Sunday, April 26, 2009




There's been plenty of news over the last few months about voting machine unreliability, featuring everything from computers not counting some votes at all to willful manipulation of election results.

Many of these headlines have come from outside California, as with the Kentucky indictments of a county judge, a county clerk and three other local officials for changing voting machine counts or instructing others in how to do so, changes that affected election outcomes in 2002, 2004 and 2006.

So much for claims by voting machine companies that their products are virtually tamper-proof.

The good news in California is that since Secretary of State Debra Bowen's 2007 "top to bottom review" of voting machines used here, the vast majority of California votes have been cast on paper, with machines used principally to serve the blind. The bad news, though, is that paper ballots are often counted electronically for the sake of speed. Even though the paper is always there for backup, someone has to suspect a problem before the paper will be hand-counted.

"The decisions I made last year to decertify touch screens eliminated a lot of the possibilities for problems," Bowen said in an interview. "Now we can always go back and look at the paper. We also look at a percentage of ballots in all races, between 10 percent in local races and 2 percent in statewide ones, and if those counts are significantly off the electronic count, we go back to the paper."

Giving voters cause for at least some anxiety over whether their choices will be accurately tallied were some events last year in Humboldt County on the state's North Coast, where vote counting software produced by Premier Election Systems (the former, notorious Diebold Election Systems, which changed its name because of past problems) simply didn't count 197 ballots.

A few weeks after citizens and county officials discovered this, Bowen banned use of Premier's Global Election Management System version 1.18.19, which, she said, contains serious software flaws.

"Clearly, a voting system that can delete ballots without warning and doesn't leave an accurate audit trail should not be used anywhere in California," she said. "I am now putting together a comprehensive plan to examine the audit logs of other voting systems to determine if they suffer similar problems. A reliable audit log is critical to ensuring that every Californian's vote is counted as it was cast."

Of the three counties that used the GEMS system involved, Humboldt will switch to another company, while San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara will let Premiere upgrade their systems to a newer version that is still approved for use in the state.

"The main thing is we have as many checks now as we can practically do," Bowen said. "We never rely just on an electronic system and we pay attention to citizens who suspect problems, as we did in Humboldt."

And then there are problems with the ever-more-popular absentee ballots now used by more than half the voters in some elections and 40 percent overall.

Some absentee ballots are not counted because officials determine signatures on their mail envelopes don't quite match those in registrars' records. Of course, if you registered more than 20 years ago, you may not sign your name in quite the same way any more and your ballot might be tossed.

Some counties now notify voters when their absentee ballots aren't counted, but many do not. Bowen wants everyone to know, so she's sponsoring a bill to require notification, carried by Democratic Assemblyman Jerry Hill of San Mateo.

"People should know if their votes aren't counted, and why, so they can fix any problem they may be having," Bowen said. "And if your vote isn't counted for no good reason, there's a process to go to court and fix that, one that does not require a lawyer."

The bottom line: Despite Bowen's efforts, vote-counting reliability is still not perfect in California. But the Kentucky indictments indicate it's better than in a lot of other places. And it's surely a whole lot more reliable than it was before Bowen took over from former Secretary of State Bruce McPherson, who for the most part scoffed at the claims of voting machine unreliability and susceptibility to tampering.

Bowen is still far from satisfied, currently sponsoring eight legislative bills to improve things further.

"We want to let emergency personnel deployed to another county to be able to vote provisionally where they are," she said. "We want military and overseas ballots to have a few extra days to arrive after Election Day, because we know the exigencies our people sometimes have to deal with. And we want to allow ballots to be counted if they have some stray mark, like a little doodle, where any mark causes them to be discarded now. The bottom line is we want people to feel their votes are valued and will be counted accurately. That's the way to make sure as many people vote as possible."

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit




All over California, protestors against new taxes and big government spending turned out in respectable numbers the other day for "tea parties" decrying tax increases enacted by legislators and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in February and the extensions of those taxes contained in Proposition 1A, lead item in the May 19 special election.

"No More Socialism," read some signs. "Repeal Pork, Cut Taxes." Demonstrators shouted slogans like "No more taxes" and "Hey, hey, ho, ho, big government has got to go." There were scores of other rallies around the nation protesting President Obama's economic recovery spending, but few as intense as those in California.

The hope of the folks behind all these events, promoted heavily on cable television's Fox News Channel (possible new slogan: "We promote, you decide"), plainly is to create a new anti-tax movement of similar intensity to the one spurred by the landmark property tax cuts of Proposition 13 in 1978.

But there's a subtext here and it's an underlying motive Howard Jarvis never had. Jarvis, a longtime political gadfly before Proposition 13 made him prominent, had considerable disdain for both major political parties. Not so the tea party sponsors.

Their motivation was perhaps best expressed by Steve Frank, former head of the ultra-conservative California Republican Assembly, now aiding the gubernatorial campaign of Republican Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.

"If we get the voter revolt I expect against all the propositions in that election, all bets are off for 2010," Frank said in early April.

A similar message came from Michael Steele, Maryland-based chairman of the Republican National Committee, in an email he titled "Enough is Enough: Send a Tea Bag." Said Steel, "Let…liberal Democrats know you already pay enough in taxes by sending them a virtual tea bag." He then provided an Internet link for that purpose, and followed with a pitch for donations to the party. In California, then, Republicans are milking the May 19 propositions for all they're worth.

That was plain, too, in the cast of characters speaking at various "tea parties" around the state, a group replete with the conservative talk show hosts who have become the GOP's most prominent voices in a day when the party's elected officials are few and far between.

Besides Frank speaking in Santa Maria, there were radio hosts Melanie Morgan in San Francisco and Tammy Bruce in Los Angeles, Fox-TV host Neil Cavuto and radio talker Michael Reagan in Sacramento, among others.

Prior to the April 15 tea parties aimed to evoke images of the Boston Tea Party (with TEA also standing for "Taxed Enough Already), other protest rallies were also led by talk show hosts, most prominently John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, better known as John and Ken, of the powerful Los Angeles radio station KFI, the same talkers who cried for "heads on a stick" tactics against six Republican legislators whose votes allowed passage of the February tax increases and a new state budget.

Some academics and others think there's a possibility this movement may catch fire the way Proposition 13 did. "There's no way to predict whether we're going to see a reprise," Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and a former press operative for both Republican ex-Gov. Pete Wilson and former GOP presidential candidate John McCain, told a reporter.

Schnur didn't live here in 1978, so he may not remember the fast-rising property tax assessments of that era, when levies on ordinary houses in nondescript neighborhoods often rose by several thousand dollars every two years or less, the frequency varying by county. This was literally taxing many people on fixed incomes out of their homes, providing fuel for the Proposition 13 wildfire.

But there is no such existential threat from a temporary 1 percent sales tax increase or a one-quarter of 1 percent income tax boost or even a vehicle tax increase, the main new taxes involved with the May propositions. So the non-partisan energy that fueled Proposition 13 is absent today.

Plus, large corporations, property owner groups and other special interests that benefited from Proposition 13 put big money behind it. Most of those outfits today are backing Schwarzenegger and the May measures.

The climate, thus, is not the same as in 1978.

This doesn't stop tea party backers from hoping. "There's a lot of latent anger boiling to the surface," says Jon Coupal, current head of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. and the first and loudest foe of the May ballot package.

Polls do indicate the propositions are in serious trouble just weeks before they come before the voters. That's because no one wants to pay more taxes while the economy threatens jobs and savings of all kinds.

But defeating the propositions and starting a grassfire political movement are two different things. Which makes the likelihood slim for a far-ranging political shift moving California from a predominantly Democratic state into the Republican column.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

Sunday, April 19, 2009




It's not that Bill Maze and the Central Valley farm interests now helping him hate the Pacific Ocean. Nor do those supporting his newest idea think splitting California would be a great thing for most people in the state.

Nope, the frustration behind their effort to divide the state on something like an east-west basis comes from a conviction that their conservative ideologies are doomed forever to minority status in the existing California. In short, as things now stand they have no hope of winning much of anything.

Never mind that three of the last four governors have been Republicans. Never mind that state legislators for the first time ever will not draw their own district lines in the next reapportionment, set to come just after the 2010 Census. Nope, these conservative Republicans are ready to give up right now. They want to take their marbles and go home.

That's the essence of the plan promoted by Maze, a termed out Republican member of the state Assembly from Visalia, previously best known for proposing a law foridding motorists from driving with dogs on their laps.

You know Maze & Co. don't hate the ocean because their proposed breakaway state would include San Diego and Orange counties, along with all 43 inland counties from Imperial to Siskiyou, plus the coastal northern counties of Sonoma, Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte. They would cut loose the 13 coastal and San Francisco Bay area counties from Los Angeles to Marin to go their own way.

This idea is purely political, of course. Yes, the North Coast counties have tended to vote Democratic in the last few elections, and even though San Diego voted for Barak Obama last year, they would still be the only solidly Demo parts of the breakaway state. So this putative new state - perhaps called Bifurkifornia - would be assured of a Republican governor and legislature, two Republican U.S. senators and a predominantly GOP delegation in the House.

Of course, doing this would require not only permission from Congress - which might not go along with a plan for two new Republican senators. For one thing, two new senators from another large urban state (one including San Diego, Santa Ana, Riverside, San Bernardino, Fresno, Sacramento and lots of other sizeable cities) would dilute the clout of existing small-state senators.

Even if Congress went along, a popular vote approval in the entire existing state would also be needed. Good luck.

That's never been achieved in 27 previous attempts to divide California, all of them on a more logical-seeming north-south basis, with the dividing line usually somewhere just north or south of Bakersfield.

The issues in most of those attempts were water and a fear by northern residents that the larger population in Southern California would eventually leave them little voice in their own affairs.

Of course, things have not worked out precisely that way. Of California's two senators, one is a former mayor of San Francisco, the other a former Marin County supervisor. Among the vast corps of current potential candidates for governor, only one is a Southern Californian. That would be Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and no one knows how seriously he will be taken now that he's won reelection with only 55 percent of the vote against 10 complete unknowns, none of whom could spend more than $200,000 on the race - a paltry sum in Los Angeles politics.

So it's not as if the north were being ignored. Not when the last two presidents of the state Senate have been Northern Californians, not when the two leading Republican candidates for governor in early polls hail from the Silicon Valley.

But the Maze plan, along with its very different dividing lines, also has very different motivation. The idea here is to roll back environmental and labor laws he and his supporters think are burdensome for business and farming.

"Citizens of our once-Golden State are frustrated and desperately concerned about the imposition of burdensome regulations, taxes, fees, fees and more fees and bureaucratic intrustion…," rails his Web site, called "Downsize California Now."

The group also doesn't like a lot of the social ideas percolating inland from the coastal counties it would like to get rid of. "We certainly can no longer overlook the radical-thinking paradigms that have invaded California, particularly in the last two decades," adds the message, which can be found online at:

So far, this idea is drawing more ridicule than support. And that's probably the way it should be, given the obstacle course any effort to split a state must run.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit




You always know politicians are desperate when they begin threatening the voters who elected them.

So it is today in California, where voters are being told that if they don't okay all six statewide ballot propositions before them May 19, they will suffer grave circumstances.

In fact, voters do face a Hobson's choice: Either okay two more years of newly-raised taxes at one of the worst economic times in modern history or risk losing valuable government services that benefit almost everyone.

"If these initiatives do not pass, we are looking at cutting $14 billion in programs," says Democratic Assembly Speaker Karen Bass of Los Angeles. She's talking about everything from schools and universities to parks and emergency health care, welfare and fire and police services. She may be a little confused about just what constitutes an initiative, but she's threatening cuts in just about everything the state does or helps do.

If these propositions lose, you can expect more state offices to close on more days, meaning it could be tougher to register a car, get a drivers license or renew one. Class sizes would likely rise to an average of 40 or more pupils almost everywhere. Federal stimulus money would help avoid some cuts, but not all that many.

"Doomsday scenarios, that's one thing - I think it's important to be honest with the people about what the consequences are," state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento told a reporter.

All this threatening talk comes because if voters reject Propositions 1A through 1E (1F wouldn't have much impact on finances, except the lawmakers' own), they would be cutting short by two years the expected life of sales, vehicle and income tax increases approved by the Legislature in February. If voters dump them all, there also would go about $5.5 billion in fund manipulation - the state's general fund borrowing from other funds like the state Lottery - that's basic to the current budget plan. Add that sum to the $8 billion additional revenue shortfall the state's legislative analyst now predicts for the next year, and you've got a brand-new deficit of about $14 billion.

No one knows how that financial black hole might be resolved over the summer, but most of the six legislative Republicans who risked their political hides to vote for the February budget compromise say they won't OK any more new or restored taxes. The entire deficit would have to be made up via "program reductions," they say. Read: layoffs, closed offices, prisoner releases and a host of other items no one wants to see.

Road maintenance would also likely suffer if these propositions lose, even if new construction continues with bond money and federal stimulus dollars that do not come from the general fund.

If the propositions lose and all this happens, lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will have no one to blame but themselves.

Legislators who wrote the ballot arguments for Proposition 1A, for instance, deliberately failed to mention the fact that this measure extends tax increases two years. They chose to stress its spending cap provisions instead, opening themselves to charges of deception.

Unwilling or unable to raise taxes even more, they also are trying to get voters to let them take funds already earmarked via prior ballot measures for causes like schools and mental health and use them for other things. Asking voters to change prior choices is not often a formula for ballot box success.

And then there's Schwarzenegger, who has loudly and repeatedly said passage of these measures is vital - and spent much of April outside the state, partly on vacation, when he could have been stumping for them.

Maybe those absences were realism at work, with the governor understanding that with a positive job performance rating somewhere between 33 percent and 38 percent, he's not exactly a plus for the proposition campaign.

It's hard to see what else might be a plus, either. Every poll shows that the more voters learn about these propositions, the taxes they mandate and the deceptive nature of their official ballot arguments, the less likely they are to vote yes on any of them - except 1F, which hits legislators financially when they are late passing budgets.

So it's no wonder the pols have turned to doomsday threats. That may be the only way they can get voters' attention for a batch of seriously flawed propositions that place new burdens on recession-wracked citizens while failing to provide any permanent solutions to the state's long-running budget problems.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

Sunday, April 12, 2009




Back in 1975, just after he'd been elected governor for the first time, Jerry Brown began talking like no occupant of California's highest office ever had.

"There is no free lunch," he said. "This is an era of limits and we all had better get used to it." "Small is beautiful."

That kind of talk was a complete reversal of the expansive optimism of the previous 70 years, a time when California grew into America's largest and most enterprising state. This state developed the world's large public system of higher education, the largest aqueduct, the most extensive system of superhighways. The most and the best were California mantras. Before Brown.

He earned the sobriquet "Gov. Moonbeam" for going against these themes while advocating things like limited spending on public works, careful environmental stewardship, a focus on innovative technologies, a space academy and a satellite for emergency state communications. The term was coined in 1978 by the late Chicago columnist Mike Royko, who recanted 14 years later and conceded Brown was right about a lot of things.

In some ways, he looks positively prescient today. His insistence on a balanced budget and his ability to negotiate with Republican legislators despite some ideological differences stand in stark contrast to the budget battles of the last decade, especially the budget debacles of the last nine months. Those headaches are far from over, too, with this summer's potential budget battles set to make the prolonged wrangling of the past year look easy.

"I was right about all that, wasn't I," Brown said in an interview the other day.

Brown, considering a run for a third term as governor next year, fully 28 years after his last previous one ended, can think about this because term limits were passed long after he left office and wouldn't apply to him until he'd served another eight years, if elected.

He currently leads all Democrats in the early fund-raising derby, but will need much more than he's yet raised in order to compete with mega-millionaire Republicans like state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner and former eBay chief Meg Whitman, both likely GOP candidates.

The question today is whether Brown's time has really come again. His minimalist themes didn't apply to everything. For instance, in 1981 he signed a bill authorizing construction of a Peripheral Canal to bring Northern California river water around the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, only to have it shot down in an unprecedented referendum the next year. After that, no politician would touch the canal idea until Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein began touting it two years ago.

Now Brown finds himself waiting on Feinstein, who won't yet say whether she'll run for governor or stay in Washington, D.C., for the rest of her career. If Feinstein runs, other Democrats might see her as unstoppable even though she lost a 1990 run for the same office. It's well known that Brown, whose campaign funds technically reside in an attorney general re-election account, wants another crack at running the state. But he sounds coy, saying "I haven't made any decisions yet about what I might do next year."

Yet, it's plain he feels he could do well negotiating with legislative Republicans in the budget hassles that have become a central feature of state politics.

"It's not acceptable to link budget votes to attempts at rolling back labor protections," he said when GOP lawmakers proposed just that. "And they shouldn't be taking a meatax to the environmental protections of CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act signed in 1971 by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan), even though it's not perfect. Each issue should be looked at individually.

"The minority (Republicans) try to get what they want by holding up the budget, but it's just not right to hold up all state business for collateral issues like they did last winter," he added. "Once you get the people to understand that, the Republicans will understand it, too."

It's just possible that Republicans might be more comfortable working with Brown than they've been with the nominally Republican Schwarzenegger, if only because of Brown's early and long-running devotion to balanced budgets and the idea that government can't be all things to all people.

They would probably like his minimalist approach better than Schwarzenegger's grandiose style, which sees his every public appearance and utterance handled as a major production. Where Schwarzenegger travels in private jets and huge sport utility vehicles, Brown pulled up to one recent appearance in an aged Pontiac that somewhat resembled the old blue Plymouths he famously used while governor. His retinue? One driver.

All of which means Brown's time may have come again, if only because political reality appears to have evolved to the point where many positions he staked out more than 30 years ago appear to have become self-evident in an economic downturn.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit




Reports on the impending death of the Republican Party - at least in California - have come thick and fast since the election last fall of President Barack Obama, accompanied by continued Democratic dominance of legislative races in this state.

But as Mark Twain might have put it, those obituaries may be a wee bit premature.

For anyone who's been around awhile has seen it all before. You say Republicans have only 29 seats these days in the state Assembly, putting Democrats close to the two-thirds majority they need to pass budgets and raise taxes with no help from the GOP? In the early 1960s, after the landslide defeat of Republican presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater, the GOP had just 27. But about 10 years later, the GOP had a majority in the Assembly.

There is similar talk on a national level, where commentators wonder loudly whether Republicans will ever again enjoy congressional majorities. In California, Democrats talk of taking away eight GOP congressional seats next year.

Of course, Republicans had just 176 seats out of 435 in the House of Representatives after Bill Clinton's election as president in 1992, but won a majority just two years later.

Today the GOP has only one more House seat than in 1993, and there is talk of permanent national minority status. But already there is an emerging likelihood that a Republican will oust New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine later this year. He's a former chairman of the Goldman Sachs investment banking house, and how popular are Wall Street bankers this year?

In California, many suggest that constant infighting will kill the Republican Party's chances for any near-term gains. Several of the so-called "Sacramento Six" GOP legislators who voted for February's budget compromise face possible recalls.

Of course, Democrats have been infighting for decades and it hasn't kept them from winning consistent majorities in the California Legislature and the state's congressional delegation.

"Yes, we can take back Congress in 2010 and we can win the Legislature back next year, too, just like we did in 1978," says Stephen Frank, Republican consultant and former head of the ultra-conservative California Republican Assembly. "All it would take is a taxpayer rebellion next month that would defeat all six of the budget propositions on the ballot. Then we'd probably see the governor and the Legislature try to expand the sales tax to things like doctors and hospitals and veterinarians and legal fees and much more. That's about the only place to go for more revenue, and it could lead to a sustained revolt."

The state Democratic Party's lead campaign advisor, Bob Mulholland, tends to agree.

"Voters in California are never going to go 90 percent with one party," he said. "They like a good fight, so we'll have the Republicans for a long time."

But Mulholland believes Democratic majorities in legislative and congressional elections will continue despite the redistricting reforms of last year's Proposition 11, which take effect after the 2010 Census. For one thing, he notes populations identifying with either party tend to clump together.

"Democrats will continue to do well in districted elections, especially along the coast," he said. But he concedes that Republicans will always be competitive in statewide contests like those for governor or the U.S. Senate, "especially when they have two billionaires running, like right now." He referred to former Silicon Valley moguls Steve Poizner and Meg Whitman, apparently the leading contenders for next year's Republican nomination for governor.

For sure, either would be able to write far bigger campaign checks than the likes of state Attorney Gen. Jerry Brown, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa or Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, the four leading Democratic hopefuls unless U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein opts into in the race.

Democrats, though, like to gloat about voter registration figures showing they gained 934,000 voters from January to October of last year, ending up with 7.68 million adherents, or 44.4 percent of all registrants. By contrast, the GOP gained just 199,000 voters, for a total of 5.43 million, or 31.4 percent. Decline-to-state voters, better known as Independents, increased by 402,000 in the same time span, now making up 19.9 percent of all those registered.

Longtime Democratic consultant Bill Cavala notes in his weblog that when Republican registration in any one district drops near 31 percent, it's hard for the GOP to remain competitive there. But statewide voting patterns are quite different, with voters getting far more exposure to candidates and often casting ballots that deviate from party lines.

Says Frank, "We've been written off before, like after the Goldwater debacle and after the Nixon-Watergate scandal in 1974. The voting registration numbers will mean nothing when people vote in May, and if we get the voter revolt I expect against all the propositions in that election, all bets are off for 2010."

He might just be right.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit