Monday, January 30, 2006

Return to the Sausage Factory

I have seen the legislative process, and it works!

No, wait -- let me step back for a moment to refrain from generalization. Had I observed the legislative process without also seeing it achieve my objectives, I would hardly say "it works!"

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me start from the beginning.

Today the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee's Subcommittee on Campaigns and Elections met to consider several bills: S.B. 122, S.B. 150, S.B. 272, S.B. 424, S.B. 436, S.B. 607, S.B. 627, and S.B. 628.

There are four members of the subcommittee: Republicans Jay O'Brien (chairman) and Mark Obenshain, and Democrats Creigh Deeds and Phil Puckett.

The first bill to be considered by the subcommittee, S.B. 122, is a bill that was introduced by Senator O'Brien on behalf of Fairfax County. Its primary provision would bring the employees of General Registrars under civil service protection. After meeting with several local election officials, O'Brien agreed to carry over the bill until next year, so that some wrinkles can be ironed out. This is a bill that has caused a great deal of concern among registrars. As O'Brien put it, "I've heard from a lot of registrars, and not all the comments have been flattering."

State Senator Jeannemarie Devolites Davis was in attendance to present two bills she has patroned. Her first bill, S.B. 436, deals with campaign finance law; a similar bill, S.B. 628, was patroned by Senator Deeds and the two bills were rolled together for consideration by the subcommittee.

The purpose of the two bills was to address the role of out-of-state 527 organizations that give money to Virginia candidates and political committees. Davis and Deeds were both seeking to bring these organizations under the purview of Virginia campaign finance regulations. Chris Piper, the campaign-finance-law guru for the State Board of Elections, explained to me prior to the meeting that the easiest way to understand the impact of the proposed law is that, if a 527 does 75% of its "business" in Virginia, it will have to file as a political committee under Virginia law, regardless of whether it gives money to candidates, other political committees (including state party committees or political action committees), or referendum committees.

Senator Davis wanted to make a few adjustments to the bill, so the subcommittee agreed to pass it by for a week. She and Deeds will get together to agree on the language they want to insert, and the subcommittee will look at it again next Monday, the last time it meets to consider Senate-generated bills.

The next three bills were what brought me to the meeting today, all of them dealing with the recommendations of the Hugo Commission (formally known as the General Assembly's Joint Subcommittee to Study the Certification, Performance, and Deployment of Voting Equipment) in regard to my favorite topic: VVPAT, or voter-verifiable paper audit trails.

S.B. 424 (Devolites Davis) and S.B. 150 (Deeds) both aimed to mandate that all Virginia localities using DREs (direct recording electronic voting machines) adopt some form of VVPAT. S.B. 272 (patroned by Arlington Senator Mary Margaret Whipple) instead calls for the State Board of Elections to put together a pilot program to test the various types of equipment before deciding whether to make it a universal requirement.

Davis' bill, S.B. 424, has a number of problems, in part because it overreaches. For instance, the bill proposes this in regard to electronic pollbooks, which are not yet in use in Virginia but which are widely anticipated to be implemented within the next few years:

If the pollbook is provided in electronic form, it shall provide a paper copy record of the names of the voters and their associated identifying information on a contemporaneous and continuous basis as the voters are recorded. The election officers shall verify that the name printed on the paper copy record matches the voter's name on the electronic pollbook.
Now, the whole purpose of electronic pollbooks is to get rid of the paper pollbooks currently in use. This has several advantages, not least of which is the ability to include last-minute changes in the pollbook (such as the information that a registered voter has voted absentee prior to Election Day) that currently must be meticulously written in pen several days before the election and are therefore vulnerable to human error.

By requiring that the electronic pollbooks generate a paper print-out, this proposed law renders them pointless. If Senator Davis doesn't want us to use electronic pollbooks, why not just write a law that outlaws them?

But there's more. A few lines later, the bill says;
No direct recorded electronic voting machine, optical ballot tabulator, or other equipment used to enter or count votes shall have any form of wireless or power cable based electronic communication capability. Any device that is manufactured with a wireless or power cable based communication capability shall have that feature permanently and physically disabled before it may be used in any election. It shall not be sufficient to temporarily disable a wireless communication capability by a software configuration whether or not a cardkey is used to effect the disabling.
Set aside, for a moment, the language about wireless communications. The real problem here is the language about "power cable based electronic communication capability." It seems, in rather obscure language, to prohibit the Hart Intercivic eSlate system used by Charlottesville and the cities of Alexandria and Falls Church, as well as some other systems used by other localities.

To their credit, both Senator Deeds and Senator Obenshain raised questions about this provision, which raised some suspicions about whether one particular voting machine vendor had asked that the language be inserted into the bill as a means to disadvantage its rivals. There's no way to prove this suspicion, of course, but when I mentioned this provision to someone who is not particularly familiar with this topic, he immediately came to this conclusion.

The subcommittee agreed that this provision was problematic and deserved clarification.

Another troublesome provision is this:
No direct recorded electronic voting machine, optical ballot tabulator, or other equipment used to enter or count votes shall be certified for use in elections unless the vendor supplies in escrow with the State Board the source code for any software used to program the particular equipment for which certification is requested. The Board shall appoint technical experts with software engineering and computer security credentials and expertise to examine the source code and report to the Board prior to certification whether the software is likely to perform correctly and has appropriate security safeguards. The Board shall ensure that the technical experts have at least 30 days for the source code review and to report their findings. The Board shall make such reports available to the public. The Board shall consider the software review reports before certifying all voting systems and shall have the authority to deny certification of systems that receive negative reviews. The Board shall also make the source code available, if requested by any state political party chairman, for review by a committee of no more than three technical experts selected by the political party.
There is nothing particularly wrong with putting source code in escrow or even having it scrutinized by experts employed by the State Board of Elections. This should be part of the certification process as we seek assurances that the software is as secure and effective as the hardware it is designed to work with.

The problem comes with that last sentence, which says that political parties can appoint their own "experts" to examine the code. There is nothing that prevents the political parties from appointing someone from a competing company to review the source code of its rival. No wonder the vendors object to this provision! (A lobbyist for Hart Intercivic was present at the subcommittee meeting and brought this to the attention of the senators.)

This is where the meeting began to get contentious. The four subcommittee members went back and forth about the provisions of S.B. 424 and the similar S.B. 150, eventually agreeing to roll them together with a date of enactment of July 2009.

But they also voted to carry it over (essentially, to table it for a year) in favor of Senator Whipple's bill calling for a pilot project, which was the favored course of action by most of the people in the audience. (No one, except for Virginia Verified Voting's Alex Blakemore, who came along as Senator Davis' mouthpiece, spoke in favor of 424 and 150. Everyone else who rose to discuss it -- including myself, Norfolk Electoral Board Chairman Ed O'Neal, and Richmond General Registrar J. Kirk Showalter -- spoke against the Davis and Deeds bills and in favor of Whipple's bill, S.B. 272.)

I explained to the subcommittee that there is no demand by voters for immediate adoption of VVPAT. (I used similar arguments to what I used at the last 2005 meeting of the Hugo Commission, pointing out that, according to a survey we compiled, there were only about 26 complaints about the lack of VVPAT on or after Election Day last year.) I said that you wouldn't buy a car without taking it on a test drive, especially when the car might cost as much as $11 million.

When Davis saw the text of Whipple's bill, she complained mightily that the pilot project did not include all of the components of her own bill. And when the subcommittee voted down her bill and voted to recommend Whipple's bill, Davis was fuming. She looked like a character from a Popeye cartoon, with steam blowing out of her ears. She even said that it was a "mistake" for Virginia localities to have bought DREs in the first place, and if she had her way, she would pass a law that would require all localities to use optical-scan technology instead.

What really gored Davis' ox was that, when she and Blakemore, at separate times, made statements that were clearly untrue, the whole audience erupted spontaneously in cries of "No, no, no." This must have been embarrassing, to be caught in errors of fact on an issue pursued with such passion by the Senator.

I should point out that, during the course of the meeting, there was a lot of discussion by the subcommittee members and Senator Davis as to whether Congress is going to require some form of VVPAT in the near future. Senator Obenshain expressed the fear that we should not act too soon, because if the federal government passes a law that has different requirements, we might be caught with our pants down and have to spend millions of dollars twice within a few years. Senator Davis, who no doubt has special knowledge of what might be happening on Capitol Hill, said that she is "sure Congress will pass a requirement" and asked, "Do we want to start now or wait?"

The actuality is this: Bills in Congress to amend the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 are non-starters. The debate about HAVA, and its implementation, were both perceived as a mess and Congress simply does not want to go through that again, and especially not so soon. There are enough diehard federalists in Congress to prevent consideration of neo-HAVA bills.

So here's the result of today's subcommittee meeting in regard to VVPAT: No statewide mandate, and a pilot program that will include Charlottesville. In fact, SBE Secretary Jean Jensen has asked that Charlottesville officials participate in the planning and design of the pilot project. We will have a place at the table from start to finish. We have been making that desire clear for at least a year now, and now we are in a position to take action.

Adopting the pilot program, as called for in Whipple's bill, makes perfect political sense. It addresses the paranoid concerns of the Virginia Verified Voting group without committing the state to a multi-million-dollar expenditure for equipment that may or may not be necessary. I have to say, when I lived in Arlington County and Senator Whipple was serving on the County Board, she and I often found ourselves at odds with each other on the issues of the day. Yet, as a member of the Hugo Commission and now in her larger role as a legislator, she has proved to be a voice of sanity when yielding to the Luddites would be the politically expedient position. She deserves our gratitude.

After all the excitement of the VVPAT bills, with Senator Devolites Davis storming out like a politician scorned, the remainder of the agenda was anticlimactic. Senators Louise Lucas and Creigh Deeds both had similar bills addressing the way recounts are conducted. The two bills, S.B. 607 and 627, were rolled together. They each would require that optical scan ballots be run through the machines again in case of a recount. This takes away some discretion from the recount court and actually returns the law to what it said prior to 2002. It eliminates a grey area and turns it into something that is clearly black or white. I don't expect this bill to be controversial as it moves through the full P&E Committee and the floor of the Senate.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Photoblogging Ethiopia

One of the first things to strike a new visitor to Ethiopia is the pervasiveness of English. All the street signs, and the vast majority of billboards and storefront signs, are either in English only or in English and Amharic.

I asked about this and was told that, shortly after the Second World War, Emperor Haile Selassie ordered that English become the medium of instruction in all Ethiopian high schools. Since some 40 percent of the population attends at least some high school, learning English is common enough that it seems everyone understands it. After 60 years, the teaching and learning of English is embedded in Ethiopian life.

This has proved useful in uniting a country with about a dozen major ethnic groups, countless sub-groups and clans, and at least 45 major spoken languages and dialects (including Amharic, Tigrinya, Somali, and Oromo, to name just four). Government documents are issued in both Amharic and English, and sometimes in other vernacular languages, as well. Television news is broadcast in English. English-language newspapers report on local and world affairs. And this in a country that was never colonized by either Britain or the United States!

Here are some photographs I took while I was in Ethiopia earlier this month. Mind you, I was on a business trip, so sightseeing was not on the agenda. Consequently, most pictures I took were from my hotel room balcony, except for a few that I took while on Entoto, the 10,000-foot-above-sea-level mountain overlooking the 7,200-foot-above-sea-level plain where Addis Ababa is located. We had a few hours free one afternoon, and we were taken to see the two oldest churches in Addis Ababa.

Upon waking up in Addis Ababa (and other African cities, for that matter), one immediately notices the acrid odor in the air. This comes from wood-burning fires that people use to cook their breakfasts. A heavy smog hangs over the city in the morning hours, but it dissipates during the late morning and afternoon, only to return in the evening as families cook their suppers. (In the middle distance, you can see the blue tower of a mosque.)

In Addis, the smoke takes on an added aroma in that it comes from the burning of blue eucalyptus, a non-native species of tree that was imported to provide firewood in the barren plateau. Today you can see old women coming down the mountain carrying heavy stacks of branches, more than twice as tall as the women themselves, to sell as firewood in the city. The lucky ones have donkeys but most of them use their own muscles and bent spines to do the job.

This view, from the same vantage point but a slightly different angle, shows the evening smog hanging over Addis Ababa.

Ethiopian history stretches back at least 3,000 years, so one might suppose that the capital city, Addis Ababa, is nearly that old. Not so -- it was founded only in 1886, about the same time as Johannesburg, South Africa.

King (later Emperor) Menelik II moved his court to Entoto, a mountain base in the center of Shoa (the region of central Ethiopia where Addis now is). A small city grew up along the road between two Ethiopian Orthodox churches.

Queen (later Empress) Taitu, however, did not like the cold weather in the mountains. She moved her camp to the side of a hot spring on the plain below. She sent a message to her husband that said, essentially, "If you ever want to get some from me again, you had better move here." So he did, taking his whole court down the mountain and establishing the city now known as Addis Ababa.

What you see above is the oldest church in Addis, only a bit over a 100 years old despite the culture's 3,000-year track record.

Besides Armenia, Ethiopia may be the oldest Christian nation in the world. (There are now a large number of Muslims in the country, too, but for centuries it was officially Christian in the sense that Russia and Greece are.)

There are differences, however, between Ethiopian Orthodoxy and other Orthodox and Latin churches. For one thing, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is monophysite -- that is, it rejects the doctrine, adopted at the Council of Chalcedon, of the "dual nature " of Christ. That is, whereas other Christian churches believe that Jesus Christ is "fully human and fully divine," the Ethiopian Orthodox believe that he is only fully divine.

Another difference: Ethiopian Orthodox Christians adhere to Old Testament dietary restrictions. So there were no pork products available in any of the restaurants at the Sheraton Addis Hotel, explaining why I had my first taste of "veal bacon."

This deacon was studying his prayer book in the sunshine outside the church.

Meanwhile, some priests and deacons were conducting a service of some sort (it might have been a funeral) at the base of the church, not inside it.

Finally, for those of you who have been wondering what happened to all those ubiquitous red telephone booths in Britain, after British Telecom decided to get rid of them, at least some of them landed in Ethiopia, where they are still used by the many people unable to afford cellphone service:

If you are interested in learning more about the history of Ethiopia, I recommend a book by retired U.S. diplomat Paul Henze called Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia. I bought a copy just before I left the country and read it on the plane on the way home, answering a lot of the questions that had come to mind during my stay.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Back in the Saddle Again

Hearing Waldo Jaquith this morning on WINA Radio's "Charlottesville Live" program, in which he discussed his blogging about "shiny" (but sometimes boring) General Assembly committee hearings, roused me from my torpor and persuaded me to end my weeks-long hiatus from writing.

I actually returned from my East African business trip more than a week ago, but after nearly two weeks away from the screen, it was hard to get started again. (In part, this stems from frustration that the most interesting elements of my trip were private and proprietary, requiring discretion, and therefore non-bloggable. It's the sort of thing to make any writer go "Argggggggh!")

Being out of the Virginia politics loop didn't help any. To tell you the truth, I haven't even looked at a political blog since January 3 -- Virginia- or non-Virginia-related.

While I was away, I missed all sorts of great stories: the fallout from the Jack Abramoff guilty plea, Tim Kaine's inauguration, the General Assembly's overwhelming vote to endorse an anti-marriage amendment to the Virginia Constitution.

But, sitting in my hotel room in Addis Ababa, watching the BBC, I was able to follow the news on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's health. Meanwhile, on SkyNews, I could watch relentless reports about Charles Kennedy's resignation as leader of the Liberal Democrats in Britain. (Mr. Kennedy was "tired and emotional," as they say, that is, a wee bit tipsy.) As for SABC, I learned about the handful of former democratically-elected African leaders met in a summit in Maputo to discuss how they can put their elder-statesman status to good use. The simultaneous lead story on CNN International was the search-and-rescue operation in West Virginia for the 13 lost coal miners which, sadly, ended with 12 of them dead.

Speaking of "tired and emotional," while drinking tea in the lounge of the Serena Hotel in Nairobi, I read a side-splitting opinion piece in the Times of London, by Ben MacIntyre, entitled "From squiffy to blotto, a lexicon of lushes/A history of political partying." A representative excerpt:

Politicians have always drunk too much, and always lied about it. In 1957 Nye Bevan, Richard Crossman and Morgan Philips successfully sued The Spectator for claiming that they were drunk at a conference in Venice, which they were. Today the pressure not to drink, and thus the pressure to lie if you do, is greater than ever. New Labour has brought a strange whiff of Puritanism from the likes of Alastair Campbell (teetotal), Peter Mandelson (who is known to sip hot water at dinner parties) and Tony Blair (just a cup of tea, thanks awfully).

A more sober democratic process would probably be happier, and certainly healthier, but it might be even more tense and brittle, and surely less colourful. I suspect that the most famous George Brown drinking anecdote of all immeasurably improved our diplomatic relations with Peru.

At a grand reception in that country in the 1960s, the Labour Foreign Secretary tottered up to a figure resplendent in a fetching purple frock, and slurringly asked her for a dance. She turned him down with the response: “First, you are drunk. Second, this is not a waltz, it is the Peruvian national anthem. And third, I am not a woman, I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima.”
What was fun was watching obscure American TV sitcoms on M-Net, a South African-based satellite television service. Sure, they have "Will & Grace" and "The Simpsons." But who has ever heard of "Still Standing"? Or why would anyone want to see the disgraceful "Amish in the City" again? Seriously, does anyone remember "My Big Fat Greek Life"? (Of course, M-Net is reviving, at least for an African audience, the woefully underrated and too-soon canceled "Undeclared.")

It's a small world, after all.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


Smyth County Conservative is hosting the latest Virginia Blog Carnival, the first of the new year. It includes a reference to my post on the best movies of 2005.

Next week's Virginia Blog Carnival will be hosted by The (Not So) Daily Me.

My blogging over the next 10 to 14 days may be sporadic or non-existent, as I'm going to be traveling in East Africa and will have only limited access to computers and the Internet.

I'm sure I'll have plenty to write about upon my return.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

If You Go Away

In a column today, Richmond Times-Dispatch correspondent Carlos Santos offers some thoughts that reflect accurately the ambivalence that Charlottesville residents possess in regard to University vacation periods. When the students are away, our town has a completely different atmosphere, which has its positive and negative aspects.

It's Christmas vacation for University of Virginia students, and here in Charlottesville the absence of so many energetic men and women, many of whom are teenagers, makes everything a bit more mellow.

The city without students is like a 1970 Ford Pinto, which was the car I drove in college, with one of its four cylinders misfiring. The city moves to the slow lane, limping, unglamorous and a bit listless.

We become an outdated, older, underpowered little town of about 45,000 people, most of whom, I'm guessing, go to bed by 10 p.m. weeknights and 11 p.m. on weekends like I do.

Drive by downtown or up West Main Street, from Vinegar Hill to Rugby Road, and the silence is deafening now. The sidewalks are empty. The Lawn is desolate. The streets are iPodless.

The Corner, a student-intensive section of the city offering T-shirts, beer, bands, fast food, bad food and more beer, is ghostly, especially at night when it usually vibrates with a frenetic life that only the young can exude.
The most visible sign that students are not around is the availability of on-street parking. Santos' column is accompanied by a photograph of Rugby Road looking like a Hollywood backlot set up to film a movie about a ghost town. (You can nearly imagine the tumbleweeds blowing down the center of Rugby Road.) Nearer to where I live, Jefferson Park Avenue has more empty parking places than Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House does.

I suppose the businesses that cater to student customers suffer a bit at the cash register this time of year, but the breathing space and opportunity to do work in the storeroom and on the end-of-the-year accounting books must be welcome nonetheless.

Still, student absences are cyclical. They are gone for a few weeks, then back for a few months. This happens several times a year with banal regularity. As Santos notes:
But in the end, Charlottesville is U.Va. and U.Va. is students, both rowdy and serious, and it makes the city a unique place. Their energy, their dreams and their exuberance spill over, goosing those of us who might be a little more world-weary. I may not want to join a frat party as I drive by and hear the music boom through my car window and rattle my soul, but it still makes me smile. You only get to do that stuff for a short time.

So come mid-January when the Wahoos pile back into Charlottesville, cutting me off in their four-wheel-drive vehicles, hooting senselessly in the night on the Corner or backing up U.S. 29 on game days, I'll welcome them back. But Christmas break is nice for us, too.