Monday, April 30, 2007

Improving Access to Government Records reports this morning that Google is partnering with states to make government records more easily searchable online. Arizona, California, Utah, and Virginia have already accepted Google’s help.

This is great news. Google’s plan is limited to improving access to already-existing government databases, but this is a laudable step forward in making government more transparent. These partnerships will allow web users to harness the power of Google’s search engine to find information about the activity of lawmakers.

We would love to see the New York State Legislature form a similar partnership to overhaul their antiquated bill search. This option is also something for Attorney General Cuomo’s staff to keep in mind when they are implementing Project Sunlight—enhanced search capabilities would make the proposed campaign finance and lobbying database even more valuable to the public. In case any of our readers work in New York government, you can find out more about what Google can offer public sector entities here.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Spitzer Proposes Judicial Reform

This has truly been a busy week for Governor Spitzer, with a campaign finance reform proposal on Monday and plans to overhaul redistricting and judicial elections yesterday.

While the Brennan Center takes no position on the Governor’s long-term plan for an appointed judiciary, we welcome his proposal for interim reform of judicial selection.

The interim proposal, which would go into effect while the so-called "merit selection" constitutional amendment makes its way through the approval process, would:
  • Form Independent Judicial Qualifications Commissions to evaluate candidates and submit a list of qualified individuals;
  • Create alternative ways for judges to get nominated; and
  • Provide public financing for Supreme Court candidates.
We applaud the Governor for recognizing, along with two federal courts, that we need immediate reform to resolve fatal constitutional flaws in the sham elections now held for New York's trial courts. Doing so will not only respect voters' rights but also contribute to a fair and impartial judiciary. As our executive director Michael Waldman said:
The Governor’s plan, along with proposals made by Senator John DeFrancisco, will ultimately strengthen New York’s judiciary. Under the current system, many well-qualified lawyers are never even considered for judgeships because they lack ties to party leaders. Allowing all well-qualified candidates to compete for their party’s nomination will improve confidence in our courts.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Spitzer Announces Redistricting Proposal

Today, Governor Spitzer announced a bold plan to bring vital reform to the way New York draws its legislative lines. Right now, every ten years, the sitting legislators carve up the state as they wish, with the freedom to create their own designer districts for maximum gain. The Governor has proposed a vast improvement: a commission, out from under the legislative thumb, to take the pen out of the hands of self-interested partisans. We’re delighted to see the Governor speaking out on multiple fronts – substantial campaign finance reform, redistricting, voter registration procedures … in short, a systematic effort to bring the people back into their government. We applaud Governor Spitzer for helping to move the state’s political process forward – and urge the legislature to take up the challenge.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

How New Yorkers Could End Up Voting on Uncertified (and badly designed) Machines

The Albany Times Union has a very disturbing story today about what appears to be an attempt to do an end run around New York's strict certification process for electonic voting machines.

Liberty Election Systems, one of the vendors of these machines, plans to provide the Troy City School District with its (as yet uncertified) "full face" DREs (or touch screen) machines for "free" in the May school board election. This was, at least in part, accomplished at the suggestion of the Rensselaer County Board of Elections. Use of these machines in any other election would clearly be a violation of state law. But Troy school district officials believe that state election law does not apply to school board elections.

This doesn't look like an isolated incident. Rather, this appears to be part of Liberty's plan to get its machines used in as many local elections as possible (did we mention the state hasn't certified them as accurate, secure, accessible or usable yet?). Key graf from the Times-Union article:

Robert Witko, Liberty's president, said the firm did similar work in Salamanca, Cattaraugus County, last year and is also working with South Glens Falls and Queensbury. He hopes for more such opportunities, calling it a way of introducing the new technology incrementally.

"It's a great steppingstone," he said.

Why are we bothered by this? Where to begin? It is a little troubling that Liberty is soliciting business from Renssalaer County AND giving one of the county's biggest districts free machines. And it's a little troubling that the state has not yet certified these machines as accurate, secure, reliable or accessible.

Finally, as we've noted whenever we can, the Liberty DRE and other "full face" DREs that New York is considering are inherently confusing. Contrary to basic usability principles, they list every race and every candidate on a single screen -- and as a result voters miss races. Usability experts are in near universal agreement that they're badly designed. The result is likely to be lost votes in every election -- including school board races in Troy.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Reform NY Day: Issue Briefs

For those of you looking for some extra reading, the Reform NY Day Coalition put together briefs on our top three issues: campaign finance reform, redistricting, and transparency & legislative rules reform.

Reform NY Day: Speaker Silver & Legislative Rules

Speaker Silver also addressed the Reform Day crowd, echoing some of Governor Spitzer’s points on campaign finance reform but displaying less enthusiasm and more caution.

Silver also announced that he and Assembly Minority Leader Tedisco (who also spoke) had struck a deal on a package of changes to the Assembly rules. The press release is here. The reforms don’t represent the kind of transformative change we have been advocating, but it is encouraging that the issue remains on the agenda, and many of the changes are positive (if small).

Some highlights:
  • Upon introduction, all bills must first be referred to a regular standing committee before they can be sent to the Rules Committee;
  • Bills introduced during the first year of the session will automatically be considered ready for passage during the second year (the bills will automatically be on their third reading, for you wonks out there);
  • The majority will no longer get one more member on each committee than their proportion of the Assembly would dictate (though, as Tedisco noted, the Assembly still fails the math portion of the test because any fraction of a person in the calculation is automatically rounded up);
  • The Committee on Ethics and Guidance will create an ethics training course for members and staff.
**We did notice that the number of members on most of the committees has CREPT UP during this round of rules changes. You may recall that one of our criticisms of the rules of both houses of the Legislature is that members are assigned to too many committees, rendering them far less likely to attend most committee meetings and hearings, develop expertise through committee work, or otherwise devote themselves to the time-consuming work necessary to create effective committees.

While the addition of 39 committees slots isn't the worst thing the Assembly could have done, it does represent a backslide that we hope to see reversed.

Minority Leader Smith's Promise

Yesterday's Reform New York Day featured several "People's Hearings" at which panelists and attendees got to ask state legislators questions about their commitment to reform.

I happened to be on the panel questioning Senate Minority Leader Malcolm Smith. Earlier this year, Senate Democrats introduced proposed changes to the Senate's operating rules that the Brennan Center wholeheartedly endorsed. These changes would have greatly empowered rank-and-file members and the public, and gone a very long way toward making the State Senate the kind of transparent, accountable body New Yorkers have long wanted.

Of course, some would say it's easy for the minority party (and its leadership) to support these kind of changes. What do they have to lose, after all?

My question to Senator Smith: did he pledge to introduce and pass the exact same package of rules changes if the Democrats ever took power in the Senate? His answer: emphatically, "without question," yes.

The cameras were rolling, and microphones recording . . . .

Reform NY Day: Governor Spitzer & Campaign Finance Reform

Yesterday, Eliot Spitzer became the sitting first governor to address the Reform Day crowd, giving a rousing speech detailing, among other things, his requirements for a campaign finance reform deal.

He said he would not sign a bill without:
  • Contribution limits set at least as low as those he and Lt. Governor Paterson have imposed on themselves;
  • Limits on soft money to party housekeeping accounts;
  • Limits on PAC donations;
  • A ban on contributions from subsidiaries and LLCs; and
  • An overhaul of the Board of Elections’ ability to enforce the law.
He also put his support behind full public financing of state elections.

As was reported this morning, Spitzer and the legislative leaders were negotiating a bill to overhaul campaign finance (not including public financing), but the deal fell through when Majority Leader Bruno rejected the prohibition on contributions from subsidiaries and LLCs.

Spitzer stood just as strong during his speech in other reform areas. He promised the introduction of several constitutional amendments, including an independent redistricting commission, same-day voter registration, and merit selection for judges.

Reform NY Day: The Rally

As we’ve mentioned, yesterday was the third annual Reform NY Day in Albany, and it was truly the best one yet. We started out the day with a great rally on the west side of the Capitol, complete with the villain Mr. Moneybags, who influences elected officials with his astronomically large contributions, and a personification of the gerrymandered Senate District 51, which some people say looks like Abe Lincoln riding a vacuum cleaner.

We present this photo of our editor-in-chief for your review. He claims to have been joking, but we remain skeptical.

And our own Suzanne Novak spoke on behalf of the Brennan Center, whipping the crowd into a frenzy with her “Jazz Hands for Reform.”

More to come soon on the substance of the day.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Where is everybody?

New York reform blogs (including this one) may go quiet on Monday. If so, it's because we're all up in Albany for Reform Day, pushing for a more accountable and transparent government, campaign finance reform and redistricting reform, among other things. The Brennan Center, Common Cause, NYPIRG, Citizens Union, the League of Women Voters, as well as dozens of other organizations and individual citizens will be asking the Governor and Legislature to tell us how they plan to address the critical issues facing the State. We'll let you know how it went on Tuesday.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Bonacic to Introduce Bill to Equalize Staff Resources

Senator Bonacic, the only Republican senator to stand against Bruno in his bid to remain the Senate Majority leader, has announced that he will put forward a bill that would codify an equal staff allowance for all senators, regardless of party or loyalty to leadership.

We have been advocating this type of reform for several years now, but what makes this announcement exciting is that Senator Bonacic claims to have four Republican cosponsors. As the Times Herald-Record points out, if all Democratic Senators stand up for this reform, Bonacic may be able to shepherd it through a motion to discharge and a vote on the floor.

We will be watching this, along with Sandy Galef’s companion bill in the Assembly, very closely.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Any West Wing Junkies Out There?

Senate Majority Leader Bruno announced yesterday that he is backing Senator Griffo’s bill to limit the terms of statewide officials and legislative leaders.

The bill would limit statewide officials to eight years in office, and it would prevent a member from serving as Senate Majority Leader and Assembly for more than eight years. Committee chairmen would be limited to six years in those positions.

While the Brennan Center has no official position on term limits, this does get us thinking about a certain quote from the first season of the West Wing. President Bartlett says, “When the playing field is leveled and the process is fair and open, it turns out we have term limits: they’re called ‘elections.’”

There is definitely some truth to that. Why start with term limits on all officials, good and bad, when you can go a long way toward fixing the underlying problem without them?

If you want to reduce incumbent financial advantage, try lowering contribution limits, closing campaign finance loopholes, and creating a system of public financing.

If you want to stop incumbents from excluding strong challengers from the competition, try taking the power of redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature and vesting it in an independent body.

And if you want to see a more diverse slate of candidates, try easing the restrictions on challengers trying to appear on the ballot.

We’re glad to see the Senate attempting to address dissatisfaction with longtime incumbents and legislative leaders, but we hope to see them try more targeted solutions before resorting to the blunt instrument of term limits.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Spitzer to Unveil Campaign Finance Legislation on Reform Day

The Daily News blog is reporting that next Monday, Governor Spitzer will propose legislation to “put New York in the lead of states around the nation” on campaign finance. He is also planning to announce reforms to the state’s system of authorities.

Sound like something you want to see with your own two eyes? Register for Reform Day and get a front row seat!

Reform Super Powers

Look up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Reform Man?

For those of you who have ever imagined Eliot Spitzer in tights with his underpants on the outside, check out the Common Cause blog for a truly amusing post.

Liam Arbetman points out that next Monday is both Reform NY Day and the return of Heroes to NBC, urging lawmakers to take more valiant and stouthearted positions on important reform issues.

He posits what powers a reform super hero might possess:
  • "Super Re-apportionment": the ability to draw compact, contiguous, AND competitive district lines.

  • "Freedom of Information"-vision: the ability to see through opaque layers of government bureaucracy to see what's really happening in the statehouse and with your tax dollars.

  • "Campaign Contribution Shrink-Ray": the ability to shrink campaign contribution limits and close loop-holes.
Wonk-tastic, but hilarious, nonetheless.

Why Can't Microsoft Treat Us Like Georgia?

What's really going on with Microsoft's refusal to comply with New York's voting system software disclosure requirements?

As both the Times-Union and election integrity activist Bo Lipari have noted, Microsoft has basically told New Yorkers who want to ensure that their voting systems are accurate and secure to take a hike. As Bo notes:

New York State Election Law, Section 7-208 states that the voting system vendors "shall place into escrow with the state board of elections a complete copy of all programming, source coding and software employed by the voting machine, system or equipment."

But Microsoft, whose software is used on several voting machines being considered by New York, will not cooperate, explicitly stating it will not allow its code to be placed in escrow accounts with the state.

Bo states that Microsoft "is taking the same stance that voting machine vendors have always taken – the public cannot have access to the software we vote on."

There's one problem with this theory. Microsoft seems to have complied with at least one other state's escrow requirements. As this blog post points out, Diebold appears to have provided the State of Georgia with code for Microsoft's Windows CE (and certainly, it could and would not have done this without getting the code and approval to share it from Microsoft).

So, why is New York being treated differently? Just asking . . . .

James Sample on NY1

Our very own James Sample was on NY1 last week in a segment on judicial reform in New York. Check out the video!

Monday, April 16, 2007

Only a Week ‘til Reform NY Day!

Next Monday, April 23rd, is Reform NY Day, an event where reform groups and activists come together in Albany for a day of action and debate on many important issues facing New York. As we wrote a few weeks ago, Reform NY Day 2007 will focus on campaign finance reform, redistricting, and legislative rules & government transparency.

Buses will be leaving from Rochester, New York City, and Westchester—all you have to do is register! If you can’t make it, show your support by signing the petition!

Spitzer Makes Good on Promise to Increase Disclosure of Lobbyist Meetings

As he pledged during the campaign, Governor Spitzer is moving toward disclosure of his administration’s meetings with registered lobbyists. According to the New York Post:
The registry, which may be available for inspection later this week, delivers on the pledge made by Democratic candidate Spitzer last summer when he declared: "When somebody is a registered lobbyist and wants to meet with a government official, that is fair game for disclosure."

The new registry will disclose the name of the lobbyist, the person in the governor's office being lobbied, and the subject of the visit, an aide to Spitzer said.
Definitely a great step forward. We call on members of the Senate and Assembly to take similar steps toward increased disclosure of contact with lobbyists.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Buffalo News on Continued Need for Transparency

The Buffalo News ran a great editorial this morning, reiterating the need for budget reform and legislative rules changes to make the governing process more transparent and accountable. They write:
New Yorkers can elect reform-minded chief executives from now until Niagara Falls dries up, but unless the Legislature also commits to changing its secretive and autocratic ways, New York government will never become any better than it is today.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Keep 'Em Coming!

There’s nothing we like more than receiving comments, so we want to thank Chris Paige for his very thoughtful comment about yesterday’s post. I don’t have all the answers, but I did want to respond to Chris’s two main questions: how do we decide which candidates receive public financing and how do challengers overcome incumbent advantage?

One objective way to decide which candidates to include in public financing is to set a threshold of viability. In most public financing programs that are currently in place, candidates must collect a certain number of what are known as qualifying contributions. Gubernatorial candidates in Arizona, for example, must collect $5 contributions from at least 4,200 people.

If this type of viability threshold isn't enough to rule out a neo-nazi candidate, then we're in a lot more trouble than just that candidate receiving public financing! But that's democracy--a battle of ideas. Public financing enhances democracy by allowing candidates with a certain threshold of support to make their ideas part of the public debate.

Nothing is a panacea, and incumbents will always have certain advantages (how do you counter name recognition, for example?), but public financing goes a long way toward giving novice candidates with public support but few ties to big money a real opportunity to get their message out and compete in an election.

--Suzanne Novak, Deputy Director, Democracy Program

Monday, April 09, 2007

Lawmakers Aren't Snack Foods

We were disappointed to read the New York Post’s dismissive response to the dismay many have expressed at the obscene amounts collected by presidential candidates in the first fundraising quarter. They write, “But so what? Americans spent more than $61 billion on snack foods in 2005. What's more important - electing a president or another round of Twinkies?”

The point is that it’s perfectly proper for Twinkies to be for sale, but our lawmakers shouldn’t be.

We shouldn’t sit back and wait for our politicians to become corrupt, as the Post seems to imply with its admonition that "the way to deal with corruption of that sort is to indict, try and incarcerate corrupt politicians." We agree that detailed campaign finance disclosure and rigorous enforcement are essential to a properly functioning system, but we take issue with the idea that they are the only legitimate means of discouraging the improper influence of money over politicians. That’s like saying that doctors should only screen for cancer, not encourage patients to take steps to prevent it.

The Post's position also assumes that all questionable practices will come to light with detailed disclosure. Unfortunately, undue access, which doesn't show up on disclosure reports, can be as corrosive as outright corruption.

What we really need, on top of disclosure and enforcement, is a system of public financing that will restore voters' confidence in the integrity of government. Public financing frees candidates from spending all of their time dialing-for-dollars, allowing them to interact with voters and giving viable candidates with no connections to big donors a real shot at election. Most importantly, it lets lawmakers respond to the full spectrum of voters, not just those with the most Twinkies.

Friday, April 06, 2007

A Different Transportation Metaphor for Spitzer

James Klurfield writes in this morning’s Newsday, “Maybe next time Gov. Eliot Spitzer would be well advised to compare himself to The Little Engine That Could instead of a steamroller.”

Klurfield takes a softer approach to Spitzer’s recent setbacks in the budget negotiations, arguing that Spitzer’s real failure was one of expectations, not substance.

He argues:
Like it or not, politics is often as much a game of perceptions as a matter of reality. Spitzer set an impossibly high bar for himself, and that's what he is being measured against. You can admire his ambition and his determination, but he's got a way to go in political savvy...No doubt Spitzer has learned something about the limits of his power. Hence my suggestion that he trade the steamroller analogy for The Little Engine That Could. Then we all might have a greater appreciation of how hard it is to chug up the mountain.

Reform 101

The Democrat and Chronicle was referring to member items today when it wrote that the key to reform is to ensure "new rules are enforced" and that there is "complete transparency in the process" in future years. The paper goes on to note that while it's made progress in the past few months, "New York isn't there yet."

We agree that enforcement and transparency are critical to really reforming the process of doling out member items (otherwise known as pork). But we'd go even further and note that these two principles are integral to all important reforms in New York: whether it's the budget, campaign finance, ethics or legislative rules, New Yorkers are entitled to a system that is open to full public review, and that comes down hard on those who violate the rules.

As New York considers reform in a host of areas in the coming months, these two ideas -- transparency and enforcement -- must always play a central role.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

If Obama Ran for Governor of New York

We’ve heard a lot over the last week about how much money the presidential candidates have raked in during the first fundraising quarter. Senator Barack Obama's camp reports that Obama has raked in $25 million from over 100,000 donors, while Senator Hillary Clinton came in at $26 million from 50,000 donors. That shakes out to an average of $250 per donor for Obama and $520 per donor for Clinton. The figures are eye-popping, but not nearly as eye-popping as what happens when they are viewed through the lens of New York's contribution limits. Indulge us for a moment.

In theory, at least, a candidate at the federal level could raise $25 million by soliciting the maximum donation of $2,300 from fewer than 11,000 donors. But what if contribution limits on the federal level were as high as those here in the Empire State? Again in theory, assuming every donor were to contribute the maximum amount, with individual contribution limits for the gubernatorial primary set at $18,100, Senator Obama would only have to call on 1,381 donors to raise that same whopping $25 million.

Which strikes you as a system more accountable to the democratic will of the people? For us, it's not a hard call.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Seminerio Makes the Case for Legislative Rules Reform

The Observer quotes Assemblyman Seminerio on the budget process:
“Eliot may wish he had another way, but there’s only one way the budget is ever going to get done, son,” said Mr. Seminerio, sitting by himself in the Assembly chambers Saturday night, hours before the budget deadline. “It’s three people, each getting a piece of the pie, and that’s it.”
He goes on to say: “The only thing that ever changes in Albany are the faces. The system stays intact.”

What is the most powerful argument for reforming the Legislature's rules to require transparency and greater power for rank and file members? We think Assemblyman Seminerio just made it.

In Case You Weren’t Sufficiently Disappointed With the Budget Process...

It seems that the public will have to wait a little longer to find out how their tax dollars have been allocated for member items, despite the promises of greater transparency made by lawmakers last year.

This budget did mark the first time that these grants have been “lined out” in the budget--previous budgets have simply earmarked lump sums of millions of dollars that were then doled out like candy by the governor and legislative leaders.

But the Sun and the Daily News report that the member items are split up among the overseeing agencies, not compiled in a neat list, and are scattered among the thousands of pages of the budget. More importantly, the names of the requesting members are not included with the items.

It also appears that lawmakers are not in a hurry to fill in the budget information gaps. According to the Sun, Majority Leader Bruno has only promised to release the master member item list prior to the money being spent, while Assembly leaders are apparently still putting their list together.

We were frankly dismayed by Assembly Majority Leader Canestrari’s reaction to questions about transparency. The Sun writes:
But a top lieutenant to Silver, Assembly Majority Leader Ron Canestrari (D-Cohoes), argued that the lack of information about the purpose of the funding and the name of the grant sponsor was not significant.

The purpose of the grant is often "self-evident," he said. "If it says it's for a Little League, it's going to be used for Little League. If anyone has a question, they can call us and we will give them the information."
We think he's missing the point. New York taxpayers deserve to know which members are spending their money, where it's going, and, most importantly, what worthy (or unworthy) purpose the money will serve. If the project is worth funding, why would any grant sponsor feel differently?

Will Conservatives Get Behind Restoration of Voting Rights?

The Brennan Center's James Sample makes the case.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

How to Not Win the NCAA Tournament Office Pool

It turns out that there is no correlation between the quality of a state’s campaign finance disclosure laws and its basketball teams in the NCAA Tournament.

Knowing nothing about college basketball, I was looking for a quick and painless way to fill out my bracket. So I turned to the good people at the Campaign Disclosure Project who graded each state based on criteria like their electronic filing system, content accessibility, usability, detail requirements, and filing schedules. I picked teams from states with comprehensive disclosure laws over those with weak ones.

I probably should given up when I realized that this method would result in the first round elimination of North Carolina (#1 in the East but a D+ on disclosure) by Eastern Kentucky (#16 and a C+ on the disclosure scale). I managed to get B+ rated Florida to the Final Four, but otherwise, it was a massacre.

In case you’re looking for the New York hook, one of my few successful picks was Virginia (rated a B) over Albany (D+) in the first round. Unfortunately, California’s B+ led me to bank on underdog Long Beach State making an appearance in the Elite Eight, knocking out Virginia in second round.

The silver lining is that campaign finance disclosure does trump partisanship, at least in this respect. My colleague who filled out her bracket by favoring blue states over red states ended up even closer to the bottom of the pile.

Daily Gotham Readers Weigh In on the Top New York Political Issue

The Daily Gotham reported today on a poll it took over the last month, asking its readers to respond to the question, “What’s your top New York political issue in 2007?”

We were gratified to see that the plurality of votes, 47%, went to “legislative dysfunction, Brennan Center reforms.” Two of our other top issues, election reform and campaign finance reform, came in second with 14%.

The DG characterized their findings:
The results show an interesting divergence between what our readers want and what most New York blogs seem to be writing about. Nobody cares about the Presidential much as about the need to reform Albany.
While we do find presidential politics fascinating, we at ReformNY will continue to keep you up to date on the issues closest to our hearts: legislative reform, voting, campaign finance reform, redistricting, and judicial selection!

Monday, April 02, 2007

Reform NY Day 2007

Are you steamed about the return to the three-men-in-a-room budget process this cycle?

Do gerrymandered districts make your blood boil?

Are you sick of rank-and-file legislators acting as rubber stamps for leadership priorities?

Do you yearn for elections that reflect the will of the people, not big-money special interests?

Then join us in Albany on Monday, April 23rd for Reform NY Day 2007! The Brennan Center is partnering with Common Cause NY and other reform groups and activists from around the state to rally public pressure to support crucial reforms to campaign finance, redistricting, and legislative rules & government transparency. Busses will be leaving for Albany from New York City, Westchester, Rochester, and Syracuse, so register to attend today!

If you can’t make it to the event, you can still show your support for these important reforms by signing the petition.

Check back here for more updates as we get closer to the event, and use the comment function if you have questions or need more information.