May 27, 2009

Get 'Em Ready To Vote While They Are Young

AS A key element in what is welcome progress toward universal voter registration, a movement is growing within the states to swing the doors of our democracy wide open, encouraging and facilitating the active participation of young people in the electoral process. From education, to access, to advance registration, more and more legislators and public officials are doing their part to invite young people into the process and kick start habits that can last a lifetime.

When it comes to the political participation of young people, we have come to assume a certain ceiling of enthusiasm; a kind of minimum threshold of apathy that is factored into our expectations. Though last year's presidential campaigns directed significant attention to young voters, and despite having a candidate on both major party tickets imbued with youthfulness and pop culture savvy, actual youth turnout saw only a modest bump from 2004; about 1.5 percentage points according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE). Though voters between 18 and 24 were 12.6% of the voting age population, they made up only 9.5% of those who actually voted.

The importance of encouraging youth participation in our democracy is difficult to overstate, and it is in our interest to avoid becoming apathetic about apathy. According to a 2003 study by Alan S. Gerber, Donald P. Green and Ron Shachar in the American Journal of Political Science and Mark Franklin's seminal 2004 book on turnout, Voter Turnout and the Dynamics of Electoral Competition in Established Democracies since 1945, there is a great deal of evidence indicating that participation in one's youth is highly predictive of future participation; in other words, voting is best made into an unkickable habit early in life. We are a country that values the long-term health of our democracy. In hoping that as many people as possible for generations to come will keep themselves informed and reliably take part in elections, we need to take active steps to get young people civically educated, registered, and voting.

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May 26, 2009

Make Every Vote Count

Quick: When did we elect the President last year? If you said November 4th, you're more than a month off. Try December 15th. That's when the electoral college convened in each state to formally ‘elect' Barack Obama president. Despite overturning the popular vote in 2000, efforts to establish direct election of the president– which would require amending the Constitution – have been unable to gain traction in Congress. Now two election reform organizations, relative newcomer National Popular Vote and the more established FairVote, have a promising proposal to use the electoral college for the very end it was intended to circumvent.

On April 28th, Washington became the fifth state in the nation to enact legislation in favor of a national popular vote for president. "Being a blue state since '88, in the primary cycle we draw some attention, but in the general election we draw very little attention from the national campaigns," says State Senator Joe McDermott, the prime sponsor of the bill in the Washington state Senate and a former elector himself. "National Popular Vote would blow that open. Whether the Democrat won by 52 or 57 percent would make a difference nationally. Assuming Washington was still a blue state, what the margin was suddenly becomes important."

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May 24, 2009

A Call For Universal Voter Registration

SOMEWHERE BETWEEN 2 and 4 million Americans were unable to vote in the last election because of problems with their registration. And that's just people who tried to vote; in 2006, there were more than 65 million who were eligible to vote, but weren't even registered. That's a third of potential voters.

It doesn't have to be this way. Registration rates in other countries frequently run upwards of 90 percent (both Canada and France hit that mark, for example, while Venezuela stands at roughly 94 percent, and Russia about 97). Now reformers are seizing the moment to use existing law to expand registration, as well as considering new laws that could finally put the United States on an equal footing with many of the world's other democracies.

"That's a pretty staggering number," says Project Vote's executive director Michael Slater of the millions unable to cast a ballot in 2008. "We don't have the egregious problems with voter registration that we had in the past, but it's still a system that's far from perfect and it's still a system that's preventing people from voting in America."

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Opening Up The Government's Filing Cabinets

WHEN VIVEK Kundra became the federal government’s chief information officer, he talked about the value of using standard off-the-shelf computer systems instead of the custom-built ones that government agencies are inclined to buy.

With the new government site, Mr. Kundra is showing off the value of standard data formats as well.

The government, of course, has been publishing information on paper for centuries, and in electronic form for decades. The portal has links to hundreds of Web sites the government runs about all of its agencies and programs.

But is different. It is primarily for machines, not people, at least as a first step. It is a catalog of various sets of data from government agencies.

And the idea is to offer the data in one of several standardized formats, ranging from a simple text file that can be read by a spreadsheet program to the XML format widely used these days for the exchange of information between Web services. Other data is presented in formats that are meant to feed into mapping programs.

The value of this, of course, is that when information is made available this way, then anyone can analyze it or write a program to do so. The Sunlight Foundation is sponsoring "Apps for America 2.o,"a contest to find the best applications that use this data.

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May 23, 2009

Tap Into The Wisdom Of The Crowd Using IdeaScale

THE WHITE House is using IdeaScale, a third-party platform that enable anyone to post an idea, add comments, and vote them up or down to power citizen input. IdeaScale powers communities and innovation is drive by the wisdom of the crowd.

Using a simple wizard interface, you can build your IdeaScale portal quickly. It can be customized with categories, brand logo, header and other features. They let you easily add a feedback widget to your web site and automatically post ideas to your blog, Twitter, and Facebook accounts.

Your constituents post ideas and comments to your portal, others vote them up or down. The best ideas/suggestions float up to the top, guiding you towards the most optimal decisions for your public organization. You can also interact directly with the community that is formed around an idea and leave comments on the status of an idea.

This entire process can help you build a stronger relationship with your constituents by confirming that their voices are heard - just like the White House!

I have set up an IdeaScale portal and it was super easy. It took around ten minutes from beginning to end. Check it out here and be sure to add your ideas on creating a New Democracy.

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May 22, 2009

The New "Open" Federal Government

PART OF White and the Open Government Initiative is the "Open Government Innovations Gallery," which celebrates the innovators and innovations who are championing the President's vision of more effective and open government. In the Innovations Gallery, you can browse examples of new ways in which agencies across the Executive branch are using transparency, participation and collaboration to achieve their mission.

Here are three examples of the site's content:

Access to Government Data: Discover, Participate, Engage Exchange
Helping to Shape the Future of

Open for Questions
Americans Ask the President Questions at

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May 21, 2009

Will The Budget Bite California Governments' Online Efforts?

THE SPECIAL election to fix California's budget mess was held on May 19th but it failed to fix anything. In fact, because of the defeat of all of the state propositions, except one, the state is now facing significant financial problems - the main one is how to balance the budget. (Click here for an interactive election map with results for the state propositions by county).

Some of today's newspaper headlines include: State Budget Crises Puts the Squeeze on Firefighting; California Poison Control System About to Fold; Colleges, Universities Face Big Cuts After Propositions Fail; Election Fallout Cuts to the Core; Cities, Schools, State Brace for Deep Budget Cuts; and, Furloughs Will Leave Courts Dark Once a Month.

As you can see from the headline listing above, the financial situation may touch every level of government from the state to cities and counties to schools and to the courts.

One of the interesting questions that comes from California's dire financial situation is, "will the online efforts of governments be cut, scaled back or remain status quo. Or, will they be expanded?"

San Mateo County, for instance, just announced an online effort to hold "Town Hall" forums online at a cost of approximately $6,000 per year. The forum page says, "SMC Forum is an on-line forum for civic engagement" and the first question of the new meeting place is, "Should citizens have the authority to amend the constitution and call for and conduct a constitutional convention? (So far there is one post to the forum - BTW, the user answered the question of calling a constitutional convention as "Maybe" by writing, "I am nervous about the decision making abilities of the average citizen. They tend to be very cynical and reactionary.").

The online presence and use of web 2.0 technologies has expanded in the public sector and my experience tells me that citizens value useful online resources. In this era of budget cutbacks will these public services be seen that way by decision makers or will they be seen as nice to have but just can't afford them services?

Time will tell.

In truth, they need more online information, not less. I think it would be foolish to cut these services.

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May 19, 2009

Redesigning The Relationship Between "The Governed" And The Government

GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS may not realize it just yet but the power of mass collaboration is changing the relationship between citizens and the state. That relationship is being reshaped by the development of Web 2.0 technologies.

For those interested in learning more about this sea change, I would suggest watching Ivo Gormley's film, "Us Now." (The film lasts around 60 minutes and you can view it below, for free!).

Gormley's optimistic documentary illustrates through many examples and the comments of key thinkers on the subject, how harnessing the power of the Internet for mass collaboration can potentially change society and the distribution of power. The film spends a great deal of time taking a look at forms of behavior where people organize themselves - by voting how to distribute money within a local community, picking the players' positions in a soccer team, or lending money to particular people at low interest rates.

One of the most insightful segments of "Us Now" is on couchsurfing. is a company with only seven employees but it is actually a huge, self-policing organization which facilitates 1,500 people meeting and sleeping at each others' houses, every night.

There is room in this new "collaborative" environment for both the collective wisdom of citizens and the skilled government administrators who lead our various public sector organizations. There are plenty of new government-social media experiments and established politicians are joining the movement - take a look here for an example.

The real challenge for the future is how to interconnect the various forces in this space and put the puzzle together. It will take hard work to figure out, for instance, where current governmental systems need to change, what that change should look like, where the real power ought to reside and what people everywhere will do for themselves.

Us Now from Banyak Films on Vimeo.

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May 18, 2009

San Bernardino County Assessor's Office Case Raises Government Record Questions

WHEN SPECIAL county counsel John Hueston investigated alleged corruption in the San Bernardino County assessor's office, he had hoped to find a cache of e-mails that would shed light on how the office operated under Bill Postmus.

Instead, Hueston found little information of value in the county's computer system. That was no accident, his report said.

"Mr. Postmus and others utilized the Blackberry messenger process, where they could communicate and bypass the county servers," said the Hueston report, released Tuesday.

E-mails and other written electronic communications to and from government officials are records that, in most cases, must be made available to the public under guidelines set by state law. They also can be vital in criminal investigations.

At least two courts have ruled that even when the messages travel through personal equipment and accounts, they are public records.

County officials hired Hueston, a member of the Los Angeles law firm Irell & Manella, to investigate allegations of time-card fraud and other problems under the tenure of Postmus, who resigned from the assessor job in February. Postmus was elected to the assessor position in 2006 after serving on the county Board of Supervisors for six years.

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May 14, 2009

Five Election Changes California Might Have to Consider Given Its Financial Situation

EVERYBODY KNOWS that California's economy is in the tank. Governments at every level are struggling to cut costs and increase revenues - and some are just trying to stay solvent. If this trend continues, vital public services could be either cut significantly or eliminated completely.

The election offices of California's 58 counties are not immune to this dire financial situation. Most are being asked to reduce spending - in San Mateo County which already has the lowest ratio of staff to registered voters of most any jurisdiction in the state, we have been asked to reduce spending through the elimination of positions. The question becomes, "how do you guarantee quality, error-free elections without knowledgeable, skilled election staff - when do these types of reductions begin to affect the core mission of an election office and adversely affect its ability to fulfill its responsibilities to the people?

In my opinion, election offices can't continue to operate in the same old way with the current economic realities. Either funding must be maintained or change must come.

But what change?

Here are some possibilities - which do you favor? (If any).

1. Eliminate the mailing of sample ballots (California is one of nine states that mails a paper sample ballot to voters). The same information could be delivered on the web, in newspapers and in special newspaper-like publications and distributed at news stands, libraries and government agencies. Through this measure, printing costs would be reduced and postage costs would be eliminated. One obvious downside is that the voter would have to take some initiative to get the information in order to cast an informed vote.

2. Increase the size of precincts. Right now the size of precincts is limited to a 1,000 registered voters. In some cases, however, half those people vote by mail. Why not allow election officials to subtract out the mail ballot voters and increase precinct size? This measure would save huge amounts of money by not having to hire as many poll workers and would reduce the costs to equip polling places. The downside is that some voters might have to drive slightly longer distances to get to the polls.

3. Allow for all mail elections. Around half the voters in California now vote by mail. Why not give Boards of Supervisors the option to conduct all mail elections? Right now boards do not have this legal authority. This reform would save money because of the costs associated with hiring, training and supporting polling place workers as well as the money necessary for supplies like flags, table, chairs and office supplies. The downside is that people wouldn't have a choice on how and when to vote and some do not trust the postal service with their ballots.

4. Provide for Election Day voter registration. Current law shuts down voter registration 15 days prior to an election. California could move to election day registration like several other states have done. This would potentially encourage more people to vote and reduce the processing costs associated with the ever-increasing number of provisional ballots that must be researched one at a time to ensure the voter has not cast a ballot by mail or at a polling place.

5. Eliminate language requirements for election materials. Federal law mandates that certain jurisdictions provide election materials in languages other than English. Some counties are required to make materials available in nine different languages. Changing federal law would be next to impossible but it would save money at the local level. The downside is that those voters who really need language assistance wouldn't get that assistance.

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May 13, 2009

Help Wanted - Great Job Opportunity For The Right Person

THE COUNTY of San Mateo (population 850,000+), located in the scenic San Francisco Bay Area, is seeking an independent, hands-on recognized assessment professional to serve as Deputy Assessor-County Clerk-Recorder. Working within a very cohesive management team in a fast-paced and creative environment, the Deputy Assessor will manage a staff of real property appraisers and business property auditors. The Assessor’s Office is responsible for maintaining 258,000 assessments and a $131 billion local property tax roll.

The ideal candidate is an experienced manager with a can-do attitude, exceptional communication skills and an aptitude for innovation and strategic thinking. Approachable and politically astute, the successful candidate will represent the Assessor’s Office in a variety of public and judicial settings. The ability to effectively utilize limited resources while maintaining a high level of customer satisfaction will serve this position well. A demonstrated knowledge of California property tax assessment, appraisal and auditing practices will be expected. A Bachelor’s degree and MAI designation are highly desirable.

The annual salary range for this position goes up to $136,802 and is supplemented by an excellent benefit package, including the choice of two County Retirement System plans.

This recruitment is open until filled. To be considered for this exceptional career opportunity, submit resume, cover letter and work-related references to:

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May 12, 2009

Open Government Delays Irk Some

AN INITIATIVE President Barack Obama launched to give the public more access to the inner workings of government is under fire for cutting the public out of the process.

With a deadline looming next week to send a set of formal recommendations to Obama, the effort to craft an “open government directive” has also suffered from a lack of attention from top White House decision makers and the delay of a key appointment, advocates and an official involved said.

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The Office of Public Engagement

ON MONDAY the White House announced a new "White House Office of Public Engagement." According to the site, "the office is the open front door to the White House."

The site goes on to say, "The Office of Public Engagement is the embodiment of the President’s goal of making government inclusive, transparent, accountable and responsible.

We create and coordinate opportunities for direct dialogue between the Obama Administration and the American public, while bringing new voices to the table and ensuring that everyone can participate and inform the work of the President.

The Office of Public Engagement helps open the two-way dialogue, ensuring that the issues impacting our nation’s proud and diverse communities have a receptive team dedicated to making their voices heard within the Administration, and even more importantly helping their concerns be translated into action by the appropriate bodies of the Federal Government.

As part of making the Government accessible to its citizens, the Office of Public Engagement acts as a point of coordination for public speaking engagement for the Administration and the various departments of the Executive Offices of the President. The Office of Public Engagement removes obstacles and barriers for engagement and works to improve public awareness and involvement in the work of the Administration.

Together, side by side with the citizens who have demanded a government they can be a part of, a government that works, The Office of Public Engagement will build the open and transparent government President Barack Obama has promised."

The Office of Public Engagement Blog

Citizens' Briefing Book

Staff Bios

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May 11, 2009

Voters May Vote On E-Voting: What's The Point?

RIVERSIDE COUNTY is debating the wisdom of putting an advisory measure on the June 2010 Primary election ballot that would ask voters if they prefer electronic voting machines to paper ballots.

One editorial said, "We would venture a guess that some 70 to 80 percent of the populace prefers electronic voting machines to paper ballots." They're much more modern, quicker and, well, just generally cooler. But public opinion might also change drastically if the ballot included much of the evidence suggesting that e-voting is highly vulnerable to hacking and election fraud."

Meanwhile the $25 million worth of Sequoia electronic voting machines sit in a warehouse gathering dust.

While a ballot measure might be interesting in the campaign it produces, the question is really moot. A couple of years ago the Secretary of State decertified the machines following a top to bottom security audit of the machines and their software.

So, even if the public showed their approval for the electronic devices, they still could not be used.

What's the point?

Would the point be to show that the county did not make a mistake by originally selecting the electronic voting equipment? Would the point be to generate some campaign ammunition to be used against the current Secretary of State in her next campaign? Or would the point be to discredit the work of Tom Courbat and the folks at Save Our Vote?

I say, "give it up."

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May 10, 2009

California State Library Promotes Civic Engagement Through New Program

CALIFORNIA'S PUBLIC libraries are working to become a hub for civic engagement as they partner with the largest volunteer network to help people of all ages make a difference.

VolunteerMatch and the California State Library have announced a partnership to strengthen civic engagement at public libraries throughout California, and the launch of a new online resource,, that makes it easier for Californians to volunteer at local libraries and at nonprofits within the greater community.

Greg Baldwin, president of VolunteerMatch said, "Americans of all ages are more interested than ever in giving back, so the challenge is for institutions to create engaging and interesting ways to get involved," said Baldwin. "We're delighted that California's libraries share our commitment to unlocking the potential of new generations of citizens to serve their communities."

The Web site is the cornerstone of the broader California State Library initiative, Get Involved: Powered by Your Library, to encourage and tap into the skills and experiences of California volunteers. By positioning libraries as hubs for civic engagement, the program seeks to raise awareness about skilled volunteering in public libraries and strengthen the capacity of libraries to utilize skilled volunteers.

Through the partnership, the state's public library outlets can now advertise their volunteer openings to more than 10 million visitors in the VolunteerMatch network. Libraries can also now promote to library patrons as a resource for finding volunteer opportunities with 65,000 participating organizations.

The program also includes training to help libraries create diverse and meaningful volunteer positions to attract new audiences, especially the growing number of retiring Baby Boomers.

Key elements of the new program include:
  • The launch of as a hub for community involvement with a special focus on library volunteering, literacy projects and community volunteer activities.
  • An online toolset for libraries to post volunteer opportunities, screen prospects, coordinate group activities, and track volunteer hours.
  • A series of trainings including the Get Involved: Powered by Your Library Institute to help libraries create diverse and meaningful volunteer positions that will attract a broad range of community volunteers.
"Volunteer engagement benefits both the library and the community. In their role as information center and community living room, libraries are well positioned to serve as hubs for civic engagement," said Laura Parker, public information officer for the State Library. "We believe this is a program that other states will want to learn from and implement."

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May 9, 2009

Public Official Of The Year Nominations Now Open

EVERY YEAR since 1994, GOVERNING magazine has honored individual state and local government officials for outstanding accomplishment by naming them Public Officials of the Year. Elected, appointed and career officials from any branch of state or local government are eligible. Our readers and visitors are invited to nominate individuals who have had a notable positive impact on their department or agency, community or state.

Nominations for the 2009 awards must be submitted through this Web-based form by May 29, 2009. GOVERNING annually receives several hundred nominations from individuals in the public and private sectors. In addition, GOVERNING staff consults experts and scholars in the field, and also nominates outstanding individuals they encounter in the course of their work. The nominations are evaluated by a selection committee, which, after painstaking research, chooses the winners.

The Public Officials of the Year are honored at an awards banquet in the fall, and their profiles appear in the November issue of Governing.

To nominate a public official, go here.

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May 8, 2009

GOV 4.0: Government Programs Must Be Judged By The Happiness They Produce

If the rest of the world cannot get it right in these unhappy times, Bhutan, a tiny Buddhist kingdom high in the Himalayan mountains, says it is working on an answer.

“Greed, insatiable human greed,” said Prime Minister Jigme Thinley of Bhutan, describing what he sees as the cause of today’s economic catastrophe in the world beyond the snow-topped mountains. “What we need is change,” he said in the whitewashed fortress where he works. “We need to think gross national happiness."

The notion of gross national happiness was the inspiration of the former king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in the 1970s as an alternative to the gross national product. Now, the Bhutanese are refining the country’s guiding philosophy into what they see as a new political science, and it has ripened into government policy just when the world may need it, said Kinley Dorji, secretary of information and communications.

“You see what a complete dedication to economic development ends up in,” he said, referring to the global economic crisis. “Industrialized societies have decided now that G.N.P. is a broken promise.”

Under a new Constitution adopted last year, government programs — from agriculture to transportation to foreign trade — must be judged not by the economic benefits they may offer but by the happiness they produce.

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May 7, 2009

Modernizing Our Voter Registration System Could Eliminate Millions in Wasteful Spending

A NEW WashPIRG Education Fund study estimated that over $33,467,910.00 of public money from 100 counties was spent on simple registration implementation and error-correction issues in 2008.

That boils down to more than $86,977.00 of the elections budget in counties with populations fewer than 50,000, over $248,091.00 in counties of 50,000 to 200,000 people, and $1,079,610.00 in jurisdictions of 200,000 to 1,000,000 people. Some of the largest counties in the study spent far more than this, for example St Louis County with a population of 995,118, conservatively spent over 3 million dollars on registration implementation and issues in the 2008 cycle.

“Too much time, effort, and money is spent at the local level reacting to and paying for our paper-driven, mistake-riddled registration process. Our system creates challenges for local officials and wastes taxpayer dollars,” says WashPIRG Advocate Blair Anundson.

Our local election officials should be able to use the funds that our counties allot for the actual administration of elections, rather than for the endless data-entry and error correction processes created by our current registration system.

The WashPIRG Education Fund recommends implementing a modernized automatic registration system to help eliminate some of the burdens local officials bear and to reallocate funds to enable local officials to more effectively administer our elections.

Anundson added, “It is time to put these taxpayer dollars into activities that promote our democracy instead of into entering registration forms.”

MY QUICK TAKE: The voter registration system in America is in need of repair and we should move to some type of universal national voter registration system. The current system is too costly and too error prone. But most importantly, too many voters are disenfranchised.

See Also a Pew Charitable Trusts Report Here >

And Majority Rules Blog Here >

Contact Blair Anundson for more information (a WashPIRG Consumer and Democracy Advocate) at Also, thanks to Blair who shared the information for this post.

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May 6, 2009

If You Don't Vote May 19, Don't Complain Later

YOU MIGHT not like the idea of the sales tax, vehicle and income tax increases that would be extended through four years if Proposition 1A passes May 19.

You might be sorely afraid of the cutbacks that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state legislators warn they will have to impose if the budget-related propositions on this ballot do not pass. For that matter, the latest estimate of state revenues indicates more cuts will come this summer even if all the measures do pass.

For sure, if most of the proposition package goes down, draconian slashes will be almost sure to follow. The only way to avoid them would be by imposing more new taxes or fees, and if Proposition 1A loses, that would send a pretty strong message from voters who don't want any of that and would be sure to nix any further tax propositions submitted to them in some future special election. Plus, the few Republicans who voted for this package against their party's wishes have made it known those votes were it, basta, no more, no mas; any further budget problems would have to be solved with reduced spending.

What programs might be lopped if most of what's on this ballot loses? Expect some state parks to close, at least temporarily. Expect a further suspension of the program allowing elderly homeowners to postpone paying property taxes until their places are sold. Expect Medi-Cal cuts, even to the extent of denying vaccinations to poor children. Expect longer waits for court cases to be heard as funding for the legal system will drop. Expect fewer firefighters to respond to wildfires this summer and fall, with additional billions of dollars in property damages the consequence. Expect shorter hours at Department of Motor Vehicles offices.

And that's just for starters. Sure, there's waste in government. This column last winter documented at least $200 million in pure waste by the state prison system and the people running the prisons still have made no changes.

But finding $15 billion worth of waste is a whole other question.

This all explains why voters should not be treating the special election like they do most off-year votes. So much is at stake here for so many Californians that if voters stay away from the polls this time, plenty of those who don't vote will suffer unpleasant consequences

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May 5, 2009

The Votes Are In!

WHAT BETTER way to spend a part of Cinco de Mayo than sampling homemade salsa?

That's right - the "Salsa Contest" held this afternoon at the Biblioteca Fair Oaks (Redwood City, California) was a success. Angelica Jaimez, the chief organizer of the event, did a splendid job at getting the "votes counted" accurately and quickly. And the voters got to enjoy some treasured salsa recipes.

In all, participants tasted 18 different salsas, each with its own distinctive flavors which ranged from mild to really hot. There was red salsa, green salsa, orange salsa and yellow salsa. Some of the salsa sauces were creamy, some were thick while others were chunky. All were really good tasting.

In the end the winning salsas were lovingly prepared by Armando Ramirez who took first place honors. Margarita Cuevas got second place and Rosario Gonzalez got the third spot.

Congratulations to all the entrants. And thank you for sharing your recipes.

Hopefully this will become an annual event!

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Cinco de Mayo

Enjoy a safe Cinco de Mayo. I am headed to a "Salsa Contest." There should be plenty of great homemade salsa to sample - wish me luck! Click the play button below and get in the Cinco de Mayo mood while the Gipsy Kings play la Bamba.

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How To Perfect Our Democracy

THE FIRST 100 days of the Obama Presidency have come and gone in a state of crisis. For supporters of democracy reform, however, that could describe the last eight years since Bush v. Gore. If the 2008 election vindicated their work, it was only a first step toward redressing the fundamental flaws of our democracy.

In the words of Miles Rapoport, democracy reform advocate and president of the think tank Demos, "A lot of the focus for Demos and for other organizations over the last ten years has been work on the state level. That was a result of the fact that Washington was so hopelessly gridlocked on these issues, it was almost better not to have Washington take them up. The situation is different now. The possibilities for federal reform are better now than they've ever been before."

As the data-crunchers digest the numbers, it's clear that 2008 had the highest turnout of any presidential election since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1972: 62% of eligible voters. More African-Americans, Latinos, and young voters made it to the polls than ever before, and the electorate on November 4th looked more like America than it ever has in the past (proportionally speaking). However remarkable, this milestone was partly the result of a slightly lower turnout (in relative terms) by white and elderly voters, and it was far short of the record-setting spectacle many had hoped for. Voting rates in the US continue to lag far behind many of the world's other oldest democracies. There's still much to do to make it possible for all Americans to make their voices heard, from enacting election day registration and early voting to making election day a holiday.

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May 4, 2009

Today is Voter Registration Deadline in California

TODAY IS the deadline to register to vote in the May 19 special statewide "budget fix" election. Voter registration forms are available at locations throughout San Mateo County including DMV offices, public libraries, post offices, welfare offices and city clerk offices.

An online registration form also is available at

Voters who wish to cast their ballots by mail instead of going to a polling place have until May 12 to request vote-by-mail ballots. Such ballot applications are on the back of each sample ballot mailed to voters. They also are available at the county elections office, 40 Tower Road in San Mateo and online at

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Afghan Rights Chief Fears Vote Fraud Against Women

BALLOTS OF Afghan women in conservative districts are vulnerable to fraud in August's presidential election, the country's top human rights official said Sunday.

The movements of women are severely restricted by tradition in conservative parts of Afghanistan, where it is rare for women to travel outside their villages or even their family compounds. There, male relatives often register the women as voters.

"Two issues are of concern for me. First is that the right of the woman to cast her vote will not be given to her, and the second is that it's possible that there will be serious fraud in the election by this method," Sima Samar, chairwoman of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, told a news conference.

Giving an example, Samar said that during the last six months of voter registration, 72 percent of those signing up in Logar — a province south of Kabul — were women. She said it was not "logically acceptable" that so many registrants were female.

She said officials also saw unexpectedly high registration of women in Paktika, Paktia and Khost provinces.

Under Afghan law, only the person on a registration card may vote. But Samar said that in the country's 2004 presidential election there were reports of one person casting multiple votes on behalf of other family members.

Read More >

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A Bad Time To Cut Voting Rights Protections

JUDGING BY the tone of oral arguments in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder last week, the Supreme Court appears poised to strike down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.

It couldn't come at a worse time.

Several justices gave the impression during questioning on April 29 that they regard discriminatory election practices as ancient history. In fact, a wave of restrictive voter ID and citizenship requirements, both pending and enacted at the state level, threaten to erect a new generation of barriers to minority voters.

Controversial voter ID laws have been taken up in nine states this year, including Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas -- all states covered by the section of the Voting Rights Act now facing constitutional challenge. Some state legislatures are also considering laws requiring voters to show proof of citizenship before registering and/or voting.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, enacted in 1965 during the era of poll taxes and other discriminatory barriers to voting, requires certain states and regions to win approval, or pre-clearance, from the Justice Department before changing their election practices. That means that states now covered by the law may not enforce new voter ID or citizenship rules without Justice Department clearance. The current case, known as NAMUDNO for short, was filed three years ago by a small Texas utility district that wanted access to an exemption that allows states to "bail out" of the rules if they can show sustained nondiscrimination

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May 2, 2009

White House Officially Announces Social Media Presence

With a blog post at 2:03 pm Eastern Time titled "White House 2.0," the Obama administration announced yesterday its official presence on the leading social networking websites and within less than 24 hours one of the White House sites had over 112,000 fans.

In his weekly address, the president called on government to "recognize that we cannot meet the challenges of today with old habits and stale thinking." He added that "we need to reform our government so that it is more efficient, more transparent, and more creative," and pledged to "reach beyond the halls of government" to engage the public. And the White House is doing exactly that - as of May 1st it has created an official presence on the social media sites listed below.

As said, "Perhaps the only surprise about this move is that it didn’t happen until 101 days into Barack Obama’s presidency. After all, this is the guy who announced his running mate via text message."

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