Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

August 24th, 2012:

Friday random ten: The number of the count shall be three

School starts on Monday, which will be the start of third grade for Olivia. As I did in each of the last two years, I’ve got a Friday random ten in celebration of the number 3.

1. Three More Days – Ray LaMontagne
2. The Three Sunrises – U2
3. Three Drunken Maidens – The Mollys
4. Three Cool Cats – The Beatles
5. Three Babies – Sinead O’Connor
6. Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad – Meatloaf
7. Three Jolly Coachmen – Flying Fish Sailors
8. The Three Fine Daughters Of Farmer Brown – Eddie From Ohio
9. Three To Get Ready – Dave Brubeck Quartet
10. Three Sinners – Austin Lounge Lizards

I’ll have to check again for the number four, but my recollection is that there were not nearly enough songs to do another list. But then, it’ll be first grade for Audrey and I can revisit the number one. Good luck in school this year, kids.

Diaz still leads after recount

No surprise.

Former Jacinto City Mayor Chris Diaz still appears to be the Democratic nominee for Harris County Precinct 2 constable following a Monday recount in his razor-thin runoff with Precinct 2 Sgt. Zerick Guinn.

Diaz’s 17-vote margin is unofficial, county Democratic Party Chairman Lane Lewis said, adding the party plans to finalize the results Saturday.

Diaz actually gained a vote after the recount. Unless Guinn wants to pursue this in the courts, the matter is basically settled. Stace has more.

That’s the basic news about this. Do you know how the county handles a recount like this? I had no idea, until Dan Wallach, who wrote that guest post on Tuesday, sent me the following eyewitness account:

Dan Wallach

I was invited by the Harris County Democratic Party to be an observer of the Guinn-Diaz recount, which ran all day on Monday. This race, in the Democratic primary election, was to select the Democratic candidate for Constable, Precinct 2. There were some procedural errors during the initial tally. At one point, the two candidates were separated by all of 3 votes out of just over 11 thousand cast. By the time they included the absentee ballots, roughly 28% of all the votes in the race, the margin of victory was 16 votes.

I showed up at the recount with my camera, hoping to take lots of great pictures. Several people promptly came running at me saying that it was illegal to take pictures during a recount. (Dear lawyers who are reading this: really?) Instead, I’ll just have to do my best to describe what I did and what I saw.

For starters, Harris County uses the Hart InterCivic eSlate, a paperless electronic voting system, which stands out from other DRE-type systems by having a local network in the polling place. For each group of eSlate terminals, there’s a single controller (a “Judge Booth Controller” or JBC) that connects to the eSlates. Three copies of each vote are recorded: one in the eSlate where it was cast, one in the JBC’s internal memory, and one on a PCMCIA flash card (a “mobile ballot box” or MBB) that’s removable from the JBC. If you want to learn a lot more about the eSlate architecture and its security vulnerabilities, you might enjoy the California “Top to Bottom” report, which I co-authored in 2007.

On election night, the process is that they remove the MBBs from the JBCs and use computers to read them and tabulate the data centrally. Part of this process is for the centrally-tabulated data to then be reported on the Election Day Results webpage, or in this case, misreported. It wasn’t the tabulated results that were wrong, just the reported results. That’s another story, although it would be nice to have a detailed explanation of what went wrong.

If the initial counts were done from the MBBs, how about the recount? For this, they used the JBCs: 115 of them were sequestered for the recount, each connected individually to a single computer that copied their contents. (This computer runs Windows 2000, the only “certified” configuration available; at least there was no network connection.) All of this occurred before the recount itself began. No party or candidate representatives witnessed this part of the process. Johnnie German, the county’s administrator of elections, told me that the process took five hours and needed to be done in advance so the recount could complete on time. More on this below.

The recount was an involved process. There were three and later four tables of counters. Each table had five people. Each table gets a stack of every paper ballot for a given precinct which they then tabulate. In the case of absentee ballots, these were original, hand-marked papers. In the case of eSlate-cast ballots, these were printed on site by a laser printer from the aforementioned computer that collected JBC data. The tabulation process has one person, in the center, who picks up a ballot from the stack and reads out who got the vote. On this person’s side are two people (representing the candidates) who double check this. Across the table are two separate people who keep count. With this many eyeballs on the task, the inevitable errors are caught. When a stack of ballots was completed, everybody at the table would agree on a summary sheet, they signed it, and it came over to where I was sitting.

Our table had four people: myself, the election administrator, and one observer for each candidate. I picked up each stack of ballots and called out the precinct number and totals. The election administrator typed those numbers into an Excel spreadsheet. The observers made sure we got the numbers right.

The results? Unsurprisingly, for all the eSlate-cast votes, the hand tabulation exactly equaled the original machine tabulation. For the absentee ballots, we had one precinct with single absentee ballot that somehow didn’t show up for the recount. The election administrator made a phone call to the downtown site, where absentee ballots are kept in a vault, and arranged for somebody to go dig out that ballot and bring it back to us. (That particular ballot was an undervote, so it didn’t impact the result.) We also discovered a precinct that had an extra absentee ballot that somehow wasn’t tabulated at all in the initial machine-scanned tally. Where did it come from? Why wasn’t it counted beforehand? We don’t know. (This ballot favored Diaz, increasing his lead from 16 to 17 votes.) Otherwise, there were no discrepancies or changes to the election outcome. The process started at 8am and ended at 4pm with a one-hour lunch break.

What’s interesting is what we didn’t do in the recount. There was no attempt to audit the original electronic systems, perhaps looking for unusual behavior in the original tallying systems’ logs, or perhaps comparing the in-person poll books or absentee envelopes against the number of cast votes. We didn’t have access to the scanned ballot images, so there was no opportunity to do any sort of risk limiting audit (comparing the scanned ballot images to the physical ones to make sure they’re the same). Also, the only way to get electronic data out of a Hart InterCivic tallying system is in PDF format (example results). There is no way to get all the raw data in a format that’s convenient to bring back into a computer for subsequent analysis.

As I mentioned above, the JBCs’ data was downloaded in advance, giving us no opportunity to observe this process. So far as I could tell, the boxes that hold the JBCs have no security seals, which could have at least provided some evidence of chain-of-custody maintenance. Absentee ballots, for contrast, are transported in plastic tubs with numbered plastic security seals, and there’s a process for documenting those numbers when the seals are broken. A corresponding process for JBCs would be a good idea to adopt.

I’m also a bit sad that we didn’t have a counting scale that we could use in the recount. In addition to enabling clever audits, we could have used them to simply double check the number of papers in each stack of ballots. Apparently the election warehouse does have one, but we weren’t allowed to use it, even to double check our manual tallies. (Dearest election lawyers: really?)

One lesson from this is that political candidates understand the concept of a recount, and there’s plenty of election code that talks about what a recount entails. What’s less clear is how well the election code can bend to support the idea of audits. Printing sheets of paper corresponding to electronically cast ballot records, then counting them by hand, is both wasteful of resources and unlikely to discover anything valuable. Instead, I’d like to see counties offer a menu of options (at different prices, of course) to the candidate requesting a recount. A candidate might then choose to pay for a full tally of absentee ballots and for various audits to reconcile the totals. If a candidate wanted to double-check a sample of the eSlates, to make sure they had the same votes as in the election night tallies, that should be easy and cheap to do.

Another important lesson is that future voting systems (electronic or otherwise) need to be explicitly engineered with recounts and other sorts of audits at the core of their functionality. Of course, we also want the sorts of voter verifiability security properties that DRE systems like the eSlate lack, but this experience made it clear to me that we have a lot of room to improve basic recounting and auditing procedures. At the end of the day, the goal is to convince the losing candidate that he or she genuinely lost. I don’t know whether this particular candidate was convinced.

So now we know, and I thank Dan for the detailed information. I like the suggestions about enabling audits and giving candidates different choices for how to conduct recounts. What do you think?

City says No to some of CM Brown’s expense reports

It’s always something.

CM Helena Brown

Councilwoman Helena Brown hired a private attorney to sit in on meetings with her publicly paid attorney, then tried to bill taxpayers for it.

Records obtained by the Houston Chronicle reveal that Brown sought reimbursement for $850 she paid lawyer Kevin Colbert for meetings she had with the mayor and City Attorney David Feldman, whose job it is to give council members legal advice. The fee also covered Colbert’s attendance at a budget meeting.

Feldman denied the reimbursement request because the city only pays for outside lawyers for council members when it would be a conflict of interest for his office to handle the case. Brown declined to comment on why she hired Colbert.

Brown also sought $2,108 in gas money for William Park, a volunteer adviser to the councilwoman on fiscal issues. The request was denied. Feldman said such a reimbursement would violate city policy on expenses for non-employees.

[…]

Brown asked the city to reimburse mileage expenses for Park. The $2,000 request exceeds what most full-time paid council staffers accrued in mileage during the same period. The city does not reimburse its volunteers – including more than 1,200 people who sit on boards and commissions – for expenses related to their service, though the mayor or her designee can approve travel-related expenses in individual cases for what city policy calls “unpaid persons.”

“The very essence of being a volunteer is you’re doing it as a free public service,” Feldman said.

Brown said, via email, “Mileage or gasoline use for city purposes should be a reimbursable expense indiscriminate of who actually incurred the expense; the mileage reimbursement request denial was not disputed due to our focus on more pressing matters.”

There are other things in the story, but this is the main item. One can certainly make the case that the city should reimburse volunteers for expenses related to their service. If you’re giving your time and expertise to the city, it’s perfectly reasonable to say that you shouldn’t have to pay for the privilege. But city policy is to not do so, which is also perfectly reasonable given the likely expense and the effort needed to verify the requests made by all these people. Given that, I don’t see what Brown’s beef is. Park is a volunteer, volunteers aren’t eligible for reimbursement, end of story. Either hire him as an employee, or don’t submit his expenses for reimbursement. Putting forward a proposal to change the city’s policy rather than trying to get an exception made for this one person is also a viable option.

TREE lawsuit may proceed with the other school finance suits

We will have one big school finance lawsuit, not multiple separate suits.

State District Judge John Dietz ruled on Tuesday that the claims from Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, a group of charter school supporters and parents, belong in the lawsuit. The decision ensures that case will proceed to trial on Oct. 22.

The group, referred to as TREE, argues that the current cap on new charter schools stifles competition and maintains that large swaths of the education code foster waste and inefficiency in traditional public schools.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is representing one of the six groups of plaintiffs, petitioned to remove TREE, asserting that its concerns are political issues that need to be addressed by the Legislature, not constitutional issues that must be decided by the courts.

MALDEF lawyer David Hinojosa said on Tuesday that TREE had “cherry-picked” elements of the education code with which its leaders disagree politically, and it was asking the court to “redesign the system of education to suit their specific needs.” Those elements include minimum salary requirements and certain job protections for teachers.

Dietz, however, said TREE was not asking the court to impose its own judgment over that of the Legislature. Rather, TREE wants him to review components of the education system that it believes to be unconstitutional.

MALDEF was the only plaintiff to contest TREE’s presence in the lawsuit. Texas Politics notes that TREE still has some homework to do.

In his ruling, the judge noted that Enoch and his party “have not asked the court to dictate a particular course of action. (They) asked the court to review different aspects of the public school system to determine if they meet the constitution.”

Hinojosa argued that [TREE lawyer Craig] Enoch’s side, which includes parents and the Texas Association of Business, don’t have a legal standing in the case.

Dietz disagreed.

“The court can certainly concede that Texas parents and business owners are and will be injured by a public school system that fails to achieve a general diffusion of knowledge,” the judge said.

He did instruct Enoch to clean up his pleading to specifically explain how his clients could be injured in an unconstitutional school funding system.

Failure to fix that issue will allow the judge to dismiss them from the case, Hinojosa said later.

TREE has its own agenda and should not be trusted. The trial begins October 22. Mark your calendars.

One more thing, from the Statesman story:

Research released on Tuesday from Pennsylvania State University education professor Ed Fuller showed that fifth- and sixth-graders entering high-performing charter schools already had higher reading and math scores than their peers in traditional public schools. Fuller said that difference might explain why some charter schools register better achievement scores when compared with traditional public schools.

In addition, Fuller noted that charter schools also enrolled far fewer students with special needs, such as those learning English or who have disabilities.

“This simply makes it easier for a school to claim success as well as for a school to operate efficiently and effectively since students are more homogeneous and have fewer needs,” wrote Fuller, a former University of Texas researcher.

The study was commissioned by the Texas Business and Education Coalition in advance of a state Senate committee hearing Friday on the issue of charter schools and school choice.

That ought to add some fuel to the debate fires. As noted yesterday, the Harmony schools spend a lot less money than the traditional public schools do on such students. I’ll be interested to see what comes out of tomorrow’s hearing.

After school programs

I see a lot of merit in this.

CM C.O. "Brad" Bradford

After-school programs prevent crime, Councilman C.O. Bradford said, so some of them should be paid for by the police.

“This sounds strange to hear a gun-packing, badge-toting, 24-year cop talking about this,” said Bradford, Houston’s former police chief, but he proposes hiring 20 fewer police officers in the coming year and using the savings to put nearly 2,000 more children into homework clubs, sports, scholarship coaching and museum tours.

The Houston Police Department plans to conduct three 70-member cadet academies in the coming year to replace those who retire or resign from the 5,300-member force. Bradford said having 10 fewer cadets in two of the classes could save the city $1.6 million, enough to put an entire large middle school’s worth of children into activities each weekday afternoon.

“Nobody’s going to miss an additional 10 officers spread over 640-plus square miles,” he said Tuesday.

The area’s after-school advocates have turned to Bradford as the front man for their sociological strategy over an exclusively lock-’em-up approach to public safety.

The Harris County Department of Education, the Houston Endowment and others interested in expanding the offerings appointed Bradford chairman of their after-school enrichment consortium.

The group, which goes by the acronym ENRICH, is rounding up research that documents correlations between after-school programs and lower crime rates. It also is tallying available funding for county programs, which it reports is $63 million a year in mostly federal money. It is on Bradford’s own initiative that he is seeking police funding to serve more kids.

The story notes that HPD Chief Charles McClelland is not on board with this, Mayor Parker has expressed some support but is not backing it, and several Council members including CM Ellen Cohen ran on platforms that included support for increasing the size of the police academy classes. Certainly, in all the interviews I did in 2011, I can’t recall anyone expressing a contrary opinion about hiring more cops. In other words, CM Bradford has a tough row to hoe. But I think he’s onto something, and I hope people listen to him. As with many things, prevention is less costly and more effective than mitigation. Crime rates have been declining across the board for years, which should make us question what the “right” size of HPD should be. I’d like to know if there’s some research to back up this proposition. We should learn more about this, and we should be willing to consider it as another tool in the crimefighting box.