Wednesday, August 26, 2009

In Memoriam

Senator Edward Kennedy, an unrelenting progressive presence on the senate floor, passed away Tuesday night. We honor the 77 year old senator's longstanding struggle for civil rights, a half century's fight for Americans in need. Among Kennedy's achievements; the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which fundamentally altered the demographic composition of the nation, countless voting rights bills including that which gave 18 year olds the right to vote, post-Watergate campaign finance reform, the Civil Rights act of 1991, and the increase of minimum wages.

Kennedy was a liberal anchor during the conservative presidency of Reagan, during which he doggedly fought to preserve and improve the Voting Rights act. The senator's ongoing work to provide affordable healthcare for all Americans is still reverberating as reform agenda moves through Washington this summer. Even for his political opponents, senator "Ted" Kennedy was a compassionate and appreciated presence on the senate floor. As longtime friend and coworker Joe Biden said this morning, Kennedy spent his life "working for a fair and more just America."

Monday, August 24, 2009

Should town halls go virtual?

The past several weeks of the healthcare debate have been marked by increasingly chaotic public forums. Town halls became popular over the last few decades as a convenient and personal way for democratically elected representatives to connect with and answer to their constituents. However, as the growing controversy over healthcare reform has come to a head, disruptive conflict has overwhelmed what had previously functioned as a friendly if challenging atmosphere.

Groups of health care reform-opposers have overtaken town hall proceedings, asking incendiary questions of defensive lawmakers and in some instances turning the forums into unmanageable mobs. Some representatives have voiced suspicion that those attending their town halls are even constituents, pointing out that conservative groups have turned to "astroturfing," or organizing phony grass-roots groups to help shut down constructive debate.

"Town brawls," as the media has begun referring to them, may not be the ideal situation in which to get real feedback from constituents, and some representatives have turned to telephone conference calls, which allow for citizens to call in questions to their local lawmakers. Last week, CitizenTube asked citizens to submit questions for Congressman Bob Latta (R-OH), and other representatives like Steve Israel (D-NY) have also turned to online question and answer sessions to connect with Americans on the healthcare issue. Check out their videos, and see if your representatives have done the same!

While online forums such as these do lose the intimacy of a public appearance and allow for advanced preparation, the recent conduct at town hall meetings has made it difficult for lawmakers to have an informed, honest discussion with their constituents. What do you think? Are town halls better off on the web?

Friday, August 21, 2009

"Some places are downright hostile to student voters..."

Last week, nearly 2000 people from across the country convened at the Netroots Nation conference in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, Declare Yourself couldn't be there... but Sarah Burris, of Future Majority, attended the voter registration panel and wrote about her experience. Check it out:

One of the panels I attended at Netroots Nation was Repairing our Democracy: Voter Registration Modernization and other Solutions with speakers Secretary Debra Bowen California's Secretary of State, Dean Logan the Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk for Los Angeles County (the nation’s largest county), Jonah Goldman a national expert on voting and elections, and Justin Levitt counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. The panel was also moderated by Eric Marshall, campaign manager for the National Campaign for Fair Elections in the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law's Voting Rights Project.

Highly knowledgeable experts on the panel seemed to develop the consensus that the system is broken.

"We must have a system of error correction that is speedy enough so that people aren't disenfranchised and the error is corrected," Secretary Bowen said. "We need more consistent rules of residency for students. Some places are down right hostile about allowing students to vote, some are welcoming, but many are very hard on students."

"There are huge barriers to over seas voters and our military. When I visited Iraq and Afghanistan I met with the voting official who is not elected but appointed to do the job. . ."

Bowen continued to describe an over 500 page manual that the military official must be familiar with because there are so many voting laws for each state he must know.

"If we're disenfranchising people who are serving us it's time for the states to voluntarily figure out one cohesive consistent way that it works."

LA County Clerk Dean Logan told a story about a meeting he had with other election officials where it was asked if they could redesign the entire voter registration from if anyone would keep the original... none would.

Logan said they had 500,000 newly registered voters, and on the 15 day cut off for voter registration deadline California Counties had a Midnight Madness for people who had up to the last minute to register to vote.

"We had people coming in in their pajamas and it was packed! But the day after that cut off, we received 64,000 forms by people who missed the deadline. The next day 100,000 people sent in forms. We failed them administratively," he admitted.

But, Mr. Goldman said that new technologies provide a "non-partisan solution to a non-partisan problem that we can all work to fix."

Mr. Logan agreed believing

"despite this archaic system we are using technology better, allowing people to verify their information. But if you're online and realize that you need to change your address or you need to correct it, then that's where it stops, there is no way to update that."

The panel agreed the system breakdown is targeted at registration itself. Everything that happens on the back end is relatively smooth, even Logan said that when it comes to provisional ballots 80-90% of them count and can be verified, but the breakdown happened in the registration process somewhere.

Secretary Bowen said the argument against a massive reorganization and standardization effort would be the constant "states rights" argument. But Bowen believes that registration difficulties that occur in places like Florida and Ohio do affect California in a substantial way. Everything from Universal Registration to Election Day Registration are all options on the table but neither are being considered at the federal level.

The Military and Overseas Voters Empowerment Act (“MOVE Act”) authored by Senator Chuck Shumer was approved by the US Senate

"after a Rules Committee survey last May showed that as many as one in four ballots cast by military voters went uncounted in last year’s presidential election," Shumer's office said.

Among other things, "the bill would require states to provide ballots electronically. Additionally, it beefs up the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) at the Department of Defense, which is the main source of election-related information and assistance for many members of the military. The legislation, S. 1415, also addresses problems the military and overseas voters face in registering to vote from outside the U.S. It would bar states from rejecting military ballots for lack of a “Notary” signature—a feat difficult to achieve in the bases of Iraq and Afghanistan."

The Student VOTER Act was also re-introduced this session back in March. Late July will also bring the second hearing for the Student VOTER Act in the Committee on House Administration and will hopefully go into mark-up in September when it should also be in line for a floor vote.

Matthew Segal from the Student Association for Voter Empowerment told me via email that Majority Leader Steney Hoyer has been extremely supportive so he's optimistic we can get the bill on the floor this year. If you missed it, former US Senate Leader Tom Daschle has been a fantastic public advocate on the Student VOTER Act, and Zoe Lofgren, who chairs the subcommittee on elections within the Committee on House administration has also now signed onto the bill, as has Susan Davis, who is another member of both the full committee and subcommittee.

Segal says

"their leadership will assist us in getting the bill marked up this September. We [also] hope that other youth organizations will join us in making this one of their principal legislative priorities for 2009 and 2010."

As Bowen said, issues like Voting Rights aren't as sexy as issues like Health Care, but the ability to register to vote, be able to vote, and have that vote counted as its cast is the foundation of our democracy. We should be able to count on all of those things.

Read the original text of the article HERE.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Getting the Scoop: a Fresh Model for Media?

As social critics are singing the dirge of traditional newspapers, new media is emerging in unlikely and innovative ways. From citizen reporting in the form of personal video clips on sites like to the blogging power player Huffington Post, politically inclined Americans have an ever-expanding array of media outlets to choose from.

Now, the Facebook generation has its own avenue for critical coverage and analysis of compelling current events; Scoop44, launched in May, is a self-operated online news outlet created, edited, and written exclusively by young people. The site, whose name refers to the 44th administration currently in power, covers a variety of topics, from Washington politics to internet culture to race in America, across a range of platforms including traditional articles and video blogs. Scoop44 was created by Harvard undergrad Alexander Heffner, and most of the site's staff are still in college or even high school, an antidote to the image of weathered journalists that pervades traditional media.

One striking aspect of the site is the "change detectives" section, in which the young writers analyze current news as it pertains to the Millenial generation, and keep a critical eye on political promises and how they play out in reality. As the rapidly expanding (and in some cases disintegrating) field of communications continues to evolve, Scoop44 will certainly be on the radar as an example of cutting-edge reporting and commentary. Check out this interview with the publication's president:

Friday, August 7, 2009

Secretary of Health and Human Services

Name: Kathleen Sebelius
Hometown: Cincinnati, Ohio
Current City: Washington, D.C.
Job at time of appointment: Governor of Kansas
Age: 61

Kathleen Sebelius graduated from Trinity Washington University and earned a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Kansas. An avid jazz lover, Sebelius has served as a Kansas Representative, state Insurance Commissioner, and Governor.

Sebelius was praised as governor for working as a strong bipartisan leader who eliminated over $1 billion in debt, increased public education standards, and shedding wasteful spending practices.

Kathleen Sebelius was sworn in as the 21st Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on Tuesday, April 29, 2009. The Secretary governs one of the largest civilian departments in the federal government with more than 67,000 employees. HHS is the principal agency for protecting the health of all Americans..

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Great Twitter Race

If Ashton and CNN were last month's hot Twitter-race, this month, we've got our eye on Senator John McCain and the White House!

McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) just surpassed the 1 million mark, easily beating out the White House account (@whitehouse) that has approximately 844,000 followers. Other popular politicians on the site lag behind, but still boast respectable followings; Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill and South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint are the most followed but each have less than 30,000 subscribers.

The most watched politician still remains President Barack Obama (@BarackObama), and other notable political figures on Twitter include CA Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Vice President Al Gore.