Sunday, July 25, 2004

Crisis of Confidence

I took the last few days off from the No Confidence Movement and now I have several entries I want to write all at the same time.  I'm going to limit this one to commenting on an article from Sunday's Eureka Times-Standard: "Crisis of confidence: Should we trust our electoral system?

James Tressler wrote this based partly on an interview with me last week.  When we met, I told him about my conversation with Humboldt County Elections Manager Lindsey McWilliams.  McWilliams' recent op-ed invited phone calls from citizens interested in observing election machine testing procedures (707-445-7481).  When I spoke to McWilliams he personally invited me to view the machines, an offer Tressler notes I didn't take up (it's more like haven't yet taken up).
McWilliams was pleasant and not the least bit defensive in the fifteen minutes he spent answering my questions.  I was particularly interested in the R&G reports showing some Humboldt County election machines did not meet federal standards, others were not state certified and some were short on both counts.  McWilliams confirmed that his office provided the data which was fairly characterized in the report.  He said that for many years there was no system for re-certifying patches or updates, which he likened to the type routinely applied by ordinary computer users.  He said he was expecting to receive new upgrades very soon, possibly the next day, which had the certification of CA.
I don't understand why the Times-Standard didn't pursue these simple questions and publish this straightforward answer when first asked to investigate.  Not only is this important and timely, their noisiest local voter advocate handed them a story that wouldn't even make anybody look bad.  Even in today's article these reports were not addressed.  McWilliams does say some interesting things, however:

Meanwhile, Humboldt County Elections Manager Lindsey McWilliams said while there are always problems in any election cycle, he's "generally confident" in the nation's elections system.

Noting the 2000 Florida recount, McWilliams said the integrity of an election shouldn't rely on technology. Rather well-established policies and procedures, as well as poll worker training, are the backbone of a reliable voting system.

"One thing occurring in all this rhetoric about election integrity is all of a sudden there are thousands of self-proclaimed experts who know what's wrong with elections and how to fix it," McWilliams said. "My concern is all the energy thrown at elections (integrity) is diverting time away from the issues and candidates, which I think are far more important."

This doesn't all add up for me.  If elections shouldn't rely on technology, as McWilliams suggests, then the fact that they do makes me wonder why he is "generally confident."  It is one thing to describe yourself this way but another to demonstrate a sound BASIS for this position.  Yet again, the central question of the No Confidence Movement is not addressed (whether there is or is not a BASIS for confidence).   It also should not escape notice that conceding problems in every election cycle means it has been a while since a BASIS for confidence has existed.  What's more, election integrity itself is a top issue so let us not be diverted into thinking otherwise.

The last part of the article reflects the perspective of Dan Faulk, a "government lecturer" at Humboldt State University.  A close reading shows he supports holding "national forums" to address the questions the No Confidence Movement is raising.  Tressler notes in his final paragraph that the next phase of the No Confidence Movement will coordinate with the "Institute for Policy tap into a national network of communities called Cities For Peace."  Even though Tressler doesn't make us out to be agreeing, Faulk strikes me as a great potential ally.

I must also correct a misrepresentation about the Electoral College and the winner-take-all system.   Tressler erroneously reports that the No Confidence Movement makes no effort to address such matters, while Faulk suggests their importance.  I have asked Tressler to consider publishing a clarification that would educate readers about instant runoff voting and proportional representation, two key goals of the No Confidence Movement. 

So for a while this article goes out of its way to paint a disconnect with someone who actually seems to be coming from very much the same place as the No Confidence Movement.  I will make contact with Faulk as soon as I can, and I will inquire about speaking opportunities on campus.  My best case scenario would be participating in a panel discussion with McWilliams and anyone from the Times-Standard.

On a positive note, there is one important way that the framing was right on, though it was a direct quote from Faulk rather than prose from Tressler:
"I see anyone who does anything like that as providing a public service because people can engage in a conversation -- do we have confidence in our system or don't we?" Faulk said. "That conversation is absolutely essential to democracy."

So Faulk comes close on the question of BASIS for confidence, but still doesn't quite get there.  On the other hand, this is excellent reinforcement of the public service frame often adopted here. 

Before I conclude this entry, I want to encourage everyone to practice thorough vigilance about framing of stories.  Last Wednesday, the Times-Standard ran an article saying: "Formerly known as the No Confidence Resolution, the Building Confidence Resolution's text has been significantly altered, although the basic message is still somewhat intact."  The Building Confidence resolution was the Arcata City Council's watered down alternative that I never supported.  This utter inaccuracy has not been corrected. 

There is a correction in this week's Arcata Eye after last week's exaggerated claim that "eight other cities and towns across the country have endorsed a similar resolution." Actually, I only said that supporters are organizing in at least eight other communities. I'll share some of that support in the next few entries.



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