I’m terrible at political predictions – one reason why I generally avoid prognostication regarding election outcomes is that I instinctively assume that centrist voters are more like me. Based on my subjective tastes, I would rate the Republican Party as having done a terrible job of platform building at the state convention a couple weeks ago – echoing the partisan criticism of that platform that came out of the Democratic Party state convention last week. Every element of the Republican Party platform seems calculated to peel off potential voters. Small businesses and immigrants get shut down by an extreme hardline stance on border security; women are shut out with extreme rhetoric on health, equal pay, and abortion issues, and gays and lesbians are summarily written off as people requiring “therapy” for their sexual orientation and need for basic social accommodation.
But I sadly suspect that the hypothetical center of the Texas electorate is far to the right of me, based on October 2013 survey evidence produced by the University of Texas at Austin. On flashpoint issues highlighted by conservatives, the middle looks pretty conservative.
As legacies go, it’s not ideal – Chief Justice Roberts gets the distinction of having destroyed the single most important piece of civil rights legislation we have – namely the Voting Rights Act. Still, it is the sort of pithy summing up of a career that will make it easier for future generations to remember who he was, when writing obligatory essays on the parallels between Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson, and Shelby County v. Holder.
In my experience, the by-far single biggest and most pressing question posed by voters on Election Day is this: “Where do I vote?” The question, “What is on the ballot?” runs a distant second.
The best place to find the answers to those questions is not centralized at the state level. Voters are going to have to call someone locally to get a definitive answer, which is why the Texas Secretary of State provides a generally good list of phone numbers and contact information for the people administering county elections throughout the state. It is true that organizations and agencies have made heroic efforts to automate and provide polling place data for all voters throughout the state, but these efforts tend to be thwarted by last-minute emergencies and contingencies, errors, omissions, and misunderstandings.
Here is the last set of aggregated voter resource websites my wife asked about. These sites tend to focus on issue advocacy to the exclusion of answering voter questions. Many, many special interest groups, (as well as many lobbyists posing as grassroots special interest groups) post websites promising “tools and resources for voters” or something similar. Often the tools and resources amount to not much more than a “DONATE” button.
Significantly, political advocacy sites (in general) tend not to provide much in the way of actual voter assistance of a practical sort. I suspect that this is because voter assistance is localized, difficult to automate, and time-consuming.
As elections approach, these sites proliferate for good and ill. Some do make a stab at providing sample ballots or polling place information, but none would be my choice if I actually wanted to find out where and when to vote.
Some examples include:
(League of Conservation Voters – a national conservation advocacy group)
(Netroots Foundation – political campaign strategies for progressive interests)
(Voter Participation Center – formerly Women’s Voices, Women’s Votes – organized voter registration of traditionally underrepresented populations. The whole focus seems to be on building VPC’s mailing list and database for targeted voter outreach).
(Video Game Voters – this website is a good example of “astroturfing,” in this case from a video game industry trade association).
“Astroturf” in this context is a slightly derogatory political insider slang term for an industry lobbyist posing as a humble grassroots organization – so called because an astroturfed organization, like the eponymous artificial turf, has fake grassroots. Astroturfing is a way of repackaging political advocacy to make it look more popular.
At least Video Game Voters is quite open and honest about itself as a lobbyist arm of the video game industry. More insidious forms of astroturf also exist – wherein earnest-seeming organizations troll for political support by appearing to tap into nonexistent voter bases, or function mostly as money-laundering fronts for repurposed political donations.
For the last week or so, my old co-worker and Texas county affairs expert Paul Miles has been entertaining me with yet another tie-vote story – (from the June 17, 2014 Corpus Christi Caller-Times; the bulk of the text is unfortunately now behind a paywall) this one out of Kenedy County, in far South Texas. We both found it interesting that the county chair explicitly mentioned to the newspaper reporter that a 20-sided die was available (but sadly not uncovered in time) to resolve the tie vote in a hotly-contested commissioner’s race, which was ultimately settled when both candidates threw five dice each.
For those of you not hip to the ways of polyhedral dice, 20-sided dice are essential, and arguably iconic pieces of game equipment for various popular roleplaying games, but probably don’t get much use in the no-nonsense back country of the Texas frontier.
In the spirit of lightly poking fun at the sometimes baroque lengths that people will go to in casting lots to settled tied elections (and without intending offense toward either of the candidates, both of whom would certainly have preferred to win outright), I offer this:
Here’s the second of three voter information aggregator websites that my wife asked me to look at:
(2) League of Women Voters
This is the real deal. The League of Women Voters was founded in 1920 as an resource to help women make the best use of their new enfranchisement, and is generally recognized as the best-organized and best-funded non-profit advocacy group for the electoral process. League of Women Voters does not endorse candidates, and does not advocate for or against particular political parties, but by adopting a progressive stance on voting rights and social issues, generally finds itself labeled by both conservatives and liberals as a left-leaning organization. (As an aside, it is both revealing and troubling that simple advocacy in favor of the act of casting a ballot is now politicized as leftist. That speaks volumes for how far out of touch with political reality that the radical right has gotten when compared to mainstream, centrist voters).
Of particular interest is Vote411.org, which does attempt to answer the most basic Election Day questions (i.e., “Where do I vote?” and “What’s on the ballot?”)
By virtue of pedigree and organizational longevity, the League of Women Voters is really the gold standard non-governmental provider of voter information and resources, particularly at the national level. At the local level, the quality of information provided for specific elections is dependent on varying levels of volunteer participation, candidate engagement with the League of Women Voters, and local government cooperation. If the local water district election is flying under everyone’s radar, it’s probably an election that the local chapter of the League of Women Voters doesn’t have any information about either.
My wife sent me a collection of websites for voters, and asked me to make editorial recommendations. Here is the first of the three aggregating sites she asked about (I’ll write about the other two in subsequent posts):
(1) CraigConnects voter protection
Yes, it’s the Craig of Craigslist. Mr. Newmark is concerned about voter suppression (mostly as the result of changes in election laws and policies). The links provided are an interesting mix, and include the Brennan Center (national surveys of voting requirements, policy analysis and surveys), the League of Women Voters, Rock the Vote (which almost seems quaint these days), a “get out the vote” initiative for Latino and Latina voters (votolatino), the Federal Voting Assistance Program (the Department of Defense-managed program for overseas and military voters), and the somewhat more exuberant and partisan Generation Progress.
The only critique I might offer is that in general these links are sort of high level. What I mean is that the websites are useful sources of advocacy for better access and treatment of voters, but (with the exception of the League of Women Voters local chapter links) for the most part they aren’t really designed to answer the most common questions that voters have on Election Day – namely, “Where do I vote?” and “Who is on the ballot?”
From a little digging around, a voter can get those questions answered, but the best sources for base-level questions about where and when to vote (especially in heavily-decentralized Texas) tend to be local. More on that later.
Here are my wife’s notes regarding what voting-related materials she found on the craigconnects.org site.
* “Brennan Center for Justice: The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law is a non-partisan public policy and law institute that focuses on the fundamental issues of democracy and justice.
* “Generation Progress [formerly Campus Progress] is a national organization that works with and for young people to promote progressive solutions to key political and social challenges.
* “Cost of Freedom Project: The Cost of Freedom Project is a citizen-led initiative that has developed location-based apps to provide voters with information on how to obtain a voter ID.” [Appears to have been founded in 2012. No main site I could find. Facebook and Twitter feeds are active.]
* “Federal Voting Assistance Program: The FVAP provides U.S. citizens worldwide a broad range of non-partisan information and assistance to facilitate their participation in the democratic process – regardless of where they work or live.
* “Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law: The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, is to secure equal justice for all through the rule of law, targeting in particular the inequities confronting African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities.
* “League of Women Voters: The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan citizens’ organization that has fought since 1920 to improve our government and engage all citizens in the decisions that impact their lives. LWV was formed from the movement that secured the right to vote for women; the centerpiece of the League’s efforts remain to expand participation and give a voice to all Americans.
* “Voto Latino: Voto Latino is a nonpartisan organization united by the belief that Latino issues are American issues and American issues are Latino issues; Voto Latino is dedicated to bringing new and diverse voices into the political process by engaging youth, media, technology, and celebrities to promote positive change.”
For once, the strategic mix of arrogance and incompetence in the Attorney General’s pleading practice places a well-deserved boot print on the State’s posterior.
EDIT: When I say “arrogance and incompetence,” I mean only to criticize the aggressive tone of the pleadings specific to the redistricting litigation in the D.C. circuit; something attested to in multiple judicial orders and memoranda coming out of Texas v. Davis. This singularly nasty and confrontational tone was a strategic choice made at the highest level at the Texas A.G.’s office to adopt a needlessly combative stance with respect to the 2011 redistricting preclearance litigation, and shouldn’t be read to to impugn the generally professional work of rank-and-file attorneys working for the State.
After January 1, 2006, most jurisdictions across the United States adopted the use of voting systems that enabled people with disabilities the opportunity to vote without requiring assistance. Voting accessibility is a key element of the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which requires that each polling place in a federal election must have at least one accessible system available for use.
For practical reasons (not the least of which are standards of prudent legal compliance with the guarantees of full civic participation by people with disabilities in the Americans with Disabilities Act), local government entities have an incentive to provide accessible voting whether those entities have elections coinciding with federal elections or not. Federal grant money administered by the Elections Advisory Commission helped ease the transition to accessible voting, and as a consequence, a handful of private voting equipment manufacturers enjoyed a brief windfall of government purchase agreements and maintenance contracts.
Many jurisdictions purchased a type of voting system referred to as a “direct recording electronic” system. With some variation from one manufacturer to another, these voting systems tend to be freestanding plastic cabinets on tubular aluminum legs, with a lighted display screen and a few buttons. Disposable “puff and sip” tubes allow people with motion limitations to select ballot items hands-free; audio headphones read ballot selections and ballot instructional text to people with limited sight, and the systems also provide an opportunity to review and edit ballot selections prior to voting. The votes themselves are either stored in removable solid-state memory cards or internal hard drives, and are tabulated by means of encrypted proprietary software.
This is all old news. Slightly less old news (and an issue of growing concern) is that these machines aren’t built to last forever, and the software and hardware is in need of updating and replacement from time to time, whether any additional federal funds are forthcoming or not.
A lot of people distrust electronic voting systems. In some cases, this distrust is bred of unfamiliarity – electronic voting systems don’t necessarily produce a paper ballot that the voter can see and touch. In other cases, this distrust is bred of experiences of technical errors or problems associated with tabulating votes cast on these systems. Some people fear that electronic voting is somehow by its nature more vulnerable to intentional tampering, although the actual risk of intentional fraud is no greater than with any form of voting. (If one posits a scenario involving illicit access to the mechanisms of voting, then one has already established a priori that the votes may be tampered with – this fear can be reduced to nothing more than an attitude of distrust towards the election workers themselves, independent of whatever method of voting may be used.)
As electronic voting systems were being rolled out, a group of voting rights activists and computer scientists in California formed a non-profit organization called the Open Voting Consortium. Among other things, the Open Voting Consortium advocated for transparency in the choice of software and hardware for electronic voting systems, and for the adoption of voting systems that would provide (in the parlance of voting enthusiasts) a “voter-verified paper audit trail” (“VVPAT”).
The Open Voting Consortium was influential enough to compel legislative inquiries that resulted in a the California Secretary of State study of the possibility of using open-source software and non-proprietary hardware systems for voting. The final determination was that open-source software voting systems were not ready for prime-time. Concerns about security, proof of robustness of design, funding, and an inability of non-profit groups to show any proven capacity for full-scale manufacture of voting systems all combined to shut down the idea that the State of California would mandate the use of open-source software.
The thing is, … the proprietary manufacture and sale of voting systems has been shown over and over again to be a terrible business model. It would make sense for governments to build voting systems “in-house,” with software and hardware available for public inspection and review. Voting systems, like other elements of civic infrastructure, are accoutrements of the government’s natural monopoly, and as such, should be manufactured and programmed by the government.
(Of course, the phrase”open source software” doesn’t in any way imply “non-proprietary,” and isn’t any sort of technical endorsement of the quality of the software itself. “Open source software” just means that the source code for that software is more or less available for public viewing, whether the software is used in a proprietary system or not. The advantages of open source software are generally described in terms of that software being subject to critical scrutiny and recommendations for improvement from a wider audience than is available for software where the source code is secret and not available for general viewing. )
So … what happened to the Open Voting Consortium? That group had gone so far as to enlist software engineers, had designed a mock-up voting system, had gone so far as to build demonstrations of various aspects of a voting software suite, and had at least some financial backing. Was the movement to create an open-source voting system killed by lack of sufficient capitalization and interest, or is anyone out there still working on a non-proprietary accessible device? I see that the organization touts recent legislation easing the path to system certification for use in elections, and that another group (the California Association of Voting Officials) endorses the idea of an open-source voting system.
This website, a project of the Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services at U.T., is full of all sorts of Texas Politics goodness, including polling material, voter turnout analysis, an interactive multimedia textbook on Texas government, and so on.