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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Voting Methods and Election Integrity Symposium




Solutions and reforms to America's electoral system were presented at the first annual Voting Methods and Election Integrity Symposium at Infinity Park's Cherry Creek Room in Glendale, CO on Saturday, November 15th.  Colorado based Free Speech TV and the Open Media Foundation were the host broadcasters of the Symposium along with the Free and Equal Network.

The symposium brought together intellectuals and experts in the political field in a collaborative effort to review flaws with current elections and voting methods, provide alternatives to those flawed systems, and provide in-depth demonstrations and explanations to highlight the effectiveness of the alternatives.

Panel on alternative voting methods from 9AM-noon included:
- Rob Richie (FairVote, via Skype)
- Richard Winger (Ballot Access News, Free and Equal)
- Bill Redpath (Libertarian Party)
- Aaron Hamlin (Center for Election Science)

During the lunch hour:
Glendale Mayor Mike Dunafon presented an opening address via video.  Harry Hempy (2014 Green Party gubernatorial candidate), Lily Williams (2014 Libertarian candidate for Colorado State House & Colorado state leader for Our America Initiative), and Matthew Hess (2014 Libertarian gubernatorial candidate) spoke.

The panel on election integrity from 1PM-4PM included:
- Richard Winger
- Harvie Branscomb (Coloradans for Voting Integrity)
- Suzanne Staiert (Deputy Secretary of State of Colorado)

Christina Tobin, Founder and Chair of Free and Equal Elections, then led the dialogue by introducing profoundly relevant topics such as approval voting, instant runoff voting, and proportional representation; as well as decisive issues such as the use of closed source electronic voting machines, Electoral College, gerrymandering, and Top-Two primary systems.

In attendance were State Representative Kathleen Conti, former Congressman Tom Tancredo, League of Women Voters Boulder activist Celeste Landry, and everyday citizens of Colorado who support open and transparent elections.

Alternative Voting Methods Panel

During this symposium a mock election accomplished through the use of four different voting methods was run.  The technical aspects of each method can be viewed in the video of the symposium.

Are voting methods more important than financing?  Yes.  “There is nothing more important than how you can express information on a ballot because that’s what determines the results,” stated Aaron Hamlin.

How can we get equal time for candidate campaigns ads?  Free and Equal Elections Foundation is leading the movement to provide a free and equal political platform for all eligible candidates.  Certain initiatives such as the Free and Equal Network and Election Assistant can provide candidates with non-partisan media representation.

How do we get independents to vote?  Structural reform of the voting method system would provide voters the confidence and support they need in order to vote for their preferred candidate.  It provides a reliable, efficient, and fair manner in which to elect officials.

How much will implementation of alternative voting methods cost the voters?  Most alternative voting methods require very simple changes that voting equipment can already fulfill.  Another large benefit of utilizing these methods is that some no longer require a follow-on primary election, saving both time and money.  Future symposiums will address costs in more detail.

How can we reform the system?  The political and social atmosphere is beginning to awaken to the corruption of the electoral system.  This type of atmosphere prompts the necessity for structural reform.  These types of systems have shown to be successful in the past and they can be in the future.  A major motivating factor will occur when minor party and independent candidates garner enough support via supporters and media that the American people can clearly see the primary system failing.

Does the corporate media tilt the outcome of elections and do alternative methods help fix this?  Alternate methods give the candidates accurate levels of support which assists the third parties in securing enough votes regardless of media spin.

Alternative voting methods are used throughout the world with great success.  Rob Richie discussed this view and specifically mentioned that hardly any of the major democracies use the two-party system or plurality voting method.  The success of these states sheds light on the future of American political practices and hope for the future of electoral system.

Election Integrity Panel

The election integrity panel of this symposium utilized the personal knowledge and accounts of professionals in the political arena of Colorado.  One of the most provocative subjects discussed is the absolute need for accountability and oversight in the election system.  Harvie Branscomb discussed the system as it currently stands with a massive breadth of knowledge.  He specifically mentioned how difficult the system makes it for election watchers who attempt to ensure the integrity of each election cycle, such as attorney fees for the request of open records being used by election officials to bully election watchers from accessing election records.  The discussion turned to some uplifting information coming from novel election software being developed that would ensure integrity while allowing independent agencies access to election records and risk-limiting audits to be conducted.  Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert agreed with Christina Tobin that open dialogue, communication, public participation, and transparency is key in a healthy relationship between the people, election watchers/activists, and the government offices who oversee elections like the Secretary of State.

SOLUTIONS

- Symposiums
- Budgets for transparency in county offices
- Administrators for open records to avoid court proceedings
- Access for data on the ballots
- Greater oversight in cert
- Defend the watcher and canvas board roles
- Monitored drop off boxes for ballots
- Rethink recall laws
- Legislator that will work on bipartisan solutions

CLICK HERE to view the 6 hour event on YouTube.










NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote!

Michael H. Drucker
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Monday, November 24, 2014

Texting Donations Coming to NYC Campaign Finance Program


By year's end, the New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB) is expected to pass new rules that will govern how campaigns accept contributions via text message.  The rules stem from Local Law 11 of 2013 which allows candidates running for local offices to accept contributions through what is typically a cell-phone-based format.  If a text-message donor is a New York City resident, the given funds will be eligible for public matching dollars from the CFB.

"Text message contributions provide candidates with the potential to engage a wider set of contributors and the Board with an opportunity to expand the reach of New York City's landmark small donor matching funds program," CFB Chair Rose Gill Hearn said on Monday at a public hearing on the proposed rules.  "There are, however, practical challenges to text message fundraising."

The CFB held Monday's hearing on the proposed rules to address some of those challenges with stakeholders.  The proposed rules will limit text message contributions to $99, a cap the CFB says will help ensure eligibility compliance.  There was no objection to the donation limit at Monday's hearing, but there was a hearty discussion about the rules regarding the timing of texted contributions and how candidates will verify donors are using their own phones.

Text message contributions will be fairly easy to make, but the process is more complex than a simple credit card or cash donation.  For starters, the fees for such donations are exponentially higher than credit card fees, in some cases reaching 50 percent.  Non-profits like the Red Cross, which was among the first to use text message donations in 2010 following the disastrous earthquake in Haiti, are able to negotiate a lower rate because of their humanitarian missions.

But campaigns do not have that ability, at least not yet.  The question for the CFB is how to take a fee into account when establishing limits and matching funds.  With credit card fees, which are significantly lower than text messaging fees, the CFB currently counts the amount delivered to the candidate, not the original donation amount.  The fee is considered an expense and goes against candidate spending limits.  When considering matching funds, the CFB matches the full contribution to the candidate, not what is delivered after fees are deducted.

Citizens Union, a good government group, wants to see the credit card rules continue with text messaging.  Since the technology is new, it is unlikely the CFB will stray far from its current rules, although that could change before 2017 when text message donations may be used widely.

Another thorny issue the CFB must consider is the timing of its release of matching funds.  Text message donations are not paid to campaigns until the cell phone bill of the donor is paid, leaving a much larger gap than traditional credit card or cash donations.

To help get money to campaigns faster a third party messaging vendor is often used.  The messaging vendor buys a campaign's accounts receivables at a discount, giving the campaign a portion of texted donations up front.  Once the cell phone bill is paid and the balance received, the messaging vendor gives the rest to the campaign (this is, in part, why fees are so high on text message donations).

The CFB will have to decide when eligible funds are to be matched: at the time of donation, when the messaging vendor pays the campaign, or when the cell phone bill is paid.  No decision on this matter was reached at Monday's hearing, but guidance is expected in the final rules.

Lauren George, associate director of Common Cause New York, another good government group, suggested campaigns focus on soliciting text message donations earlier in election season to allow for the longer process.

Verification, especially for funds a candidate is trying to have matched, will be a critical step in the text message donation process.  But how that will be done is still up in the air, simply using the name and address on the cell phone bill as verification does not always work.

Many cell phone users are a part of family plans where the bill comes under one name and address, but users may live elsewhere.  Robert Bishop, a lawyer representing several candidate committees, pointed to his own family plan with his wife and three daughters as an example.  The bill is in his name, but his children live all over the country.

The Board is expected to adopt a set of rules for text message donations by the end of this year, but those rules may change drastically depending on how the technology is used in the 2016 presidential election. : In 2012, President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney both accepted text message donations.  They were used, though, on a very small scale because the Federal Election Commission approved the regulations only a few months before Election Day.










NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote!

Michael H. Drucker
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Montana Republican Party Closed Primary Lawsuit


Thanks to Richard Winger of Ballot Access News for this update.

As previously noted here, on September 9, 2014, the Republican Party of Ravalli County, Montana, filed a federal lawsuit to obtain a closed primary for the Republican Party.

On January 10 the state Republican central committee will meet and vote on whether the state party should join the lawsuit.

A pre-trial conference has been set for December 11.  It’s somewhat likely the pre-trial conference will be postponed, to wait for the state party’s decision.

The case is Ravalli County Republican Central Committee v McCulloch, 6:14cv-58.

The case is assigned to Judge Brian Morris, an Obama appointee and a former member of the Montana Supreme Court.

The state would defend the open primary by saying a county party doesn’t have standing to sue, and that only the state party has standing.  So the January 10th meeting could determine if this lawsuit continues.










NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote!

Michael H. Drucker
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NYC Pro-Voter Law Non-Compliance


Last summer, New York City Mayor de Blasio issued his first Mayoral Directive aimed to improve city agency voter registration efforts.  The City passed local Law 29, also known as the Pro-Voter Law, to expand voter registration opportunities at municipal agencies.

But City agencies are not doing enough to help New Yorkers register to vote found a new report released by the Pro-Voter Law Coalition.  The coalition of groups is led by Center for Popular Democracy, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), Citizens Union of the City of New York, and the New York Public Interest Research Group/NYPIRG.

Information for the report, A Broken Promise: Agency-Based Voter Registration in New York City, was obtained through Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests and field investigations, and revealed a lack of compliance across city agencies with the Pro-Voter Law.

Key findings included:

- Widespread failure to comply with the Pro-Voter Law’s requirement to provide voter registration application forms.  Specifically, city agencies failed to do so in 84 percent of client interactions.

- Efforts ranged from the inconsistent administration of the Pro-Voter Law, to an almost complete lack of apparent attempts to fully administer the law at the city agencies that responded to FOIL requests.

- Increased noncompliance for limited English proficient New Yorkers.  Only 40 percent, or 2 out of 5, of agency clients whose primary language was not English were given translated voter registration applications as mandated by the law.

- Agency staff received no regular training on voter registration procedures mandated by the law.

The Pro-Voter Law requires 18 city agencies and, under certain circumstances, their associated subcontractors, to provide voter registration forms to all persons submitting applications, renewals, or recertification for agency services, or notifying the agency of a change of address.  The law included each of the City’s 59 community boards as well.

In its report, the Pro-Voter Law Coalition made 12 recommendations including the following:

- Establish comprehensive protocols by December 31, 2014 to ensure that all agencies provide voter registration applications to clients when they apply for services, renewal or recertification for services and change of address relating to such services and promptly transmit all completed voter registration applications to the NYC Board of Elections.

- Require agencies to use coded voter registration forms specific to each agency.  Solicit quarterly reports by the Board of Elections on the numbers of forms submitted by city agencies (a model protocol is proposed in City Council Intro 356 of 2014).

- Mandate that agency staff provide the same level of assistance in completing voter registration forms as is given to other agency transactions.  This should include verbal assistance.

On November 24, 2014, the New York City Council's Committee on Governmental Operations approved the following:

Int 0356-2014 (Proposed Int. No. 356-A)
A Local Law to amend the New York city charter, in relation to expanding agency based voter registration to additional city agencies.

Int 0493-2014 (Proposed Int. No. 493-A)
Resolution calling upon the New York State Legislature to pass, and the Governor to sign, legislation permitting voter registration forms utilized by agencies participating in the agency assisted voter registration program to code their registration forms, and for such codes to be withheld from public inspection.

The new legislation is headed to the full Council for a vote on Tuesday and then, if passed as expected, to the desk of Mayor Bill de Blasio.  The bills expand the mandate of the Pro-Voter law to seven additional agencies and create a standard for enforcing the law, including required semi-annual reports from participating agencies.










NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote!

Michael H. Drucker
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NYC Open Data Portal Under Used


For civic technologists and the data savvy, New York City's Open Data Portal has been a blessing.  After years of limited transparency, City data, which is extremely useful for solving civic problems, is now out in the open to a much larger degree than ever before.

But members of the New York City Council, who are the front lines of constituent services, have not been actively using the portal.  Most council members are not software engineers or data scientists; with only one known exception, Council Member Ben Kallos, they don't write software code.

While having a minimum understanding of what the portal offers and how to use it would help council members and their staffs access the wealth of information available.  Some guidance for how to take advantage of available information is needed to turn the rows of data into useful formats for analysis and policy-making.

At an October 27 City Council Technology Committee oversight hearing on open data, committee Chair James Vacca mentioned offering an open data training for council members.  Less than a month later, that training will become a reality.  On Tuesday, November 25, from 10 to 11 a.m. at council office space in 250 Broadway, Council Member Vacca will host a training session led by members from the City's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) and the Mayor's Office of Data Analytics (MODA).

The training, closed to the press, will focus on navigating the Open Data Portal, showcasing the data sets that may be most useful to council members, and answering questions.

"I realized that if other Council Members' offices were armed with the knowledge about how to tap into this resource, it could hugely shape the way we craft legislation and conduct constituent services," Vacca said. "As Chair of the Committee on Technology, it is my hope that the open government tools that we have sought to uphold through the Open Data Law are also being used by government staff."

As of Friday there were roughly 16 RSVPs from council members or staff representatives, according to a spokesperson for Vacca's office, who declined to provide specific names.

CLICK HERE to view the New York City Data Portal.










NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote!

Michael H. Drucker
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Saturday, November 22, 2014

New York's Voter Turnout in Forty Years of Freefall


Voter turnout in New York State is in freefall.  This years gubernatorial election saw the smallest number of voters make it to the polls in the four decades since the state Board of Elections was formed and began tracking voting.  Few reports have noted the extent of the decline: Cuomo's 52.5 percent of the vote on election night may have seemed like the typical erosion of an incumbent's margin, down from 61 percent in 2010, but it obscures a fall of nearly one million votes.

"New York has always been lousy," says New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) legislative director Blair Horner. "It's getting worse."

It's especially acute in New York City.  Mayor Bill de Blasio's landslide victory a year ago came without the participation of many voters of cycles past.  While de Blasio racked up more votes than his predecessor did in any of his three elections, the turnout for mayoral contests has steadily declined since 2001, now hovering at just over 1.1 million voters.  And, the percentage of city voters turning out for gubernatorial elections has been consistently lower than the statewide turnout.

According to figures obtained from the State Board of Elections, 75.4 percent of registered voters went to the polls to vote for governor in 1974.  Since then, voter registration has vastly outstripped turnout, with the number of registered voters rising from 7.4 million in '74 to 11.8 million today, while the number of voters who show up on Election Day has declined from 5.5 million in '74 to an anemic 3.7 million this year.

Still, these numbers actually paint a rosy picture: political scientists often measure turnout in relation to the voting eligible population (VEP) or the voting age population (VAP), both of which are inevitably larger than the number of registered voters. Dr.  Christina Greer, assistant professor of political science at Fordham University, says that VEP "is the calculation that needs to be used."

Since VEP tells you the number of people who are eligible to vote, registered or not, Dr. Greer says it is "a more accurate measure of... a democratic, participatory election."

Using VEP, as The New York Times editorial board did this week, paints an even more dismal picture.  Taking stock of turnout nationally, the Times wrote, "In 43 states, less than half the eligible population bothered to vote, and no state broke 60 percent.  In the three largest states. California, Texas and New York, less than a third of the eligible population voted. New York's turnout was a shameful 28.8 percent, the fourth-lowest in the country, despite three statewide races (including the governor) and 27 House races."

Governor Cuomo was asked in a post-election interview why he thought turnout was so low in the state he's been re-elected to lead.  On with Susan Arbetter of WCNY's Capital Pressroom, the governor himself declared there was nothing to see here: "The temptation is to view the world through the lens of New York.  Sometimes it's not about us, sometimes it's not about New York....It was an historically low turnout nationwide.  Something like not since 1942...has the turnout been that low."

Greer questions whether the major parties have any genuine incentive to get voters to the polls.  "Yes, in theory, everyone says they want more people to participate," she says. "If we step back and look at counties across the state, how many elected officials who are in their second, maybe third decade, no matter what party, Democrat or Republican, how many of them really genuinely want more people in the political process?  They don't.  Because they're winning their districts solidly. They're keeping their incumbency advantage."

The effects of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United only skew the playing field further, with nominally "independent" groups shoveling $17.8 million into state legislative elections.  Instead of mobilizing new voters, they inevitably focus on energizing the base, and one of the surest ways to do that is by demonizing opponents.  Horner sees the discourse as "increasingly toxic," and says that "For the vast bulk of voters, who are not driven by ideology, they end up looking at the campaign as the choice between two demons.  I think it turns voters off."

As Skurnik puts it: "Voters turn out for exciting, competitive elections.  This New York gubernatorial election wasn't either exciting or competitive."

Unfortunately, as NYPIRG's Horner observes, "You can't legislate competitive elections."  Advocacy groups such as NYPIRG and the Brennan Center have inevitably focused on an array of familiar reforms: Election Day and online registration, early voting, and pre-registration, to name a few.

Nonetheless, as Horner says, "You can legislate a fairer redistricting process, you can legislate campaign finance systems, but in some parts of the state there are more cows than there are Democrats, and in some parts of the state there are more telephone polls than there are Republicans.  In those parts of the state, competitive elections, if they occur at all, occur in the primaries. And most people can't vote."

The Brennan Center's DeNora Getachew sees the whole problem as more straightforward: "The reason that they turnout rates keep falling is that New York has one of the most onerous requirements for voter registration."

The Brennan Center, which advocates for voting rights, has backed the Voter Empowerment Act of New York, which would modernize the state's voter registration procedures.  The bill was introduced to the state Legislature in 2012 but killed by the Republican-controlled State Senate's election committee.  Prospects for reform with a state Senate now firmly under Republican control seem distant at best.

Dr. Greer points to another factor in the decline of voter participation: sheer exhaustion.  Voters have gone, or been asked to go, to the polls several times a year for the last three years, and the ensuing voter fatigue means many are less inclined to bother choosing between demons.










NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote!

Michael H. Drucker
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Michigan Bill to Change Open Primaries to Closed Primaries


Thanks to Richard Winger of Ballot Access News for this post.

Three Republican members of the Michigan State House have introduced HB 5956, which would convert Michigan primaries from open to closed.  The sponsors are Ray Franz of Onekama, Greg MacMaster of Kewadin, and Bob Genetski of Allegan County.

The bill is in the 2013-2014 legislative session, so there is very little time left for this bill to advance.  Also MacMaster was defeated in the Republican primary this year, and Genetski did not run for re-election, so those two won’t be in the 2015-2016 session.

Franz and MacMaster also introduced HB 5955, which would provide that major parties nominate for Governor and state legislature by party conventions instead of by direct primary.  Already, major parties in Michigan nominate some of the lesser statewide offices by party conventions instead of by primary.

“One of the first things lawmakers are taught is to be open to listening to constituents’ concerns for potential state government reforms that can help make Michigan better,” said MacMaster, R-Kewadin.  “Along with that, of course, is considering your own experiences for possible policy change.  I strongly believe based on what I went through the past several months that there are valid and worthwhile reasons for improving our election process.

“In my opinion, because of crossover voting, the true views and values of Republicans in the 37th District were not reflected accurately,” MacMaster said.

HBs 5955 and 5956 have been assigned to the House Committee on Elections and Ethics for consideration.










NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote!

Michael H. Drucker
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