Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Democrat & Chronicle Calls for Another Special Session

The Democrat & Chronicle piece this morning about how little was done during last week's special session prompts a good question: how many of the numerous items left on the Legislature's agenda will get done in January with the budget looming?

The D&C's answer is "not enough," and they call for the two chambers to reconvene before the December holidays.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Assessing the Risks

The Brennan Center's James Sample has a piece in Politico today that spells out the real and phoney threats to election integrity and the franchise (hint: a non-citizen risking arrest to illegally cast a vote is not something election administrators should be spending their time worrying about). It's a good, thoughtful read. Check it out.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Time for Full-Time Legislators?

The Politicker has this quote from NYC Council candidate Bob Zuckerman, arguing that councilmembers should quit any second jobs:
If you're getting paid the kind of salary that a Councilman is getting paid--which for many of them, because they're committee chairs, is over $100,000--you should be focusing 100 percent of your time and energy serving your constituents.
Despite its third-in-the-nation salary, New York's state legislature considers itself part time, and many members hold side jobs. Next time the issue of raises for legislators comes up, it may be time to rethink this.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Not Exactly the Top of The Class, But No Longer Wearing the Dunce Cap

According to the Campaign Disclosure Project, New York's overall campaign finance disclosure scheme has improved markedly since 2005, jumping from a D+ to a B-. (This could make for a better NCAA bracket next year!)

Improvements in the Board of Elections website and a new electronic filing help desk for candidates helped catapult New York from 29th in the nation to 16th, but our disclosure laws are still close to the back of the pack at 36th. We applaud everyone who has contributed to this increased access to campaign finance data, and we encourage lawmakers to consider significant improvements to the law, including contributor employer data and disclosure of bundlers.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Is This Really What Pataki Contributors Had In Mind?

The Daily News blog reports that although he is not actually running for office, former Governor George Pataki has spent over $1 million through his four PACs in 2007. A large chunk of this money has gone to things like "consulting," "travel," and "staffing." But as NYPIRG's Russ Haven points out, the PACs are also being used as conduits to funnel money to other politicians. "[I]t appears all he's really doing is supporting his extended family. It looks like the full-employment program for the Pataki faithful."

There oughta be a law against it.

That's It?

Wow. We're a pretty cynical bunch when it comes to Albany. But even we have been taken aback by how little the Legislature accomplished this week.

"What's worse than dysfunctional?" asks Professor Doug Muzzio of Baruch College in today's Times Union. The Legislature ends its not-so-special session without coming to agreement on a single important issue. Campaign finance reform? Wicks' Law reform? Nada. Nothing. Zilch.

"There is a certain public-be-damned attitude that is emanating from Albany," said Republican Assemblyman James Hayes of Erie County.


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Brennan Center Visits Congress (Again)

Brennan Center Democracy Program Director Deborah Goldberg was in Washington, D.C. today testifying before the House Administration Subcommittee on Elections. She shared the Brennan Center's research on barriers to voter registration, unfair purges of the voter rolls, and the efforts to the Department of Justice to promote overly aggressive purges. Among other recommendations, she argued that Congress should:
  • Ensure that voters who provide information sufficient to determine their eligibility should be registered even if there are other omissions or minor errors on the registration form;
  • Provide notice to potential registrants of defects on their forms and provide an opportunity to correct the error;
  • Require transparency in the voter purge process;
  • Set basic standards for voter list maintenance, including protections for voters against erroneous purges; and
  • Improve oversight of the DOJ to ensure that pressure by the department does not promote unwarranted and unlawful purges of eligible voters.
As New York gets its statewide voter registration database up and running, these principles should apply here as well.

Monday, October 22, 2007

If They Tackled Those Issues, It Really Would Be A Special Session

Now that the Senate and Assembly have agreed to meet in special session, are they planning to tackle the whole host of unfinished items they left on the table in June? (Think campaign finance, Wicks Law reform, capital construction, Spitzer's nominees, judicial and legislative pay raises...)

Apparently not.

Friday, October 19, 2007

2 For You, 1, 2, For Me: Toward a Fair Census Count for New York State

Yesterday at City Hall, Eric Schneiderman and several other state Senators held a press conference to publicize a sign-on letter to Charles Kincannon of the Census Bureau. The letter urges the Bureau to amend the way that the census determines the residence of prisoners: as of now, the census counts prisoners as residents of town/county where they are imprisoned, rather than their last known address prior to being incarcerated.

The prisoner count impacts New York State's democratic process in numerous ways. Kudos to the Senators and other vocal advocates for raising awareness on such an important issue!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Maybe Assemblyman Benjamin Should Have Waited for Today to Introduce His Bill

According to City Room, today is National Chocolate Cupcake Day, and that made us think about an item we saw in the news a few weeks ago. Bronx Assemblyman Michael Benjamin has introduced a bill (A9446) that would save the tasty snack from oblivion at the hands of health-conscious school officials who are banning it left and right in their districts. He would make the cupcake the official state children's snack, indicating that a ban on cupcakes in school is just an ineffective band-aid for a problem that needs to be addressed in a holistic way by parents.

ReformNY and the Brennan Center don't endorse legislation like this, but after checking out the Times' photos, this blogger is seriously considering running out and grabbing some of the proposed state snack.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Albany Embraces the Information Age

Well, "embrace" may be a little strong, but AG Cuomo's "Project Sunlight" promises to make Albany significantly more open to those with access to the Internet. The Daily Freeman puts it this way:

Imagine a single Internet site at which Empire State residents could track campaign contributions, identify legislative patrons of pork barrel spending, monitor lobbyists, keep tabs on state contracts and call up legislative voting records.

Sounds downright transparent, no? Blair Horner, former NYPIRG legislative director, who is running the project, told the Daily Freeman that the site might be up and running in a couple of weeks.

Of course, as the Daily Freeman notes, this is something that the legislature should have done long ago. At the Brennan Center, we frequently produce reports detailing the performance of state governments and the effectiveness of state laws across the country. There's no question that most states -- including neighboring states like Connecticut -- make it far easier to collect detailed data about things like campaign contributions, voting records, etc.

So why didn't the State Legislature make sure something like Project Sunlight was put in effect long ago? It will certainly make our job easier. Who wouldn't want that?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Sorry Kids, Redistricting is for Big People!

If you ask anyone that knew me as a kid, they'd tell you I was very inquisitive. I'd ask my grandmother why I couldn't take her car to the playground instead of my big wheel; I'd bug my dad about why I didn't get to eat his Pepperidge Farm cookies with the macadamia nuts and big chocolate chunks and had to stick to Fudge Stripes, and routinely asked to take my mom's bike which had ten speeds instead of my bike, which had, And as anyone might guess, I heard a lot of the oft-repeated parental refrain: "(Insert desired items here) are for big people."

Citizens of New York have lobbied for years to take redistricting out of the hands of the big people (i.e., legislators) and give it to the little guys (i.e., not legislators). Sort of like Kid Nation, but without the blurry child labor regulations. Opposing this transfer in power, William Parment claims that the current system is preferable to an independent commission (not comprised of legislators) drawing state legislative and Congressional lines, in part because legislators are more accountable to their constituents. This immediately reminded me of my Dad's rationale that my palate was not at the level needed to truly enjoy those macadamia nuts, and therefore, no cookie for me. Both lines of reasoning (my dad's less sound) mask the motivations of self-interested persons to maintain their grip on power (or higher quality baked goods).

Last year, Justin Levitt and I testified on New York’s redistricting process before the state legislature, providing us a wonderful opportunity to speak candidly about the pros and cons of the current system. Though we extolled the many virtues of our bi-partisan, bi-cameral gerrymander, we failed to utter the words “ increased accountability” in conjunction with “legislators drawing lines.” We did say things like “insulate their districts from effective challenge” and “choosing their constituents,” however.

Parment is right that people need to have their voices heard, and that incumbency, by itself, is not “an evil”. But he’s wrong to suggest that legislative control of redistricting does anything to benefit “the people”. Incumbency is an evil in a system where legislators can manipulate lines to ensure themselves of re-election, thereby rendering elections pointless. Further, I’m skeptical that installing a commission of non-interested persons from across the state with numerous opportunities for public input would be any less effective than legislative control of redistricting at channeling the will of the people, especially since even lawmakers with the purest of motives have tremendous incentives to ignore the public good and create a district that they can win in. Indeed, it’s more likely that voters’ wishes are conflated (however accidentally) with the electoral ambitions of a given legislator, as my Grandma's interest in not having her car totaled by a six-year old was conflated with her "interest" in my "safety". Ok, maybe she was right about that one.

Nonetheless, this opposition seems more like protecting one's cookies than protecting one's car. Like sound parenting, representative democracy is among our country’s greatest institutions, but we shouldn’t pretend that that pristine ideal does anything to influence the ugly reality that is New York’s redistricting process.

A Star-Gazette Editorial (inadvertently?) Touches on A Larger Truth About Future Political Power in the State

In an editorial in support of a state ballot initiative to change the State's Constitution that the Elmira Star-Gazette says would improve Adirondack drinking water and create more wild-acreage, the paper makes passing reference to something that often gets lost in the debate over whether and how to replace our beloved lever machines: they are not very voter friendly.

What the current antiquated machines do worst is display statewide propositions in a spot where voters are most apt to miss them -- at the top of the machine ballot under Lilliputian-sized levers that people can easily miss. And they often do, according to voting results in New York.

This is true. As I noted in letters to both the New York City and State Boards of Election, historically, lever machines have the highest lost vote rate (32.1%!) in the nation for state ballot initiatives, because those initiatives are difficult for voters to find and read on lever machines.

But guess what? Full face touch screen machines, which many election officials would like to use to replace the lever machines, are the second worst of all voting machines for recording votes on state ballot initiatives. This is because on those massive computer screens, state ballot initiatives are also listed in a hard-to-read place, amongst tons of other information on the same computer screen.

As I noted in testimony to the City Council earlier this year, optical scan machines don't have this same problem. The difference between the systems is so great that New York City should expect to lose an extra 175,000 votes on every state ballot initiative if it purchases the touch-screen machines instead of optical scanners (which allow voters to fill out a paper ballot and then feed it into an electronic scanner).

This is an important lesson for election officials across the state. While so much of the debate around the move to electronic voting has centered around voting system security (certainly a worthy matter of discussion), this important point has mostly been lost: counties that purchase the full-face touchscreen machines will be giving away major political power relative to those that go with optical scans.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Conversation with Assemblywoman Galef

The picture above was taken at the Cablevision studios in Peekskill, where I recently had an interesting, and fairly wide-ranging coversation with Assemblywoman Sandy Galef about the state of the New York State Legislature and judiciary, and the prospects for reform in New York generally on her television show "SpeakOut with Sandy Galef." I laid out some of the Brennan Center's latest thoughts on how we might get real changes in New York on campaign finance reform, legislative rules and redistricting. Sandy Galef has been one of the Legislature's leading reformers, and we discussed some of her efforts to make the legislature more effective over the last several years.

The show will be airing for the next couple of weeks in northern Westchester and Putnam counties. We'll provide a link as soon as we get one.

P.S. It is true that I'm wearing the same shirt in the photo above as the one at right -- pure coincidence! I do actually own more than one shirt.

Public and Press Scream for Action; Is Albany Listening?

We've seen a bunch of editorials in the last few days bemoaning the bunker mentality of New York's elected officials.

From the Star-Gazette (Elmira): "If there were such a thing as a negligence meter in Albany, it would likely register in the red zone these days."

From the Times Herald-Record (Hudson Valley): "The most important development in the continuing Albany scandal involving misuse of state resources and dirty political tricks is more about what is not happening than what is. What is not happening is important state business, the kind that needs the participation of the governor and the Legislature."

From the Press & Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton): "Enough of this shell game. Move on. There are plenty of unresolved issues before the Legislature for this session that could still be addressed if attention was diverted from this silliness. Imagine what could be achieved in Albany if this petty partisanship could be put aside."

The bottom line? Get back to work, Albany.

Post-Argument Press

We apologize for the radio silence on last week's Supreme Court argument in Lopez Torres v. NYS Board of Elections. Justice shouldn't take a holiday, but sometimes ReformNY must.

The Daily News argues that despite the U.S. Supreme Court's questions and comments suggesting that they are "constitutionally comfortable" with New York's judicial selection process, it is "appalling" to approve a system that denies New Yorkers any meaningful say over who becomes a judge on the state's most important trial court.

The Times Union notes that despite New York's "broken" and "undemocratic" process, the U.S. Supreme Court seems inclined to find New York's judicial conventions constitutional. The editorial argues that if the justices lived in New York, they "might have another view."

And the Buffalo News states that New York's "corrupted boss-driven apparatus provides a window into the entire mechanism of [its] state government." The editorial states that "it is all but impossible to win a place on the ballot without the approval of the party boss, and the boss's evaluation is based in large part on how much money you give him."

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Price of Dysfunction: Example 42,431

The Times-Union today picks up on a topic I've blogged about here, here, here, and here: namely, that the State Board of Elections is divided (along partisan lines) about some important issues relating to the State's new voting systems, and the result may be that a federal judge -- rather than New Yorkers or their elected officials -- will end up making decisions that will decide which voting system New Yorkers use.

This didn't need to happen: the Legislature could have decided what type of system the state would adopt. Instead, it delayed and ultimately punted, leaving it to the counties and the State Board to sort things out. The result is that different counties are liable to purchase very different machines of very different quality. More troubling, those making these decisions are county election officials, who are being lobbied hard by those vendors, while having very little technical background to make the most important calls (i.e., should I buy optical scans or touchscreens for my county, and from which vendor)?

Digging deeper, some of the partisan divide at the Board appears to be just as much about which system counties should ultimately purchase as anything else. Should it be Optical Scans, by which voters fill out a ballot by hand and then feed into an electronic scanner, or should it be full-face DREs, which are very large computer screens (like ATMs on steroids) that voters touch to cast their votes?

Each system has its virtues:

On the one hand, the full face DREs will make lots of money for the vendors: they are more expensive and will bring fairly high, recurring fees for software licensing, programming, maintenance and replacement parts.

On the other hand, the optical scans (together with ballot marking devices for disabled voters) are far less confusing to voters (historically, they produce significantly lower error rates), should be easier to deploy and store (they are much smaller than full face DREs), and will generally be more cost effective for the counties buying them.

The legislature should have made the easy call long ago. Their failure to do so has potentially left the future of New York's voting machines in the hands of a federal judge. Here's hoping he makes the right choices.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Brennan Center Visits the Supremes

Later today, the Brennan Center's Fritz Schwarz will ask the U.S. Supreme Court's nine Justices to uphold the Second Circuit's decision finding New York's method of electing its state Supreme Court judges unconstitutional. To get an idea of what Fritz will be telling the Court, look here, here and here. In short, New York's elections for Supreme Court judges are a sham, controlled by party bosses at the expense of New York voters.

We'll keep you posted on what happens.

And since I'm on the topic of the Supreme Court, I would be remiss if I did not note that the Brennan Center will be coordinating amicus briefs to the Supreme Court for the appellants in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, challenging the constitutionality of Indiana's law requiring all citizens to present photo ID as a condition of voting. To learn about why restrictive voter ID laws like those passed in Indiana could end up disenfranchising millions of legitimate voters, read this.

15 Organizations Urge Board to Select Ravitz Successor Openly, Carefully

As we've previously noted, the departure of Executive Director Ravitz from the New York City Board of Elections could hardly come at a more critical time. In the next year or so, a new Executive Director will need to oversee both primary and general elections for president, as well as the selection and possible implementation of new electronic voting systems.

As we also noted, the City Board does not have a stellar record when it comes to conducting open, national searches for this important position -- or for establishing parameters on hiring that will ensure the Executive Director can be held accountable by the public and the City Board itself.

With that in mind, 15 organizations (including the Brennan Center) have sent this letter to the Board.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Letter From New York's Republican Congressmen Reaches Judge Sharpe

We just received a copy of a letter signed by Congressmen McHugh, Kuhl, Reynolds, Walsh, Fossella and King sent to Paul Clement, acting Attorney General for the U.S Department of Justice ("DOJ"). Our undertanding is the letter was today submitted by Republican State Board of Elections Commissioners to Judge Sharpe, who has jurisdiction over the DOJ's lawsuit against the State for failure to comply with the Help America Vote Act.

As we've previously discussed, Judge Sharpe has asked the State Board to come up with a plan to have one accessible voting machine in every polling place by September 2008. This is something New York was required to have done by January 1, 2006.

The crux of the argument in the Congressmen's letter appears to be that purchases of accessible units now would be an "abject waste of taxpayer money" before non-accessible electronic voting units had been certified statewide.

This is almost certainly untrue: as we pointed out in a previous post, ballot makring devices (BMDs), which are computers that disabled voters can use to fill out their ballots, have been used in much of the country for several years. They can be used in conjunction with Optical Scanners, once the Optical Scanners are certified to New York State's (rightly) rigorous standards. As we noted in that previous post, when Optical Scanners are eventually certified:

able-bodied voters will have the choice of filling out ballots by hand, and then running them through the scanners, or joining disabled voters to use the BMDs to fill out their ballots, and running them through the scanners.

New York shouldn't waste any more time in providing disabled voters with the same right to vote independently and privately that disabled voters have in all 49 other states.

Count Down to Lopez Torres Argument

From the Times: "In defending the system, New York State argues that the role of political parties in elections must be respected. In this case, however, it is New York State’s law that is trampling on the parties — unless you consider party membership confined to the back room. The law forces the parties to choose their judicial nominees through a Byzantine system that ensures that their actual members, the voters, do no more than rubber-stamp the decisions that are actually left up to the party bosses."

From the Buffalo News, quoting Brennan Center Counsel James Sample: "It’s a system that crushes internal dissent within the parties and entrenches one faction — the local party leaders — against the membership of the party. This is a case about Soviet- style democracy."

Also check out today's feature in the New York Law Journal (registration required).

Monday, October 01, 2007

Make FOIL the Floor, Not the Ceiling

Yesterday's Times featured an editorial railing against the secrecy that has long enveloped the state's capital and arguing that many officials improperly hold up the Freedom of Information Law as a shield:
The law should be used as the last resort for journalists and the public - an appeal for information that is usually invoked after government officials have refused to reveal it. FOIL is the floor on how data should be released, not the ceiling.
We couldn't agree more. One of the fundamental underpinnings of a healthy democracy is an informed citizenry, and when the public and the press don't have ready access to government documents and data, the public interest suffers.

Take for example the Legislature's woefully bad bill information database. Users can only explore bills from this session (at present, only those introduced in 2007), and the information that is available is all but useless to the average citizen. You can find out how individual legislators voted on particular bills, but it is impossible to Unless they pull up each of the thousands of bills individually and manually create a spreadsheet or database, constituents have no way of analyzing their representatives' records.

The bill information site is also bereft of useful information about the bills themselves. Users are limited to legislative history, the bill text, and the anemic bill memoranda (usually less than a full typed page) that accompany each piece of legislation.

Compare this to other states and you'll begin to see just how opaque and arcane New York's government systems truly are. For instance, the Connecticut General Assembly's website allows users to access information on bills dating back to 1991. A simple search reveals the text of the bill and each of its amended versions, the text of proposed amendments, vote tallies for all committees and the full chamber, fiscal notes, and analyses by the committees and the Office of Legislative Research. Not to mention the fact that the longer documents are also available in pdf format for easier printing.

As the Times noted, it is not sufficient for agencies and the Legislature to reply to FOIL requests. New Yorkers should demand that their public officials use the available technology to account for their activities in real time, not at the snail's pace of an official, hard copy request.

The Run-Up to Wednesday's Supreme Court Oral Argument

Here's more on this week's argument in Lopez Torres v. NYS Board of Elections and the upcoming court session.

Our own James Sample gets at the heart of the issue on Judicial Reports: "[I]t's about stakeholders in a corrupt status quo against stakeholders in a functioning democracy."

And the Times adds its voice to the chorus of those supporting affirmance: "On Wednesday, the court will hear arguments in another voting case of particular interest to New Yorkers, a challenge to the use of [New York's] judicial conventions, undemocratic institutions dominated by party hacks, to select state court judges. Lower courts rightly held this highly undemocratic system to be unconstitutional."