Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Now that we've voted, the hard part

In a terrific essay in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Reginald W. Neale hits the nail on the head: voting isn't enough; if New Yorkers want to take back their state government, they have to make sure that their elected legislators follow through on their promises. Money quote:

We aren't paying attention. It's time for citizens to understand clearly that the steady decline of our once great state cannot be reversed until we acknowledge the causes: bad legislative rules, self-interested redistricting, autocratic leaders and a Capitol awash in special-interest money.

The Assembly Democrats are caucusing in New York City today, starting to think about their agenda for the next session. The Senate Republicans will be doing the same shortly.

Now is the time for New Yorkers to contact their local legislators and tell them they want action. The first step is reforming the legislative rules -- both chambers will adopt rules for the new session as soon as they reconvene in January. Real reform of the rules means doing the following:

• Strengthening the committee process by creating mechanisms to force hearings and votes on bills;

• Ending the stranglehold that leadership has over bills getting the floor by creating a mechanism for rank-and-file members to force floor votes;

• Institutionalizing conference committees; and

• Ending leadership control over the resources and staff available to members and committees

It's the first test, and legislators need to hear from voters that we'll be watching. If you can, call and tell them.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Assembly Names Names on Pet Projects

Late yesterday afternoon, the Assembly came through with its promise to provide detailed information about member earmarks. The Legislative Initiatives documents, available for fiscal years 2003-04, 2004-05, 2005-06, and 2006-07 include the recipient’s contact information, a short description of the purpose of the grant, the funded amount, the agency overseeing the project, and in a departure from previous disclosures, the member or members requesting the funding.

According to the Times, though, the Hearst Corporation is not satisfied. Eve Burton, a lawyer for the company, said, “It’s not usable, readable information.”
It’s not data the way the court ordered it, so that consumers can use it. If they do not comply immediately with usable data, we’re going back to the judge to seek relief.
She even went so far as to say that “there is a deliberate attempt not to provide the public with the information.”

We won't comment on Ms. Burton's allegations, but we will say that we hope that both legislative chambers expand upon these initial steps toward full disclosure. At the very least, they should create a system for retrieving information about member items that is closer to both chambers' legislative bill search function.

Categories: General

Monday, November 27, 2006

The easy choice: prevent the loss of 175,000 votes

If you were purchasing voting machines in New York City (or anywhere else in the State, for that matter), and you knew that one choice would likely result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of votes more than the other -- in every election -- would it take you long to figure out which one to buy?

On Sunday, the Daily News again endorsed optical scan machines for New York (second editorial), noting that the Brennan Center had done the same last Tuesday. As the News noted, the Brennan Center's endorsement came down to a very simple, but incredibly important reason: optical scans lose less votes than any other system New York is currently considering.

New York will be choosing its replacement for the old lever machines in a matter of months. The choice is between two types of machines: Precinct Count Optical Scans (where a voter marks a ballot by fillling in ovals, much the way she would an SAT exam) and "full face" touchsreens or "DREs" (choices are listed on a computer screen; voters make their choices by touching the part of the screen that lists their favorite candidates).

Usability experts have long argued that "full face" DREs -- which list every candidate and every race on a very large computer screen -- are inherently confusing. There's just too much information presented to the voter on a computer screen at once. These experts have long predicted that this confusing interface would lead to voters skipping races and accidently choosing the wrong candidates.

The empirical evidence is now in. And guess what? The experts were right. Professor David Kimball (who worked with the Brennan Center on its voting system usability studies) examined the "lost vote" rates in over 2,000 counties in 2004. For the Presidential race, there were substantially more "lost votes" (i.e., where no vote was recorded) in jurisdictions that used full face DREs than those that used optical scan machines. That difference increases as we examine races further down the ballot. In fact, 15.4% of voters who used full face DREs did not have votes recorded on state ballot initiatives (generally at the bottom of the ballot), compared to only 8.8% who used optical scan ballots. The higher lost vote rate on full face DREs applied to every single model of full face DRE used in 2004.

Putting this in perspective, the difference in lost votes between full face DREs and optical scans on state ballot initiatives is roughly 7%. That easily represents 175,000 voters in New York City in a high turnout year.

In other words, if New York City purchases full face DREs instead of Optical Scans, it may well cost itself tens or (more likely) hundreds of thousands of votes on every state ballot initiative, every year. And every county in the state that chooses full face DREs over optical scans is likely to cost itself significant political power.

Call us crazy, but these facts seem to make for a very easy choice.

Categories: General, Voting

Join the Conversation!

On Election Day, we opened up ReformNY to comments, and we want to hear from you! Tell us what you think about the tough issues facing New York!

Here's one great comment from John O'Neil:

With every Election Day there is good news and bad news.

Starting with the good news – with virtually no turnover in the state legislative elections your Assemblymember's and Senator's contact information is probably the same.

The bad news is that there is much left for us to do to help our legislators enact the reforms it so desperately needs and time is short. At the beginning of each session, in early January, the Assembly and the Senate vote to enact the rules that will govern their houses for the next two years.

Prior to that the Republicans and Democrats hold private caucus "workshops" where the legislative agenda and rules are discussed and most likely decided before the official opening.

In the most recent Brennan Center report there are four necessary changes that will help our legislature do what it's sent to Albany for: to be a representative, deliberative, accessible, accountable and efficient legislative body.

The changes are: (1) strengthening the committee process, (2) institutionalizing conference committees, and, at the leadership level, (3) ending the Speaker's and Majority Leader's complete control over resources and staff, and (4) ending their ability to block bills from getting to the floor.

Something you can do – Call, write, or send an e-mail to your legislators, starting this Monday, to inform them about your continued concern over the broken process and to insist that they consider the four reforms above in their pre-session caucus meetings.

Some helpful links:

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Some of the "Best Disinfectant" for Member Items

As we noted on October 27th, the Heart Corporation, which owns the Times Union, recently won a lawsuit against New York’s legislative leaders--the State Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature must publicly provide records of member items. Assembly Speaker Silver and Senate Majority Leader Bruno have decided not to appeal the decision, and both the Senate and Assembly have pledged to begin making these records available within the month.

The New York Times pointed out this morning that the Senate began complying with the court order last Wednesday, and records from fiscal years 2003-04 and 2004-05 are currently available on their website. The files, labeled "Community Projects Fund," are monstrous, so we recommend right-clicking and saving the files to your disk first rather than trying to open them directly from the site. The Senate is expected to produce the more current records in the next few weeks.

The Assembly website currently features “Legislative Initiatives” documents, but these files only provide information about the recipients of member items, not about the individual legislators that earmarked the funding. The Times reported that the Assembly is slated to release detailed records today.

A Journal News editorial suggested that an individual lawmaker’s member items should be listed on his or her website. We admit that the Senate’s first attempt at public disclosure is a bit clumsy, and we hope to see the Senate make an effort to streamline these files.

It’s great to see the Legislature moving to make the legislative process more transparent, even if they are simply complying with a court order. Hopefully, this is just the first in a series of moves to provide the public with the information necessary to finally hold their representatives accountable for their actions.

Categories: General

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Assembly Hearings on Judicial Selection

Yesterday, the Assembly Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing in Manhattan to discuss judicial selection in light of the recent Second Circuit decision that found New York’s system of judicial conventions to be unconstitutional. Judge Gleeson of the Eastern District of New York ordered that “until the New York Legislature enacts another electoral scheme, [Supreme Court] nominations shall be made by primary elections.” The Second Circuit affirmed Judge Gleeson's decision.

The hearing, the first in a series that will also take the Committee to Rochester and Albany over the next month, featured our very own Fritz Schwarz, who was lead counsel in the litigation that invalidated the old system of picking judges. Fritz’s testimony stressed that the Legislature, in assessing the proposals before it, must take care to only consider systems that would pass constitutional muster. He argued:
Those who contend that cosmetic changes will satisfy the courts have seized on a few details but ignore the profound and most fundamental constitutional infirmity of the convention system they are promoting: it does not envision a meaningful opportunity for voters to actually cast a vote for the candidates they support. Without such an opportunity, no convention system can stand.
If the legislators rejected the permanent adoption of open primaries, Fritz urged them to consider “a system analogous to the conventions now used to designate nominees for all state-wide offices.” Candidates could garner the support of convention delegates, or they could petition onto the primary ballot.

Jason Boog of Judicial Reports notes:
No one other than Frederick A. O. Schwarz, Jr…really wrestled with the 800-pound gorilla swinging between the chandeliers. These tinkerings, he argued, failed to solve the immediate problem at hand – Judge Gleeson’s finding that voters constitutionally deserve vastly more meaningful participation in the process.
Bravo, Fritz! We hope the Legislature will heed your warnings and, in your own words, build a system “that gives parties their appropriate role, but gives voters a true voice, as they have in balloting for every other elected office in the state.”

Categories: General, Judicial Selection

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Call Your Legislator and Demand Reform!

The next two weeks are critical in our effort to reform the rules of the Assembly and Senate, and we need your help! Call your state legislators and tell them that you support rules reform! (To find your state senator, click here. To find your Assembly member, click here.)

You can tell your legislator about our recommendations or simply express your support for the Brennan Center reforms. Here are the recommendations from our newest report:
  • Strengthen the standing committees so rank-and-file members can force a hearing or vote on specific legislation, even over the objections of the committee chair
  • End leadership’s stranglehold on getting bills to the floor
  • Give the average legislator greater independence from leadership by ending leadership control of their staff and resources
  • Institutionalize conference committees to give more than two individuals power to negotiate compromises from differences in legislation passed by both the Assembly and the Senate
These reforms are crucial to making our legislature into the responsive, accountable, deliberative, accessible, and efficient body all New Yorkers deserve. So call Aunt Sally in Great Neck, Grandpa Jim in Rochester, and Cousin Bobby in Schenectady and tell them to contact their legislators and support legislative rules reform!

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

The Consequences of Abolishing Member Items

Yesterday, the Politicker, the New York Observer’s blog, noted that member item reform might actually serve to consolidate more power in the hands of legislative leaders. On the Assembly side, they argue:
Restricting how members give out money in their districts will undoubtedly allow Spitzer to claim credit for instituting a needed reform, but it would also have the effect of depriving the rank-and-file members of what little discretion they have, making them even more dependent on Silver.
We think that the abolition of member items in both the Assembly and Senate can only lead to a better, more transparent legislature. However, we would point out that the adoption of critical rules changes would empower rank-and-file members to participate more fully and fairly in the legislative and appropriations process and counteract the problem identified by the Politicker. Legislators wouldn’t be able to target spending to their pet projects if member items were taken away, but combined with rules changes, reform would give rank-and-file members a more effective and responsible voice in how tax dollars are spent in New York.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Monday, November 13, 2006

Big Week for Voting Machines in NYC

The elections are over, and New Yorkers may have voted on lever machines for the last time. Pursuant to an agreement with the Department of Justice, all lever machines in New York should be replaced by some form of electronic voting by the primaries in September 2007.

There are several vendors looking to sell machines in New York, but the choice really comes down to one of two basic type of machines: precinct based optical scan machines, whereby a voter fills out her ballot by hand and has it read electronically, or "DRE" or touchscreen machines, which work a little like ATM machines.

Except in New York our touchscreens won't work exactly like ATMs. Normally, an ATM gives you one choice at a time: enter your pin code on the first screen, when that is done, choose whether to withdraw or deposit, when that is done, choose which account to withdraw from, etc. In New York, because of an outdated law, we're stuck with a terrible "full face" design: instead of being presented with one race at a time, every race and every candidate are presented on the same screen at once. As the Brennan Center's comprehensive study on electronic voting machines shows, this design produces terrible results: voters get overwhelmed by all the choices on a computer screen and end up missing some races.

New York City residents will have a chance to view some of these machines up close this week. There will be two public demostrations this week, followed by a public hearing at the New York City Board of Elections next week. We encourage you all to go and make your voice heard.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Senate Rules Changes Crucial to Real Reform in NY

The Democratic sweep of the nation and much of New York yesterday did not include a takeover of the state Senate. According to a column by Michael Cooper in this morning’s Times, the race between Nick Spano and Andrea Stewart Cousins was the only one in the Senate that turned out to be intensely competitive. As of this writing, Spano is behind in the count but refusing to concede.

As Cooper points out, control of the Senate, despite big Democratic gains at the statewide level, gives Republicans an effective veto over all legislation. If a bill doesn’t make it through the Senate, it doesn’t make it at all.

Further, since leadership currently controls the fate of bills from the moment they are introduced, it is in effect Majority Leader Bruno who continues to have veto power over legislation in New York.

We sincerely hope to see all senators, including whoever is elected from Yonkers, support critical changes to the operating rules of that body. We understand that there are legitimate policy differences between Democrats and Republicans in New York and don’t expect every bill introduced to be passed (especially since the Legislature averages at least 15,000 introductions per year). But we do hope to see transformative rules changes that make it easier for rank-and-file members to get hearings and votes on bills in committee, that remove hurdles to getting bills passed out of committee to the floor, regardless of leadership disapproval, and that institutionalize conference committees to resolve differences on similar bills.

This is not a partisan issue. We believe it is the duty of both parties to come together to pass these vital reforms to create a more representative and accountable Senate.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Report Problems at the Polls

While we hope for a smooth Election Day and encourage everyone to get out and vote, we have pointed out the many issues voters may face when they go to the polls today, from electronic voting machine glitches to confusion about ID requirements. If you experience a problem at the polls, we encourage you to fill out the form on the home page of our website and tell us about it. This project is led by in collaboration with the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation and with support from Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, and the Open Society Institute.

Make sure to fill out all of the information on the form so that, if necessary, you can be contacted for more information about the problem you experienced. Thanks for helping to make our elections better!

Categories: General, Voting

Be Part of the Discussion!

In honor of Election Day, we've decided to open up our blog for comments. Now that Blogger has a comment moderation feature, any comments made will be reviewed for spam and then will be approved to show up on the blog!

So after you vote today (or if you promise to vote just as soon as you're done), feel free to leave us comments on both future and past posts!

Happy Election Day!

Categories: General

Monday, November 06, 2006

In Defense of Fusion Voting

As we have expressed previously, we support New York’s process of fusion voting (allowing candidates to be nominated by more than one party and appear on the ballot multiple times). Unfortunately, a New York Times editorial yesterday railed against fusion voting as a way for third parties to gain “a disproportionate amount of power.”

We disagree with this assessment and the argument that “the best way to understand the system is to follow the fortunes of the now-defunct Liberal Party.” The Times rightly explained that, over time, the Liberal Party began to care more about patronage for its supporters than it did about championing liberal ideals. However, we fail to see how this example is illustrative of the fusion system. There is no reason that third parties should be more susceptible to pressures to provide patronage than the major parties. Moreover, the political marketplace eventually dispatched the Liberal Party, which was effectively replaced by the more genuine Working Families Party.

We believe that there are several reasons that this mechanism is a positive one for any state that adopts it:
  • Fusion promotes effective third parties and encourages turnout. Rather than “throwing away” their votes on third party candidates with no hope of winning, voters can express their support for the third party’s agenda while still having a direct influence on which candidate is elected. Citizens therefore feel empowered and may be more likely to turn out to vote.

  • Fusion encourages the major parties to take positions on important issues. The strong third parties fostered by fusion voting can publicize tough issues that the two major parties would ignore in a two-way race.

  • Fusion can give voters an influence over those important issues. Once tough issues are brought to the fore, fusion voting allows voters to express their opinions more clearly. A right-leaning voter might choose to endorse the Republican nominee on the Right to Life line to express her opposition to abortion. Without fusion, the voter would be unable to indicate that outlawing abortion is her strongest priority. If the New York Times is right that patronage is a problem in New York, then we should attack the problem at its source by making sure that government appointees are qualified to hold their positions.
The elimination of fusion voting would not be an effective solution to this problem—in effect, it would simply give the major parties a monopoly over patronage. Moreover, eliminating fusion would make it more difficult for third parties to strive and contribute to the political process in the state.

Click here to read our policy paper on fusion voting.

Categories: General, Voting

Friday, November 03, 2006

Spano's Condemnation of Attempted Voter Intimidation

As an update to our post earlier in the week, it appears that we have all gotten on board with the idea that having a police officer show up at your door is pretty intimidating. On Wednesday, Nick Spano wrote to the Westchester County Board of Elections to condemn last-minute challenges to 5,929 registered voters in the 35th Senate District, joining Andrea Stewart Cousins in rejecting the challenge operation. As Senator Spano explained:
While most reasonable people would agree that there are appropriate times for the Board of Elections to review and purge registration lists (such as the removal of deceased individuals), the week or even the months directly before an election is definitely not the appropriate time --- and using the police as a vehicle to facilitate the purge is most definitely not the appropriate mechanism.
We reasonable people wholeheartedly agree. Last-minute mass challenges with the serious potential to intimidate and disenfranchise should be roundly shouted down, across the board. We’re very pleased to see both major parties’ standard-bearers take up that call.

Update: Read Spano's letter to the Westchester Board of Elections.

Categories: General, Voting

Snowbirds Registered in Two Places or Two Distinct Voters?

It’s not every day that we comment on articles in publications a thousand miles away, but maybe the chilly New York morning has us subconsciously longing for more temperate climates. This morning the Palm Beach Post ran a story about an activist searching for double-voting in Palm Beach and New York.

Bill Skinner, the Secretary of the Republican Club of Central Palm Beach, found, as he describes it, 11,609 people who are registered in both Palm Beach County and New York State. The Palm Beach Post correctly pointed out that “being registered in more than one state isn’t illegal, but casting more than one ballot in an election is a felony.” Mr. Skinner says he plans to follow up on his research after Election Day to see if any of those “dual registrants” actually voted in both states.

Two big problems with Mr. Skinner's suspicions: first, as the Post noted, it is very likely that most of the supposed dual registrants had probably just moved to Florida and had forgot to cancel their registrations. (Heck, we're lucky if we remember to forward our mail every time we move.)

Second (not noted in the Post Article): he compiled his list of 11,609 people by matching only first name, last name, and date of birth. It is fairly like that some of the "matches" are actually false positives. For instance, what if there are two women named Susan Jones, one in Palm Beach County and one in New York, who were both born on October 1st, 1964? Thus, the mere fact that a Susan Jones in Palm Beach County and in New York both cast votes is not, in and of itself evidence of voter fraud. Similarly, a search of only first and last names would reveal Susan M. Jones and Susan L. Jones as the same person.

We applaud Mr. Skinner for taking an active interest in the upcoming election, but we hope that he will add more criteria to his post-election analysis before making any accusations of voter fraud.

Update: Also check out our Investigator's Guide to "Voter Fraud."

Categories: General, Voting

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Assembly More Transparent with Website

The Assembly has been quite busy posting hearing announcements and press releases on its website. At this point, they have a fairly comprehensive summary of the 2006 legislative session; it is far more impressive than anything they put up in the past. All to the good for New Yorkers (like those who work here) who want to know and understand what the Assembly is doing.

Categories: General

A Hundred Years from Now...

Reverend Scott Thomas waxes nostalgic in a heart warming piece about lever voting machines in this morning’s Buffalo News. We just hope our grandchildren can do the same in a hundred years when electronic voting machines with voter verified paper records(our dream for the near future) are replaced by some new-fangled space-age voting gizmo!

Categories: General, Voting

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Intimidated Yet?

There have been a lot of stories lately pushing back against the idea that some public officials and organizations are trying to discourage people from voting in next Tuesday’s election. They argue that voter registration restrictions, for example, and voter ID laws are necessary to counter fraud (even though they can’t prove that widespread fraud exists).

Well, we may not be able to agree on many of the nuances of election administration, but surely we can all get on board with the idea that having a police officer show up at your door is pretty intimidating, right? According to an AP piece that ran in Newsday and the Washington Post yesterday, that’s exactly what may happen to thousands of voters in Westchester County this week.

The hubbub is centered in the 35th Senate District, where incumbent Nick Spano is facing off against Andrea Stewart Cousins, the challenger who came within 18 votes of unseating him in 2004.

Spano’s lawyer John Ciampoli, who fought for a recount in the last election, is leading this year’s vote suppression effort. Ciampoli and others have filed 5,929 challenges “based on change-of-address cards received by the Postal Service.”
To check an address, a first-class letter is sent to each person. If the letters come back undelivered, police are asked to visit the address and see whether the registered voter lives there.
Never mind that the vast majority of challenged voters are registered members of the opposing party. Never mind that most are also minorities. And never mind that basing challenges on undelivered mail is notoriously unreliable. This is just a patriotic push to ensure that our elections are free of fraud.

It couldn’t possibly be a political ploy to win an election by disenfranchising voters, using a tactic that was prohibited by a federal court in 1986.

Categories: General, Voting