Sunday, November 26, 2006

Curfew Issues

Youth curfews will be a major issue brought before the City Council in the near future. The next council meeting will decide if there need to be changes to the night time curfew, and there will be discussion of a day time curfew at the January 23rd. meeting.

I have been doing a lot of research on this issue lately. Start at the NCJRS articles. Then look this California study, this 347 city study, and this report from the OJJDP. You will start to see a pattern emerge.

Curfews are not a general crime fighting tool. They can be effective in some situations when combined with other tools and programs. Even Local Government Code Sect 370.002 requires a review of a curfew to ensure it is still needed.

There are really only two reasons to have a juvenile curfew: To reduce juvenile crime, and to reduce the number of juveniles victimized by crimes. Laudable goals, but there are a number of things to keep in mind. Curfews compete with all the other law enforcement and public safety areas for resources. For this reason curfews tend to become weakly enforced. Night time curfews can frequently be justified because they do keep kids off the street during the highest crime, most dangerous hours of the day. Daytime curfews, on the other hand, tend to have little impact on actual crime rates. They frequently just change the times when the most crimes are committed.

I have heard the argument raised that school hour curfews are useful because kids should be in school. The problem is this argument mixes apples and oranges. There are already truancy laws and regulations to deal with deal with kids that skip school. There are also significant numbers of home schooled children whose hours won't always coincide with regular school hours. There is the special case of those suspended from school, but there is little to prevent an individual curfew from being part of a suspension when appropriate. If there is a problem with kids skipping school, enforce the existing laws.

I have a number of philosophical problems with juvenile curfews that aren't targeting a problem. Rights don't suddenly appear at a certain age. Some rights and privileges, such as driving and voting, should be reserved till a certain maturity is attained (I know, some drivers never get that mature.) It can be shown that they have to be a certain age before most people can drive safely on their own. You also don't teach responsibility to kids by just adding laws and rules. You want people to do the right thing because it is the right thing, not because of fear of what will frequently be seen as unnecessary and arbitrary restrictions. In those cases where a real public problem can't be shown to exist, people should not be unnecessarily burdened with laws no matter what their age.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

A Clear Horizon for Voting

With the resignation of Mike Benton we have a chance to step back, at least briefly, from the voting question. We can hope the elections commission will take the time to find not only the right person to revamp the office, but consider the voting system of the future. By requesting paper ballots in large percentage, the voters in effect voted on an issue not specifically on the ballot.

While the Hart Intercivic system now used lacks a full voter verifiable paper trail, it is capable of being upgraded to that and still comply with HAVA. In fairness to Hart, had all our equipment been put in the field and used as designed, we almost certainly would have had a reliable result by 10:00 election night from a system that still allowed voters a choice of ballots.

Prior to Ron Michulska's untimely death and Dennis McKerly's defeat, the two Party chairs here may have been diametrically opposed on political policy, but problems such as this were sorted out amicably. I often heard Dennis praise Ron's cordial bipartisanship on process matters. We can hope the two new chairs can find a path that will reassure all voters their votes will be correctly recorded.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

R. I. P. Milton Friedman

I depart from the normally local focus of this Blog to note and mourn the passing and celebrate the career of one of the great minds of the 20th Century, Milton Friedman. By sheer force of intellect, this Nobel Prize winning economist effected more fundamental change in the course of secular history than anyone I can think of who never held significant public office.

He won the Nobel for undermining the Keynesian macroeconomics that had guided policy until then. Friedman disassembled a theory called the Phillips Curve, holding that inflation was an inverse function of unemployment. Friedman held inflation to result from expansionist monetary policy. Since his theory correctly predicted, among other things, the stagflation of the 70s, which Nixon compounded with Keynesian prescriptions, the Phillips Curve is now an historical footnote to the “dismal science”, and restrained monetary policy is axiomatic in any healthy economy.

Friedman's book, “Capitalism and Freedom”, now in its fortieth anniversary printing, put forth a host of thoroughly goofy ideas. They included an all volunteer army, floating currency exchange rates, lower barriers to international trade, private accounts for retirement, school vouchers and other unthinkable proposals. Friedman laid the groundwork for Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan to build on and give us the healthiest 25 years economy in American history. Anyone holding today's economy to be ruinous has to have forgotten the twin killers of 18% prime interest rate combined with double digit unemployment of the 70s.

In one of the last interviews I saw with him, Friedman was asked about his best and worst calls. He unhesitatingly named as his worst product payroll withholding of income tax, in that it hid from less astute taxpayers the real cost of government. He named as his proudest, the progress he had made towards making school vouchers acceptable. In his last few years, he dedicated nearly all his effort to expanding the pockets of success on vouchers.

The world of economics had not been so utterly turned upside down since the fever dreams of Karl Marx gained acceptance. A fundamental difference is that Marxism never controlled except by force of arms under totalitarian dictatorship and has mostly collapsed of its own weight of error even then. Friedman, who shunned political power his whole life “ruled” only by being consistently and demonstrably right.

In the heyday of this debate, many collectivist academics sought to belittle Friedman by referring to him as “Uncle Milty”, comparing him, one supposes, to the goofy comic Milton Berle. This actually appealed to Friedman's sense of humor, and became an inside joke and term of affection among his followers. Always a gentleman, never one to resort to the personal ad hominem, this great man won his stature by sheer force of intellect. Godspeed, Uncle Milty.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Computer Ate My Vote

I want to relate a story I found online from the Houston Chronicle. Seems that Hidalgo County had a brush with “The Computer Ate My Vote”. This south Texas county had a heavily favored Democrat running for state House against a Constitution Party candidate. Teresa Navarro, the elections administrator said the problem was in the software written to compile totals.

The machines in use were made by ES&S, on whose machines some 67 million voters cast ballots this election. The machines were reporting that long shot Avery was 2,000 votes ahead of incumbent Henry Cuellar. “We knew there was no way that could be correct”, said Navarro. According to Scott Heywood, spokesman for the Secretary of State, “the situation was dealt with appropriately, and handled well once the problem was realized. Here in Texas, voters can feel confident that their votes were counted in the way they cast them”.

Well, not so fast Scotty me lad. Let's look back at that quote. The key phrase is “once the problem was realized”. What if this machine had started “flipping” votes in a race that was maybe 52% to 48%? Navarro said their initial clue was the improbability of the result, not some internal automatic audit built into the voting system. Had this happened in a close race, it is very likely Hidalgo County would be preparing to swear in the wrong candidate.

Vote flipping is not that rare a problem. Allegations of that are rampant in Maryland and parts of Virginia, some in Texas, including Tarrant County, which uses Hart Intercivic, our company. In Maryland, election officials were so concerned they were asking voters to show up with their camera phones in hand so that possibly they could catch the touch screen machines as they flipped and have evidence of what they were claiming to see. That remedy may not be legal in Texas. I know poll watchers are forbidden under 33.051 of election code to possess any “means of recording images or sound”.

I mention Hildalgo County because in this instance we are not talking about “allegations” or investigations underway. Everybody involved agrees on what happened, that part is established. Where I fall out with them is the rosy picture they paint of this being an indication that e-voting is just hunky-dory. This foul-up was only caught by the luck of its having yielded so wildly improbable a result.

The next time you hear someone from say, Abilene or Lubbock crowing about having a result by 9:30 or so, bear in mind, thats exactly what they have; a result. Whether that result bears any resemblance to actual votes cast is not something I would not be so quick to sign off on until the system has been by some circumstance tested. In a way, we in Tom Green County are lucky to have had back-to-back recounts, with another on the way. I was present at both recounts, may be part of this one, I have volunteered. We have seen, up close and personal, some problems in the system.

Absent a verifiable paper trail or a VVPAT requirement, a recount of e-votes is really meaningless. All the machines can do is spit out the same results every time you hit “print”. In fact if a machine were to do anything else, then you would really know you had a problem. That would be new election time.

Check out either BlackBoxVoting or VotersUnite online, both do excellent, non-partisan research on e-voting and they are involved in numerous lawsuits nationwide. There are literally thousands of credible reports of e-vote problems. At this time, has posted over 200 problems in Texas, this election, and the hits just keep on coming. Spend an hour or so trolling these two sites and tell me how secure you feel about e-voting. So far, none has been proven to be intentional fraud, which is actually scarier than not. If the systems are making this many mistakes by accident or poor design, what will happen when the stakes get high enough to make real vote theft worthwhile?

Four Strikes and You Should be Out - corrected

In my earlier post on this topic, I said Judge Brown's intention were undecided, but, I have been told that some of my phrasing was taken as an implication that Brown was equally culpable for the election night fubar. That was not my intention, and I apologize if I left that impression. To the best of my knowledge, Judge Brown is asking for details of the election and has not yet taken a position.

I have talked to a lot more people and have more first hand information than I did Wednesday. I am sorry to say, nothing I have learned makes Mike Benton look any better.

The paper ballots were not counted by hand as I satirically suggested in an earlier post. The one scanner we had was smaller and slower than had been used in past elections. Workers were feeding stacks of 30 to 40 ballots at a time, waiting for it to digest them, and repeating the process. About 10:00 PM, someone, by one report Vonna McKerly, suggested bringing up some of the Hart E-Scan machines and putting them to work. As they had not been prepped, each had to be programmed before being put to work, but eventually 8 of them were added to the assembly line.

The E-Scan machine was designed as a precinct counting machine, as it was used in March. The study I mentioned in my Standard-Time guest column, in a review of Florida jurisdictions with various voting systems, the paper ballot with precinct scanners to tabulate the vote had the lowest error rate of any looked at. This study was also sent directly to Mr. Benton. I do not know whether he read it, but it was provided to him. Used as a precinct counter the E-Scan has the additional advantage of being its own paper trail, as the physical ballots are preserved in the event of a recount.

This brings up the critical question of why the E-Scan machines were not used as designed, as precinct level tabulators. In the March primary, some E-Scan machines, the one in my precinct being one, failed to close down at end of day, they did not recognize the password provided. We were eventually told to unplug them and bring them in. On election night, my party Chair, Russ Duerstine, queried Mr. Benton on just this point. Nearly everyone with real knowledge of the systems I have told about this problem had the opinion the problem in March was bound to be improper programming of the E-Scans that did not respond. Mr. Benton told Russ those machines had malfunctioned and that was why they were not used at precinct level this time, they were unreliable.

Had those E-Scan boxes been used at precinct level, instead of feeding over 10,000 paper ballots through slow scanners, elections office would have pulled the cards from 50-some scanners and read them. If those scanners were so unreliable we could not use them in the way Hart Intercivic designed them, how could Mr. Benton turn around and decide they were adequate to do a central counting station function for which they were never designed?

How Mr. Benton arrived at his 25% paper ballot figure is another mystery. In the early voting, where there were plenty of both paper booths and machines available, the voters, under no pressure of limited availability chose paper right at 50% of the time. The initial count showing Kay Longest ahead at 64% came from the 3,100 early votes cast on the E-Slates. Total early vote was about 6,800, 3,100 of which were cast on paper, on site, the balance being mail-in absentee. In that ballots are now printed in house, there is no excuse for not erring on the side of caution and having plenty of ballots. They are not expensive. In my years as an election judge, most of which was solely paper, we normally turned in more unvoted ballots than used. Why this sudden frugality on paper?

Compounding the crush of election day ballots, the early voting paper was not counted until election night. 68.034 of election code demands that the county clerk transmit the early voting results to the Secretary of State at 7:00 PM of election day, consistent with 68.033 which says the early voting ballot board shall count the ballots “periodically throughout the day.”

I have talked to a number of precinct judges, over twenty to date, who did work this election. When directly questioned on these two points not a one of them claimed to have faith in the current voting system, and not one had faith in the competency of the current elections administrator. Aside from the election night debacle other complaints surfaced.

Inadequate training was high on the list. I did work the March primary, and Hart provided four hours of training, with another hour by the elections office itself. This time we watched an hour long movie provided by the Secretary of State, which was not even specific to the Hart system we are using. If Mr. Benton presumed everyone had done the training in March, he was wrong. He had no basis for such an assumption, he of all people should have known who had volunteered.

Poor communication was another. In previous elections I had been provided with as many as four phone numbers, three being numbers not in the phone book. Some judges still had those numbers from previous elections and had no problem getting through, those lines are still active. Why weren't all election workers given these numbers?

One judge told me she was not given the notice giving the Secretary of State's toll free complaint line to voters, and was taken to task over that by an observer from that office. Posting that sign in the polling place is required by statute. I started asking that, and no judge I spoke to was given one.

Poll workers complained of being assigned to precincts other than that for which they had volunteered. That is something I had never heard of before, and I have done this for many years.

I will add one of my reasons for resigning, though it goes back to the March primary. In earlier elections, on paper, we picked up our supplies the day before election and did the physical set-up the afternoon or evening before. I would have everything set to go when I walked in the polling place in the morning. The only thing that did not stay in the polling place was the bundle of ballots. They went home with me and I literally slept with them, only unwrapping and signing them on election morning with other poll workers present. In March, elections office came to each place and put in the E-Slates, the JBC controller, and the E-Scan for paper ballots. Those machines then sat there overnight. In the fifty some polling places I don't guess much more than a thousand or so people between deacons, janitors, teachers, etc. had keys to one or another of them. That was totally unacceptable ballot security to me. The E-Slate machine heads were the ballots.

Several judges I spoke to expressed their belief that Mr. Benton had set out with the intention of making paper ballots look bad, and it is true he has more than once publicly expressed his personal preference for an all electronic voting system, most recently on KSAN news last Wednesday. On election night, Russ Duerstine overheard Benton to say, “We are just going to have to force the voters to use the electronic option.” Fortunately, that is not his decision to make. The County Commissioners, or in Party Primaries, the respective Party executive committees, selects the system to be used. I have no personal knowledge of evidence that would prove Benton deliberately sabotaged this election, but that leaves one with the alternative that he was staggeringly incompetent.

I originally supported Mr. Benton's selection enthusiastically. I spoke to my party chair, Dennis McKerly at least twice urging his appointment. I am now forced to the conclusion it is time for a change in that office. Aside from the sheer ineptitude, by continuing to advise adoption of a system the voters have so clearly expressed distrust in, Benton shows no faith in the judgment of the voters he works for. Unless the many, many people I have talked to are by some fluke a totally unrepresentative sample, the voters have no faith in him.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Bad, Bad Voters

The voters of Tom Green County spoke loudly on an issue that was not even on the ballot. Over 50% of them requested paper ballots, rejecting the new E-voting system the county had chosen under pressure of the Help America Vote Act. I was one of many who raised questions about E-voting in general and the locally used Hart Intercivic system. The opposition to electronic machines was bipartisan and included many people with direct knowledge of the new system. At a recent county Republican Executive Committee meeting the question was debated at length. At the end of the session the Chair, Russ Duerstine, asked the twenty some precinct chairs, nearly all of whom had conducted elections under both the electronic and paper systems, how many of them trusted the new system. Not a single hand went up.

The demand for paper ballots somehow caught the elections administration flat-footed. They went with an estimate of 25% paper, and obviously made no provision for that estimate being wrong, despite an early vote that had gone over a third paper. Many precincts ran out of paper ballots, some twice. Compounding this miscalculation, unlike the March Primary, our first adventure with this technology, the precincts were not given E-Scan readers to process and count paper ballots at the precinct level. All paper ballots went downtown to be counted there, apparently by hand. A Princeton study of Op-Scan paper balloting in Florida showed that such ballots counted in precinct yielded an error rate of under 1%, while the same ballots centrally counted resulted in 5-12% errors. This study was pointed out in my guest column of October.

Elections administrator Mike Benton seem to have the cure at hand. Benton was on KSAN news Wednesday saying “A number of counties in Texas do not offer paper ballots. We would hope to move in that direction.” So much for the voters' opinion. By his read, we are so many undisciplined puppies who have figuratively pooped in his house and he is telling us, “Bad Voter, bad, bad voter!” Presumably he won't be spanking us with a paper. County Judge Mike Brown was less direct about future intentions, but was quoted in the paper saying of the demand for paper ballots, “It's with the negative national media coverage of the electronic voting.”

There were problems with the E-Scan devices last March, but there were also problems with the E-Slate electronic machines, problems that became glaringly obvious during a recount that stretched over two weekends. Actually, in that recount, the paper ballots were the only part that went smoothly. One sure thing now is that we will have a recount of the only seriously contested local race, the Longest/Martinez JP1 office, with a 45 vote margin.

If you have not read Jack Cowan's lead editorial of Wednesday, “Electronic voting still too risky”, I recommend it. I suppose Jack and I should thank Judge Brown, he seems to have promoted us from local ink-stained wretches to national media. I would prefer that Brown and Benton listen to the electorate they represent. Really, it doesn't matter if they could prove the electronic system they stand by actually is error-free, imposing a system the voters obviously distrust does nothing to encourage the electorate to use it and believe in the ballot as the voice of the people. The arrogance inherent in Benton's quote in the face of a clear decision of the electorate is stunning.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Signs of the Times

In case you haven't seen it, this sign is on loop 306.

I hope we can avoid having a hospital district otherwise it will change to this sign.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Unintended Consequences

I have posted here, and in a guest editorial in the Standard-Times, and made clear that I do not trust e-voting machines required by HAVA, the Help America Vote Act. For the first time in 14 years, I will not be serving as Precinct judge/alternate judge in a major election because I cannot in good conscience tell my voters their votes will be accurately recorded.

There is another unintended consequence of election “reform” I address here. The earlier Motor Voter Act is generally praised as a good thing. What can possibly be wrong with anything that increases voter registration? Here I introduce a contrarian view.

Face it, a certain percentage of the eligible electorate simply does not give a hoot about political policy. If they read the paper, they read the sports reports, the comics, Dear Abby. Such TV news as they accidentally see is as they channel surf to a sitcom. Mind you, I have no beef about taste in media intake, but why by all that is holy do we want to encourage the willfully uninformed to vote for or against candidates or questions about which they know nothing?

I recall a few years ago, my county chairman suggested we make a voter registration drive part of our campaign. I rose to point out that we would be wasting our time plowing already tilled ground, as I thought something like 80% of eligible voters were already registered, a figure he thought was way high. Well, I was wrong. It was actually closer to 85%.

If this seems incredible, think “Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes”. The company really does give some lucky soul a barrel of bucks and they clearly state that no purchase is required for entry, but how many entrants might still think their chances are enhanced by buying a subscription or two? The same principle is at work with Motor Voter. When every interaction of people with the government, vehicle registration, library card, WIC or Section Eight housing application is accompanied by shoving a voter registration card at the civilian, how many do you think believe that is just another form to fill out as part of the process?

The effect is actually anti-democratic. A recent example locally was the successful petition and vote allowing liquor sales in county precinct 4. That election cost almost $15 per “yea” vote. I'm not talking bribes or graveyard votes, most of the expense was in collecting the voter signatures required to get on the ballot. Since the proponents had to gather a set percentage of registered voters to get there, the artificial inflation of voter enrollment by people who never intended to actually vote raised the bar to be cleared in order to put the question before the voters. Once they achieved that, the vote itself was a slam-dunk, but the expense, not some principle, was the reason for limiting the measure to one precinct.

Another unintended effect of Motor Voter is to dilute the strength of younger voters. The 18-24 demographic has less interaction with the government, and fewer occasions to have that registration card shoved across the desk at them. Nationally, only 40% of that group of eligible voters is registered. In any given election, the cost per vote for that group is three times that of the over 40 group. Brand loyalty, be it beer or bath soap or political parties doesn't kick in until mid-thirties. Any advertiser of any product targets the available money at the most changeable audience.

The next time someone tells you the horror of the huge sums of money spent on political campaigns, reflect on this fact: in a given four year election cycle, 2.5 million candidates run for 511,000 elected offices nationwide. Still, more ad money is spent advertising breakfast cereal than all political campaigns put together.

There is good news. Measuring by absolute vote instead of percentage of registered voters, the number of voters is steadily increasing. The percentage commonly bemoaned as the Death of Democracy has its origins in an artificially tweaked baseline. In my two precinct combined polling place, I have seen a big boost in registered voters, but I see the same “give a hoot” voters every time. We have now almost 1,500 listed on our combination forms, but the highest actual turnout I've seen was the 2004 Presidential, with about 400 actual early/election day voters.

If a body is more inclined to go fishing than to read up on candidates, I have no quarrel with his choice of interests. I would suggest that such a person would be making more productive use of his time this Tuesday in a boat than at a ballot box. I would never suggest making it difficult for any voter to exercise the franchise, but neither will I expend any effort to motivate the politically uninformed voter.