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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union

Privacy on the Internet


A war is being waged on the Internet over the right to keep personal information personal. The fears by the public are real: identity theft, rejection from health insurance or from a prospective employer based on information they should not have, a permanent unease because everything that you write, say or do can and will be stored digitally in databases.

New Yorkers are concerned about online privacy. More than 77 percent say they want federal laws to restrict what kinds of personal information can be collected about them, according to the Internet Policy Institute.

Privacy advocates such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, The Center for Democracy and Technology, and Privacy International are concerned about the protection of personal information about consumers online. Specifically of interest are:

  • The collection and possible sale of personal information by Web sites
  • Whether privacy policies are displayed and enforced
  • What personal information will be used for
  • Whether the disclosure of information will be "opt-in," "opt-out," or mandatory
  • Whether the site allows consumers to view and edit their personal information
  • Whether online transactions are secure and therefore do not put personal information at risk.

 

Privacy has taken the podium at conference after conference in New York this year. Lawyers lobbied for legal solutions, economists evoked economic explanations, advocates approved activist answers and all of them turned to technological experts with the hopes of a technological answer. After all, if technology created this problem, can't it also be part of the solution?

Privacy protection has become a huge market, with a wide variety of products and services exist that promise to safeguard personal information. The technological solutions to privacy protection include encryption, secure transmission, digital signatures, anonymous Web-browsing and e-mailing, independent software agents that protect consumer privacy online, services that provide expiring e-mails, anonymous ownership of bank accounts and other properties, and unique credit card numbers for every purchase. However, there are several important reasons that we may not want technology to fix this problem. One reason is that living in a world where our privacy is protected only by technology, is a world where privacy does not really exist. Using technology to guard our privacy pushes us further into a world of paranoia, secrecy and fear. In addition, such methods are naturally biased towards those with the time, energy and money to devote to protecting their privacy; a very small minority.

This year, there have been almost 50 laws about privacy introduced into Congress. Since policy is so slow to catch up in this area, many of the laws are outdated, ill-informed or premature. Some of them even further erode privacy while proclaiming to protect it. Most are piecemeal, not looking at the problem at the whole, but focusing on one sector or another. It is clear that experts still are not sure whether regulation or self-regulation would be more likely to achieve desired results in this area.

Self-regulation might come in the form of an "opt-in" or "opt-out" standard for protecting personal information online. While businesses might prefer to have consumers opt out if they do not want to receive mailings from third parties, it is unlikely that this standard would satisfy privacy advocates or consumers.

The privacy debate seems to be happening in a vacuum; academics, industry leaders, government officials, activists and the public are rarely brought together to design a solution that addresses the social outcomes that we want to achieve - or even to be sure what the right outcomes are that we should be aiming for.

In the end, the erosion of privacy is just another example of how our science and technology policy-making system has failed us. We have allowed technology to be developed in complete disregard of the societal outcomes that we want to achieve. Since there is a fundamental problem with this system of policy-making, it makes little sense to fight inconsistent, uncoordinated policy with more of the same. Instead, academia and industry, the public sector and the private sector, officials and activists, must all come together to design a solution that reaches across legal, economic, social and technological spheres.

Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.

Michael Bloomberg and the Legacy of Self-Financed Candidates


That Michael Bloomberg, publisher, businessman, billionaire, is planning to run in the New York City mayoral race has stirred interest and controversy among pundits and pols alike for several reasons.

For one, he is running as a Republican in this city dominated by Democratic politics. Most speculation attributes this sudden change of heart (Bloomberg is a recent convert to the Republican Party) to the dearth of candidates in the Republican field, compared to the crowded Democratic primary.

The major reason that Michael Bloomberg is stirring up so much attention, however, has nothing to do with his political affiliations. He is the only candidate with the ability to self-finance, and that makes his candidacy very interesting indeed.

Self-financed candidacies are nothing new, of course. In 1992, Ross Perot's presidential campaign highlighted both the possibilities and the inherent risks of a candidate-funded race. Since then, we've seen several examples, some of them close to home. And the results are mixed. Last year in New Jersey, Jon Corzine went from quirky to U.S. Senate in under twelve months. Of course, the price tag was over $50 million.

But money doesn't guarantee victory. Betsy Ross, after being dropped as Governor Pataki's running mate in 1998, switched parties and used her new husband's fortune to wage a campaign for governor as a Democrat. After a lackluster primary campaign, she failed to secure the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Money is essential to running a campaign. Without some source of funding, it is virtually (although not completely) impossible to win. Some money is a necessity. How much money it takes to be competitive is still the source of significant debate.

That debate has resulted locally in the new campaign finance laws. Candidates for citywide office, once they establish certain benchmarks of support, are eligible for matching funds in the ratio of four public funding dollars to every dollar raised by the candidate. That ratio should allow the four major candidates on the Democratic side to be fully funded for this year's race.

Which is why Bloomberg's candidacy, and his money, are coming at such an interesting time. Having all the money you need, all the money you want, all the money you know what to do with is an advantage, of course; but it may not be as big an advantage as first thought.

Spending millions of dollars in a state like New Jersey is a measurable advantage. New Jersey is a state with a large population, spread out over a moderately large geographic area. The media markets are New York City and Philadelphia, the first and fourth most expensive markets in the country, respectively. The more money you have, the more media time you can buy, the more people you can reach. There's a direct correlation between money spent and the ability to communicate with voters.

New York City, however, in its politics as in so very many things, is different. Sure, New Yorkers watch television. But New York is also one of the last vestiges of old-school organizational politics. Relationships matter. Alliances matter. Endorsements really matter. Marching in parades and speaking to political clubs and meeting with editorial boards, these things do matter. They aren't just photo ops or symbolic gestures. They are the lifeblood of New York City campaigns. And what's more, they don't cost a thing.

And so if the most important aspect of New York City campaigning is less about money and more about retail, door-to-door, hand-to-hand politicking, maybe all the money in the world won't make that big of a difference.

But that will ultimately be up to the voters. At this date, it seems a safe bet that Bloomberg will be on the ballot this November, alongside the Democratic nominee and a scattering of minor party candidates. Whether the voters go with organization and experience, or advertising and image, will be at least a preliminary answer to the question. The question isn't, "Does money matter?" but "How much?"

Susan Reefer is a Republican pollster and media strategist. She is based in New York City.

Public Participation in Science and Technology Policy


This month, Mayor Giuliani announced four winners of the annual Mayor's Awards for Excellence in Science and Technology and an additional four Young Investigator awards. The awards recognize the contributions of the scientists and engineers in improving our lives, opening up new areas of knowledge and fostering economic development particularly in New York's key areas of biomedical and high tech research.

In our daily lives, we rarely stop to think about the complexity of science and technology policy decisions that affect everything we do. From the genetically modified vegetables that we pick up at our local Korean corner grocery to the air we breathe to what we do with our garbage, New Yorkers confront science and technology decisions everyday. But, getting involved in shaping the future of science and technology, and insuring that it is being used to benefit our social goals, is more difficult.

This month I spoke with several policy experts to find out what individuals can do to make a difference in this area. I found out that participating in science and technology can be as easy as going birdwatching, joining your community board or helping to clean up New York City parks.

As Michael Crow, executive vice provost and professor of science policy at Columbia University, wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "What we must begin to do-and what our current science policy fails to even consider-is to search for and follow the most socially beneficial paths." Developing policy that will benefit society requires the education, input and participation of the public involved.

One of the key organizations involved in setting science and technology policy is the New York Academy of Sciences. Current and forthcoming projects include examining the link between technology and economic development in the tri-state region, researching the effects of pollution in the New York/New Jersey Harbor and determining how digital technologies can be integrated into all aspects of society, including the education system.

David Guston, a professor of public policy at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, believes that public participation can come in many forms. "I'm a birdwatcher," he told me, "and every once in a while I go on the Christmas bird counts with the Audobon Society...There are ways of incorporating things that lay people can do and there should be a greater emphasis on that." This example shows how the public can participate in the scientific process and work towards an environmental goal such as the preservation of birds.

By following our scientific interests and hobbies out into the world, we can participate in scientific processes that have formed the basis of American society. By further learning about and analyzing the scientific underpinnings of social policy like health or the environment, we can become more informed critics of political decisions about science and technology.

Guston says, "I encourage people to try to understand a social policy and an outcome that they are interested in and try to understand the role that research and development, and science and technology, have in achieving the broad social goals."

For example, if you are wondering if the vegetables that you buy at your local Korean corner grocery are genetically modified (GMOs), and they probably are, do some research to find out the current policies of the Department of Agriculture, the key industrial players in the manufacture of GMOs namely Monsanto and the role of universities (like Columbia and Cornell) in basic agriculture research. GMOs achieve a wide variety of social goals such as decreasing the price of fruits and vegetables, protecting crops from insects and disease, and altering the shape and color of food so that it is less likely to get crushed in shipment and looks more appealing at the market. However, there may be health risks to GMOs that we still don't know about and therefore many people may prefer to buy organic vegetables.

This example can be extended to a wide variety of issues that have an impact on our everyday lives in New York. In New York, the biomedical, biotechnology and new media industries are extremely important to the city's economic development. In fact, the mayor even has a Task Force on Biomedical Research and Development. Thus, fostering strong relationships between universities, private firms, hospitals and government are a key to the city's success. Recently, human cloning has surfaced as a major ethical issue in the United States and it is possible that New York City could be a key player in this area depending on the science and technology decisions that are made in the near future. In Italy, one doctor has already begun the cloning of a human.

These issues that affect all of our lives underscore the importance of public involvement. Guston cites "citizen panels," forums organized to get input from a wide cross-section of society, as examples of public participation in science and technology. These panels have demonstrated that average citizens can learn about technologically complex issues. Increased public participation will allow us to broaden the dialogue about science and technology policy and build a society that reflects the input of the citizens and not only that of scientists, engineers and politicians.

This attitude about the involvement of citizens in the development of science and technology and their applications is a fairly new one and it is still developing. In the past, the relationship between science and society was one of "scientists discover and society benefits" without much discussion of what society wanted. Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development Vannevar Bush's 1945 report to President Truman, "Science: The Endless Frontier," proposed a model of government funding for the sciences controlled only by scientists themselves.

In the last twenty years, this model, called the "social contract" has diminished in favor of more collaborative processes, perhaps as a result of the end of the Cold War. "In all sorts of segments of American society, there is a greater emphasis on working together across different kinds of boundaries. People no longer view these boundaries as impermeable, therefore science and politics should have more intimate connections," said Guston.

Unfortunately, the scientific and policy community has often excluded citizens on that basis that they are scientifically illiterate. "The rationale is usually that because [the public] doesn't know anything, they can't participate and this is not a productive dynamic," according to Guston. Thus, knowledge dissemination to the public through education and the media should be a priority in the future if we aim to produce citizens that are able to participate in science and technology decisions.

This year, science journalist John Noble Wilford, a Pulitzer Prize winner and founder of the New York Times Science Times section, won a Mayor's Award for his role in increasing public understanding of science and technology.

In New York, this new relationship between science, technology and society should be fostered among government, the private sector, universities and citizens. According to Crow, "...science policy must broaden its view," referring to the new industries, skills, institutions, social implications, and partnerships that should be incorporated into science and technology policy.

Thus, it is possible for the public to go from birdwatchers to Bushwatchers without becoming scientists, engineers or spending seven years in graduate school. Citizens with an interest in how science and technology shapes social outcomes now have more opportunities to make important contributions. So, get out your binoculars and raise your voice. You can shape the future of how science and technology impacts all of our lives.

Watch My Interview with Professor David Guston (requires video technology!)

In Other News:
Faced with a shortage of employees with high tech skills in New York, the City's Private Industry Council (PIC) is teaming up with the City University of New York and the New York Software Industry Association to train several hundred people in HTML, Dreamweaver and database administration over the next two years and place them in jobs at all levels. The partnership is offering a free 15-week course to those seeking to improve their tech skills. Please contact Shelton Jones at 212-742-1000 X 270 or sheltonssjones@aol.com if you are interested.

Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.

Right for All the Wrong Reasons


Some servants of the public trust seem to be having a little trouble, well, letting go. Instead of making plans for farewell dinners, penning gracious speeches including phrases about passing of torches, or booking long-neglected vacation plans, 22 members of the City Council introduced a bill which would make term limits simply go away.

Millions of New York City voters approved term-limit referendums that limit all New York City elected officials to a maximum of two terms. Since the two-term limit first became effective eight years ago, that means the time is up for not only Mayor Giuliani, but most council members, many of whom have held their seats for many, many more than two terms.

It is not a simple thing, to overturn a ballot initiative, particularly one that passed twice, in 1993 and again in 1996. And then there is the question of time. To be meaningful (at least in the eyes of the City Council members), the new bill would have to allow current officeholders to run for re-election this year, creating a seamless transition

But apparently it is entirely legal and proper, statutorily speaking. The City Council has the legislative authority to pass a law which would put an end to term limits before they began.

Politically speaking, it is entirely another matter. Voters don't usually appreciate it when elected officials ignore their wishes. Then-House Speaker Tom Foley (D-Washington) found that out in 1994. He attempted to overturn his home state's term limit laws to his peril. He became the first sitting U.S. House of Representative Speaker to lose re-election in 100 years, and provided a chilling morality tale to others who might be reluctant to relinquish power.

Term limits are often heralded as a means of voting reform. And certainly, term limits will ensure that elected officials look different by this time next year. But term limits are something of a cop-out. They allow voters to rest assured that things won't get too far out of line without having to pay too much attention to the process.

The absence of term limits doesn't mean you can't get rid of a long-time incumbent. He or she can still be voted out of office the old-fashioned way. The presence of term limits does ensure that popular, well-respected, deserving officials can't be voted back into office, no matter how the voters feel. This is often felt the most in communities with little or no political clout. These communities rely on representatives building up seniority in order to be an effective advocate.

There is the additional matter of institutional knowledge within the City Council. This would be a fond memory once no City Council member had been in office for more than two years. And it could happen as soon as 2003, when the members who are not forced out this time around would be compelled to leave the City Council.

The term-limits question, then, goes beyond simply the legislative clout of the City Council versus the will of the voters. However questionable the timing or the motives of the City Council members, they may in fact be promoting a far more democratic alternative in seeking to abolish term limits.

The City Council may find itself in the unusual and unenviable position of being right for all the wrong reasons.

Term Limits ARE Foolish; Campaign Finance Is Wise

By Katie Allison

This is one issue in which we largely agree. Term limits are a foolish tool that will make our governments run less effectively. But more foolish, and possibly harmful, is to try to overturn the wishes of the voters.

The American public has expressed continuing dissatisfaction with its elected officials. They don't think their congressmen get anything done. Their city officials are corrupt, partisan, lazy. The country's elected officials have gotten comfortable with their power.

There is a natural solution. The best term limit a citizen has is their vote. If the voters don't want someone in office, they can vote for his or her opponent. They can vote to get the 'old bum' out of office. Seems easy enough. But lately it's not the politicians who are lazy; it's the people. Voter turnout is abysmally low. And since the voters have become too lazy to do their civic duty, they want to change the rules. If they don't act, if they sit around, it will still be taken care of for them. Term limits will insure that no one a voter dislikes will be around too long. (The officials a voter likes won't be around long either, but hey, nothing's perfect).

Do we distrust ourselves as voters so much that we can't decide who should and shouldn't be in office anymore?

This year 35 City Council seats are going to be vacated and numerous city officials will either be forced to leave office or run for a different position because of term limits. When the voters of New York City voted for this in 1993 and 1996, did they really want entirely new groups of officials to come into office at once? With most of these new officials not knowing exactly how the system works, not knowing how a bill is passed, getting lost inside City Hall? And by the time the newly elected have gotten it figured out, by the time they understand how to get things accomplished for their community, they're out on the street.

Twice the voters of New York have asked for term limits, and they should get what they asked for. The members of the City Council who are asking to overturn the law, whether for upstanding civic or sad selfish reasons, are in the wrong here (and frankly, are embarrassing themselves). This law should be overturned -- not by the people who face unemployment, but by the voters. Those of us who oppose term limits need to do a better job of explaining the pitfalls of the limits. Possibly the most effective message to those voters will be the chaos that city government will experience next year with so many new elected officials.

The country's campaign finance system remains one reason why many eligible voters express disappointment with our political system. Which brings me to someone else who is embarrassing himself -- Rudy (he's good at this). His "Capital of the World" also happens to be a leader in campaign finance reform. People across the nation are talking about this issue, and New York City has actually done something about it.

Corporate contributions have been banned, and with the 4-1 campaign finance match that the city provides, candidates can spend less time on bended knee pleading with rich donors and more time talking to real voters about what they might do to improve our city. Rudy himself complained in 1999 about making fundraising calls: "I just don't like it. I don't like doing it. It's part of the stuff that's wrong with American politics right now."

A veteran of a few campaigns himself, the mayor must know that ending this match right now in the middle of the campaign cycle will only reek havoc on those running. Is he annoyed that, since at this point there is no major GOP candidate in the mayoral race, a lot of the money is going to Democrats?

Is he frustrated that since he is term limited he's not going to get to use any of the money (at least not this time around)? As the New York Public Interest Group noted, "no individual has received more public matching funds in city history than Rudolph Giuliani--$4.1 million in three election bids."

Or is this just the latest in his continuing feud with campaign finance in general, ever since his fine from the Campaign Finance Board for violations in 1997?

What would your old buddy Senator McCain think, Mr. Mayor?

Susan Reefer is a Republican pollster and media strategist. She is based in New York City.

Witness, A Different Kind of Reality TV: Using video and the Internet to


Take an electronic journey to Rwanda, Northern Ireland, Guatemala, India or even our very own New York City at Witness. The music, Peter Gabriel's Passion humming in the background, is familiar, but the scenes are not. Faces of solemn women, crying children and stoic men line the Web site. All have been subjected to violent human rights atrocities.

The proliferation of communications technology has provided a new tool for activists trying to combat human rights abuses worldwide. In the U.S., the increased penetration of broadband, high-speed Internet connections will allow viewers to see larger, higher-quality streaming video documentaries of these violations on-line and maybe inspire them to action.

According to musician and Witness co-founder Peter Gabriel, "There has been a gradual increase in reality TV," their footage can help satiate "the appetite for stuff [content] that has real meaning in broadcasting, kind of a Jerry Springer hits the Human Rights Circuit." Gabriel co-founded Witness in 1992 in partnership with the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and the Reebok Foundation in response to the Rodney King incident. To date, the organization has provided video cameras and training to more than 130 human rights groups in 47 countries.

As Witness Director Gillian Caldwell told the New York Times, after the Rodney King beating by Los Angeles police officers, "Peter was really galvanized--He had a very simple concept: give cameras to the world and enable people to right the wrongs they see."

Since then, the group has worked with local human rights group to create documentaries about abuses in the refugee camps in Rwanda, marches in Northern Ireland, massacres in Guatemala, military abduction in India and Burma's civil war.

But, not all of the violations are outside the United States. Witness has also monitored the situation at mental hospitals and factories within our boarders. In conjunction with New York City PoliceWatch and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Witness produced a Rights Alert on-line broadcast about the Amadou Diallo killing in which an unarmed black man was shot 41 times while entering his apartment building. "The Day after Diallo" highlights the realities of recurring police violence against people of color and shows the public outrage and political mobilization which resulted from this event.

Witness' involvement in the Amadou Diallo project proves the potential for the application of communications technologies to combat human rights abuses in our own communities as well as internationally. New technologies such as 360-degree cameras may shed new light on violations that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Many of the documentaries Witness produces cover themes common to many countries, such as children of war and violence against women. Oddcast, a Silicon Alley-based interactive design company, provides training on video and technology applications and produces the Witness Rights Alert.

In December, Arc: eConsultancy played host to Gabriel, Witness activists and private sector leaders at an open discussion on "How Video and Communications Technologies can Create Social Change and Advance Human Rights" downtown at their Wall St. headquarters.

As reported by the Silicon Alley Reporter, Gabriel said: "Human rights used to be something I just read about in the back columns of the newspaper. When you can see or hear the activists and watch their movies of their families slaughtered in from of them in the sitting room, it's something that becomes a very real issue. If we have, through this technology the capacity to put that in front of people in a real way, I think it really will change people--When most get on television the first question you ask is, how did I look. If you're an oppressor, probably not very good. Let's hope that is a deterrent."

At the December event, John Kelly, principal investigator at Columbia University's Interactive Design Lab, presented a vision of Witness' exciting future as a result of new developments in technology. Currently, the organization faces barriers such as limited point-of-view in visual and editorial coverage, problems protecting activist and media safety and security, difficulty of access and retrieval, limitations in editing documentaries and obstacles to reaching the general public with their difficult-to-digest but extremely poignant pieces. However, emerging wireless technologies, new smaller handheld devices and phones, and advances in encryption and digital watermarking offer new solutions for capture, storage, editing and delivery of footage. According to Kelly, these technologies will allow the training of a "21st century Peace Corps for young filmmakers."

Witness' work has been used as evidence in legal proceedings such as the International War Crimes Tribunal in Yugoslavia. They also provide an important resource for the United Nations, grassroots organizations, and even the commercial media.

In the end, Gabriel suggests, "Maybe this is about adding another human right--the right to have your story told."

In Other Technology News:
How many days until the West Nile virus outbreak in your neighborhood? How much snow did the last northeaster leave on your route to work? Here's an interactive map that can tell you all of this and much more. The New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications has created NYCMap (pronounced "nice map"), an interactive database of aerial photographs and geographic information, that will be available on-line this fall on the official city Web site. NYCMap, which cost $5 million to produce, covers 35 miles, can zoom in to a space the size of six VW Bugs and is accurate to 12 inches. There are many useful applications of the map for citizens and businesses. For instance, new functions could help you assess property values without leaving your home. NYCMap brings e-government one step closer to reality. An exhibition about the map is on display at the Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery at Hunter College until March 17.

Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.

It's Still Broken


A witness at the City Council's first hearing on the city's creaky electoral system called it "a volcano getting ready to erupt." All witnesses agreed that this year's elections will test the system as never before, with more than 150 candidates vying for 35 council seats, four borough presidencies and the three citywide offices -- mayor, comptroller and public advocate. Most pointed out that last November's experience offered too many examples of what could go wrong, and all declared that too little is being done to prevent it.

"New Yorkers should not look with sanctimonious disdain on what happened in Florida," said Robert Abrams, the former state attorney general testifying as president of the Citizens Union Foundation. "New York's own election system is riddled with inefficiencies and disorders that imperil our ability to elect officials in an accurate and fair manner." The hearing was the first of a series planned by the Committee on Governmental Operations, chaired by council member Mary Pinkett, Brooklyn Democrat. It took place on Thursday (February 8) under the peeling plaster ceiling of the council chambers on the second floor of City Hall, and lasted most of the day.

There was near unanimity that the Board of Elections has been short-changed by the Giuliani Administration, which has proposed for several years to cut its funding. The council has restored the funds each time, but added nothing for the board's new needs. Since the mid-1990s, the full-time staff has shrunk from 363 to 312.

One witness called for an "emergency summit" to mobilize forces to fix the system, comparable to the task force that Mayor Koch created to good effect in 1985. Another witness pointed out that in the state legislature, where election law is written, the Republican-controlled Senate and Democrat-controlled Assembly have named separate election task forces, where they should be working together instead. Still others noted that Mayor Giuliani pledged last month to create a city task force, but has yet to act.

The best publicized problem in city elections is faulty mechanical voting machines [See story in Gotham Gazette from last July!!]. The city's 6,800 machines, each with 27,000 parts, were purchased in 1962. (Rochester's are even older.) Production of new machines ceased long ago. For replacement parts, old machines must be cannibalized. Daniel DeFrancesco, executive director of the city's Board of Elections told the committee that the board bought 14 old machines from Maine last year and mentioned that he had just asked the legislature for authority to buy 300 more. He faulted the legislators for restricting "our ability to use new technologies," and said support systems need upgrading, too -- for instance, the board's overwhelmed phone bank.

"Let's be perfectly clear," said DeFrancesco in his testimony. "We are just not going to change the system between now and November, so you have to deal with what you've got."

The hearing included a presentation of the optical scanner voting system installed in Rhode Island three years ago. The state's old mechanical system was the same as New York's. The new equipment is manufactured by Election Systems & Software, Inc., of Omaha, Nebraska, a 35-year-old company with systems installed statewide in a half-dozen states and smaller systems in several hundred counties and smaller jurisdictions. In this system, voters mark ballots by filling blank spaces with a special pen -- much like filling in a lottery ticket or a high school multiple-choice exam. The ballot is then fed into a machine, which scans and tabulates each vote. It rejects ballots marked incorrectly, which the voter may then correct.

The show-and-tell was not a committee endorsement. It just happened that two City Hall staffers who hail from Rhode Island knew that their home state had a new system that was working well, so they investigated and asked for the demonstration.

Any decision on new equipment for New York must be made in Albany for the whole state, and it will not happen overnight, much less in time for the city primaries and general elections this fall. Thus, the immediate benefit of the hearing was a public airing of ideas that can be put in place quickly.

Neal Rosenstein of the New York Public Interest Research Group focused on the need for better pay to attract more new poll workers, and better training. The board needs 25,000 workers for primary day and then again for the general election. It pays $130 for working 16 or 17 hours, from before the polls open until after they close. Several others suggested that the work be split into two shifts, observing that no one can be fully alert at the end of a 17-hour day. Citizens Union is launching a campaign through universities, businesses, unions and other organizations to address what Robert Abrams called "the acute shortage of qualified recruits." Rosenstein also pointed to the menace of mechanics who are no longer sharp enough to repair breakdowns on the spot, but nonetheless keep their patronage jobs thanks to political protectors. This was apparently a problem in two Brooklyn districts last November. NYPIRG has also urged the board to hire new foreign language staff; in Queens last November the Chinese language translations for some Republican and Democratic candidates were reversed.

Arthur J. Fried, executive director of the Center for Excellence in New York City Government at New York University, drew the danger starkly. "Last November a single state senate race [Sen. Roy Goodman vs. Liz Krueger] that required the counting of paper ballots took nearly 7 weeks to resolve. What would happen if two, or five or seven primary races were that close? The Board of Elections might not be able to determine the winners in time to put them on the ballot for the general election in November."

The center at N.Y.U. was first to hold a public forum on election preparedness, where the message was clear, Fried said: "If you want to avoid disaster in the fall, we need to act now." Fried was the witness who called for an "emergency summit." and one of several who implied that management at the board needs fixing, too. "We should see that the board gets not only the resources, but the management assistance it needs" for this years unique election workload.

NYPIRG, Citizens Union and four other civic groups sent a letter to Mayor Giuliani pointing out that the forthcoming elections "will stress the city's election system as never before," and endorsing a half-dozen of the boards "reasonable requests" for immediate help. The other signers were Common Cause/NY, The League of Women Voters of the City of New York, the City Club of New York and The Women's City Club of New York.

Richard Mooney, who wrote about the city's outdated voting machines for Gotham Gazette last July, is a former editorial writer for the New York Times.

Susan Reefer is a Republican pollster and media strategist. She is based in New York City.

The Governor's Proposed Cut in the Budget for the Arts


Arts folks are not happy that in his new budget, Governor George Pataki has proposed a nine percent cut in funding for the State Council on the Arts, whose budget is already only $48.4 million.

As recently as mid November, at the annual Governor's Arts Awards, Pataki offered glowing words of strong support for the arts. Some in the crowd seemed unaware that the governor's actual record is not quite as supportive as his public remarks. Including the current budget proposal, his administration has recommended cuts in three budgets, level funding in two, a miniscule increase one year and a significant increase in one year. He also decreased funding mid-year during his second year in office, and vetoed a legislative increase of four million dollars in 1999. At best, this is a checkered record.

So, why do arts folks feel they are better off under this administration than under his Democratic predecessor, former Governor Mario Cuomo? Simple. In 1992, admittedly a difficult budget year, then-Governor Cuomo cut the arts budget by 41 percent, reducing it from $49 million to $29 million. No other state agency went through such destruction. And, it was destruction. Given the delay in passing state budgets, arts groups are often mid-way through their budget year before they know what the State Council on the Arts will provide. The delay plays havoc with planning, and costs money as groups have to borrow money. But, when a cut of this magnitude is absorbed in such a short time and after a budget year has started, it creates deficits that cannot be avoided. Cuomo continued the cuts in 1993 with an additional $5 million. After that experience, only complete annihilation would seem worse.

Recovery for the arts started as the legislature forced increases in 1994, and as Cuomo prepared to run for another term.

None of this excuses the current governor for his recommending such a large cut, nor are arts groups and their boards planning to quietly accept the proposed decrease. The reality is that it is the state legislature that restores and protects the arts year in and year out, and it has done so both in this administration and in the prior one. That restoration and increase has traditionally been primarily the responsibility of the Republicans in the Senate, which is why the potential loss of Senator Roy Goodman in the recent election was of such great concern to the arts community. His re-election brought a collective sigh of relief from the arts field.

The Assembly has over the past few years begun to participate more in the process of providing arts funding, but there too there are changes. The arts committee was chaired for the last three years by Paul Tokasz of Buffalo, who recently was promoted to majority leader. The new arts chair is Joseph Morelle from Rochester, formerly chair of the small business committee. Given the size of this cut, Assemblyman Morelle is facing a difficult year as he starts this new chairmanship.

In the midst of the proposed cuts to the State Council on the Arts, Pataki was busy announcing three large capital gifts to New York City cultural groups. The Rose Center at the American Museum of Natural History is slated for $13 million, which has some people asking just how much that project actually cost. The Intrepid Museum is targeted for $7.5 million so it can "remain one of the New York City's top tourist attractions." (A comment fit for analysis on The Spin Room!) And, $1 million is going to the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Local Development Corporation.

Despite these sops, the bottom line is that the arts community is deeply upset by the proposed cut. The funding level currently equals 1987 in actual dollars, and the governor proposes reducing it even further. Factoring in inflation, the arts community is being funded at 1977 levels. This is in a state where arts are a major export product, a major tourist attraction, a significant part of the economy, a larger employer than construction, and for many an important reason for putting up with the otherwise often frustrating and expensive living conditions of New York City. So, in a year of unparalleled budget surpluses, why cut the arts.

Norma Munn is Chair of the New York City Arts Coalition, founder and President of the Artists Community Federal Credit Union, and former Chair of The City Club of New York.

Phone Frustrations


New York is filled with a lot more solitary voices muttering their way down the streets this year than last. Some are using their cellular phones. Some are muttering expletives, because the corner pay telephone was broken -- or, just the opposite, because the corner pay phone was new and improved.

This requires some explanation.

Half of all New Yorkers have wireless phones, according to New York Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) commissioner Allan H. Dobrin. This is above average in the United States as a whole, where cellular phone use has quadrupled in the last five years to a whopping 107 million subscribers.

Yet, New York also has some 32,500 pay phones, and more on the way.

There are several reasons for this. New York is a city where 20 percent of residents in poor neighborhoods do not have regular phone service in their homes; many rely on the corner pay phone. Pay phones are often used by tourists, and also by pedestrians in need of emergency assistance. The city has "an obligation to protect people's life and safety by providing [pay] phones in the street," as Dobrin has said. One million 911 calls were made from pay phones in the city last year. And pay phones are also necessary in the subways, since cellular phones simply cannot work underground.

That makes all the more compelling a November study by the Straphangers Campaign, a subway rider advocacy group, which concluded that 18 percent of pay phones found in 25 of the city's busiest subway stations did not work. This is a marginal improvement over the August survey that found that 25 percent of pay phones were out of service. Customers often complain of vandalism, no dial tones and coin rejection.

So, does this mean New Yorkers are clamoring for new and improved public telephones?

Not necessarily.

Many Upper East Side residents have opposed the installation of 1,000 large new booths in their neighborhood, part of a plan to add 2, 262 city-wide. These new phone booths hold two public pay phones each and as much as 147 square feet of advertising. The 95 independent companies that have approval to operate pay phones claim that they need the advertising income in order to pay the $15,000 per unit that it costs to install the phones. The city also benefits, receiving over $21.5 million from public pay-phone advertising in the 2000 fiscal year.

But City Council member Eva Moskowitz has received over 50 complaints from residents of the East Side about these phone kiosks . Some were concerned that they were too big and block or slowed pedestrian traffic. Others found the advertising an aesthetic affront.

The half of New Yorkers who do not own cellular phones may suspect this griping is just a snooty response from the half of New Yorkers comfortably settled on the other side of the digital divide. But the truth is, the other side is not so comfortable. Cellular phones inspire as many complaints as pay phones, if not more. Unexpected roaming and long-distance charges, complicated billing plans and contracts, lack of service from one block to the next, proprietary equipment and poor voice quality all contribute to the irritation.

The problems reflect an industry that is still young and growing. Industry officials and government leaders alike agree that service is still not perfect, but they are optimistic about the future of wireless communications.

That future includes the deployment of third generation wireless networks, commonly called "3G." Analysts predict that 3G will be widely adopted in the United States by the year 2005 which will make it possible to download more data at higher speeds to increasingly smaller mobile devices. For example, you could download a movie to your laptop or Palm Pilot wirelessly for a long overseas flight, or transfer files to your desktop computer from your cellular phone. But will increased mobility and new communications capabilities transport us to a technological paradise, or will the world be filled with new technological poltergeists?

There is a lot of rhetoric about the potential for earth-shattering political, economic and social change as a result of the proliferation of new communications technology. We live in a society that is becoming increasingly computer literate, mobile and information-based. It is only natural to expect that these factors will have an important impact on the way we live our lives. But whether they will produce positive or negative change is difficult to gauge.

Our "smart" wireless phones and personal digital assistants (PDA's) will now be our traveling homes and offices, news and entertainment systems, banks and wallets, and computers. Our "smart homes" will be brimming with wireless signals to allow your refrigerators to order the groceries automatically online. (Your butter substitutes might not be talking but your refrigerators will). Your computer will program your security and energy systems. And your cell phone will be orchestrating the whole fiasco.

Just the thought of living in a home that is almost alive, buzzing with the whir of electronic devices, is a bit frightening. When you wake up abruptly in the middle of the night, how will you know if you hear a mouse, a ghost, or your home network?

Or will it be someone loudly cursing the pay phone down the street?

Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.

Our One-Party Town


"Vote, or Liberty is History," the New York City Board of Elections says on its Web site. It's a compelling phrase. The message is clear: voting is more than just a right, it is our responsibility as citizens. The need for voter participation, for civic involvement is an integral part of what maintains our democracy.

But voting rights by themselves do not define a democracy. Lots of dictatorial regimes have held elections, elections where there were no choices and the results didn't really matter.

What makes elections matter is the availability of meaningful choices, and the assurance that the results are counted, counted fairly, counted accurately, counted systematically, and comprehensively, and impartially.

In the wake of last year's contested Presidential election, many states and localities, including New York City, are taking steps to ensure that the mistakes of the past aren't repeated, or the counting mistakes, anyway.

But the other matter, the availability of meaningful choices, remains.

The United States, in spite of various third-party and independent candidacies and movements, is, basically, a two-party system. New York City is, basically, a one-party town. The Democratic Party has been the dominant political force for most of the city's history.

Of course, there are exceptions. The current Republican mayor was re-elected in 1997 with a striking margin of victory. But Mayor Giuliani was elected and re-elected with not just the Republican endorsement, but also the Liberal Party line. His politics were not so much partisan as they were personal, and it was the force of his personality, not the strength of his ideology, that was the mark of his tenure in office.

The proof of this is in the current lineup of candidates seeking to replace him. Several prominent Democrats, no prominent Republicans. Mayor Giuliani may have several lasting legacies, but already it is clear that a legitimate Republican presence in the city is not going to be one of them.

There is an argument that the Democratic dominance of city politics is a natural outgrowth of a liberal population. And there is some evidence to support that. In statewide elections, New York City often supports the Democratic candidate with more than 70 percent of the city-wide vote. And most large American cities are solidly Democratic: the long history of the Democratic political machines, dating back to the last century; the demographic make-up of city residents, which statistically tends Democratic; the nature of city issues, many of which tend to favor a big-government approach; all these factors lead to the dominance of the Democratic Party in most American cities.

But New York is not most American cities. New York City, even a single neighborhood in any of the five boroughs, would represent a population more diverse than most Congressional districts anywhere else in the country. The city as a whole surely is unequaled in terms of variety of thought, opinion, background, birthplace, ethnicity, race, religion, age, income level, philosophy, occupation, education, and ideology.

I just don't see why we would expect one political party to represent all those millions of hearts and minds.

Now I suppose it would be possible for one party to be truly representative of a city's character if that party had a significant range of opinions within the organization, which could be resolved during party primaries and conventions. The Democratic primaries do, quite often, represent the most competitive elections in the city.

What they don't represent is any real spectrum of ideology. The Democratic Party in New York doesn't offer voters a choice between conservative Democrats and moderate Democrats and liberal Democrats, it offers them a variety of Democrats, nearly all of whom would be considered to the left of Dick Gephardt.

So goes the vicious cycle: the city is dominated by Democratic politics; which means most people, regardless of ideology, choose to register Democratic in order to vote in the Democratic primary; and the Democratic advantage in registration discourages any Republicans from running for office; so the city continues to be dominated by Democratic politics.

Maybe, as I've said, the city is truly of one mind and there is no need for any alternatives.

But I can't help but wonder if some voters have been turned away from the political process in this city because unlike virtually everywhere else in American, here in the nation's largest, most powerful, most diverse, most illustrious city, you get to choose your leader from a field of one.

Susan Reefer is a Republican pollster and media strategist. She is based in New York City.

E-Voting


I dream of voting in my pajamas. I guess I could do this in my local polling place, since the lights are so dim that the election workers would probably not notice. But I'm talking about voting in the comfort of my own home, over the Internet. That is what some people are talking about now, after all the snafus with the voting process this year -- and I don't mean just the problems in Florida.

On Election Day, when I arrived at my polling place in the East Village (wearing gym clothes), I managed to get in the correct line for my district right from the start. This was a first. I stepped up to the desk, checked in -- and was handed a paper ballot to fill out, by hand.

"Machine's broken," the election worker explained. "What," I thought, "No levers, no curtains, just a ball-point pen and paper?" I was truly disappointed. I had been looking forward to standing in the dark, flicking down all those little levers, and casting my vote.

New York City's 38-year old voting machines are badly in need of an upgrade. After weeks of counts and recounts down in Florida, it is becoming clear that so are those in the rest of the nation. But should antiquated voting booths be tossed in favor of computers and the Internet?

"For a quarter century, election experts have been calling for the Vote-O-Matic system to be retired," says Erik Nilsson, an election technology analyst for Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, an industry association. The Vote-O-Matic is the oldest type of computerized ballot still in use in many places, including two of the Florida counties, Dade and Palm Beach, that are the focus of the controversy in the presidential race. "The results of the 2000 election show that it is now time to move beyond this temperamental antique."

Momentum is building for technological solutions to frustrations at the polls. Microsoft ran a large ad in the New York Times about the potential for electronic voting about a week prior to the election.

A week after the election, US Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) said at a press conference, "The current system is antediluvian. We haven't updated it in any significant way in years, and that's one of the reasons why turnout has declined nearly 20 percent since 1960... We should use our latest advances in technology and our vast collective experience to make voting as accurate, convenient and accessible as possible." Schumer plans to introduce legislation to support research by the Federal Election Commission on new ways of voting via computers and the Internet.

It is perhaps inevitable that polling places will be equipped with upgraded computers in the near future, in order to increase speed and efficiency. "A PC-cum-voting booth, for example, could prompt a voter to confirm a choice before submitting it, preventing an accidental Buchanan surge among the canasta set. It would allow ballots to be counted and recounted in the nanoseconds that it takes the silicon brains to calculate a digit of pi," wrote New York Times business reporter John Schwartz.

Voting from your living room on the Internet would be significantly more complicated. But Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility cites many advantages in Internet voting, such as customizability, reliable vote tabulation, access for the disabled and for rural voters and the ability to handle a large number of voters.

Internet voting could increase voter turnout, adds Steve Schneider, editor of Net Election, the Web site of the Annenberg School of Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. "A significant barrier to people voting is their difficulty in registration," he has said. "Any way you make registration easier for people has got to have the effect of increasing voting, even if it's a small amount."

But other experts warn that the movement to replace the out-of-date machinery of voting will only create more problems. Some, such as Ford Fessenden in a recent New York Times article, say that more modern, accurate systems can cost as much as fifteen times more than the old systems. This is disputed, though, by analysts at Meta Group of Stamford, Connecticut, who say a Web voting system could be built for $250 million, or $1.23 per voter, which is a substantial savings over the costs of existing voting methods as reported by Washington Technology News.

But it is not just an issue of expense. "I don't believe that just because a technology is old that it means that it should be thrown out," said voting security expert Rebecca Mercuri in a November 30 interview with WBAI http://www.wbai.org in New York. Mercuri recently completed her doctoral dissertation, "Electronic Vote Tabulation Checks & Balances," at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Engineering.

The disadvantages of e-voting in particular, some say, would be extreme. Shortcomings include voter fraud, privacy and security threats, and lack of access to those without computers. "People see Internet voting as a solution," Mercuri has said. "It's chilling. It will compromise voter anonymity and auditability. It would solve the recount problem, because we won't be able to do a recount."

Despite this, Internet voting is already happening, at least in a few small trials. This year several hundred U.S. military personnel stationed overseas were able to vote online as part of the Federal Voter Assistance Program. In addition, earlier this year, a company called Election.com held the first online political election, the Democratic Party primary in Arizona.

The election was not without its glitches, including lost pin numbers, browser problems and closed polling places due to the lack of volunteers.

Still, the company has conducted 250 elections for government agencies, unions and corporations to date and has been getting international requests for their Internet election service. And Election.com is not the only company vying for the chance to provide electronic registration and voting technology. Other players include OnlineDemocracy and BeAVoter.

The campaigns this year showed an unprecedented role for the Internet, enabling Americans to get valuable information about the candidates, and donate to their campaigns. The Gore campaign sent out 30 million e-mails to supporters.

This increasing familiarity with the Internet, combined with recent events, have stimulated interest in replacing out-of-date vote machines. But will everybody in the nation (or New York) be voting over the Internet by the 2004 election? Let me put it this way: If I wind up voting in my pajamas then, it will only be because I'm dreaming.

Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.



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