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Exercise 5-9
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Writing a Meeting Story


A. You've been asked to write a 500-word story about a Thursday afternoon hearing on computerized voting for Friday's paper. When you arrive at Menlo Park City Hall for the meeting, you get an eye- and earful. Here's what you discover:
  • The hearing is entitled: "Are California's voting systems accurate, reliable and secure? A critical look at the Federal testing and certification process."

  • Before the meeting starts, someone is holding a sign with the words "CIA Voting Software: It's Time for Paper Ballots."

  • Near the entrance to the meeting 10 wildly dressed women identifying themselves as part of the "Raging Grannies" political activist group are dancing to sounds of a ukulele.

  • Debra Bowen, chairwoman of the Senate Elections, Reapportionment and Constitutional Amendments Committee, is the chair of the meeting, which is attended by 75 people. She begins the meeting at 1 p.m. She says leading vendors such as Diebold were invited to attend but declined. Diebold also makes ATMs, Bowen notes.

  • Four experts are at the hearing: (1) David Dill, professor of computer science at Stanford University and founder of the Verified Voting Foundation; (2) Peter Neumann, principal scientist at the computer science lab at SRI International in Menlo Park; (3) Aviel Rubin, professor of computer science and director of the Information Institute at Johns Hopkins University; and (4) Dan Wallach, professor of computer science at Rice University.

  • Rubin: "California requires vendors to come to California to be tested by an independent panel of experts." He notes that questions that should be asked include: Is it federally qualified? What are the limitations of testing? "Results should be made public, and all tests should be available to the public. We can't compromise on transparency. An ounce of audit is worth a pound of prevention."

  • Wallach: Computer security is an "engineering problem, and the most interesting engineering problem I've ever looked at. Standards now are much better than in 2002" when much of the currently available software was being developed. Software affects everything but "nothing is done about it; there is no testing."

  • Dill: Auditing should be "more stringent, but it's a difficult problem. "Checks and balances in counting is a central point."

  • Neumann insists: "There is no such thing as perfect security. Even ATMs have security problems." With voting machines, he warned, there's "no real incentive to do it right, but it's essential to have full openness in the process." Whatever machines are built should be built for "long-term life," Neumann says. "There are no easy answers. We're dealing with a flawed process."

  • Wallach: Part of the engineering problem is controlling costs. He reminds the audience that "paper has a long-term history of election fraud – but paper can be checked by machines." The voting system is a "terrible business to be in, because every state has a different system," he says. "We need openness, reliable and secure systems. We must design systems capable of solving all problems – and California has to initiate the process."

  • Warren Slocum, assessor, county clerk and record of San Mateo County: The "most important thing is an independent audit of elections." Election workers, he added, "should be recognized for their importance, just as police and health workers are." He notes that 13 million voters in 16 counties currently don't have certified voting systems.

  • Bowen: Software "has to be built to official standards, but absolute security is very difficult."

  • After the experts testify, 28 members of the public speak. Many of them say they find the computerized voting frightening. Here are some specific comments:

  • Arthur Keller of Palo Alto: "Imagine stealing an election. Security should make it more difficult and expensive to do so." He is a volunteer precinct inspector in Santa Clara County.

  • Ron Crane of Santa Cruz: "If machines are used, they should be totally public, and have parallel testing. Rip them to shreds. If there is a discrepancy, why did it happen?" Machines, he says, cost $3,000 to $4,000 each and are "not necessary for most people."

  • Alan Dechert of Granite Bay, Calif.: A voting-certification process should be established in California. He's president of the Open Voting Consortium.

  • One alternative to machines – voting by mail – is done statewide in Oregon but has been approved only in eight California counties.


B. You've been asked to write a 350-word story about a Tuesday meeting of the Stearns County Board of Commissioners. Here's what you learn:
  • Among the issues discussed at the meeting, one issue more than most seems like a good potential news story: Leaders of local townships have asked for help in dealing with nuisance properties, ones where junk, trash, vermin or other conditions threaten health and safety.

  • Sherburne County has an ordinance that addresses such properties, but a speaker said the county rarely assesses landowners.

  • Benton County has rules against nuisances such as junk cars, but it can enforce them only through the court system.

  • Currently, Stearns County's only option when faced with a landlord who doesn't properly maintain his or her property is to sue the landowner in a lengthy court process.

  • The Stearns County commissioners on Tuesday considered an ordinance that would empower county staff to require that landowners clean up property deemed a "public nuisance."

  • Here's how the new process would work: If the county receives a complaint about a property, the county's environmental services department will send a letter to the owner of a nuisance property ordering the cleanup. If the landowner fails to do so, county staff can clean it and assess the cost onto the landowner's property tax bill.

  • Commissioners briefly discussed whether barking dogs should be added as a nuisance. Environmental services director Don Adams said those complaints would be too time-consuming and difficult for county staff to enforce. "I really think that we have bigger fish to fry," he said.

  • Stearns County officials listened to public comment before voting on the ordinance. During the public comment time, dairy farmers expressed concern that if the proposal became law their operations could be the target of complaints.

  • Before voting on the proposal, the commissioners inserted a two-year sunset clause to address the concerns of the dairy farmers.

  • Two years is enough time to know whether the ordinance is working, Commissioner Don Otte said. "I think we're either going to be sick of it, or it will have done its job by that time," Otte said.

  • Commissioner Larry Haws, who represents the city of St. Cloud, voted against the ordinance. Townships should be responsible for handling nuisances, he said. Many people move to townships because of lower taxes and fewer rules, he said. "I think we're moving city rules out into the country, and I think the city people are going to be paying for the enforcement of these rules," Haws said.

  • Ultimately, the commission passed the ordinance.

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