Friday, September 28, 2007

1974 vs. 2007? Not So Different

In celebration of its 150th Birthday, the Times Union has for the last year been reprinting select editorials from the past. It makes for great historical reading --providing the paper's thoughts on everything from the "Korean Crisis" to the Death of John Lennon to Bush v. Gore. For now, they can all be found here. Check them out while you can -- it looks like the series will end in a couple of weeks.

One editorial of particular interest to ReformNY is from November 7, 1974, just as the Democrats were about to take control over the Assembly (believe it or not, they have not controlled that chamber forever!), and after New Yorkers elected Hugh Carey, the first Democratic Governor in 16 years. The Times Union had a wish list for the new Governor. Below are the first four "most desirable" items the Times Union hoped the new Governor and Legislature would tackle:

Public financing of election campaigns.
Full financial disclosure by public officials.
Reform of the state's judicial system.
More open decision making in state government.

The more things change . . . .

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

As Ravitz Exits, We Have A Few Requests

John Ravitz, executive director of the New York City Board of Elections has announced he is leaving his position at the City Board to take a position with the American Red Cross.

We've had occasional disagreements with the Board under Mr. Ravitz's leadership, but we believe he was a solid director -- one who worked hard to improve the Board and to make himself available to the public and advocates (something that is still too rare among New York's public officials). His loss will be a loss to all New York City voters.

His departure leaves the 10 commissioners of the Board of Elections in charge of selecting his successor. The new Executive Director will oversee the nation's largest elections board, during a critical time (for starters, next year will be a Presidential Election, and New York City is likely to need to select a new voting system). We hope that, in contrast to previous selections of Executive Directors, the Commissioners will make their choice through a transparent process, and that the search for a successor will be national in scope.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

At Least One More Year of Boss Rule Selection for New York Courts

This morning's Buffalo News featured a piece illuminating a probable deal between Democratic and Republican party leaders in Erie County to effectively deny voters a real choice in two of the three state Supreme Court races that will take place there this fall. The party leaders are poised to cross-endorse Democrat Rose Sconiers and Republican Frank Caruso, which means that their names will appear on both party lines on the ballot, in effect assuring them reelection.

Cross-endorsements are just one additional, after-the-fact aspect of the complex ways in which New York's system of judicial selection lacks accountability. The complex convention process for judicial nominations that precedes a cross endorsement is even worse. That is why the Second Circuit court of Appeals aptly described it as "byzantine"...and unconstitutional. Next week, the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted review, will hear the case. The Brennan Center's Fritz Schwarz will argue the case for the plaintiffs who are systemically denied a voice in the choice of their own party's standard bearear.

The Daily News expressed our thoughts exactly in an editorial this morning: this year "must be the end of boss rule over New York's courts."

Read a collection of "best-of" excerpts and quotes from the extraordinarily powerful amicus briefs submitted by groups on the right, left, and in-between.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Highlighting the Need for Hearings on Specific Bills

In Friday's Times Union, Albany hotel owner Gary Smith wrote that a ban on fundraisers within 40 miles of the Capital during the legislative session will be detrimental to the hospitality industry in the area. This type of provision has been a part of some of the campaign finance reform proposals considered in the Assembly and Senate over the years.

We agree with Smith that the positive effects of such a ban are questionable. What's to stop lawmakers from hopping in their cars and holding a fundraiser in Cobleskill (45 miles) or Gloversville (50 miles)? Certainly, it would be an inconvenience to drive an hour to attend a fundraiser, but this type of ban would not serve the purpose of shutting down fundraising during the legislative session. We should also note that this type of provision could prevent legislators from the Capital region from holding fundraisers with their own constituents.

A sessional ban on lobbyist contributions, like the one in Arizona or Maine, could be a more effective way of curbing special interest influence over legislators during the legislative session.

Irrespective of which new campaign finance measures are considered, Friday's article underscores the importance of holding public hearings on specific pieces of legislation. It is not sufficient for the Senate to hold nebulous "roundtable conversations" on the First Amendment theories surrounding campaign finance reform.

In order to truly allow individuals, businesses, and other organizations to have meaningful input in the legislative process, the sponsor must lay the provisions of a proposed bill out on the table for everyone to see and comment on. Anything less should be viewed as an attempt by opponents of reform to delay long overdue progress on the issue.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Another Cautionary Tale

This one from Ohio: yet one more example of problems with touch screen voting machines bought in a hurry, and yet another reason why we must rigorously test new electronic voting machines before counties make their main purchases -- particularly touch-screen voting systems.

It's worth noting that the "full face" touch screen machines New York is looking to purchase (which have a huge screen listing every candidate and race) are far more expensive and complex than the "scrolling" touchscreens Cleveland purchased (which have a relatively small screen, and just list one race at a time). There's a simple principle in computer science: the more complex a system, the more potential for mistakes and problems.

Given that principle, wouldn't it make sense to just go with Optical Scanners -- systems that allow voters to fill out a ballot, and that are far less complicated than the full face touch screen machines New York is looking at?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

News Flash: New York is Part of the United States of America

Today in Newsday, James T. Madore reports on angry elections officials who "slam" a proposed plan to get New York to finally comply with federal requirements for one accessible voting system in every polling place.

The reaction of these officials is hard to fathom. Ballot marking devices ("BMDs"), which have been used throughout the country for years, allow blind and other disabled voters to mark and review ballots independently and privately -- something most cannot do on lever machines, or absentee ballots.

Even better, these BMDs can be used in conjunction with optical scanners -- which counties will eventually be allowed to purchase (when they are certified) to replace lever machines. At that point, able-bodied voters will have the choice of filling out ballots by hand, and then run them through the scanners, or joining disabled voters to use the BMDs to fill out their ballots, and run them through the scanners.

The crux of the argument of those objecting appears to be that compliance with federal law isn't necessary:

"This plan is ridiculous. ... It won't help anybody," said Nassau Elections Commissioner William Biamonte, a Democrat. Many disabled voters have requested absentee ballots rather than travel to use a voting machine, he added.

But having accessible voting machines in every polling place has helped tens of thousands of disabled voters everywhere in the country vote independently and privately for the first time. This represents a huge advance for a community that traditionally has voted in lower numbers than the rest of the country.

Why shouldn't disabled New Yorkers have the same rights as disabled voters everywhere else? The answer is they should. In fact, that's the law, as passed by Congress.

And last we checked, New York was one of fifty states -- obligated to comply with federal law, the same as any other.

UPDATE: This does not mean we support a proposal to turn touchscreen machines into ballot marking devices. We join other good government and civil rights groups groups in opposing such a move, as we made clear in a letter to the State Board yesterday.

Should Sitting Officials Resign to Run for President?

This morning's Sun speculated on who Governor Spitzer might choose to fill Senator Clinton's seat if she is elected President next year, adding Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to the list that many agree also includes Lieutenant Governor David Paterson and Congresswoman Nita Lowey.

This talk about gubernatorial appointing got us thinking about the inevitable push for sitting politicians to resign their current posts when the presidential campaign really heats up. Someone is always keeping count of the number of votes each senator-turned-candidate misses while out on the trail, and some observers have even suggested that states should require senators to resign once they become serious contenders.

As we see this year, senators love to run for president (by my count, we've got 6 in the race right now), but history hasn't revealed many of them that are confident enough in their presidential prospects to give up their day jobs.

Sitting Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole resigned in June to throw his full energy into the 1996 campaign.

But both John Kerry and his running mate John Edwards stayed in their Senate seats during the 2004 campaign, though Edwards gave up his safety net by declining to simultaneously campaign for reelection to the Senate.

For what it's worth, a November 2006 Gallup poll showed that, after reelecting Senator Clinton in a landslide, 35% of New Yorkers thought she should resign if she ran for president.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Surprise! Things Remain the Same in Albany

Dan Weisner reports in today's Poughkeepsie Journal that the majority parties in each chamber still give themselves way more money for staff and offices expenses than they give to the other guys:

State senators spent about $18 million on staff and office expenses in the six months ending March 31, with Republicans outspending Democrats more than two to one and hiring more than twice as many staff members, according to a new report. . . At the same time, Assembly Democrats, who have a 108-42 majority in their house, outspent Republicans $16.4 million to $4.2 million, a similar report said.

Kudos to Senator Bonacic for continuing to rail against this unfair, undemocratic practice:

"By punishing a minority member, by giving them less money, you're really hurting their constituency and their ability to represent constituents effectively," said Sen. John Bonacic, R-Mount Hope. "I believe we should be empowering our members more and diluting the power of the leadership in both houses."

We couldn't agree more. Most Republicans in the Senate and Democrats in the Assembly continue to defend the status quo, arguing as Senator Winner does in the article, that there's nothing unusual about the practice. But indeed, it is unusual -- yet another example of the New York legislature believing it should play by different rules than other legislatures around the country.

We've asked it before, and we'll ask it again: If Congress and the New York City Council (to name just two legislatures that might offer a relevant comparison) can provide equal allotments for staff and offices to members, why can't the New York State legislature?

Happy Constitution Day!

In 1787, 220 years ago today, thirty-nine of our Founding Fathers signed the Constitution, which would go on to be ratified over the next three years by the people of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and, of course, New York.

Originally known as "Citizenship Day," September 17th was designated "Constitution Day and Citizenship Day" in 2004. Along with the name change, the 2004 law requires each school and college that receives rederal funds to teach about the Constitution on this day every year.

My favorite part of the Constitution is the preamble, which my seventh grade class was required to memorize and which I can still recite by heart ten years later. Feel free to sing along School House Rock style:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
For a local perspective on Constitution Day, check out the Democrat & Chronicle, the Journal News, and Newsday.

Friday, September 14, 2007

A Message from New Jersey: You're Not Alone, New York

In today's Times, a reminder that while New York may be the last state to move to full scale adoption of electronic voting, it is not the only state that has had trouble certifying such machines as secure or reliable enough for use in elections.

In the past,Mayor Bloomberg and others have blasted the State Board of Elections for its failure to comply with federal and state law to replace the state's old lever machines with new, electronic systems.

There's certainly blame to go around -- the state legislature took far too long to pass new voting system legislation, and then left all the difficult decisions about which systems to purchase to the counties; the federal Election Assistance Commission failed to let the State Board know that it had found big problems with the lab it was using to test machines -- but recent events in New Jersey show that much of the blame is also with the voting system vendors. They just can't seem to manufacture machines that meet basic security and reliability requirements.

David W. Chen of the New York Times reports that New Jersey will have to change the deadlines for its law requiring voter verified paper records because the voting system vendor for the electronic machines in New Jersey could not produce a reliable printer. Key graf from the article:

...the new system encountered problems like vague mechanical error messages and power cables vulnerable to tampering. In addition, Andrew Appel, a computer science professor at Princeton, said he bought the New Jersey machines on a Web site for $17 and had students demonstrate how easily they could hack into them.

As a result, New Jersey voters will have to vote in the next primary on electronic voting machines without any independnet paper record of their vote. Given all of the security and reliability problems identified with paperless electronic voting systems, New York's cautious, halting moves toward electronic voting don't look quite so bad.

When it comes to New York's move to electronic voting, we'd like to see accessible units in every polling place, and a move toward optical scans as soon as possible. But we concur with New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram's statement in the Times that we don't want to purchase and deploy a crummy product: “You do it once, you do it right, and you get a product that the voters can have confidence in. That’s the priority.”

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

It Sounds Crazy to Us

As we previously noted, the State Board of Elections has determined that all polling places must have at least one accessible unit for the 2008 September primaries. This is good news for many reasons, not least of which is that it should allow many disabled New Yorkers to vote privately and independently in their polling places for the first time.

But now, we’re getting word that the State Board of Elections may be about to make a decision that could lead to worse voting machines for all New Yorkers -- disabled and non-disabled alike.

We hear that at their August 28 meeting, the Board suggested that it might allow DREs (also known as “touch screens”) to be “converted” into “ballot marking devices” and serve as the accessible unit in polling places. Ballot marking devices, like ES&S’s Automark, and those made by Avante and Populex, are computers that will fill out paper ballots for voters. In the case of the Automark and other ballot marking devices, the computers can read back the ballot to blind voters before they cast them.

The idea of using DREs to serve as ballot marking devices strikes us as more than a little crazy. If we understand correctly, the idea would be to turn off the counter on the DREs (DREs are designed to count votes directly, as they are cast on the computer screen) and use the “paper trail” produced by the DRE as a ballot – to be counted (by hand?) later.

Aside from the fact that the current generation of DREs were not designed to be ballot marking devices (and have never been used as ballot marking devices in any election before) – we can’t understand how such DREs could possibly serve as “accessible” units.

First, we are unaware of any DRE that currently “reads back” the paper trail to blind voters. So, the State Board would seem to be sanctioning a unit for disabled voters that makes it impossible for blind voters to independently verifiy that their votes have been cast correctly.

Second, as we have shown in our studies of voting systems, the kind of “full face” DREs the State Board has mandated are confusing to voters and lead to many mistakes. Worse still, they are particularly confusing to voters with cognitive disabilities.

So just to be clear: the State Board seems to be on the verge of sanctioning the potential use of machines that are MORE DIFFICULT for blind voters and voters with congnitive disabilities to use as polling place “accessible” units.

There are dozens of reasons to be opposed to the idea of allowing counties to purchase DREs as their accessible ballot marking devices (they are ridiculously expensive, cumbersome, have never been used as ballot marking devices before, etc.) – but surely the most troubling has to be that THEY WON’T BE ACCESSIBLE to a significant portion of the State’s disabled population.

UPDATE: Bo Lipari of New Yorkers for Verified Voting tipped us off to this. We understand from him that NYPIRG, the League of Women Voters of New York State and the American Council for the Blind will be joining his organization in sending a formal objection to the NY SBOE.

More TV = More Transparency

Our mothers always told us that watching too much television would fry our brains one day, but we think they would make an exception for C-SPAN.

Capitol Confidential reports that the majorities in the Senate and Assembly are fighting over whether New York should create a C-SPAN-type channel to broadcast everything that happens at the Capitol, not just the sessions and select hearings that are currently the standard.

CapCon notes that while the Democrats are the ones ostensibly sticking up for wider television coverage, they are being blamed for the fact that the Senate's investigative hearings into the actions of Governor Spitzer's staffers were not being televised.

Always fans of transparency, we think any move toward televising more of the Legislature's day-to-day operations can only be a good thing.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Reform A.M. for September 7

The Buffalo News endorsed public financing of elections.

The Philadelphia Inquirer admires New York, New Jersey, and Alaska for planning to brave the cold and snow to hold a February 5 presidential primary.

Federal voting technology bill may reach vote next week.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Former Politicians Skirt Lobbying Laws to Influence Public Officials

This item ran in the Buffalo News on Tuesday, but better late than never.

The BN reports that several politicians in Erie County have more than $2.7 million stashed in their campaign treasuries. Slow news day in Buffalo? Not when you consider the fact that all of these politicians have retired or are about to.

A spokesperson for the state Board of Elections said the amount held by outgoing Erie County Executive Joel Giambra is "probably the largest I've heard about."

Unfortunately, the size of the kitty is the only particularly remarkable thing about this specific group of former lawmakers. As the BN explains, it is legal for politicians to continue to dip into their campaign coffers after they leave office as long as the funds are directed to political or charitable causes.

But like so many things in New York politics, being legal doesn't make it right. The BN notes that former officials often use their campaign funds to "stay in the game." So even though they are not allowed to lobby the branch of government in which they served for two years after leaving, former officials may still shower current office holders with their leftover campaign cash.

Just one more loophole screaming for reform.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Don't Hitch Your Horse, or Anything Else, to Campaign Finance Reform

The practice of linking bills is considered by many legislators to be an efficient way of doing business in Albany. We have criticized the packaging of unrelated legislation because it is often used to circumvent the proper legislative process, resulting in backroom deals negotiated away from public scrutiny.

But a story in this morning's Sun reminds us that linking bills is also undesirable because backroom deals have a way of falling through if not acted on immediately. The events of the last few weeks appear to have jeopardized the agreement reached in July on campaign finance reform, capital investments, and property tax relief for seniors. Some officials are also predicting that the awarding of the contract for several horse racing courses may be added to this mess.

We urge the Senate and Assembly to stop playing politics and reaffirm their previous commitment to passing campaign finance reform when the Legislature comes back into session. If anything, the accusations thrown about this summer have heightened the sense that we need to do everything possible to make our public officials accountable to ordinary New Yorkers, not just big donors and party hacks.