February 28, 2009

Web 2.0 Means New Questions For Political Candidates

IN THE old days when you ran for office, the local newspaper would invite you to appear before their editorial board. Three to five journalists would gather around a wooden conference room table and with pens and notepads ready, they'd fire questions at you. Normally those questions were limited to inquiries as to your top priorities if elected. After about 45 minutes of grilling the session ended, everyone shook hands and the candidate would leave thinking, "why didn't I say this, why didn't I use that example" - and the next candidate would show up for her interview.

But with the advent of Web 2.0 and social networking (social media) along with the lessons learned from the Obama campaign, it's time to ask a new series of questions of candidates.

The new questions center around social media - specifically, for instance, a candidate might be asked, "once elected, how would you use social media to strengthen Democracy, improve public sector transparency, expand civic participation and generally create a situation where the people have a stake - a voice - in the future.

For those of you who might be new to the idea of "social media," Wikipedia defines it as: "primarily Internet - and mobile-based tools for sharing and discussing information among human beings. The term most often refers to activities that integrate technology, telecommunications and social interaction, and the construction of words, pictures, videos and audio. Businesses also refer to social media as user-generated content (UGC) or consumer-generated media (CGM)."

Social media comes in many different forms, including blogs, wikis, podcasts, pictures and video. Examples include Wikipedia, MySpace, Facebook , YouTube, Second Life, Flickr, and Twitter.

With that in mind, here are some questions you and/or editorial boards might ask the candidates in your area:

1. How do you use social media in your campaign? If so, how?

2. How do you think social media can change governance? If so, how?

3. How do you intend to use social media if you are elected?

4. What are the biggest issues facing your jurisdiction and is there an opportunity to solve those problems through social media?

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February 27, 2009

Phillippine Leadership Searches For Right Voting Option

POLL OFFICIALS in the Phillippines yesterday warned that the hybrid automation system backed by the House of Representatives would cost the country P5 billion more in the 2010 elections, yet would still be prone to cheating.

Testifying before the Senate finance committee, Commission on Elections Chairman Jose Melo said the House passed the P11.3-billion supplemental budget for poll automation, but made its release conditional on the passage of a new law governing the 2010 elections.

Melo said most congressmen favored a hybrid system in which only the election of national officials—the president, vice president and senators—would be automated. That would leave the election of local officials, including congressmen, under a manual voting system.

But Melo said such a system would actually incur more costs, such as those needed for separate ballot boxes for the automated and manual systems. The manual system of voting and counting that the House favors for local officials would still be susceptible to cheating, he said.

But Senator Richard Gordon, principal author of the Automated Elections Law, said the manual process was not allowed. In fact, he said, the law prescribes full automation for both national and local polls in 2010.

Note - Senator Richard Gordon visited San Mateo County Elections in 2008.

Read More >

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We Already Have Excellent Statistical Tools For Auditing Elections

THE RECENT American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting included a session entitled "Science for Public Confidence in Election Fairness and Accuracy" and, as might be expected, computer science made a significant appearance. Ed Felten of Princeton, whose work in the area we've covered extensively, spoke and emphasized the limits of what computer science can do, and how the ultimate goal should be to ensure that electronic voting systems are verifiable and auditable. Of course, that raises the question of what you do with the auditing information, which is where Arlene Ash, a biostatistician at Boston University's School of Medicine, came in. It turns out that we already have excellent statistical tools for detecting problematic patterns of voting—the legal system just chooses to ignore them

Read More >

The American Statistical Association's post election audit resources are here >

Arlene Ash's statistical analysis of voting in a specific Congressional district is here >

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Toward End to End Election Verifiability

FROM ELECTIONLINE.ORG by Kat Sambon - Takoma Park, Md. has long been considered a bastion of progressive thinking. The town is a nuclear-free zone, the city, by statute, is forbidden to do business with the country of Burma (officially the Union of Myanmar), and residents must apply for a city permit to cut down trees even on private property.

And the city’s progressive thinking doesn’t stop with environmental and social issues, it also extends to elections. Takoma Park allows non-citizens to vote in local elections, uses instant-runoff voting and recently, more than 20 election integrity advocates, poll workers and concerned citizens gathered at a community center to discuss Scantegrity, an end-to-end voting system built on top of an optical scan system that allows voters to confirm that their ballots were counted as cast after the election.

The November 2009 municipal elections in Takoma Park will mark the first time that Scantegrity is used for a binding public election but first, it will be tested in a mock election on April 11 in conjunction with the Takoma Park Arbor Day celebration.

Previously Scantegrity has been used in student government elections, according to Dr. Alan Sherman, University of Maryland – Baltimore County computer science professor and Scantegrity contributor.

Scantegrity uses open source software and interested parties can examine the source code here.

After deciding how to vote, a voter using a Scantegrity ballot uses a special pen to darken the oval next to their choice and the pen reveals a confirmation code in yellow. The voter can record the confirmation code on a tear-off portion of the ballot or receipt with a serial number that the voter can take home.

After the election, the voter can go to a Web site and enter the serial number to ensure that the confirmation code matches the code displayed, proving that the ballot was counted as cast without revealing the voter’s choice.

“Anyone in China can verify our election,” Richard Carback, a University of Maryland – Baltimore County computer science graduate student and Scantegrity contributor said.

Workshop participants talked about the nuts and bolts of running a Scantegrity election, such as what happens to the receipts that voters don’t keep (they will be shredded).

April mock election scheduled Takoma Park residents have the opportunity to check out the new system in a mock election on April 11 at the community center. The goals of the mock election are to demonstrate that Scantegrity is trustworthy and collect data on how voters use the system, Sherman said.

Select mock election participants will be asked to participate in a focus group which will be facilitated by a professional moderator, he said. Voters will also be videotaped to study how easy it is to use the system. Sherman hopes 400 voters try the system in April.

Watch a presentation to see how Scantegrity works here.

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February 26, 2009

California Constitutional Convention Redux

THE BAY Area Council held its first California Constitutional Convention Summit on February 24th in the state capitol at the upscale Sheraton Grand Hotel. And while there are a lot of positives that came from the meeting, one thing is clear - if the idea of a peoples' Constitutional Convention is to actually happen, the Council needs to figure out a way to not only spread the word and increase the number of its supporters but it needs to work on the diversity of those supporters as well.

While Tuesday's kick-off meeting in Sacramento was attended by around 300 leaders who paid $89 to get in, the crowd was mostly white (5 people of color), older and mostly male from Northern California.

Additional summits are planned for Southern California in the near future. Let's hope the good work of the Council can be made more effective by attracting a more diverse crowd.

If you are interested in reading a couple of documents from the convention, there are two great presentations posted on the summit site - one is the presentation on recent polling that was done for the Council. It shows that 82% of the people think our state is on the wrong track. Additionally, it presents information on what people think about the state's economy, its leadership and the idea of a Constitutional Convention.

The other document (Process Presentation) offers a possible road map for actually holding a Constitutional Convention. The Power Point slides offer the results of a great deal of research on the topic. Did you know, for example, that the one and only convention this state ever had was over 125 years ago - while some states actually vote on holding a convention every ten years?

Good stuff - and more is promised in the next few days.
If you want to see how the press covered the summit, here is a partial listing of media stories including Jim Wunderman's Opinion Editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Citizens push for overhaul of California government
Los Angeles Times, February 25, 2009

Effort seeks to scrap two-thirds vote rule
San Francisco Chronicle, February 25, 2009

Reformers debate rewriting California Constitution
Associated Press, February 25, 2009

State reformers meet to transform discontent into change
The Oakland Tribune, February 25, 2009

Council expanding push for constitutional convention
Los Angeles Business, February 25, 2009

Is California ready for a constitutional convention?
Press Democrat, February 25, 2009

Drive to overhaul state constitution builds
Ventura County Star, February 25, 2009

Push for State Constitutional Convention
KQED: The California Report, February 25, 2009

Budget Impasse Spurs Move to Amend California Law
The Wall Street Journal
, February 24, 2009

Activists Push for a CA Constitutional Convention
KCBS, February 24, 2009

Does California Want A Constitutional Convention?
Capital Public Radio,
February 24, 2009

February 25, 2009

State Reformers Meet to Transform Calfornia

CALIFORNIA OPINION leaders who turned out Tuesday at a forum on government reforms said their top priority is getting rid of the Legislature's requirement for a two-thirds vote to approve state budgets and taxes, which has been blamed for record-long budget delays.

The supermajority rule and the mammoth effort it took the Legislature to find the needed votes last week to pass the new budget dominated the all-day summit, which looked at possible reforms to government in the state and the best way to bring them about.

"We have to drop the two-thirds rule," said Mark Paul, a senior scholar with the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute. "It's been a social science experiment for the past 75 years for the budget and the last 30 years for taxes, and it has failed utterly."

The supermajority requirement "destroyed accountabili
ty and fiscal responsibility," he said. "There's no one to hold accountable."

The two-thirds vote was one of many concerns for those who jammed into a ballroom at the Sheraton Grand Hotel to hear a variety of speakers and panelists talk about the need for change in California, change that could require a new state constitutional convention to bring it about.

"We have a system of government guided by a (state) Constitution that has more than 500 amendments," said Jim Wunderman, president of the Bay Area Council, a regional business group, and the driving force behind the call for a new convention.

"People of California need to take a look at what we have, take a look at what other states have and then try to come up with a system that functions better, that delivers better results faster," he added.

There was no shortage of suggestions. Although the two-thirds vote topped the list of suggested reforms, an unofficial survey of people at the summit also favored changes in the initiative process, more legislators in smaller districts, revisions to the term-limit laws and folding the Assembly and the state Senate into a single legislative body.

Read More >

And Still More >

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February 24, 2009

California 2.0 - The California Constitutional Convention Summit

TODAY'S POST is coming to you from the Constitutional Convention Summit being held in Sacramento, California. Around 300 people have gathered for a day-long session whose purpose is to discuss the idea of a convention. The event was organized by the Bay Area Council and has many partner organizations.

On the website for today's meeting it says in part, "We believe California’s system of government is fundamentally broken. Our prisons overflow, our water system teeters on collapse, our once proud schools are
criminally poor, our financing system is bankrupt, our democracy produces ideologically-extreme legislators that can pass neither budget nor reforms, and we have no recourse in the system to right these wrongs."

"Drastic times call for drastic measures."

The results of a recent poll conducted for the Bay Area Council confirm this notion. 82% of the people in the poll said they thought California was on the wrong track. The main issues that voters brought up when asked included the budget deficit, jobs and the economy and the amount of state bureaucracy.

The voters polled strongly felt that change was in order.

The audience enjoyed morning remarks by Dan Walters, Columnist for the Sacramento Bee, Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi and David Metz, Senior Vice President of Fairbank, Maslin, Maulin and Associates. The morning ended with a panel discussion on "Priorities for Reform in a Convention," with panelists Linda Craig, Advocacy Director of the League of Women Voters of California, Derek Cressman, Regional Director of State Operations, Common Cause, Mark Paul, Senior Scholar, New America Foundation and Bob Stern, President, Center for Governmental Studies.

Some common, high level themes from the morning presentations include:
  • getting rid of the requirements for 2/3s votes in favor of simple majorities;
  • reform the initiative process,
  • fix state government--reduce bureaucracy
  • have a constitutional convention question on the ballot every ten years,
  • extend the length of the time that could be served by legislators but keep term limits
  • abolish counties - move towards regional government
  • have a unicameral legislature with smaller districts
  • reduce barriers to registering to vote and voting
  • increase accountability, provide for effective representation and fiscal responsibility
  • campaign finance reform
This afternoon's sessions will include panels entitled, "How to Engage Californians in the Reform Process," "From the Inside Looking Out: A Legislative Perspective," and a talk on "Constitutional Convention Process: Presentation and Discussion." The meeting adjourns with a 15 minute conversation on "next steps."

See my photos of the Summit on Flickr >

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February 23, 2009

State Considers Decertifying Premier Elections Solutions' Software

THE CALIFORNIA Secretary of State's office will hold a public hearing on March 17th in Sacramento to discuss withdrawing the state's certification of Premier Elections Solutions software that resulted in almost 200 ballots disappearing from Humboldt County's final November vote tally.

Evidently Premier Elections Solutions knew of the programming error in its GEMS version 1.18.19 that sometimes resulted in the first deck of ballots scanned through the vote counting machine to vanish without being reflected in the final results. The company had issued instructions on a "work around" but Humboldt County didn't follow those instructions because of staff turnover. Other counties including Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo use the same software but followed the work around instructions without incident.

The timing of the hearing presents significant challenges for Humboldt, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties because of the upcoming May 19th statewide election. Since preparations for that election will start soon, those counties must decide what type of ballots to use and what kind of counting software will be put in place for election night.

There appears to be only two options for the three "Premier" counties. Option one is to plan to use the GEMS software (seems risky) or - Option two is to craft election plans that assumes the GEMS software is decertified after the hearing and make arrangements to use a different system.

February 21, 2009

Redistricting 2.0: A Chance for Real Change

CALIFORNIA VOTERS passed Proposition 11 (50.9% to 49.1%), the Voters FIRST Act, a law for drawing new boundary lines for State Assembly, State Senate and State Board of Equalization districts. Part of the redistricting reform initiative, approved at the November 4, 2008 General Election, establishes a new Citizens Redistricting Commission that's in charge of establishing those new lines.

The Bureau of State Audits is currently holding public hearings to solicit comments
about the processes that should be used to select members of an Applicant Review Panel to assess the applicants and create an applicant pool of 60 qualified members. From that pool the final 14 members of the Commission will be selected (5 democrats, 5 republicans and four of neither party).

The remaining hearing dates and locations are:

  • February 23, 2009 - Central Branch Library, Mark Taper Auditorium, 630 W. 5th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90071 - 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
  • February 27, 2009 - Office of the Courts, Milton Marks Auditorium, 455 Golden Gate Avenue, San Francisco, CA 940102 - 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
  • March 3, 2009 - California Secretary of State Office Building Auditorium, 1500 11th Street, Sacramento, CA 95814 - 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Needless to say, this process if an important for California taxpayers. The Commission that is eventually established must be free of partisan "deal-making" and must represent the interests of the people, not the politicians in Sacramento.

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February 20, 2009

The California Consitutional Convention Summit

THE CALIFORNIA Constitutional Convention Summit website says, "We believe California's system of government is fundamentally broken. Our prisons overflow, our water system teeters on collapse, our once proud schools are criminally poor, our financing system is bankrupt, our democracy produces ideologically-extreme legislators that can pass neither budget nor reforms, and we have no recourse in the system to right these wrongs.

Drastic times call for drastic measures.

We believe it is our duty to declare that our California government is not only broken, it has become destructive to our future. It is time to repair our system of governance.

Our state’s founders gave us the tool to take this step — with a constitutional conve
ntion. We can either be led to a convention by our elected leaders in the Legislature, or we can bypass any gridlock in Sacramento with a “citizen’s Constitutional Convention.”

When we initially floated the idea of a convention, we were met by waves of support from the public and lots of interest from groups around the state. It is now time to take this concept to the next level.

We will be gathering the state’s top leaders to review research, discuss process, begin building a coalition to support a possible convention, and solicit ideas about what should be included in the convention."

The California Constitutional Convention Summit will be held Tuesday, February 24th from 9:00 am to 2:30 pm at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Sacramento. It is sponsored by the Bay Area Council. Review the agenda here and get email updates from the convention here.

I will be attending the Summit and reporting live from the floor (watch this blog and Twitter). One of the cool things about the summit is that it is featuring a unique technology that will allow audience members to send text messages to the speakers and other attendees. Comments and questions will be broadcast on screen as the presentation unfolds.

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February 19, 2009

Tools to Help Local Leaders with California's Changing Demographics

THROUGHOUT CALIFORNIA, local officials are seeking new and better ways to engage their residents and add community voices to important public discussions. The most important question in this conversation is, "how does a jurisdiction achieve participation levels that represent the broader community - young people, renters, lower income residents, members of ethnic communities and newcomer populations?"

The Institute for Local Government has taken up this challenge. They have released a new publication - " A Local Official's Guide to Immigrant Civic Engagement," which offers local officials strategies for organizing workshops on participation in civic engagement and offering ideas and advice to counties seeking broader community representation in their civic engagement activities.

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February 18, 2009

Can Recovery.gov Deliver on its Promise?

MAKING PRETTY Web sites appears to be a core competency of the Obama Administration. Just as the president signed the economic stimulus bill, Recovery.gov went online to chronicle the spending of the $787 billion appropriated by the law.

On Day 1, the site doesn’t have that much information on it. There is a time line of what will happen with the law’s programs and an interactive map showing how many jobs the government estimates it will create or save in each state. But soon, the site promises, there will be information on where and how the funds are spent including evaluations of each program’s performance.

The site promises far more than information.

“We are counting on your participation,” President Obama says in a YouTube video at the top of the site’s home page. “Instead of politicians doling out money behind closed doors, the important decisions about where taxpayer dollars are invested will be yours to scrutinize.”

Mr. Obama’s statement seems to imply that the public’s main role will be to monitor spending and flag potential abuse. There is no hint of what mechanism it will use to do this. One person’s abuse, after all, is another’s stimulus.

Recovery.gov asks its users to write about their experiences. The site says, "The economic crisis has touched all of us, regardless of the states we live or the industries in which we work...We want to know how the economic crisis and this recovery program are affecting you...In a few months, this site will allow you to peruse extensive data that will enable you to measure our progress..."

Time will tell if user comments are shared with the president or published on the web site - it will be interesting to follow the site to see if it can deliver on the promise of involving more people directly in the government.

Read More >

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February 17, 2009

State and County Election Officials Differ on Reimbursement From Vendor

COUNTY ELECTION officials in Riverside County recently finished a hand-count of 72,000 electronic ballots from November's presidential election as required by the State. The cost for that tally is estimated at around $120,000 and some say that the actual costs could be around $250,000.

That number becomes important because under a California Secretary of State ruling that "recertified" the machines used in the county, the vendor is required to pay these recount costs. "Elections officials are required to conduct the audits, and the vendor is required to reimburse the jurisdiction," the conditional recertification document reads. "Vendors, not counties, apply to the Secretary of State to have their voting systems approved for use in California," Nicole Winger, Deputy Secretary of State, said.

"Certainly any vendor that has permitted a county to continue using a reapproved voting system did so understanding that all the conditions of the system reapproval documents apply - not just the conditions the vendor may deem more convenient or less costly."

Riverside County's Assistant Registrar of Voters has said, "If the Secretary of State would like to bill them for our expenses, she can do so. I have a contract with Sequoia that doesn't say that I can bill them for that." And as such, the county election officials do not plan to seek reimbursements from the company.

At the same time, the county has a $90 million shortfall which makes the entire matter even more serious.

This situation is interesting because it is true that the recertification order issued by the state contains language that require the vendor to pick up the tab for manual counts of the paper ballots created by electronic voting machines. At the moment, Riverside County election officials are refusing to submit the bill.

My guess is that the county will eventually submit a tab to Sequoia Voting Systems and they may or may not pay Riverside County.

If they pay - fine. It establishes a precedent for other counties and vendors. If they don't pay, however, what then? Will the county sue the voting machine company? Will the state submit the bill? Or will the entire matter blow over?

I doubt it.

Read More>

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February 15, 2009

Without the Bay Area Obama Would Not Be President

WITHOUT BAY Area technology, ingenuity, righteous indignation, and cash, Barack Obama would not be president today. A flash oral history of a nation-changing collision between A) a long-shot candidate who believed that only people connected could fix a broken democracy and B) a ramped-up region of idealists and web wizards fighting to do just that.

Read the story in San Francisco magazine. >

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Internet Voting May Come to Washington State

WASHINGTON STATE'S Secretary of State, Sam Reed, is pushing Internet voting for overseas voters. And now the legislature has introduced SHB 1624 which would allow Internet voting for military and overseas voters. It's interesting to note that the Internet voting proposal is exempt from the law that governs voting systems (Chapter 29A.12RCW) .

SHB 1624 currently has eleven sponsors - here is the specific language.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION: Authorizing internet voting for service voters and overseas voters.

AN ACT Relating to internet voting for service voters and overseas voters; and adding a new section to chapter 29A.40 RCW.


NEW SECTION. Sec. 1. A new section is added to chapter 29A.40 RCW to read as follows:

(1) The secretary of state is authorized to establish a method that allows service voters and overseas voters to cast a ballot over the internet.

(2) In reviewing ways to implement this section, the secretary of state will consider computing hardware and software systems that:

(a) Ensure the integrity and secrecy of the ballot and authentication of the voter;
(b) Meet relevant and prevailing computer security standards;
(c) Use system components that are available for audit and certification; and
(d) Allow for optional phased implementation.

(3) The secretary of state may seek alternative public or nonprofit funding sources to implement this section.

(4) The method established by the secretary of state for allowing service and overseas voters to vote over the internet is exempt from Chapter 29A.12 RCW.

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February 14, 2009

Open Source Digital Voting Foundation

IN DECEMBER 2008, I spoke at the PEW Conference entitled, "Voting in America: The Road Ahead." At that conference I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Gregory Miller whoshared with me a little about the work of OSDV and their goal to develop open source election software. The OSDV Foundation is a Silicon Valley based public benefits corporation whose mission is to work to restore trust in how America votes through the design, development, and demonstration of open source digital voting technology.

Along with Oregon State University's Open Source Lab, OSDV is holding a meeting in Portland on February 18th to introduce developers and interested folks to their effort which is described as a "public digital works project." Attendees of the meeting will learn about the "TrustTheVote Project," a well funded non-profit effort which has been under the radar for 2 years. The guest speakers are Gregory Miller, Chief Development Officer, OSDV and E. John Sebes, Chief Technology Officer. Their presentation will touch on:
  • Introduce the project, its motivation, founding, and development efforts to date;
  • Walk through the TrustTheVote technology road map and review major projects underway;
  • Discuss development philosophies and approaches including experience-driven design and test-driven agile development;
  • Review opportunities for systems architects, software developers, SDQA/test specialists, and user experience designers;
  • Cover plans to expand the volunteer developer teams, future opportunities for senior members of technical staff, and opportunities for you to get involved.
So, if you are a developer, you could have a quick, tangible impact on elections by helping to establish open source voting system standards and by contributing or reviewing code for such a system. If you need some motivation, take a look at a segment of "Hacking Democracy (HBO in 2007) the first segment on YouTube.

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An Effort to Upgrade a Court Archive System to Free and Easy

AMERICANS HAVE grown accustomed to finding just about anything they want online fast, and free. But for those searching for federal court decisions, briefs and other legal papers, there is no Google

Instead, there is Pacer, the government-run Public Access to Court Electronic Records system designed in the bygone days of screechy telephone modems. Cumbersome, arcane and not free, it is everything that Google is not.

Recently, however, a small group of dedicated open-government activists teamed up to push the court records system into the 21st century — by simply grabbing enormous chunks of the database and giving the documents away, to the great annoyance of the government.

“Pacer is just so awful,” said Carl Malamud, the leader of the effort and founder of a nonprofit group, Public.Resource.org. “The system is 15 to 20 years out of date.”

Worse, Mr. Malamud said, Pacer takes information that he believes should be free — government-produced documents are not covered by copyright — and charges 8 cents a page. Most of the private services that make searching easier, like Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis, charge far more, while relative newcomers like AltLaw.org, Fastcase.com and Justia.com, offer some records cheaply or even free. But even the seemingly cheap cost of Pacer adds up, when court records can run to thousands of pages. Fees get plowed back to the courts to finance technology, but the system runs a budget surplus of some $150 million, according to recent court reports.

Read More >

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February 13, 2009

The Wisdom of Crowds

GOVERNMENTS CAN'T think of everything. That's why Vivek Kundra, the chief technology officer of Washington, D.C., went to "outsiders," asking for ideas on how to enhance D.C. services through cool computer applications. He announced the "Apps for Democracy" contest in October. The general public was invited to take data — yes, dry digital data, from D.C. files — and turn them into useful and absorbing information for residents, visitors and government employees.

When the closing bell rang on the 30-day contest in mid-November, Kundra's office had received 47 submissions. Government's cost: $50,000 — nearly half of it for prize money. That's cheap for dozens of new and usable applications. If the government had had to develop all of them on its own, it would have taken more than a year and, Kundra estimates, $2.6 million.

Read More >

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February 12, 2009

Governor Deval Patrick: Committed to Civic Engagement

YOU MIGHT have heard of Deval Patrick? He is currently the Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the second ever African American elected governor in the history of the United States. Prior to being elected Governor, Mr. Patrick was a United States Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division under President Bill Clinton, and before that he was an attorney and businessman.

The other day I had the distinct pleasure of meeting the Governor. We had an opportunity to talk for a few minutes and since I knew the Governor had done a great deal of work in the area of "civic engagement" that is topic we discussed.

On the Governor's official website in a section entitled "Civic Engagement and Strong Communities," it says in part, 'They are waiting and watching us, you, anxiously to see whether we're going to start acting as if we understand that the chance we have, not just in leadership but as citizens, to act as if we understand that the stake that we have in each other is something we are going to seize.' -- Governor Patrick, Amherst College, 9/8/07.

Keeping our communities safe and fostering creative new ways to involve citizens in their government."

And there are ways to interact and engage listed on that same page. They include Citizen Involvement, Governor's Task Force on Public Integrity, Civic Engagement Times, Town Hall Tour and Staying Informed and Involved Online.

The Civic Engagement Times page says, "Our vision of a civically-engaged Commonwealth is moving forward, and the goal of this newsletter is to increase awareness of the many opportunities to serve, from the Commonwealth Corps to state boards and commissions. We hope you enjoy it, and encourage you to take part in this vital conversation."

Prior to meeting the Governor, I had read each of the five issues of Civic Engagement Times. Therefore I had a pretty good idea of the perspective and ideas that had been shared with the readers - when I asked the Governor about the newsletter he said it was a "powerful" tool to help explain governance and engagement opportunities with the people. (Take a look for yourself by going here).

DP as he is known, has 3,000 contacts stored in his BlackBerry and more than 9,000 Facebook "friends" - and about 750 subscribers to his Twitter feed - including Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Keep up the good work Governor Patrick.

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Barbara Simons @ Stanford University

YESTERDAY AT Stanford University, Barbara Simons, as part of the Computer Systems Colloquium, gave a fine talk entitled, "Voting Machines & Audits: It Ain't How Your Grandparents Voted." Her talk provided the twenty or so attendees with an overview of the types of voting systems being deployed, some of the problems with these systems, and various efforts to improve the security, reliability, accessibility, and usability of the systems. She also focused on the need for more effective audits of election results.

While she did provide a pretty good history of events from 2000 forward, time prohibited her from really telling the complete story - and some of her remarks were, well...slightly biased or just didn't give the other side of the story. But overall - good job Barbara and it is fantastic that we finally got a respected "technical" person on the
Board of Advisors of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

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Interest Groups' Lobbying Tally Tops $500 Million

DID YOU ever wonder why Sacramento isn't as effective as it might be? Part of the reason is the tremendous influence that lobbyists have over our politics - and not just in Sacramento but in Washington D.C. too.

California labor unions, business associations and other interest groups spent more than $558 million – about $764,000 a day – to influence California government during the 2007-08 legislative session, according to state records analyzed by Capitol Weekly. Leading the way was the Service Employees International Union which spent $10.9 million over the two-year period. The Western States Petroleum Association, which represents oil and gas companies, spent $10.5 million over the same biennial span.

Rounding out the list of top five spenders was:
  • California Teachers Association ($7.9 million)
  • Bromine Science and Environmental Forum ($6.5 million)
  • California Hospital Association ($5.9 million)
Spending for the last legislative cycle was up from $504 million spent during the 2005-06 cycle.

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February 11, 2009

Change You Can Download: A Billion in Secret Congressional Reports

WIKILEAKS HAS released nearly a billion dollars worth of quasi-secret reports commissioned by the United States Congress. The 6,780 reports, current as of this month, comprise over 127,000 pages of material on some of the most contentious issues in the nation, from the U.S. relationship with Israel to the financial collapse. Nearly 2,300 of the reports were updated in the last 12 months, while the oldest report goes back to 1990.

The release represents the total output of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) electronically available to Congressional offices. The CRS is Congress's analytical agency and has a budget in excess of $100M per year.

Open government lawmakers such as Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Patrick J. Leahy

CRS reports are highly regarded as non-partisan, in-depth, and timely. The reports top the list of the "10 Most-Wanted Government Documents" compiled by the Washington based Center for Democracy and Technology. The Federation of American Scientists, in pushing for the reports to be made public, stated that the "CRS is Congress' Brain and it's useful for the public to be plugged into it." While Wired magazine called their concealment "The biggest Congressional scandal of the digital age".

Although all CRS reports are legally in the public domain, they are quasi-secret because the CRS, as a matter of policy, makes the reports available only to members of Congress, Congressional committees and select sister agencies such as the GAO. Members of Congress are free to selectively release CRS reports to the public but are only motivated to do so when they feel the results would assist them politically. Universally embarrassing reports are kept quiet. (D-Vermont) have fought for years to make the reports public, with bills being introduced--and rejected--almost every year since 1998. The CRS, as a branch of Congress, is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

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February 10, 2009

Online Voting Closer Than Imagined

IT'S A chilly March morning in Paris, and you're sitting in a cafe on the Boulevard Saint-Germain with a croissant and espresso on the way. Your iPhone buzzes. It's a message from Barack Obama reminding expartriates to cast their primary ballots.

"Please remember to vote for change," he writes. "It's time to reclaim our country/"

You open an email from Democrats Abroad, follow a link, punch in a 10-digit ballot number and your eight-digit PIN, then tap in a vote for Obama and hit "send. Your croissant still hasn't arrived.

If you think online voting won't begin in 2012, you're right: It's happening now. This scenario already played out in a special Democratic presidential primary last February as tens of thousands of expatriates voted via the Internet for the first time ever. Now, half a dozen states are gearing up to allow military and overseas voters to cast their ballots online in general elections as early as this year.

Read More >

Insider Interview on the Future of Internet Voting >

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Israel Goes to the Polls

EARLY VOTER turnout in Israel's general election Tuesday was heavier than expected, standing at 34 percent of the electorate by 2 P.M.

In contrast, only 31 percent of voters had cast ballots by the same point during the last election in 2006. If the voter turnout remains constant throughout the day, the final rate could reach 69 percent, as opposed to 63.5 percent in the 2006 vote.

Read More >

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February 9, 2009

Obama on Recovery.gov

EARLIER TODAY, President Obama, in his town hall-style meeting in Elkhart, Indiana shared his views of what Recovery.gov will be designed to do. The president said, “We’re actually going to set up something called Recovery.gov—this is going to be a special website we set up, that gives you a report on where the money is going in your community, how it’s being spent, how many jobs it’s being created so that all of you can be the eyes and ears. And if you see that a project is not working the way it’s supposed to, you’ll be able to get on that website and say, ‘You know, I thought this was supposed to be going to school construction but I haven’t noticed any changes being made.’ And that will help us track how this money is being spent. …The key is that we’re going to have strong oversight and strong transparency to make sure this money isn’t being wasted.”

Pretty amazing stuff.

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France Awards Contract for Internet Voting

THE FRENCH Ministry of Foreign Affairs has selected Scytl, in partnership with Altos Origin, to offer a secure Internet voting platform to the French citizens living overseas. In May, 310,000 French voters residing in Africa and America will be able to cast votes over the Internet to elect their official representatives to the L'Assemblee des Francais de l'etranger, from which 12 members are appointed to the French Senate to represent the French living overseas. In a second phase of the project, the platform will be used by over 1 million French voters living overseas.

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There is No Shortage of Election and Political News

TODAY'S NEWS brings several articles worth reading. One headline reads, "Case threatens voting rights" and the other story is on possible voter fraud in the recent Orange County, California election. On other fronts, the San Francisco Chronicle has a story on the state budget situation which leads with "Counties Threaten To Take Money State Owes Them" and John Chiang, California's Controller gets covered in the Wall Street Journal story, "California's Tough-Guy Controller."

In political news there is a story about the 2010 Governor's race, "Newsom, Brown: Will Age Tell Candidates Apart? And Bettyconfidential has "Meg Whitman To Run For Governor of California" which claims that Ms. Whitman will announce today that she intends to run for governor and that the announcement will be made on her web site.

The Los Angeles Times claims that some politicians haven't let the state's financial calamity keep them from enjoying the good life; they've been using campaign cash for first-class travel abroad, expensive dinners, salon makeovers and visits to luxurious spas. And finally, the state's most powerful politicians are still negotiating a budget deal - and worked on it for several hours on Sunday as described by Edwin Garcia in the San Jose Mercury.

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February 8, 2009

Don't Get Ripped Off

PROPERTY OWNERS throughout California are the hoped-for customers of a number of private companies who are taking advantage of people during these economically uncertain times. Companies with clever names like “Tax Review” and “Tax Reassessment” and “Tax Adjusters” are soliciting fees of $95, $179, $209 to file a homeowner’s request for a Decline in Value review for the 2009-10 Property Assessment.

The real estate market downturn has created some sharks — companies that are offering services that are provided for free by all Assessors’ Offices in California. Some notices are printed on a legal size form that has the homeowner’s name, address and property value information pre-printed on the form. Others are printed on multi-page letter size paper. Solicitations include an “estimated tax savings” figure that cites hundred, if not, thousands of dollars, making the fee seem rather paltry. Some of the solicitations compel a property owner to mail their check before a February date to create a false sense of urgency. The reality is that homeowners can request a Decline in Value review at any time and do so directly with the Office of the Assessor – for free.

Don’t be misled into paying someone to file an application for you when we’ll be reviewing your property for free. San Mateo County offers homeowners the ability to fill out an online Decline in Value form. The form takes about 2-3 minutes to complete and a few seconds to be delivered. And it’s offered in English, Spanish and Chinese, depending on the language that you feel most comfortable using. The online Decline-in-Value form is accessible from my office's web site www.smcare.org.

Property owners can also go online and download and print a paper copy of the form if they prefer that method. You can fax, mail or hand deliver a request.


Before sending money to a company that offers lower property
taxes, call your local Assessor


Once a homeowner submits a request, they will receive an email confirmation or phone call that advises them of a date when they can expect to learn of the status of their request.

If a request has merit, the property assessed value will be reduced. If the parties disagree, further discussions will take place to ensure that everything is understood. If the Decline in Value request is ultimately denied, the homeowner still has the option to file an appeal before the San Mateo County Assessment Appeals Board, an independent body that rules on these matters.

Since June 2008, my office has processed approximately 8,600 Decline-in-Value requests from homeowners for the 2008-09 Tax Year; 5,200 of them were approved for a reduction in assessment. Those that were not reduced were generally for properties that were purchased in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. The same is also true for those that purchased a property in 2008; these will be reviewed for a possible Decline-in-Value as of the lien date Jan. 1, 2009 for the 2009-10 Tax Roll.

However, once a property is enrolled in the Decline-in-Value Assessment Program, its assessed value is subject to annual review in subsequent years in light of the current economic and market factors. For example, the assessed value may be: 1) increased to no more than the “factored base year value” or 2) held at the prior year’s assessed value or 3) reduced further.

Calls have been pouring into the Assessor’s Office and the Tax Collector’s Office from homeowners who are confused by these notices. It is unfortunate that some of the homeowners have already signed the form and mailed in their payment to these companies.

Particularly susceptible to this kind of solicitation are first generation immigrants, brand new homeowners and widows who left financial matters to their spouses – all for the very same reason, they are unfamiliar with property taxes, property tax programs and assessments. The sad part is that often the people preyed upon are the most vulnerable and at-risk property owners who would most benefit from a homeowner’s exemption.

Property owners are encouraged to contact the Assessor’s Office to find out if they have questions or need help in filling out the Decline-in-Value form. Online forms are available in English, Spanish and Chinese from our homepage. Property owners can call (650) 363-4500 for assistance.

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February 7, 2009

Santa Clara County Loses and Freedom of Information Advocates Win Big

CFAC.ORG - In a huge victory for freedom of information advocates, a California appeals court has affirmed the public's right of access to geographic information system "basemap" data, which normally shows the real estate parcel boundaries within a county (most often created by the Assessor's office).

Holding that Santa Clara County must make public its geographic information system (GIS) parcel "basemap" available to the public at a reasonable cost, the Court of Appeal rejected arguments that U.S. Homeland Security regulations and Federal Copyright protection trump the public's right of access under the California Public Records Act.

The decision in County of Santa Clara v. California First Amendment Coalition was issued on February 6th and grows out of a lawsuit filed by the Coalition in 2006, following denial of its request to the county for a copy of the parcel basemap under the Public Records Act. The county at that time offered the basemap for sale at approximately $250,000. The Coalition argued that, since the basemap had been created with taxpayer funds, it belonged to the public and should be made available free or for a nominal copying charge.

You can download the Court's opinion here.

The Santa Clara decision has potentially far-reaching implications. As governments at all levels increasingly maintain records in digital form, legal issues concerning proprietary rights in, and control over, government databases are front and center in freedom of information disputes. Moreover, the Court of Appeal's reasoning on the county's Homeland Security and copyright claims is not necessarily limited to the Santa Clara County parcel base map. It could also apply to virtually any government-created databases, at the local level and statewide, in California and in other states.

For these reasons the case attracted the participation, as amici curiae in support of the Coalition, of dozens of media companies and associations, organizations focused on national security and digital rights access policies, and individuals and companies specializing in digital mapping using geographic information systems.

After the Coalition filed its lawsuit, the US Department of Homeland Security, at the county's request, designated the basemap as "protected critical infrastructure information." In the Court of Appeal, the county argued that this designation under federal regulations had the legal effect of "preempting" state access laws.

The Court, in the first judicial ruling in the country addressing this issue, disagreed. The federal regulations under the Critical Infrastructure Information Act, the Court held, apply to information given by the federal government to a state or county government, but not the other way around.

The county also claimed that it has a federal copyright in the basemap.

It argued that copyright protection authorizes the county to condition release of records, under freedom of information laws like California's Public Records Act, with restrictions on the requester's use of the records or sharing of the records with others. The Court rejected this claim, agreeing with the Coalition that state freedom of information laws preclude a state agency's reliance on federal copyright unless state law clearly permits it for the specific records involved.

The Court stated: "We conclude that end user restrictions [on disclosed records] are incompatible with the purposes and operation of the CPRA."

The county also argued, in a variation of its Homeland Security claim, that even if withholding of the basemap was not categorically justifiedunder state or federal law, it could still be withheld because, under the Public Records Act, the public interest in withholding the information--due to national security concerns--outweighed the public interest in having access to the basemap. According to the county, the basemap is potentially of value to terrorists who could use the data to locate water lines flowing from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir.

But the Court, pointing out that the county had previously sold the basemap to at least 18 customers without security safeguards, was unimpressed with the national security argument, while crediting the value to the public of ready access to the basemap for various applications, including tracking the performance of county government officials in property appraisals and other government functions.

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