Monday, June 29, 2015

No consensus yet on “vote center”/registered voter ratio, deadline is July 2nd

The SB 450 Working Group (WG) contains representatives from the offices of California Secretary Alex Padilla, state legislators, county election officials, and public advocacy organizations.  It met last Friday (by phone) to discuss various matters related to SB 450, a bill authored by California State Senator Ben Allen that would replace the present neighborhood polling place-based elections system with one based on an all-mail ballot, supplemented by “ballot dropoff locations” and “vote centers,” where voters could avail themselves of on-site voting options, including using disabled-compliant/accessible voting systems.

An unresolved issue among WG members has been the ratio of required vote centers to the number of registered voters in the county.  According to Sacramento County Registrar of Voters Jill Levine, who is also the legislative lead of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials (CACEO) and a member of the WG, “we’re still discussing that piece.”

Asked how the WG was proceeding, she enthusiastically told Etopia News, “We’re still working.  It’s a very good working group.”  She said that the group’s last conference call would take place this Thursday, July 2nd.  After that, the group’s recommendations would be transmitted to the Legislative Council and the author, Ben Allen, who will have the final say on the content of the bill as it is presented, heard, discussed, possibly amended, and voted on in the California State Assembly Elections and Reapportionment Committee.  The date of that committee hearing will be changed, Levine said, from the July 1st date now posted on the official agenda page of the committee and will be re-scheduled for July 15th.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Victory for disabled California voters as SB 450 Working Group agrees to double the required number of “accessible voting systems” in new “vote centers”

SB 450, now pending in the California State Assembly Elections and Reapportionment Committee, would replace the current election model of one neighborhood polling place for every 1,000 registered voters with the option at the county level for an all-mail ballot, with “ballot dropoff locations” and “vote centers” for those who want to drop their ballots off instead of mailing them and for those who want or need to vote in-person, respectively.

One reason why some voters may want to use these vote centers to cast their ballot is that, being disabled, they require assistive voting equipment, including audio-equipped systems for the blind and visually-impaired and “sip and puff”-connectable systems for those who cannot use their arms to perform the voting act.

Margaret Jakobson-Johnson is the Advocacy Director for Disability Rights California and a member of the SB 450 Working Group, which consists of representatives of California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, county election officials, state legislators, and public advocacy groups, including her own, and whose goal is to reach consensus on the content of this bill before it has its public hearing in the California Assembly.  She recently told Etopia News that she and her organization wanted the group to provide in its consensus version of the bill for more than the single “accessible voting systems”/disabled-compliant system originally called for.

You can read more about this here.

Today, as she was leaving her office, Ms. Jakobson-Johnson revealed that the SB 450 Working Group had agreed at its phone conference-based meeting earlier in the day to require two, rather than one, “accessible voting systems” in each of the vote centers to be established under the provisions of SB 450.

Adding another accessible voting system to each polling place will double the through-put capability for assisting disabled voters in their efforts to cast a private, independent, and secret vote.

She said nothing about another, still-unresolved issue:  namely, how many of these vote centers themselves are to be required to be established under the law.  Not yet determined is the ratio, or set of tiered ratios, that participating counties will need to meet for establishing a certain number of vote centers according to the number (and possibly the distribution) of registered voters in a county.

Etopia News reached out today to SB 450 Working Group members representing the Secretary of State, Senator Robert M. Hertzberg, Registrars of Voters for Santa Barbara, Orange, and Sacramento Counties, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and Disability Rights California, the latter two public advocacy stakeholders in the discussion.

After all that outreach, the only shred of information gleaned about what happened at today’s SB 450 Working Group meeting was that from Ms. Jakobson-Johnson that consensus had been reached on the number of accessible voting systems in each vote center.  No word about consensus on vote center-to-voter ratios has leaked from the Working Group.  It continues its relatively-opaque workings as June slides into July and the bill slips even further below the public’s radar.  It is officially scheduled to be heard in the Assembly Elections and Reapportionment Committee on July 1st, but it is understood that it will be heard once consensus is reached among the various stakeholders, with that agreement expected anything between now and the middle of July. 

Etopia News will continue its efforts to bring to light the details of this major transition in voting arrangements that could significantly influence the shape of California electoral politics starting in the crucial election year of 2018 and for years to come.  It may be an obscure and opaque working group, but it will nevertheless have a big impact.  Readers, and especially the registered California voters among them, deserve to be informed about it, and that’s the purpose of this coverage.

Etopia News has tried, and hitherto failed, to ascertain the number, let alone the distribution, of disabled voters within the state of California, as a prelude to calculating the cost-effectiveness of accessible voting systems in the vote centers in delivering private, independent, and secret voting affordances to disabled voters.  Big Data analysis can’t proceed without basic data about the factors it’s trying to measure and understand.  Perhaps the California Department of Rehabilitation will have these figures.  Stay tuned.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Disability advocate supports multiple accessible voting machines in SB 450 “vote centers”

SB 450, now pending in the California Legislature, would allow counties in the state to move to an all-mail ballot, while also creating “ballot dropoff locations” and “vote centers” to complement the in-home voting process.

Margaret Jakobson-Johnson, Advocacy Director at Disability Rights California, wants to make sure that voters who are “blind, have an intellectual disability, or a manual dexterity disability,” are able to vote “privately, independently, and secretly” under this new system.

For some disabled voters, voting by mail presents insurmountable obstacles, because they can’t see or mark this kind of ballot.  So in order to allow them to vote, the SB 450 vote centers will need to be accessible to the disabled and need to contain specialized voting systems suitable for their needs.  These include audio touchscreens for the visually-disabled and “sip and puff” connectivity for quadriplegics and those with cerebral palsy.  (For more about “sip and puff” “ballot marking devices,” look here.)

As it is currently drafted, SB 450 would require at least one accessible voting booth at each of the vote centers.  Ms. Jakobson-Johnson says that her group has “suggested more than one” accessible voting system be present in these vote centers.  “We are hoping for more,” she told Etopia News.

The SB 450 Working Group consists of representatives of the Secretary of State’s office, state legislators, registrars of voters from Orange, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Santa Barbara Counties, and public advocacy groups, including Ms. Jakobson-Johnson’s Disability Rights California, California Common Cause, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice.  Its purpose is to maximize consensus among stakeholders and develop a broadly-acceptable formulation of this significant change to how California conducts elections prior to its official consideration in the legislature.

One issue that remains unresolved within the group is the proper ratio for these vote centers within each county.  The more there are, the easier it will be for voters to use them, but the more it will cost the county to operate them.  Hence, there has been continuing discussion of how to set that ratio. 

One approach would be to require a “one-size-fits-all” ratio based on the number of registered voters in the county.  But California’s 58 counties vary greatly in their demographic and geographic make-up, some being large with relatively-sparse populations, others large with correspondingly large populations, some small with lower population levels.  Ms. Jakobson-Johnson mentioned that the Working Group is now also considering the establishment of a “tiered” system that would specify different ratios for the number of vote centers depending on these factors of population and geography.

She also said the SB 450 Working Group was “a very good group to work with.”  Emphasizing that it was her own opinion and not official writ, she said she expects it to finish its work in time for official hearings on the bill to take place in the “second week of July.”

The next conference phone call-based meeting of the group will be this Friday, June 26th.


Monday, June 22, 2015

Senate consultant provides thorough answers to questions about SB 450

Going to the source, Etopia News contacted Darren Chesin, Chief Consultant to the California State Senate Committee on Elections and Constitutional Amendments, and the person most directly involved in the drafting of SB 450, a bill co-authored by California State Senators Ben Allen of Santa Monica and Bob Hertzberg of the San Fernando Valley that would allow California counties to opt-in, starting in January, 2018, to a plan based on all-mail-in ballots, vote centers, and an extension of the voting period beyond a single “Election Day,” and posed to him a list of questions about the bill. 

He was exceedingly thoughtful and thorough and answered all the questions.  Here are those questions, with his responses in bold italics.

What I’m most interested in learning more about is the difference between the “ballot dropoff locations” and “polling centers” referenced in SB 450.  A drop-off location is essentially a secured ballot box similar to a USPS mail box that a voter can deposit his/her ballot in.  We will require that they be available 24/7.  A polling center (soon to be renamed “vote center”) will be similar to a polling place where a voter can do several things: turn in their ballot, get a new one if mailed ballot is lost or damaged, vote on a disabled-compliant voting machine, etc.

If I properly understand the bill’s language, participating counties would be required to provide at least one ballot dropoff location for every 5,000 registered voters in the county and at least one polling center for every 15,000 registered voters.  Is that right?  Yes, but those ratios are subject of stakeholder discussions.

What exactly will be available for voters at the polling centers beyond ballots similar to the ones they already will have received by mail?  What role will VoteCal play in the process?  Will it obviate the need to collect unvoted mail-in ballots from in-person voters and thereby avoid the need to make them vote provisional ballots?  What kind of voting technology is envisioned for these polling centers, beyond the sample ballot and fill-in-the-circles card ballot that everyone will have already received in the mail?  See answer to first question.  Options for elimination of provisionals are being discussed but would require real time connectivity to VoteCal or the county’s election management system, or both.  Although it is possible to have a low tech vote center they would ideally be equipped with ballot on demand printing devices and e-poll books with aforementioned connectivity.

I see that the bill mandates the use of “newspapers, radio, and television” for public service announcements about the new program, but makes no reference to the use of increasingly-popular social media for the same purpose.  Has anyone suggested amending the bill to include social media among the ways to be used to inform and educate the voting public about the new system?  Yes, social media is part of the current discussion.

How much is all this going to cost and who is going to pay for it?  It will be an opt-in system on the part of the counties so they would incur any necessary start-up costs – most or all of which will be offset by not having to provide and staff a polling place for every 1,000 voters under current law.

How essential to the success of this bill’s plan is it that VoteCal be up-and-running by the time it goes into effect?  It is essential which is one of the reasons why the bill does not permit an election to be held under these conditions until 2018.

Do you have access to, and could you provide me with, a list of the participants in the SB 450 working group that includes representatives of legislators, the Secretary of State’s office, county election officials, and public advocacy groups? James Schwab is heading-up the effort on behalf of the SOS.  Assembly staff includes consultants from their Elections and Redistricting Committee.  We also have representatives from the elections offices of LA, Orange, Sacramento, and Santa Barbara Counties; CA Common Cause, NALEO, Disabled Rights California, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and others.

When is this bill scheduled to be heard in committee in the Assembly?  Since it was drastically re-configured after being passed in its original, more-limited form by the Senate, will it need to go back to the Senate for concurrence after it passes the Assembly?  We will hear it in the Assembly E&R Committee late June or mid-July.  Yes, it will have to come back to our committee for a recommendation on concurrence.

Are you privy to any studies the state may have done about the likely benefits in terms of costs and levels of voter participation under this legislation, calculations that show the effect of these proposed changes on the “cost-per-vote” of election operations?  No formal studies but Colorado has been a good pilot and has seen greater participation and substantial cost savings according to discussions with their state and local elections officials.

Contra Costa Registrar of Voters likes the concept, wants to see final details of SB 450 before committing to support it

In what seems to be a growing trend, Contra Costa, California, Registrar of Voters Joe Canciamilla today expressed support for SB 450, a bill to re-vamp California’s voting system, saying “I like the concept,” but also said his support for the legislation would be contingent on the form it finally takes.

He cited three recent special elections in the county with low turn-out as motivation to try something new.

He said what mattered to him was that the state avoid “micro-management of the process” and allow the counties necessary “flexibility,” particularly in regard to the required numbers of drop boxes and vote centers in their respective jurisdictions.

He also said that the public outreach process, as contained in the bill’s current incarnation, might be hard to implement in its entirety in the more rural and suburban counties.

He said it would be “hard to find locations in public buildings” to house the vote centers and that schools were becoming less willing to host voting sites, least of all for an extended voting period as contemplated under SB 450.

Asked why it was necessary to have physical vote centers at all in an all-mail-in election, Canciamilla said that there were two reasons for having them:  to provide disabled voters with opportunities to vote independently and to ease the over-all transition from a polling-place-centric to an all-mail-in election.

Like Orange County’s Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley, Canciamilla believes that a fully-functioning VoteCal system is essential to the success of the SB 450 plan, but, unlike the Southern Californian official, he’s not so sure it will be ready in time.  Asked how confident he was that VoteCal would be up-and-running in time to support the electoral transition, the long-time public official told Etopia News, “based on the state’s track record [deploying computer systems] on Consumer Affairs and the DMV, not very, but there’s always a first time.”