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iPads

Reading and writing and operating systems

Religion, politics, and operating systems – three things sure to start a spirited discussion.

By January 2016, when the Houston Independent School District’s latest tech initiative hits full stride, the district will issue laptops to every high school student and teacher in the district. All 65,000 of those laptops will run Windows 7 and cloud-based Office 365. For Microsoft, that’s sweet news: a solid little victory in the digital war for global domination.

As every tech geek knows, Microsoft, the world’s third-largest technology company, is embroiled in a three-way war with the first- and second-largest, Apple and Google. Each of those behemoths hopes to establish its own computing ecosystem as the world’s digital default, to be the system that everyone everywhere just seems to use on the fast-growing array of devices that connect to the Web. (Coming soon: Dog collars! Home thermostats! Cars!)

In the last two years, elementary, middle and high schools have been among the war’s hottest fronts. In part, that’s simply because K-12 education is a fast-growing, largely untapped market: According to analyst Phillip Maddocks of Futuresource, a research and forecasting company, only about 25 percent of U.S. students and teachers are currently equipped with devices such as laptops or tablets.

But that number is bound to rise. Last year, President Barack Obama announced the creation of the federal ConnectEd program, with a goal of making high-speed broadband available to 99 percent of American students by 2017. In January, Obama’s State of the Union address included a call to bring American classrooms up to date. Soon after, a group of private tech companies, including Apple and Microsoft, committed to donate $750 million in devices, software, training and Wi-Fi – as well as to offering deep discounts.

For those tech companies, such efforts are one part altruism, one part gold rush. As the remaining 75 percent of American students obtain devices and Wi-Fi, their hardware, software and habits are up for grabs.

“The scale is what’s so new,” says Cameron Evans, chief technology officer at Microsoft Education. “Before, there were always five computers in the back of the classroom. Until 2012, that was acceptable.”

As the story notes, Apple has been the leader in this space, but they’ve been vulnerable lately thanks to the high profile flop in Fort Bend and some embarrassing security failures in Los Angeles. Both were more due to design and implementation flaws than anything else, but they still look bad. Microsoft and Google have been competing on price and on compatibility, and have made some inroads. I know this is somewhat heretical to say, especially for an IT guy, but to some extent the OS and hardware don’t really matter. Basic concepts, about things like security and programming and how to use various apps, don’t really change that much from one device to the next. Of course, from the vendors’ perspective, they’re trying to lock in preferences. From my perspective, I’d like to see kids get experience with multiple platforms. Mostly I hope they get a solid curriculum that really takes advantage of the technology available to them. We’re still figuring out how to do that, so I hope we stay flexible and open-minded about it.

Burnam drops electoral challenge

A good decision, in my opinion.

Rep. Lon Burnam

After months of legal wrangling, state Rep. Lon Burnam announced Thursday that he will not continue with his challenge of his primary election loss.

Shortly after losing on March 4 by 111 votes to local businessman Ramon Romero Jr., Burnam, D-Fort Worth, sued, saying the election for state House District 90 was tainted by illegal mail-in ballots.

Now, after three courts — including the state’s top civil court — refused to order the release of the applications for those ballots, Burnam has asked his legal team to drop the case.

“I did not make this decision because I believe my opponent won fairly, or that our suspicions of illegal conduct in the election have not played out,” Burnam said in a statement.

“I made this decision because the Texas Supreme Court has denied our final appeal for a subpoena to see county vote-by-mail records, making it impossible to prove that more than 111 ballots were illegally cast.

“These records will become public after the general election in November and I plan to revisit the issue at that time.”

Romero said he’s glad Burnam is dropping the lawsuit.

“We ran a race fair and square,” he said. “We asked people to vote for us and they did.

“I’m excited to begin the work of the district.”

See here for the last update. Not the most magnanimous exit by Burnam, and I’m not sure what the point of revisiting the issue after the November election is, but whatever. I’d feel more sympathy for Burnam if he hadn’t come close to parroting Republican talking points on vote fraud during the litigation. Having said all that, Lon Burnam was a strong progressive voice in the Legislature and he served with honor. He’ll be missed, and Rep.-elect Romero will have some big shoes to fill. The Texas Election Law Blog, who thinks Burnam got a raw deal from the courts and who has some thoughts about using iPads for absentee ballot applications, has more.

Supreme Court denies Burnam mandamus request

Rep. Lon Burnam

Late Friday I got an email from the Ramon Romero campaign touting the news that the State Supreme Court had denied a write of mandamus to Rep. Lon Burnam in his electoral challenge lawsuit. You can see the Supreme Court’s order here – scroll down to case 14-0372, the third one listed under “Miscellaneous”. See here, here, and here for the background – basically, he’s alleging that the Romero campaign’s use of iPads to process absentee ballot requests violates Texas electoral law, which only references fax machines. Burnam had asked that county election officials release all the applications turned in for mail-in ballots in this race to investigate potential illegalities such as an “illegal computerized-signature vote-by-mail operation”, with the goal being to have any absentee ballot requested via a Romero iPad thrown out. He was denied by the trial court judge on the grounds that he was fishing for information, then by the 2nd Court of Appeals, and now by the Supreme Court. State District Judge Robert McFarling had agreed to delay the trial until after the appeals court had ruled, and now Burnam has come to a dead end. Accordint to this Star-Telegram story that reported the Supreme Court ruling and recapped the story so far, Rep.-elect Romero has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which will be heard on June 16. If Burnam survives that, I presume a trial date will be next, unless he decides to drop the matter. It’s hard to see how Burnam can prove his case at this point, but I suppose one tends to keep hope alive for as long as one can. Anyway, the next update will be on or around June 16, unless Burnam gives up before then.

Burnam loses appeal in election contest

Another setback.

Rep. Lon Burnam

A local appeals court will not require Tarrant County election officials to release all applications for mail-in ballots received for this year’s race for House District 90.

State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, who has represented House District 90 for nearly two decades, asked to review the paperwork because he believed it would show illegalities in this race — and that he didn’t lose his re-election bid.

In March, Burnam lost by 111 votes to local businessman Ramon Romero Jr.

“This is the first step to the end of the line,” Romero said Monday. “Now I can tell people there won’t be a cloud over our victory party.

“I’ve been waiting for this to happen. This [lawsuit] is not what our voters deserve.”

Texas’ 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth issued a brief ruling late Monday saying Burnam’s appeal was denied.

Art Brender, one of Burnam’s attorneys, said he plans to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court within days.

“It’s ironic at a time when we’re having debates over whether you have to have a picture ID to vote in person at a poll, … you’ve got increasingly very shadowy procedures now being sanctioned by voting by mail,” said Brender, former chairman of the Tarrant County Democratic Party. “We’re going to keep fighting it.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background. I have to say, I’ve been a fan of Lon Burnam, I was sad when he lost, and I agree that the law as written doesn’t specifically address the use of handheld electronic devices in processing absentee ballot requests. But that’s all that we’re talking about here, a possible technical violation of the law, which a court may or may not see as invalidating some number of those ballot requests. Allegations of impropriety and adopting Republican rhetoric about voter ID are misguided and harmful, and they threaten to tarnish Burnam’s legacy. I’m fine with pursuing the technical question of the law – it’s Burnam’s right to do so – but I don’t support this. Don’t lose your soul in pursuit of keeping your job, Lon.

Burnam challenge awaiting appeal

Another update on the ongoing legal challenge by State Rep. Lon Burnam, who wants his loss in the primary to Ramon Romero thrown out on the grounds that some applications for absentee ballots by Romero voters involved the use of iPads, which are not included as permissible devices in the relevant state law.

Rep. Lon Burnam

In a hearing earlier this month, attorneys representing Burnam asked that county election officials release all the applications turned in for mail-in ballots in this race to investigate potential illegalities such as an “illegal computerized-signature vote-by-mail operation.”

State District Judge Robert McFarling of Denton, the visiting judge appointed to the case, turned down the request. Burnam’s attorney, former Tarrant County Democratic Party Chairman Art Brender, has filed an appeal, asking the Fort Worth Court of Appeals to overturn that ruling.

McFarling on Monday agreed to delay the trial until the Court of Appeals rules. The case was scheduled to go to trial Tuesday.

Brender said he was glad for the delay.

“We are continuing our investigation every day,” he said. “And we are investigating other aspects of the election — and have been the whole time.”

Romero’s staff said they believe the final ruling will go their way.

“We are confident in the legal system,” said Michael “Mikey” Valdez, Romero’s campaign manager. “We feel the right decision will be made and it will confirm our victory.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I presume that’s the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and not the “Fort Worth Court of Appeals” since as far as I know there is no such thing. I don’t have anything to add to this story, but on a related note both Campos and Michael Li complained about an email Burnam sent out, presumably as an update on his case and as a fundraising appeal. Burnam is litigating a technicality, and technicalities don’t have much fundraising appeal. Trying to make it more than that risks alienating supporters and handing Republicans political ammunition. Burnam may win his challenge, but I’ll say again that I see nothing wrong in what Romero’s campaign did, nor do I see any reason why the law shouldn’t be amended to specifically allow it. Don’t lose sight of who you are in your quest to stay in office, Lon.

What the Burnam case is about

I’m still not sure what to think about Rep. Lon Burnam’s electoral challenge against Ramon Romero in HD90.

Rep. Lon Burnam

In a case that election officials statewide are monitoring — because it involves the use of electronic devices such as iPads — attorneys say enough ballots are in question to make a difference in the race Burnam lost by 111 votes to local businessman Ramon Romero Jr.

“We feel like there’s basically voter fraud and illegality that went on out there,” said Art Brender, a local lawyer and former Tarrant County Democratic Party chairman who is on the legal team representing Burnam. “We’ll know pretty soon.”

Romero, a businessman who owns A-Fast Coping Tile and Stone, said he believes this case will be resolved soon — in his favor.

“We didn’t have tablets. What he’s alleging has nothing to do with our campaign,” he said. “I don’t believe there was anything illegal that happened. It is sad that this is where we are. We should be moving forward.”

[…]

Burnam’s lawsuit alleges that some voters in the district were approached by campaign workers who asked them to fill out applications to vote by mail on an electronic device such as an iPad.

Burnam wants to review these applications, saying he believes “that these documents and other testimony will establish beyond question that the computerized-signature operation was illegal and that I won the election.”

His legal challenge claims that of the nearly 5,100 votes cast in this race, 951 were mail-in ballots — more than enough to decide the election.

But his request for copies of all applications for mail-in ballots was rejected Friday during a hearing before state District Judge Robert McFarling of Denton, who recently was appointed to oversee the case.

Ann Diamond with the Tarrant County district attorney’s office argued against releasing all the applications, saying they are not publicly available and they include private information (telephone numbers, addresses and more). About 30 of the forms have been released.

Brender maintains that the records are public information and what he has reviewed already shows that at least three people may have voted twice — once in early voting and once on election day. A review of all the applications could show even more problems and potentially invalidate enough ballots to flip the election results.

McFarling chose to not order the release of that information, saying even if there was a problem with the way a ballot was requested, the vote should still be counted.

And he said there was no proof that data requested would lead to “admissible evidence” in the case.

“You have to have a factual basis … before we start messing with the rights of individuals to vote,” he said. “I don’t think it’s sufficient to say … we think there might be something wrong … and we want to check it out.”

See here and here for the background. I have no opinion on this particular ruling, I’m more interested in the big picture.

A key issue in this case is the use of electronic devices to request mail-in ballots — and whether that’s legal in Texas.

Political observers say the state’s Election Code only addresses electronic signatures at polling places, such as when voters cast their ballot during early voting or on Election Day.

“The use of an iPad to fill out forms to request an absentee ballot would not appear to comply with the letter of state election law, but would appear to be in line with the spirit of the law,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.

“The law simply has not been updated to take account of the rising use of iPads and other mobile devices, leaving a vacuum in the state’s election law.”

Stephen Vickers, chief deputy elections administrator in Tarrant County, said he couldn’t comment on the case because of the pending litigation.

The ultimate ruling in this case may well determine how election officials statewide process mail-in ballots for at least the rest of the year.

“This case also should hopefully spur the Texas Legislature to modify the state’s election law during the 2015 legislative session to allow for the use of electronic devices to complete mail-in ballot request forms,” Jones said. “Perhaps that reform will be the first bill that Rep. Romero files.”

[…]

Officials with both major political parties say they are watching this case.

“We trust the courts will take the issue seriously … [and] determine the best manner in which to proceed,” said Manny Garcia, communications director for the Texas Democratic Party.

Said Republican Party of Texas Chairman Steve Munisteri: “We are interested observers to see what the court rules to see if we are following the law correctly.”

There’s been some trolling about voter ID on this, but of course the voter ID law is only about in person ballots, and this challenge is all about absentee ballots. Technically, it’s not about the ballots themselves, but about the process to request an absentee ballot, and whether an iPad or similar device is allowable under the law as written. By the letter of the law I’d say not, but by the spirit – the law does allow for “telephone facsimile machines” – it’s clearly a Yes. I have no idea how the courts – or the Legislature, if this eventually winds up as an election contest to be adjudicated by the Lege – will rule, but I definitely agree (and have already said) that the law should be updated to allow this usage. There’s no good reason for it not to be allowed. There is good reason to be concerned about the peripheral effects of this case:

Romero said he wasn’t surprised by the lawsuit. But he believes this isn’t something “as Democrats that we should be insinuating.”

“Lots of people came out and were excited about being part of the primary. Now they don’t understand what’s going on,” he said. “They hear words of illegality and that scares people and makes them stay away.

“He should be welcoming me in Austin, helping with the transition. Instead, he’s doing this,” Romero said. “But he has a right to do this and we’re not mad at him. We’ll be down in Austin come January.”

I agree with Romero on this, and if his magnanimity is any indication, he’ll make a fine State Rep if he prevails in this case. Whatever the outcome, let’s make sure we update that law.

Burnam election challenge update

Moving along, but no timeline as yet.

Rep. Lon Burnam

A state district judge from Denton County will oversee a case involving long-time state Rep. Lon Burnam‘s accusations that votes were cast illegally in the Democratic Party primary last month.

State District Judge Robert McFarling was appointed Friday by state District Judge David Evans, the administrative judge for the Eighth Judicial Region. McFarling will replace state District Judge R.H. Wallace.

The Texas Election Code dictates that a judge from outside the county hear a case involving an election challenge.

[…]

Burnam has also filed motions to subpoena former Elections Administrator Steve Raborn and interim Elections Administrator Stephen Vickers.

Raborn announced his resignation in December and will become president of Votec, a company based in San Diego, Calif., that focuses on voter registration and election management software.

Raborn’s motion stated that the elections administrator is neutral, but is required to protect records from unauthorized release and that the elections office is compiling records that can be released publicly.

“Because the documents sought involve the privacy rights of hundreds of people, they cannot be released to the litigants merely to satisfy their curiosity if there is no reason to believe votes were cast by persons who were not entitled to vote, or to believe that persons who were entitled to vote were denied the right to vote,” the motion stated.

His motion went on to say that no mail ballots from District 90 were denied, and that the question is whether there may be persons who voted who may not be entitled to vote.

See here for the background. As I said before, the question Burnam is raising is pretty straightforward – does the elections code as it exists allow for mobile computers to process vote by mail applications? – though obviously open to interpretation. I’ll be surprised if this one doesn’t wind up before the Supreme Court eventually, however it gets decided initially. Again, I think the law should allow what Ramon Romero’s campaign team did, and I think someone should write a bill to clarify the laws in question regardless of how this case is decided. It would be fitting if whoever wins this lawsuit is the one that files the bill.

Calculator apps

This seems reasonable to me.

Despite concerns about test security, Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams announced Thursday that he would allow some students to use calculator “apps” on state exams next school year.

Under current rules students may use only traditional calculators. But with more districts giving students iPads or other tablets, some school officials said students should be allowed to use less expensive graphing calculator “apps.” Williams conceded, just for eighth-graders, but ruled out the use of mobile phones.

“While I recognize this revised policy will not address all concerns and may still require some districts to purchase additional technology, I am hopeful this policy will enable us to provide some flexibility,” Williams said in a statement.

Graphing calculators typically cost about $100, though districts may be able to get cheaper bulk rates, said Debbie Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. The apps cost $15 or $20, she said.

“The problem from our end was the security risk it created,” Ratcliffe said, referring to students using tablets. “They’d have a camera. They’d have access to the internet. Initially we said no, but we had enough feedback that the commissioner said it would be worth it to try — but at the same time warning districts they really need to make sure their test security and test monitoring occurs at a high level.”

As Jason Stanford points out, there are ways to cheat with the TI graphing calculators as well. Seems to me if the concern is that great there are steps that can be taken to temporarily disable wireless data communications where the tests are being taken if one wants to do so. Personally, I think the benefit of not making the kids spend $100 on a tool they likely won’t ever need outside the classroom far outweighs that risk. This was the right call, and it should be extended to other students as well.

Burnam files challenge in HD90

This ought to be interesting.

Rep. Lon Burnam

State Rep. Lon Burnam filed a lawsuit Monday challenging his 111-vote re-election loss earlier this month.

Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said the goal of the lawsuit is to review data from the Texas House District 90 election “to determine if there were hundreds of illegally cast ballots.”

“I believe I have no choice after receiving multiple reports of an illegal computerized-signature vote-by-mail operation run to benefit my opponent,” Burnam said in a statement. “This operation appears to have clearly violated state law.”

Local businessman Ramon Romero Jr. won the race for this House seat, besting Burnam — dean of the Tarrant County delegation — earlier this month, local election records show.

[…]

In a lawsuit styled Lon Burnam v. Ramon Romero, Burnam noted that nearly 1,000 of the 5,078 votes cast in this race were absentee mail-in ballots — which could have been a deciding factor.

On Election Night, the race for this seat was close, sometimes only separated by a handful of votes. When the final count was released, Romero pulled ahead by 111 votes to claim victory.

“I have received reports from voters in the district who say they were approached at their door by campaign workers of unclear affiliation who asked them to fill out a vote-by-mail application on an electronic tablet device such as an iPad,” Burnam said in his statement.

“Texas law clearly does not allow the practice of filling out vote-by-mail ballot applications electronically, which the Texas Secretary of State’s has confirmed. Other questionable practices about this operation aside, this renders the entire operation illegal.”

Quorum Report was first with the story, and they have a copy of Burnam’s lawsuit, which was filed in district court in Tarrant County. Here’s the relevant bit from the lawsuit:

6. The Contestee (Romero) canvassed neighborhoods seeking persons to apply to vote by mail. His representatives used an iPad with an application on it that that was an application for a ballot by mail. The canvassers would simply ask the voter to sign the iPad. These signatures would be downloaded as a printed application and sent to the election officials so that a ballot could be mailed to the voter. Such assistance provided to a voter requires the signature of the assistant on the application for ballot by mail. Texas Election Code, S 84.003.

7. On information and belief there are in excess of 180 such applications obtained in this manner. This exceeds the margin of votes between Contestant and Contestee.

CAUSE OF ACTION

8. Obtaining ballots by using this device invalidates the votes. The only time that the code allows electronic signatures is at the polling place. See Section 63.002′ Electronic devices used in the voting process must be approved by the Secretary of State, which in this case, has not been done. The Secretary of State says that the only authority for using electronic signatures is code Section 63.002 which limits such signatures to use at the polling place. There is no other authority for using electronic signatures in an uncontrolled environment as was done here. See the attached communication from the Secretary of. State on this issue which is attached hereto as Exhibit ” A” and incorporated by reference herein in this petition.

The attached email correspondence is pretty clear. On the one hand, if Burnam is correct in his interpretation, which basically comes down to claiming that an iPad is not a “telephonic facsimile machine” and that an electronic signature is not acceptable in this scenario, then depending on how many votes really were affected it could swing the race. On the other hand, if this is the way Texas law currently is then it ought to be updated. There may be a good policy rationale for not allowing handheld devices to handle these applications, but I can’t see it off the top of my head. Barring the revelation of any such rationale, I’d support changing the law to allow what Romero’s team did – honestly, it strikes me as a good way to increase turnout. But if this is how the law is, then however sensible this use of technology may have been it would not be legal. Burnam is represented by Buck Wood and Art Brender, former Chair of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, so I presume they know what they’re doing. I’ll be very interested to see Romero’s response. No idea as yet what the timetable is for this. If any lawyers want to weigh in on this, as always please do. Thanks to Texas Redistricting for the heads up, and BOR has more.