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Record numbers vote on Feb. 5

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen has confirmed what most election officials have already said: A record number of residents voted in the Feb. 5 primary. Nine million Californians cast ballots, nearly 1.2 million more than the prior record set in March 2000.

Here’s what her office sent out after the official certification of the election results:

SACRAMENTO – A primary record nine million Californians voted in the February 5, 2008, Presidential Primary Election in California, according to results that Secretary of State Debra Bowen certified today.That’s nearly 1.2 million more voters than the previous primary election record of 7.8 million, set in March 2000. In all, 57.71% of registered voters cast ballots in the February election, marking the highest primary turnout on a percentage basis since 1980. The highest-ever percentage turnout in a primary was nearly 73% in 1976.

General elections tend to draw far more voters to the ballot box. The highest number of voters in a general election was nearly 12.6 million in 2004; the highest percentage turnout for a general election was nearly 88.4% in 1964.

“The closeness of the Republican and Democratic contests, and the ability to truly help pick the next presidential nominees, clearly motivated Californians to head to the polls in record numbers for a primary election,” said Secretary Bowen, the state’s chief elections officer. “I hope voters, particularly people who registered for the first time to vote in the February election, will keep up the momentum and head to the polls again in June and November.”

The certified election results are available on the Secretary of State’s website at http://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/sov/2008_primary/contents.htm. Hard copies of the Statement of Vote are available to the media upon request from the Secretary of State’s Communications Office at (916) 653-6575.

The Statement of Vote includes presidential results broken down by party, county, and Congressional District. It also includes statewide and county-specific results for the seven statewide ballot measures that were on the February ballot.

The Secretary of State’s office will release a Supplement to the Statement of Vote by July 13. It will include more details on how votes were cast by Senate, Assembly, Board of Equalization, and county supervisorial districts, as well as by city.

The last day to register to vote in the June 3, 2008, Statewide Direct Primary Election is May 19. The last day to request a vote-by-mail ballot is May 27.

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Refunds are really pricey loans, AG says

California Attorney General Jerry Brown’s office reports that the state’s top lawyer filed a request for an injunction today in San Francisco Superior Court to block tax service company H&R Block from “telling its customers that tax refunds can be obtained within two days, without disclosing that such payments are actually expensive loans.”

Here’s what Brown’s office sent out via email a few minutes ago:

“H&R Block incorrectly tells its customers that a tax refund can be obtained within two days–these payments are loans, not legitimate tax refunds,” Attorney General Brown warned. “Consumers should know that such quick payments result in high interest rates and heavy fees.”

It takes between 8 and 15 days for the Internal Revenue Service to send refunds to individuals who use direct deposit and 21 and 28 days to obtain a refund by mail. H&R Block, however, told customers that they could get their refunds within two days. These payments were actually loans offered by H&R Block that has annual percentage rates, including fees, of 80% or higher. According to publicly filed documents, millions of Californians have received these loans since 2001.

California law and the Internal Revenue Service require that tax preparers distinguish between tax refunds and “refund anticipation loans” that are based upon the expected tax refund amount. According to California Business and Professions Code Section 22253.1 (a), “any tax preparer who advertises the availability of a refund anticipation loan shall not directly or indirectly represent the loan as a client’s actual refund.”

At a hearing this afternoon, the attorney general asked the San Francisco Superior Court to issue a preliminary injunction prohibiting H&R Block from continuing to represent its loans as tax refunds. The Court has scheduled a hearing to decide the matter on April 3rd.

Investigators in the attorney general’s office called H&R Block offices throughout California, requesting information about how long it would take to get tax refunds. Two-thirds of the H&R Block representatives told investigators that refunds can be sent to taxpayers within two days, without disclosing the fact that it was actually a loan.

Most of the people who get the loans receive the Earned Income Tax Credit. People who earn this credit typically make between $10,000 and $35,000 and have several dependents, making them especially vulnerable to high-interest loans.

“For years, H&R Block has not disclosed the fact that a two-day return is a loan, not a true tax refund,” said Brown. “It is shocking that the company still continues this unlawful business practice and fails to properly train its employees.”

Today’s request for an injunction is part of an ongoing lawsuit against H&R Block, filed in 2006, alleging that the company engaged in false or deceptive advertising in its marketing of high-cost loans to low-income families. California’s lawsuit alleges that H&R Block violated IRS rules prohibiting the company from directly providing loans. According to the lawsuit, the company provided customers with the loan applications, filled out the applications, and sent the applications to the banks. H&R Block also provided customer’s loan money on an “Emerald” ATM card that came with heavy fees and costs.

Defendants in the case include H&R Block Services, Inc.; H&R Block Enterprises, Inc.; H&R Block Tax Services, Inc.; and Block Financial Corporation. Last year, H&R Block’s total revenues exceeded four billion dollars.

For more information on California’s lawsuit against H&R Block, visit: http://ag.ca.gov/newsalerts/release.php?id=1261&year=2006&month=2

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California government stalls on information highway

California is the epi-center of the high-tech universe, right?

Not so in the Capitol, where the press has almost no access to the Internet. Instead, reporters must rely on sketchy cell connections from inside the thick-walled chambers.

But a colleague of mine, Steve Geissinger, who works for MediaNews and this newspaper in its Sacramento Bureau, said today that a state lawmaker wants to help solve a complaint by reporters about a lack of Internet access in the state Capitol.

The legislator, who asked not to be identified before an agreement is reached, believes that the deficit-plagued state should not bear the cost, or at least the whole expense, of providing adequate Internet access for news gathering.

Geissinger, also the president of the Capitol Correspondents Association of California, said that perhaps the state and the CCAC, through fundraising, could forge a 50-50 deal with California, which lags behind many other states in the vital area.

The following is a letter CCAC sent Capitol officials yesterday:

From: Steve Geissinger, president, Capitol Correspondents Association of CA

To: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mr. Speaker of the Assembly, Mr. President pro Tem of the Senate

Re: Response to reporters’ complaints about lack of Internet access in the Legislature

CCAC Board Member Jim Miller prepared this comprehensive briefing for the Board of Directors of the Legislature-mandated CCAC, which voted to request that the Governor’s Office, the Senate and the Assembly attempt to solve the problem. Any consideration you can give the matter, even in these lean fiscal times, would greatly serve the public interest.

The briefing:

“California is behind many other states in providing wireless access at the state Capitol, according to a review by the Capitol Correspondents Association of California.

At a time when wireless networks are available anywhere from libraries to Laundromats, the Capitol in the home state of Silicon Valley lacks any Wi-Fi hot spots open to the public.

Reporters who want to file from the Capitol have limited options.

They can tap out stories on BlackBerries.

Another approach is paying to use an aircard with a laptop computer. Reporters can check e-mail, file stories, read the wire – anything they would normally do at their desks. An aircard relies on a cell-phone signal. Unfortunately, the Capitol’s thick walls hamper cell-phone signals and users sometimes get kicked off, particularly in committee rooms.

In the Senate, some reporters use the computers on the press desks to write and file a story through Internet e-mail accounts such as gmail or yahoo. There is no way, though, for a reporter to connect to their editorial system.

The same goes for computers in the Assembly press bay, where firewalls also limit Internet use.

Not all California government buildings are Wi-Fi wastelands.

The Cal-EPA building offers free wireless. As part of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Broadband Initiative, the Department of General Services has create pilot Wi-Fi sites at the Zig, the Office of State Printing, the Secretary of State’s Office, the State Museum, and the Library and Courts Building.

There has been talk over the years about also bringing Wi-Fi to the Capitol, but nothing is imminent, said department spokesman Eric Lamoureux.

Cost is a hurdle at a time when the state confronts an estimated $14.5 billion shortfall.

Creating a wireless network in the Capitol would require extensive wiring, signal amplifiers, and access points, said Sohrab Mansourian, the Assembly’s IT expert. “It’s a project,” he said.

Another concern is online security. Officials worry that an open Wi-Fi network in the Capitol would be vulnerable to hacking and other problems.

Many statehouses elsewhere offer at least some level of Internet access to members of the media and other visitors. Here is a sampling of those, based on information provided by members of the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors:

Connecticut: Wireless access is free in the Capitol.

Florida – The press has wireless access in both houses.

Georgia – The state provides wireless in the press areas of the both legislative chambers, and across the street at the press offices.

Hawaii – Wireless access is free in the Capitol’s public areas and in committee rooms.

Kansas – Wi-Fi was added as part of a recent Capitol renovation process. Users must get a user name and a password from the state’s legislative services division.

Louisiana – There is no Wi-Fi. There are several Internet hookups for the press. There also are three computes available for use by the public or press who don’t have assigned offices.

Maine – There has been a Wi-Fi system in the state capitol for six years.

Michigan – There is free Wi-Fi service for the press and the public in both the House and Senate, including in committee rooms across the street from the capitol.

Missouri: The Senate provides free wireless that works well in the chamber and adequately on most of the Senate side of the building. The House charges $150 per year for wireless access on its side of the building, which works well throughout the House side.

Nebraska – The state installed a wireless network in the Capitol last year. The press has access with a password in the (one-house) legislative chamber and all hearing rooms. One area is available for the public.

Oregon – There has been free wireless access since fall 2006.

Pennsylvania – Wi-Fi is available to the public in several hearing and briefing rooms.

South Carolina – The statehouse has free wireless access for everyone.

Texas – The Senate chamber has Wi-Fi, as do the budget committee meeting rooms in both houses. The House lacks wireless, but there are half a dozen ethernet connections for reporters to use.

Virginia – There is Wi-Fi service for both the press and the public.

Washington – The state has provided wireless Internet for free to anyone in or around the Capitol for about two years.

West Virginia – The state charges about $200 a year for Wi-Fi access in the Capitol.”

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Bowen to speak in Walnut Creek on voting machines

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen will speak at the Feb. 21 meeting of the Lamorinda Democratic Club about her decision to decertify touch-screen voting machines in more than 20 counties.

First elected in 1992 to the state Assembly to represent constituents in west Los Angeles County, Bowen served three terms before being elected to the state Senate. She served two Senate terms prior to being elected in 2006 as California’s Secretary of State, the sixth woman in state history elected to statewide constitutional office.

The event begins at 7 p.m. at the Contra Costa County Jewish Community Center, Koret Auditorium, 2071 Tice Valley Blvd. in Walnut Creek. The cost $10 per person and it is open to all residents.

For more details, call 925-210-7337 or visit www.lamorindademoclub.com.

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Common Cause chief visits CCT

Bob EdgarFormer U.S. Congressman Bob Edgar of Pennsylvania, the national president and CEO of Common Cause, an open government advocacy group, stopped by the offices of the Contra Costa Times this afternoon to promote his group’s involvement in yet another California redistricting initiative.

The “Voters First Act” would strip state legislators of their power to draw political boundaries for the California Senate, Assembly and Board of Equalization. (It does not include the boundaries for California congressional district.) It would turn the job of drawing the lines over to a 14-member commission selected, in part, by the top four leaders in the California Legislature and a random pool administered by the California State Auditor and drawn from volunteer applicants. (Click here for a link to California Common Cause and all the details of the proposal.)

Common Cause has joined with the League of Women Voters, American Association of Retired People and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce to advance the initiative, which they hope to gather an adequate number of signatures and place on the November 2008 ballot.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has also endorsed this measure, a high-profile name that proponents hope will finally push this reform effort into the victory column.

There have been many prior attempts to revise the redistricting process, none of which have prevailed.

Redistricting reform has a couple of inherent problems at the ballot box.

One, it’s complicated and complex stuff rarely translates into an easily digested ballot initiative for voters.

Two, there’s nothing in it for the Democrats who control the California Legislature. Top Democrats had promised to package redistricting and term limit reforms but when the dust settled, only term limits made it onto the February ballot. (Proposition 93 would alter the way the state factors term limits.)

Why the foot-dragging? In part, several academic studies of redistricting reform suggested that a handful of Assembly and Senate seats would potentially become competitive for Republicans if the boundaries were drawn with something other than partisan political advantage in mind. Democrats had hoped to trade support for redistricting reform with a change in term limit law, a deal that was never quite struck.

But Edgar said this afternoon that he hopes the new four-member coalition, coupled with the governor’s support and Common Cause’s new national election and campaign reform effort, will finally reach voters. It may seem like a long shot but Edgar described himself as optimistic.

“There is a lot to be done to restore the public’s confidence in their public officials, that elected leaders are responding to the voters and not special interests,” Edgar said.

UPDATE: We had a question at the Times about the political independence of the California State Auditor, whose office is proposed under the initiative as the administrator of the application process for appointment to the 14-member redistricting commission.

As it turns out, the auditor is not entirely free of political involvement but the selection and management of the office is bipartisan. Here’s a brief explanation of how it works as explained by a spokeswoman at the auditor’s office:

A joint legislative audit committee comprised of seven state senators and seven assemblymembers interviews and selects three candidates for state auditor. The governor makes the four-year appointment from among the three names and only these three names. The auditor can only be removed prior to the end of his or her term by the Legislature, and the office receives its assignments only from the joint panel or by law. (For a link to State Auditor Elaine Howle’s web site and a full explanation, click here.)

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Independent voters on the rise in California

On the eve of the 2008 presidential election, a growing number of Californians are registering as “decline to state” voters at the expense of both major political parties.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen reports that the percentage of decline to state voters is 19 percent compared to 16 percent in September 2003, the fall tall prior to the 2004 election between GOP President George W. Bush and Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. (Download press release here.)

Democrats’ percentage fell from 43.6 percent to 42.5, while the GOP’s share dropped from 35.3 percent to 33.8 percent.

Theories abound as to why voters are increasingly disinterested in affiliating with traditional political parties.

And no one seems to agree on the best means by which to reverse the trend, either. Leaders of both parties engage in a near constant tug-of-war over their platforms and strategies between the ends of their internal political spectrums.

Some view the shift as a signal that voters are ready for a comparable third party but so far, there’s been little indication that this group of independent-minded people is interested in banding together.

There’s an even bigger problem on the political dance floor than the party shuffle, though.

New registrations since 2003 have not kept pace with population growth in California, resulting in a drop from 71 percent to 68 percent in the rate of eligible residents who register to vote. That means fewer people are making decisions at the ballot box that impact everyone.