December 31, 2008

The final outcome of the Yorba Linda City Council election was determined by a single vote. The final vote was 11,950 for Jim Winder and 11,949 for Ed Rakochy.

Read More >

December 30, 2008

Grab Your Camera: The Democracy Video Challenge

With so many public and private initiatives being labeled "2.0," it is appropriate that the State Department has launched a new program called Public Diplomacy 2.0. As James K. Glassman, Under Secretary for Pubic Diplomacy and Public Affairs, said, "We have arrived at the view that the best way to achieve our goals in public diplomacy is through a new approach to communicating, an approach that is made far easier because of the emergence of Web 2.0, or social networking, technologies."

You can read more about Public Diplomacy 2.0 here but the item I wanted to bring to your attention is a video contest that supports this work. The U.S. Department of State calls the contest "The Democracy Video Challenge." It is a worldwide competition aimed at enhancing the global dialogue on democracy - it asks budding filmmakers, democracy advocates and the general public to create video shorts that complete the phrase, "Democracy is..."

Learn More Here >

December 29, 2008

Jerry Hill's First Assembly Bill

Former San Mateo County Supervisor and now Assemblyman, Jerry Hill, (19th Assembly District) has introduced AB 84, which is his first legislative effort in Sacramento. The bill is pretty straight forward. It requires local election officials to set up a free system that would allow voters to check if their vote by mail ballot was counted or not - and if not, the reason(s) for it not counting.

This bill is similar to the provisions of the Help America Vote Act section that required the same type of system for voters to determine if their provisional ballot was counted or not. (Which very few voters take advantage of, BTW).

AB 84, as currently written, is a good, "consumer" bill that might serve to increase the confidence of vote by mail voters. The downside is the cost of implementation which would mainly be the costs associated with creating a tracking system for each vote by mail ballot. Since this portion of the electorate has increased significantly, the costs for some counties, like Los Angeles, could be significant.

And the big question is, "since this is a state mandated program, will Sacramento pick up the tab?"

December 28, 2008

The Minnesota Recount Continues

With no clear end in sight to the recount battle between Republican Senator Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken, and a new Congress convening in just nine days, it appears likely that Minnesota will be represented by only one Senator, Amy Klobuchar. At least for a part of January - the Minnesota recount continues.

Read More >

December 27, 2008

A Web Based Voter Rating System for Election Services

There are people who love to write and there are people who have strong opinions about things. Put them together, along with the power of the Internet and you have a recipe for lots of user generated reviewers. We all know about reader generated book reviews on Amazon as well as those connected with about every major retail outlet on the web. Yelp allows users to rate businesses as well as public services with restaurant reviews of San Francisco restaurants being most popular with 4,334 reviews and religious organizations being last with 142.

In addition to private sector reviews there are some other user generated review sites. For instance, Great Schools allows parents to rate schools. And GreatNonprofits lets folks write reviews of nonprofit organizations. But what about a site that specifically rates government services? (Couldn't find any but if you come across one let me know).

Newt Gingrich, in an essay in Rebooting America, suggests that his site, American Solutions, is launching Rate Your Government, which will bring the groundbreaking system of user ratings and feedback that made eBay so successful; to citizens and their government agencies. He says, "Obviously this project will allow citizens to voice frustrations with government services, but more importantly it can surface government systems that are working so they can be emulated nationwide."

Now, what about a site that specifically rates election services? What would happen if voters were allowed to rate the services provided by poll workers? Imagine voters giving that kind of real feedback to election officials - improvements in service delivery would surely be made. And Democracy might improve.

December 25, 2008

Happy Holidays from Warren Slocum

I am "off" today, but I do wish you and yours the very best. Back tomorrow on a more regular posting schedule.

December 24, 2008

Exploring the Development of a Government Sponsored Voting System for America

Two things got me thinking early - very early, this morning about counting the votes. The first event was the simple posting of the "Count the Votes" poster below this blog entry. Another event took place at my house last night when a group of us got into an energized conversation about voting in America. One of my relatives said something like, voting and health care should not be profit driven industries because they are too important for the people. 

That comment got everyone started on the question of, "should the private sector be involved in the counting of votes?" (These kinds of pre-holiday conversations could only happen at a Registrar of Voters' house, right?).

The conclusion of most of those in my living room was no - the private sector should not be counting votes. It should be the job of government to develop and maintain vote counting software whose accuracy could be verified by citizens. 

Through the posting of a count the votes graphic and a conversation on vote counting, an idea came to me. 

Here it is - the Make Voting Work project should assemble a representative group of smart people from the National Association of Secretaries of State, the National Association of State Election Directors, the National Association of Election Officials, the League of Women Voters as well as the Election Assistance Commission and concerned citizens to analyze the idea of a government sponsored voting system development project. 

The best minds in the Silicon Valley along with academics and computer scientists, working collaboratively with election experts and other interested folks, should be able to come up with recommendations on this important topic - especially as the voting machine market continues to consolidate.

Words of wisdom from the poster, "Count the Votes or Lose the Voters." 

December 22, 2008

Arizona's Next Secretary of State

Jan Brewer is moving into the Arizona governor's office because Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano was selected by President-elect Barack Obama to serve as the head of Homeland Security. In Arizona that means the Secretary of State becomes Governor. When the upward movement stops, there will be a vacancy in the Seceretary's office - and there are plenty of folks interested in the job.

Current and former officeholders mentioned as possible picks for the opening include former Arizona Senate President Ken Bennett, Marcicopa County Recorder Helen Purcell and members of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.

Full discosure here - Helen Purcell has been of friend of mine for many years and she is certainly qualified for the Secretary's post. Arizonians would be well served with her hands-on elections experience and her executive management abilities.

No Hanging Chads, But Plenty of Grief

With just two weeks left before a new Congress convenes, Minnesota's Senate recount has reached Florida-grade levels of confusion and controversy. On Wednesday, State Supreme Court Justic Paul Anderson bristled at a lawyer's comparison of Minnesota's situation to the famous presidential recount in the Sunshine State. By Thursday, Anderson was dissenting from his own court's recount ruling and noting as a bright spot his belief that the court's order is only a "preliminary skirmish" in "an extended legal contest."

Read More >

California Counties Brace for the Worst

Like the state, California's 58 counties are being hit bu the same financial tsunami that's rolling across the nation. With the housing market plummeting to new lows and sales tax revenues skidding, there's no money for public programs.

Read More >

December 20, 2008

Voters Cast "Odd" Write-In Votes in Minnesota

Watch the comedy at the Minnesota Recount Board - the Lizard People are coming! And more too.

Are District Elections Coming to San Mateo County?

Are district elections coming soon to San Mateo County? Well, that question is being asked in some circles.

San Mateo County has had at-large (countywide) elections for Board of Supervisors for a very long time. Here a candidate must live and run from one of five supervisorial districts but all the voters of the county get to vote on her candidacy. Other jurisdictions use district elections for electing members to the Board of Supervisors. Under that approach a candidate runs from a specific district and is voted on by only the registered voters of that district.

From time-to-time the idea of district elections has come up in our county but the movement never went anywhere. And while there are pro and con arguments on the issue, the one that has always won out is the argument that running countywide guarantees a broader view of policies issues since theoricically all county voters are constitutents.

Sue Lempert, former San Mateo City Councilmember recently wrote in The Daily Journal that, "...we may see a dramatic change in how we elected these officials (board members) in the future. The present system as it has evolved discourages those who may not yet enjoy the support of the local labor and business establishment. But change is in the air. More people are voting. More people are interested in running for office, especially at the local leve. New constituencies feel they are not adequately represented in top county posts. By the time there is the next round of supervisor elections in 2012l, I would not be surprised if we were voting by district rather than countywide."

Read more on this topic at The Daily Journal and a post on the Peninsula Politics Blog.

Imagine There's No Diebold

Coverage of my talk at the PEW/JEHT sponsored conference, "Voting in America: The Road Ahead," can be found by visiting this link.

December 19, 2008

2 Ideas for Elinimating the Shortage of Poll Workers

Some counties in California and elsewhere experience great difficultly in finding enough poll workers to serve at the precincts on Election Day. This shortage can have a significant impact on the quality of the voting experience for voters as well as potentially jeopardize security or other important election operational issues.

Here are two ideas that might help eliminate the pre-election scramble for people.

  • Weekend Elections - That's right. Other countries have elections on a Saturday or Sunday and it works well. Why not move our elections from Tuesdays, which is a product of our agrarian past, to Saturdays when many folks are not working - at least not in the office cubicle. Sure, there would be less time for errands and the family but then the change might yield a higher voter turnout and solve the precinct worker problem.
  • Property Tax Credit - I don't know of any state that has tried this idea but California could be the first. If you are a property owner and sign up to serve at the polls on Election Day, you would be entitled to a $7,000 credit on your home's assessed value (Similar to the Homeowner's Exemption Program in California). This reduction in assessed value would save the property owner around $70 on their property tax bill. In addition to the credit, precinct workers who serve on Election Day would also receive their regular pay from the county.

December 18, 2008

Counting Ballots: Man vs. Machine

The statewide recount in Minnesota's U.S. Senate race has given folks from that state a chance to see just how accurate their voting equipment is. The numbers the vote counting machines spat out on election night are remarkably close to the preliminary ones from the recount, which was done by hand.

But that raises a question: Who's better at counting ballots - - people or machines?

Read More >

Study Plays Down Convenience Voting

A report from the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University found that "convenience voting - mail voting, no-excuse absentee voting, early voting, and even election-day registration - does not help turnout and may hurt."

Read More >

December 17, 2008

The Conflict Between Dollars and Democracy

The costs for administering elections have increased since the enactment of the Help America Vote Act. And some say costs have doubled, tripled or even quadrupled.

In testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on House Administration, Mr. Ray Feikert, former county commissioner of Holmes County, Ohio, testified that in his rural jurisdiction, it costs approximately $4,000 to run a special election for school board before enactment of the Help America Vote Act. The price tag increased to more than $20,000 by 2007.

In California, the experience has been somewhat similar especially because of new requirements placed on local jurisdictions by the Secretary of State. Mainly those requirements surround additional security (seals, locking tags, etc) measures and the associated costs for personnel and supplies as well as the costs for certain mandated recount situations.
All of that coupled with the state's current financial situation makes the conduct of elections more costly at the same time that local governments are struggling to balance budgets.

The conflict between dollars and democracy was the main point debated at yesterday's San Mateo County Board of Supervisors' meeting at which the members eventually voted to appoint a new board member rather than pay the costs of an election.

Three board members cited the dismal economic climate and said they would rather use the estimated $1.7 million cost to conduct a special election to provide services to people. However, Supervisor Rich Gordon said, "I am absolutely convinced now is the time to clearly engage the citizens of this county in the discussion of the important challenges this county faces."

It was a difficult decision for the board - the final vote was 3 to 1.

The "bottom line" of this debate is that due to the added costs of the Help America Vote Act, a plethora of election mandates of Sacramento coupled with the state of the economy, the people of San Mateo County experienced a conflict that might soon come to other jurisdictions as they grapple with the same issue - the conflict between dollars and democracy.

In our case, dollars won the day.

December 16, 2008

Election Administration as a Profession

According to the Congressional Research Service, unlike more established professions like public health management and law enforcement, election administrators have few professional development resources at their disposal. Furthermore, the typical local election official in America is a white woman between 50 and 60 years old who is a high school graduate. She was elected to her current office, works full-time in election administration, has been in the profession for about 10 years and earns under $50,000 per year. Two thirds are elected rather than appointed.

The profile of election administrators is changing rapdily. The field is experiencing a turnover rate of about 10 percent each election cycle. From 2004-2006, local election officials who: 1) were elected decreased from 65 percent to 58 percent; 2) worked full-time increased from 66 percent to 76 percent; and, 3) spent more than 20 hours per week on election duties increased from 41 percent to 47 percent. Those who had served for more than a decade in their current position decreased from 47 percent to 44 percent and those earning a salary under $40,000 decreased from 47 percent to 39 perecent.

(Source: The PEW Center on the States - Make Voting Work, "Data for Democracy.")

December 15, 2008

Premier/Diebold Software Drops More Votes - This Time in Ohio

Premier Election Solutions (formerly Diebold Election Systems) has got another tabulation problem. This time it showed up in Montgomery County, Ohio.

Election officials discovered that although five votes were recorded on a memory card inside the voting machine, the votes were not counted by the central tabulation software when the memory card was uploaded to the tabulation server. Premier's Global Election Management System (GEMS) is the tabulation software that counts votes from memory cards.

This problem is similar to one that turned up in Humboldt County, California.

Read More >

San Mateo County's Budget Deficit Swells

San Mateo County's budget deficit has increased from $28 million to $41 million in recent months and will worsen. The county's structural budget deficit could reach nearly $61 million by the FY 2010-11. The amount does not account for the state's escalating budget crises.

Read More >

December 14, 2008

Observers: Watching and Documenting the Vote

The November 4th election was under a national microscope. That election was the most "watched" election in our nation's history. The media, nonpartisan observation teams, civil rights lawyers, partisans, foreign poll watchers and hordes of voter activists all joined together to monitor polling place operations on Election Day. There were also individuals and groups monitoring the various election processes that took place in the weeks leading up to the election as well as those who watched early voting locations for trouble.

If a voter experienced difficulties at the polls, their issue could be reported to a large number of outlets. Many organizations had problem reporting websites as did the media, especially newspapers and TV. Call-in lines staffed by volunteers posted polling-place incidents as they occurred. Even Twitter and other "new media channels" got in on the action as voters posted their Election Day experiences - good and bad.

Election Protection, perhaps the largest and best organized of the nonpartisan observer groups, had more than 10,000 volunteers at polling sites and call centers. According to the final tallies, Election Protection logged more than 80,000 calls on Election Day and 200,000 during the entire election cycle.

The most common problems reported were related to voter registration - voters arrived at the polls thinking they were registered only to find that they were not. Another prevalent issue was deceptive practices - intentionally putting out misinformation about polling locations, rules, impending challenges, etc. - were reported in more than a dozen states.

In addition to all the above, there were 800 Department of Justice staff in the field in 23 states. Prominent locations included Boston, NYC, Philadelphia, Dallas, Cuyahoga County, Ohio, King County Washington and Orleans Parish, Louisiana.

Information on the operation of polls also came from the inside. Professors, activists, bloggers and members of the media signed up to be poll workers. They got an "insider's view" of elections which provided a unique opportunity for them to document their election experiences on blogs and websites.

Also keeping tabs on things were an "army of lawyers" who were ready to go into court should any legal action be necessary. The New York Times estimated that there were 5,000 lawyers for Obama in Florida alone. Republicans did not offer any estimates but noted, "enough to respond to any contingency...we will be engaged at every level."

There is no doubt that this election was the most watched and most documented in U.S. history. Hopefully, all of this information on the vote and the experiences of voters will be put to good use by legislators, election officials and concerned citizens to improve the election system so that it better serves voters when we conduct the next presidential election four years from now.

December 13, 2008

Data for Democracy

Good data is the basis of good policymaking. In the elections area, a lack of data has often left policy makers and election officials without the tools necessary to assess successes and failures in the field. Data for Democracy - Improving Elections through Metrics and Measurement, a compendium of research that grew out of a Pew Center on the States and JEHT foundation-sponsored conference, begins to look at how data is collected in the field. It highlights states that do a robust job of colleting and reporting data, examines challenges faced in data collection in the field and assesses the diversity of data and data collection mechanisms among local governments.

Read More >

December 12, 2008

California Lay Offs - Check SMC Cities

Most California companies must give employees 60 days' notice before laying off more than 50 workers. Since January 1, 2007, these companies have laid off roughly 136,000 California workers. You can use this database to see which companies and/or communities have pink-slipped the most workers.

Go to the Interactive Database >

Barrales Appointed to New Tax Commission

Ruben Barrales, a former San Mateo County Supervisor, has been named by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic leaders, to serve on the state's new tax commission which is charged with modernizing how California collects taxes.

Read More >

Minnesota Still Counting

The Minnesota state Canvassing Board is meeting this morning to try to push the U.S. Senate race a bit closer to completion by scrutinizing rejected absentee ballots cast for the November 4th election. At the outset of this morning's meeting, the panel was told by the state director of elections that the two campaigns are now challenging a combined total of 4,472 Election Day ballots that have been reviewed during the statewide recount.

Additionally, it appears that around 650 absentee ballots have been wrongfully rejected in the November 4th election in 49 of the 87 counties.

Reader comments (voters, poll workers and others) in this story are of special interest.

Read More >

December 10, 2008

Survey Shows Voting Disparities

Although Election Day ran smoothly for most voters, a survey of 10,000 people by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found some disparities on November 4, 2008.

Read More

December 9, 2008

Ten Important Election Questions

Today is the first day of the PEW/JHET conference, "Voting in America: The Road Ahead." Having the privilege of being invited to participate on a panel at the event has caused me to reflect on my assigned topic, imagine we could start over-how would you design an election system? Many important questions result and I would like to share ten with you.

1. Are our elections too important to be handed over to private sector companies who are driven by profit?

2. How do we ensure that elections are conducted properly?

3. Should there be a level of transparency to the extent that everyone knows how vote-counting software works -that the votes were totaled correctly and individual votes were processed as they were intended?

4. Is universal voter registration a good idea?

5. Should we give a property tax credit for service as a poll worker?

6. Would turnout improve if we held elections on a Saturday rather than Tuesday?

7. How do we adequately fund elections in difficult economic times?

8. Should colleges and universities offer a course of study in election administration?

9. How could a "Yelp" type rating system be implemented for poll workers?

10.How do we create an election system that is easy to understand, easy to use, reliable, accurate and transparent in all the major areas of election administration - people, processes and technology?

December 7, 2008

End-To-End Verifiability of Elections

Jim Adler wrote in his Blog, "Counting votes in secret is just a bad idea."

I agree!

Election officials have done their work in secret for too long (although this has changed some in recent years with the birth of voter activist groups). The public has a right to know that votes are counted correctly and one way that could be accomplished is by posting all the votes online so anyone could do their own recount.

Least you think this idea couldn't possibly work, it was done recently in one California county and citizens discovered, after doing their own recount, that the official certification of the election was incorrect - it was 200 ballots short.

Mr. Adler takes the idea even further by asking, " about allowing any voter to check their individual vote?" Is that possible?"

Yes! There is a new concept in voting technology - whether you are talking about paper ballots, electronic ballots or even online ballots and that is
end-to-end verifiability. A recent article said, "The premise is mind-bogglingly counter intuitive: to be able to be sure, with a high level of certainty, that your vote was recorded and counted accurately without revealing whom you voted for. And that you (yes, you) can verify that this happened exactly as it should have."

All of that is ostensibly possible using advanced cryptographic techniques. Just check out the work of
Ben Adida and the Helios Voting System that implements an open audit web service. You can learn more by reading Mr. Adida's blog or listen to him talk at Google by clicking here.

Transparency is a key ingredient for total election integrity. The public deserves what Mr. Adler calls, "an unobstructed view" of everything surrounding the counting of ballots.

A Call for Universal Voter Registration

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law has issued a policy summary paper that recommends a system of "universal voter registration" in the U.S. The authors are Wendy Weiser, Michael Waldman and Renee Paradis. They claim that a universal voter registration approach would create voter rolls that are as comprehensive as possible well in advance of Election Day - and would provide a fail-safe mechanism if an eligible voter showed up at the polls but couldn't be found on the list. The Center correctly points out that such systems are routine in other countries.

Read More >

December 6, 2008

Readers Can Vote on Challenged Ballots in Minnesota U.S. Senate Recount

One of the problems with paper ballots becomes apparent during recounts. And that is determining voter intent. What normally happens in this type of situation is that the counting board will make a decision on a particular ballot. Then one side will "challenge" the decision and the election official must make a formal decision on how to count that challenged ballot.

Why does this happen? Well, because some voters just don't follow directions.

Take the case of the Minnesota U.S. Senate race where a statewide recount is going on. Right now there are 2,240 ballots in question and the race is razor thin. Norm Coleman
has 1,208,939 votes while Al Franken has 1,208,747.

The has done a pretty cool thing. They have gotten images of some of the real ballots that have been challenged in the recount and they have posted them to the web. They are letting readers evaluate each ballot and determine voter intent. This is a pretty amazing opportunity for voters to get a glimpse at a sometimes very difficult and often contentious election process.

Another issue with paper ballots has surfaced in the Minnesota Senate recount - evidently 133 paper ballots are for the moment - LOST!

Read More >

December 5, 2008

Wrong Results Certified - Audit Might Be In Order

Humboldt County Registrar of Voters Carolyn Crnich has made a significant contribution to election transparency. She posts images of all ballots cast on the Internet - along with sorting software, so that anyone with a home computer can conduct their own recount.

Results from November's election were posted online and it was discovered that almost 200 ballots were inexplicably dropped from the final election results that were certified to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors. Crnich said that the error could be traced back to a problem with Diebold GEMS software (the company is now called Premier Election Solutions) the county uses to count votes.

Perhaps the Secretary of State should call on all California counties that use the same software to conduct a post election audit of certified results? If it happened once, what are the chances that it happened in other jurisdictions?

Maybe the chances of that happening are not that high but who knows?

Congratulations to Registrar Crnich for her creativity and thanks go to the good citizens of Humboldt County who put in their own time and energy to recount ballots - and discovered this problem.

December 4, 2008

Interesting Election Facts

The November '08 Presidential Election was one month ago today. Here are some interesting facts about that election in San Mateo County:
  • How Many People Voted? - 307,350. Previous record was 288,533 in 2004.
  • How Many Registered Voters? - 389,410. Previous record was 368,410 in 2004.
  • How Many People Voted By Mail?- 147,819. Previous record was 124,498.
  • How Many High School Students Served At The Polls? - 1,098.
  • How Many First Time Voters Were There? - 48,053.
  • How Many 18-Year Olds Voted? - 2,337.
  • Which City Had The Highest Turnout? - Portolla Valley (85.6%).
  • How Many Voters Called The Election Office On Election Day? - 3,862.

December 3, 2008

More Than 80% of California's Registered Voters Went to the Polls

Tuesday, December 2nd was the deadline for California's 58 counties to finish counting ballots and certify the election results. The percentage of registered voters who cast ballots statewide was 80.6%. That turnout is the highest since Richard Nixon and George McGovern ran for office in 1972. In San Mateo County the turnout was 78.86% - Los Angeles County enjoyed an 81.9% turnout.

December 2, 2008

Election Videos on Demand - Free

On election night, November 4th, Anatomy of Election '08 aired on Cable 26. The historic show was an attempt to bring greater transparency to the election process as well as to educate voters on what it takes to conduct a public election. This type of "live" TV show had never been attempted before and represents a step forward in trying to create a different type of election model by giving voters a "behind the scenes" look at elections.

The videos from that evening's broadcast are now available online. There are eleven different chapters and you can watch them all or select just the ones you have an interest in. Each segment is around five minutes in length.

Watch the videos here.

December 1, 2008

Applications Available for Board Seat

For me, it is hard to believe that it is December 1st. But it is and applications for San Mateo County's supervisor seat are available starting today. Candidates will make a 15-minute public presentation to the board on December 15th followed by 10 minutes of public testimony on each applicant's behalf. The following day the board will either appoint one of the applicants or call for a special election which could be held March 3, any Tuesday in April or June 2 with any state election that might be called.

Opinions on the advantages of appointing vs. an election vary. But it seems like most newspapers as well as the Democratic Central Committee have come out in favor of holding an election. A columnist for the San Mateo Daily News recently wrote that the lack of elections has lead to a government body that is becoming "a self-perpetuating group that could potentially suffer from inbreeding."