California still waiting
on statewide voter database

As the national debate over voter ID approaches fisticuffs, the state of California continues to shy away from the fight, focusing on a more pressing, local problem — the lack of a statewide voter registration database.

The state has a “cobbled county-by-county system” that makes it difficult to maintain accurate roles with such a young, mobile population, said Kim Alexander, president and founder of the non-profit California Voter Foundation.

The online database, VoteCal, has been in the works since 2006, Alexander said, and would collect voter registration into one system. The database is a requirement of the Help America Vote Act of 2002, with which California still does not comply, Alexander said.

California is one of 20 states with a Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, but Alexander said you wouldn’t know it based upon the database’s slow progress. Democrats have been “lazy and complacent,” and have squandered this opportunity, Alexander said.

A 2010 report by the Secretary of State projects the database will not be completed until 2015.

By Annelise Russell, News21

 

Can people rely on lesser known voting rights protections?

The Voting Rights Act, recently well known for its federal approval required under Section 5, also includes a portion that prohibits vote dilution, or depriving minority voters an equal opportunity to elect a candidate.

In the past, courts have restricted applying Section 2, mainly because of the burden of proof that’s required, said Allison Riggs, a staff attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a Durham, N.C.-based non-profit advocacy group.

Riggs, who has argued redistricting cases on behalf of state branches of the NAACP and defended the constitutionality of Section 5 in court, said she is concerned by the growing number of groups challenging the section as unconstitutional. For example, a Section 5 lawsuit filed by Shelby County, Ala., said the law was outdated, claiming the demographics in the municipalities had changed in the years since the Voting Rights Act was passed. The case is expected to reach the Supreme Court.

“In all of the work we do, there is a thread of concern that this Supreme Court might be inclined to strike down what has been the most important tool in our pocket for advancing and protecting minority voting interests,” Riggs said, noting that many still rely on the protections offered by Section 5.

Section 2 is harder for voters to depend on, she said. The burden of suing is on the minority voter claiming disenfranchisement. It’s costly, intense litigation, Riggs said, which excludes many from pursuing a case.

“One of the reasons that Congress said we need Section 5 is because Section 2 is very limited in its ability to bring about remedies because it’s time consuming, expensive and [voters] don’t have access to the resources they need in order to get there,” Riggs said.

By Caitlin O’Donnell, News21

Technology: Out of the voting booth, into the digital age

Some elections officials and voters have high expectations for how future technology could make voting easier, more accessible and appealing to tech-savvy young voters.

Amber McReynolds, Denver director of elections, sees expanding iPad use as ballots for more voters than the elderly and disabled.

“We might even be able to take it to the next level where a voter could access this from their home and do it on their own and print it out and send it in,” she said. “Voters that potentially have disabilities have difficulty getting out of their home or traveling to a site to go in person; this same app could be potentially be utilized on their home computer. That would be the next step in my mind.”

Stanley Tavenner, who used an iPad to vote at St. Paul Health Center in June, liked the device but said technology is always changing and being replaced.

“I believe in the future you’d be able to, like James Bond, you’d be able to talk on your watch and do your ballot from there,” said Tavenner, 55. “Every 10 or 12 years, these things become obsolete and something else comes on the market.”

By Alia Conley, News21

Mail-in ballots economical, but fail to build community

A small county in Nebraska is voting by mail to reduce voting costs, but some miss Election Day camaraderie.

Mail voting often reduces costs and improves voter turnout, but residents of some rural
communities say their sense of community is dwindling
with the removal of in-person polling locations.

Residents of Cherry County, Neb., which at 100 miles wide is the
state’s geographically largest county, miss election days when neighbors
gathered to vote.

“You did more than just vote. You sat and visited with people,” said
rancher Paul Young, adding it wasn’t uncommon for cake, pie and coffee
to be served at the school polling place that closed seven years
ago.

Tom Elliott, the county’s election commissioner, agreed, but says
the switch is an economically better way to run elections. The switch to vote-by-mail has allowed the county to trim 121 Election Day employees.
“We all enjoyed that traditional aspect of going to the polling
place,” Elliott said, adding that the conclusion was foregone.

By Emily Nohr, News21

California sentencing laws could disenfranchise additional prisoners

California sentencing laws are changing who is eligible to vote, and prisoner rights advocacy groups say 85,000 California voters have been disenfranchised as a result.

The issue has become murky since April, when Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a measure that realigned the criminal justice system to reduce prison overcrowding and cut budgets. Over the last nine months, the state’s 58 counties have assumed responsibility for low-level felony offenders who would have otherwise been in prison.

Since 1974, Californians with serious and lesser felony convictions have had the right to vote unless they’re in state prison or on parole. In December, Secretary of State Debra Bowen, a Democrat, told county election clerks there’s no difference between county and state incarceration when it comes to felons’ right to vote.

The League of Women Voters and prisoner rights organizations, such as All of Us or None, see a difference. They sued in the state’s Supreme Court May 28, challenging interpretation of the law. The Supreme Court hasn’t decided to hear the case yet, although the groups ask the state to clarify who is eligible to vote while serving in county jail.

A plaintiff in the case, 31-year-old Alisha Coleman, is serving a three-year sentence in San Francisco County jail for drug trafficking convictions, followed by one year of mandatory supervision. She cannot vote, but hopes the court will allow her to vote by mail from her cell.

Bowen’s office declined to comment on the case.

By Alissa Skelton, News21

Technology — worth the upfront cost?

Election officials walk a fine line when they implement new technology for an upcoming election. They must decide if new devices are worth the cost, ensure poll workers are adequately trained and determine if voters will find the equipment easy to use.

Electronic poll book, a digital check-in system, is being used in 27 states and the District of Columbia to shorten polling place lines and speed up the process. Using a computer or tablet, poll workers can easily search for a voter’s name, which is faster than flipping through paper voter rolls.

Minnetonka, Minn., has been a pilot city for new technology. It was the first in the state to try optical scan machines and first used electronic poll books in 2009, still the only city in the state to use poll books.

City Clerk David Maeda said other election officials see the cost as too great to buy laptops and software for an electronic poll book.

“A lot of people look at the upfront costs and say you can’t spend the money, but you have to look long term,” he said. “I’ve done return investment work. It shows it pays itself off in a matter of years. I think it’s inevitable to use this technology statewide.”

By Alia Conley, News21

True the Vote: Diversity?

If you follow voting rights, you’re likely watching Texas as a three-judge federal court in Washington, D.C. determines whether the state’s controversial voter ID bill disenfranchises minorities.

Texas also is the birthplace of True the Vote, a Houston-based, Tea Party-backed group that trains poll watchers and volunteers to investigate voter rolls across the country looking for questionable registrations.

Texas Democrats say True the Vote’s activities could intimidate minority votes, pointing to a contentious November 2010 election where the group’s poll watchers were accused of harassing voters in some of Houston’s minority neighborhoods. True the Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht denies her poll watchers harassed anyone, and says the group is nonpartisan and dedicated to “free and fair elections.”

Engelbrecht also says her volunteers and poll watchers are diverse, representing all ethnicities and political ideologies. The volunteer registration page on True the Vote’s website communicates a diverse group of people smiling for the camera.

But a closer look reveals the image is a stock photo, owned by iStockphoto.com and titled: “Diverse Group of People Holding Volunteer Sign”:

News21 asked True the Vote multiple times for specific information about its demographic makeup, and Engelbrecht offered this response:

“That photo was chosen because it represents the American people,” Engelbrecht said in an email, adding that a similar photo is also used by The Voter Participation Center, a group aimed at engaging unmarried women in the electoral process.

By AJ Vicens, News21

National database would give states ability to check voter rolls

David Becker is the director of elections at the Pew Center for the States. Photo by Lizzie Chen/News21.

“One in four voters assume their registration is updated automatically when moving,” said David Becker, executive director of election initiatives at the Pew Center on the States.

Becker addressed the issue Sunday with several chief election officials from around the U.S. at the National Secretaries of State Association summer conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. 

A Pew report published in February highlighted serious problems with the voter registration system in the U.S.  According to that report:

-24 million voter registrations were no longer valid or were significantly inaccurate

-1.8 million deceased persons were listed as registered voters

-2.75 million people were registered in more than one state

In response, Pew, IBM, and election officials have designed the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC). It allows states to cross-reference among states multiple sets of voter registration information. It’s a paperless, cost-efficient and sustainable way to have efficient voter rolls, Becker said.

States pay an initial fee of $25,000 and an annual fee of approximately $50,000 to use the system, Becker said.

Pew expects Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Virginia and Washington, to use the technology in fall elections.

By Joe Henke, with reporting from Khara Persad, News 21

Washington voter registration?
There’s an app for that

Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed is touting his MyVote Washington voters Facebook application. Photo by Lizzie Chen/News21.

Becoming a registered voter in Washington state is now a social experience.

The state’s MyVote Facebook application fits the lifestyle of many voters, Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed said Saturday, at the National Association of Secretaries of State summer conference in Puerto Rico.

“Our state, like so many, has been financially hurting,” Reed said. He added that this app was a low cost way to improve voter registration.

Washington residents can now log in to their Facebook account, go to the MyVote app, and answer a few questions.

If individuals already are registered, they can update their voter registration information. If not, the system invites them to register.

The app then lets voters review candidates for upcoming elections and displays contact information for elected officials.

The MyVote app adds to Washington’s reputation for changing the voting experience. In 2008 Washington became the first state to hold a top-two primary, rather than using the familiar party nomination system. It also joined Oregon that year as one of only two states to vote by mail only.

Reed wanted to release the new technology this winter, but acknowledged that it wasn’t secure enough. After continuing to work on the app, which the state designed in collaboration with Microsoft and Facebook, it was launched earlier this summer.

Users get access to the app through Facebook, but all information entered is transferred directly to Washington’s database.

“In business they say, ‘location, location, location.’ Well how many people are on Facebook?” Reed asked.

By Joe Henke, News21

Texas v. Holder: Quotes From the D.C. District Courtroom

Even though the federal district court in Washington, D.C. wrapped up with closing arguments in the Texas voter ID case this afternoon, the case is far from over. The three-judge panel is expected to rule by August at the earliest.

In addition to our previous courtroom updates, our reporting team in Texas offers this collection of interesting comments and quotes from the last day of the trial.

“Crawford [v. Marion County (IN) Election Board] was not a case of race.” —Judge David Tatel

 

“People who want to vote already have an ID or can easily get it.” —Texas attorney John Hughes

 

“Isn’t it the state’s burden to show retrogressive effect? … Technically, the government didn’t need to do anything.”

—Judge David Tatel

 

“Texas bears the burden of proof.” —Judge Rosemary Collyer

 

“The record does tell us there is a subset of voters who lack ID.” —Judge David Tatel

 

“We have to think about economic burden and that minorities are disproportionately poor. … That’s what makes this case different from Crawford.” —Judge David Tatel

 

“Their cause is now our cause.” —Attorney J. Gerald Hebert on minorities