rules affecting whether a “super PAC” can borrow video prepared by a candidate for his or her own ads.  Candidates of both parties now routinely make available so-called B-roll video, ensuring that super PAC ads look and feel similar to the candidate’s own ads.

In a January hearing on text-message advertising, Caroline C. Hunter, one of the Republican commissioners, told the lawyer for a left-leaning digital media firm that his client need not worry if the commission declined to bless its proposed approach to disclosure.

“It looks like this is going to go down 3 to 3,” Ms. Hunter said. “And so there’s not four votes to say, ‘You can’t do this.’ ”

The deadlocks appear to have had a particular impact on enforcement cases.  In a series of deadlocks over proposed fines or settlements, Republican commissioners have in effect created a new, higher standard for investigations, arguing that direct evidence of a violation must already exist before the commission staff can even begin investigating a complaint.

A commission deadlock on a complaint can be challenged in court, but under court rulings dating to the early 1990s, federal judges in such cases have deferred to the legal interpretation of the three commissioners voting to block an investigation.

“The fact that there is this deference given to what is an obstacle to disclosure ultimately means that there is no meaningful judicial remedy when the F.E.C. does not come to a decision,” said Ann M. Ravel, a Democrat who joined the commission last year.

Even apparent agreements among the commissioners can be illusory. In May, in a separate request involving Bitcoin, the commissioners unanimously agreed that a fledgling group called Make Your Laws could accept small Bitcoin contributions of no more than $100.  But in a separate statement, Mr. Goodman suggested that potential Bitcoins donors should not worry about the new policy.

The Commission is made up of six members, who are appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the United States Senate.  Each member serves a six-year term, and two seats are subject to appointment every two years.

But it does not say that a commissioner has to be a member of a party.  So we need a President and a Senate that will approve two independents.










NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote!

Michael H. Drucker
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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

NYC Council Committee and Banning Anonymous Campaign Ads


The New York City Council committee overseeing government operations passed legislation Wednesday requiring stricter independent expenditure disclosure requirements and banning anonymous campaign ads.

The legislation, spearheaded by Councilman Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn), will require donors to directly link their names to organizations that put out advertisements for candidates running for office.  For example, at the beginning or end of an advertisement, when it says "paid for," the person or entity funding the ad needs to include a name.  That information will also have to be made available online.  The bill will also require any individual or entity that makes independent expenditures totaling $1,000 or more supporting or opposing any candidate to disclose its expenditure to the Campaign Finance Board.

"Voters need to know what they're getting in," said Lander, adding that the legislation would allow New York City to "clean up our elections."

Under current law, disclosure on independent expenditures includes only the name of the individual or organization responsible for the advertisement.  But elected officials like Lander argue that many organizations that paid for advertisements in the 2013 mayoral election cycle had generic names that barely told voters who or what the organizations represented, and hid the actual sources of the spending.

The bills passed the entire Council.  Waiting for the Mayor's signature.










NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote!

Michael H. Drucker
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