Mar 10 2016

De-Annexation Episode IV: A False Hope

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis, Shelby County, State Politics

The areas that could be up for de-annexation

The areas that could be up for de-annexation

If the post this morning gave you an introduction to the idea of making Memphis smaller through de-annexation via referendum, or some other planned de-annexation, the flavor of which Mayor Strickland indicated he’s “open to”, this post will take a look into some of the challenges of the actual doing of de-annexation.

But first, some housekeeping. We now know what areas would be impacted by the bill, as seen in the image to the left.

We also know that the members of the Shelby County Delegation that are sponsoring the bill, include one member who could be directly impacted by it… Senator Reginald Tate who lives in Southwind.

Finally, the cost of de-annexing all the areas brought into the city since May of 1998? It could be as much as 10% of the current city tax revenue. I can guarantee, the City won’t let that go without a fight.

See, de-annexation is a breaking of a partnership…a divorce, if you will, or perhaps better yet, a splitting off of a business unit, ala what HP did recently.

But its much more than just the splitting. There are assets and liabilities to be divided. There are lawyers to be paid. Make no mistake about it, de-annexation will be more than a referendum, it will be a heavily litigated split that makes Kramer vs Kramer look like Love Story.

In this post I’ll explore more of why Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey says the idea of de-annexation may be more of a false hope than a real solution for the people who feel aggrieved by their annexation…which in some cases, happened nearly two decades ago.

The Bills

Section 5a(1) of the amendment that makes the bill says the following:

SECTION 5. Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 6-51-204(a), is amended by deleting the subsection and substituting instead:
(a)
(1) Except for responsibility for general obligation debt issued during the
annexed period, all municipal jurisdiction shall cease over the territory excluded from the municipality’s corporate limits on the date of certification of the results of the election. The municipality may continue to levy and collect taxes on property in the excluded territory to pay the excluded territory’s proportion of general obligation debt issued during the annexed period.

What this means is, any debt issued by the City of Memphis for any purpose in the ‘de-annexed’ area would have to be paid proportionally by the departing residents of said area.

That debt could have paid for parks, streets, streetlights, police and fire houses, and any of a number of other things.

So even after an area chooses to ‘de-annex’ they will still be liable, and can still be taxed for covering the debt for the benefits they received while inside the city limits.

But those benefits don’t live there on their own, they come with other costs.

Police and Fire houses mean specialized equipment and the hiring of more personnel. By removing part of the area these men and women were hired to protect and serve, the City may find they need fewer of them, which could mean layoffs.

Conversely, the County could decide to contract with the City to provide police and fire, and then assess a special use tax on the former residents to cover the difference of their decision to leave an area that had services already budgeted.

Further, there are other costs associated with the hiring of personnel…namely pension, healthcare, and OPEB. While the bill specifically spells out that the folks leaving the City would be responsible for the debt, nothing is mentioned about other costs associated with being a city in an area. So we’d most likely have to litigate whether or not the folks in the de-annexed area would be responsible for their proportion of these long-term costs.

Gets complicated doesn’t it?

County Tax Hike

While the City will lose tax base and population, the County will gain more responsibility in a de-annexation.

As I mentioned before, the County, now responsible for providing services to these newly de-annexed areas, will have to tool up to provide services. That means perhaps buying City of Memphis assets, like Fire and Police stations. Don’t think that gets you out of your proportion of debt, because the way bonds work, they might have to be held to a predetermined date (maturity or call) and that date could be a long way away, since the city has done a good job of refunding (refinancing) a lot of its debt and taking advantage of low interest rates.

The County, which is also strapped for cash much like the city is (though you’d never know it from the media) would have to pay for this some way some how. And that would mean a tax hike, likely for everyone in Shelby County.

Soap Bar From the movie "Full Metal Jacket"

Soap Bar From the movie “Full Metal Jacket”

So newly de-annexed area, you get the joy of several things:

1. Paying your part of the debt for a city you’re no longer a part of.

2. Paying a higher County Property tax rate because now the County has to provide more services.

3. Being responsible for everyone else in the County having a higher County tax rate.

These are innocent bystanders who pay their taxes and go about their own business…now strapped with the cost of your selfishness.

I can tell you, we won’t be happy with you.

Way to go Private Pyle.

Forced Consolidation

When I first saw this floated in the Commercial Appeal I cried alabaster Schadenfreude tears that tasted like the sweet nectar of sweat from Odin’s furrowed brow.

For all your efforts to separate yourselves from Memphis, you could be stuck with us anyway.

That’s right folks, you get us anyway, and all of these valuable prizes:

• The spending of time and money organizing for a ballot initiative,
• The ruinous tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on attorney’s fees,
• The taxes for a City you no longer belong to,
• The new taxes for a County that thinks you’re a selfish dick because now everyone’s taxes are higher to pay for your services.

All of these prizes could be all for naught, if you break the City of Memphis. Because that could set into motion a scenario where the County becomes effectively consolidated (not a metro government) and the whole damn thing falls apart at the seams.

Consequences

Actions have consequences. De-annexation is not something to throw around like a tennis ball…its a grenade that can hurt everyone in the process.

From "War of the Roses" - 1989

From “War of the Roses” – 1989

To his credit, Mayor Strickland has said that he’s open to a discussion about decreasing the footprint of the city. I think that’s a pretty brave position to stake out considering the fiscal challenges that face us, and the generally nasty taste that a ‘shrinking city’ leaves in the mouths of people.

There is a way to do this. Just like there’s a way to have a divorce where the kids don’t suffer, and there’s a way to split up a business that ultimately adds value for the shareholders.

This bill ain’t that. Its ill conceived, and based on a personal beef the two primary sponsors of the bill have with a former Mayor in Hamilton County.

Perhaps theres another way. A way where we could avoid all this by starting a discussion instead of (spoiler alert) ending up on the floor, shattered, like the Roses.

Just a thought.

Nov 26 2015

Cameras are only part of the solution

Chicago Officer Jason Van Dyke

Chicago Officer Jason Van Dyke

16 shots.

Chicago police released the video this week, after a year of legal wrangling, of the police shooting of Laquan McDonald. Over a year since the incident, the officer is facing first degree murder charges.

According to police accounts, McDonald was a suspect in some auto burglaries in the area. The police also say he was armed with a knife.

But those same accounts say Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke fired sixteen bullets into his body but never gave any commands for him to halt, or put up his hands, or in any other way surrender. In fact, according to the officer whose car was recording the incident, said he was only on the scene for less than 30 seconds when he opened fire.

We’ll never know if McDonald is guilty of the crimes he was suspected of, because Officer Van Dyke acted as Judge, Jury and executioner, for a crime that would have been anything but a death sentence.

This isn’t the first time Van Dyke has been in trouble. According to CNN, he’s faced 20 lawsuits or complaints, which makes you question why he was on the streets to begin with.

Bringing it home

Over the past few years I’ve seen a lot of videos like this. I had to write story after story in my former role as a local TV news producer about these incidents.

And every one has made me more sure in my resolve that there is something broken in law enforcement in this country.

See, the ‘good guys’ aren’t supposed to shoot people in the back, or while stopped for a missing license plate, or choke them to death over bootlegged cigarettes. The ‘good guys’ are supposed to bring people to justice. Let them have their day in court, and spend time in jail if they’re guilty of the crimes they’re accused of.

But it seems like in the past few years, maybe more than other years, maybe I’m just paying more attention now, there are a lot of people getting killed by police for what would otherwise be petty crimes.

Is this a fluke that all these are happening, one seemingly after another?

Is it bizarre happenstance?

Or is it something that’s been going on, we’re just now getting around to noticing it?

I don’t have the answer to those questions. What I do know, both first hand, and through the stories of friends is that being at the wrong place at the wrong time can lead to big trouble for you, especially if you’re black. And if you happen to live in an area that’s a designated ‘wrong place’, you’re pretty much screwed.

And that’s why I’m a strong advocate for additional police oversight.

But lets not fool ourselves, cameras are only a part of that oversight.

Define ‘Threat’

What the shooting of Laquan McDonald shows is that the presence of cameras doesn’t mean a cop will think twice about using unnecessary deadly force for an assailant that is running away from them.

If this were a standoff, I think both the law, and standard operating procedure clearly dictates that the officer has a right to defend himself. But that’s not what happened. As the video clearly shows, McDonald was running away from the police. I’m not saying that’s legal, but it doesn’t seem to rise to any reasonable standard of using deadly force. That’s why this officer is facing murder charges.

But you also have to ask, “Why did this officer think using his service weapon was the best/only response?” And to get that answer, you have to look into both the written policy of the department, and the culture of the department. Because policy is no better than the paper its written on if there’s an understanding about when it will and won’t be followed. And if this officer believed that he could act in this way, without facing consequences, then the charges against him are as much an indictment of the upper echelon of the Chicago Police Department… a department whose initial account of what happened is very different from what is shown in the video, and the Cook County Prosecutor, who took a year to announce the indictment the officer, as it is an indictment of the individual cop.

Systematic Injustice?

St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullouch

St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullouch

In order to understand the difficult challenge that a prosecutor is under when the potential of indicting an officer presents itself, you have to look at the symbiotic relationship they have with police…as well as the personal relationships that they’re required to maintain to keep putting away bad guys.

Cops are the boots on the ground who deliver the goods to prosecutors: from the uniformed patrol who are the first responders, to the investigators who work to crack the case. Cops do the prosecutors dirty work, deliver them the case, and the prosecutor then has to be ready to take that information and put it before a jury.

Truth be told, both prosecutors and top brass with police forces around the country are political jobs, and they rely on the cops at the ground level to make them look good so they can keep their jobs.

So when no cops are found to have abused their authority after 20 police shootings in 5 years , or 6 cops beat the hell out of two guys and aren ‘t charged no one should be surprised.

One hand relies on the other to stay alive. As a result, those two hands tend to be forgiving of sins against outsiders.

So when we hear a grand jury may be able to indict a ham sandwich, but not a cop in Memphis, you have to seriously question the prosecutors commitment to pursuing justice for all.

Because we’ve seen prosecutors use grand juries for political and patronage purposes before just 200 miles to the north.

The tactic was a shrewd maneuver, legal experts say, in which McCulloch both deflected responsibility for his own failure to charge Wilson and — deliberately or not — created conditions in which the grand jury would not be likely to charge him either.

Which is why its important that the Grand jury transcripts in the Darrius Stewart case be reviewed, and if the prosecutor employed a similar tactic, it be released to the public.

Because if the Shelby County DA’s office isn’t going to handle an indictment proceeding for a cop the same way they would handle any other like charge, then how can anyone believe that the interests of impartial justice are being served?

Tarnished Brass

I like Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never met the man. But I believe he’s trying to run a clean shop, despite the slew of current and former officers that have been indicted over the past few years.

But when you read an investigation about something known as Choir practice you have to question not only the leadership that has risen through the ranks, but also the internal culture that brought that leadership to the top.

And while Armstrong may have kept a low profile early in his career its not crazy to question his ability, as an insider, to challenge a culture he’s been a part of since he was on patrol.

Because it seems that a greater proportion of cops have been accused to all kinds of crimes (cop crimes per thousand on the force), than the general public in the past couple of years (I dare a media outlet to run the numbers). And that’s worrisome.

Now, you could argue that the fact that so many cases have come up shows that the current administration is fighting back against internal demons, and you might be right about that. Or it could be that these were the easy cases, that were perpetrated by dumb people, and it was just too hard not to prosecute them.

In any case, with one case after another coming up this year alone, you have to wonder what else is going on, and, more importantly, what, if anything is being done about it.

True Justice

Video of the Rodney King beating, 1991

Video of the Rodney King beating, 1991

In order for police and prosecutors to regain the faith and trust of the public, they have to stop using their reliance on each other as a wedge that creates two kinds of justice…inside justice and outside justice. Because that’s what it appears to be.

We also have to recognize that this isn’t anything new. This kind of separate and unequal justice has been going on in America for a long time. Anyone remember Rodney King? The only reason any cops were indicted in that case is because someone started videotaping from a nearby apartment. It was 1991, and video cameras weren’t as pervasive as they are today.

Now, just about every phone out there has some kind of camera. And that means, cases like the ones we’ve been hearing so much about over the past couple of years, are going to come to light more than ever before. Which should tell cops who are intent on overstepping their authority that they can’t do that anymore. That hasn’t happened.

FBI Director James Comey

FBI Director James Comey

So while law enforcement leaders, from the head of the FBI on down, may cite the “Ferguson Effect”… a spike in violent crime resulting from law enforcement withdrawing due to increased oversight, even though he admits he doesn’t have any solid evidence of it being a ‘thing’, the real ‘Ferguson Effect’, if there is one, is that the public is using the technology that is literally in their hands, to protect themselves from cops who would do wrong.

And that’s exactly the kind of oversight that is necessary to provide a check against civil rights abuses that have always been there, but are just now coming into the light.

But as we’ve seen in case after case, just capturing something on video isn’t enough to bring justice. That’s why independent prosecutors who have a transparency mandate should bring these cases to the Grand Jury, not state cops like the TBI, who have promised transparency, but so far, haven’t delivered.

That’s also why independent citizen led groups, like the Citizen’s Law Enforcement Review Board should be there to provide oversight to the internal affairs process to ensure the internal enforcement of standard operating procedures and good policing techniques are adhered to, rather than relying on assurances from police administrators.

Because no one who’s ever had a bad encounter with a cop, and plenty of people who haven’t, believe in those assurances anymore.

Most importantly, the good cops who are out there…and there are hundreds of them in Memphis alone, should demand this kind of transparency, so they can remove the tarnish from their badges that cops who would exceed their authority have brought on them.

The police work for us, the citizens of Memphis. So do prosecutors. And while its understandable that neither group would want to part with the one hand washes the other relationship they’ve had over the years, the events highlighted in the media, both here and around the country, demand that they do.

That means more transparency in the workings of both organizations, and more accountability when things go wrong.

Exactly how it should have been in the first place.

Mar 15 2015

Congratulations Delegates #SCDP

Posted by Steve Ross in Memphis Politics, SCDP, Shelby County

The Shelby County Democratic Party held the first part of their biennial convention Saturday, and with it comes a fresh crop of delegates to the Convention on March 28th.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve already picked a candidate for Executive Committee to represent your House District, or if you’ve settled on a candidate for Chair, you’ve got just under two weeks to decide. Take your time.

Yesterday, I published a post targeting participants in the caucuses. Those things apply to you too (you were a participant after all), but as an elected representative of a precinct (which is what you are), you have some additional responsibilities beyond just showing up in two weeks and voting.

See, one of the (many) things the Shelby County Democratic Party lacks is a robust party leadership structure. I’m not talking about the folks who will be on the Executive Committee (though they definitely need some help), but leadership all the way down to the precinct level.

Guess what…you are now part of that leadership structure. Congratulations!

If the past decade of watching and being involved in the party has taught me anything, its that the Executive Committee alone just can’t (and often won’t) get the party on the right track by themselves. They need help. And as an elected representative of your precinct, you’re just one of the many people that will be needed to do it.

You’ve got a lot of work ahead of you. Here are some ideas to help stay involved, and get other people involved as well.

1. Meet the other delegates – Chances are you are backing one of the candidates for Chair. If you are, chances are you’ve either met with, or know who you’ll be supporting for the Executive Committee spots in your district. But if for some reason you don’t you’re going to be contacted by them, asking for your vote. Don’t commit without asking some questions, such as:

  • What specifically will you do as a member of the Executive Committee?
  • Don’t let them off easy. Demand specifics. If they can’t give them to you, then maybe they’re not the right horse to back no matter how many votes they’ve locked up.

  • Who are they supporting for Chair, and what is that candidate’s platform?
  • Like I said, most of the sorting with the usual suspects happened weeks, maybe even months ago. Make them say it out loud. Make them email it to you. If elected, they’ll be working for you. You need to make sure you have something tangible to hold them to.

  • How committed are they to developing and building a precinct based organization in their House district to strengthen the Party
  • If they look at you like you’re crazy, or seem confused by the question, they haven’t considered the fullness of their responsibility as a potential member of the Executive Committee and may not deserve your vote.

    2. Show Up – It happens every two years…a bunch of delegates don’t show up to the second round (which will be held March 28th), and that swings the election of Executive Committee members, and ultimately the Chair, one way or the other. Usually it doesn’t end up as an upset, but with several candidates vying for the Chair spot, it could this time. Regardless of whether the candidates for Executive Committee met your expectations in answering the questions above (and possibly others), if you don’t show up, you have forfeit your vote, and from my perspective, ill served the people who voted you in as a delegate. Don’t be that guy/gal.

    3. Stay Strong – Don’t get too disappointed if you want to be an Executive Committee member and don’t make it. There are only 29 spots for 14 districts. Chances are, you won’t make it. But if you stay involved, show up to meetings, and keep your constituents informed, there may be a spot for you either on a committee, or on the EC when/if someone resigns, or gets kicked for not showing up. It happens every term. Being there is the best way to ultimately get what you want.

    4. Learn Something – Anyone who thinks the work of the party is sexy doesn’t really know what the party is supposed to do. The main things are:

  • Raise money
  • Recruit/train/elect candidates/volunteers
  • Get more people involved
  • The party regularly fails at at least two of these each term. These things sound intuitive, but they’re not. Raising money is tricky. Training and recruiting candidates and volunteers requires a special skill set. Getting folks involved means there has to be something for them to do.

    I mentioned the training conference in Spring Hill in my last post, but if you can’t make it to that, there are plenty of other opportunities out there from all kinds of progressive groups like Democracy for America, Wellstone Action, and many more. Some have online training options. No matter how much you think you know, you can always benefit from learning something new.

    5. Do Something – Another thing to think about…you don’t have to wait for the party to get it together to do something. You can start today.

    Maybe its something simple like registering voters. That’s easy. Just print out copies of this form, then get some friends, and some pens and clipboards, and set up a registration drive. Here are some good guidelines for doing a voter registration drive. Make sure you have permission to do this on any private property. You can do it at any number of places, even church.

    There are other things you can do as well, like throw a house party, or a neighborhood meeting. These take a little more organization, and usually need to be tied to a specific goal (financial or policy driven). If you want to do something like this, feel free to shoot me an email or contact your Executive Committee member for details on what information you need to collect and the state rules (for donations). Raising money is great, but also just making contact is a step. Don’t underestimate its importance.

    (Quick Note: Be sure to communicate your plans to your EC member. They may be willing to help, or get more people involved. The more the merrier.)

    6. Demand Accountability – As a delegate, you have a voice in determining the future of the party. That voice doesn’t have to end with the election of a Chair. If you’ve done your due diligence, and networked your way into people’s email/phone lists, you’ve positioned yourself to stay on top of the Executive Committee members who represent you…and you can make some demands.

    Most importantly, you should encourage EC members to inform their constituents. All too often they expect to be sought out for information. Members that think that way have the relationship exactly backwards. Its their job to inform you, not your job to track them down and ask questions (though if you do have questions, its on you to ask them). Demand that they do this (in a nice way). This will be foreign to some, so some coaching might be required. Set up meetings, or email lists or other networking opportunities to inform yourself, and the people you represent. This way, you won’t be surprised if something goes horribly wrong, and you might even be able to catch a problem before it becomes a problem.

    Ask for meeting agendas, copies of the rules (and that they adopt real rules not the bullshit standby of ‘Roberts Rules’ which no one really understands), and resolutions. If they can’t/don’t live up to that expectation and you’ve made contact/expanded your network of people, you’ve set in motion the beginnings of booting them in two years for someone (like yourself) who will do what you believe needs to get done.

    For the past 10 years, I’ve seen EC after EC come in good intentions, then behave like the Caucus and Convention are the end of organizing. They’re wrong, its just the beginning. If you can treat it like its the beginning, stay in touch with people in your House District, keep them informed, and prove you’re interested…you’re a step ahead for the next time around.

    As a delegate you need to demand the EC treat it like the beginning. Do that, and you’ll have played a role in helping strengthen the party going forward.

    The truth is, elections are a 24/7/365 affair now. They have been for a long time. It begins with the first actions those elected officials take in office, and while 2/4 years may seem like a long time, its not. Staying up to date on what these folks are doing (in your name) is the best way to: 1. Communicate and eventually get what you want, and 2. Hold them accountable if they aren’t moving the ball forward.

    Remember, you are a part of the party…simply by saying you are. Showing what you’re willing to do to move the party forward is just one of the many ways you can be a part of getting this County Party and this County back on track.

    Mar 14 2015

    The Caucus is the first step to rebuild the party

    Posted by Steve Ross in Memphis Politics, SCDP, Shelby County

    Its time to step up Shelby County Democrats

    Its time to step up
    Shelby County Democrats

    Today, the Shelby County Democratic Party will begin the process of selecting new leadership for the next two years at its Ward and Precinct Caucus.

    For the first time since 2007, I won’t be there.

    Truth be told, I haven’t been directly involved with the County Party since I resigned my post back in January of 2014.

    Time is not on my side. I have too many things to do, and too few hours in the day to do them. And while I would love to be in the thick of rebuilding the party, I also know that doing so is more than a two year job.

    So while I won’t be there today, I’m also not going to sit on the sidelines. And participants, neither should you.

    With that in mind, I do have a message for the people who will be participating today.

    It doesn’t matter whether you are selected a delegate or not, you are the party, and whomever you select to be your delegate to the convention in two weeks, is your representative.

    And while it may seem (and some may wrongly contend) that after today, your role with the party is over, this is not the case.

    The Executive Committee is not the Democratic Party…rather, they make up the leadership. You are the party, and its incumbent on you that some things get done to ensure the party moves forward in a positive way:

    1. Know your delegate – Before you leave today, get the name, phone number and email address of your delegate (if you aren’t one). Tell that person that by electing them delegate, you expect them to be involved in the process (regardless of whether they’re on the Executive Committee), and that you will be checking in with them periodically to find out what’s going on and what you can do to help.

    2. Host a Precinct/House District meeting – After the March 28th Convention, get together with people in your area, and host your Executive Committee members. Let them know who they work for (you), and what you hope to see in the upcoming term. It doesn’t have to be something elaborate…but get folks from your precinct or house district there in numbers, and make sure your Executive Committee members know you’re not playing around…you expect results. Let them know what those results might look like.

    3. Contact the new Chair – The field is thick right now, and no one really knows who will win. But once a winner is selected (March 28th), reach out to the Chair, introduce yourself (if you don’t already know him/her), and let them know you want to be a part of the process. There are 11 Committees and only 29 members. The Party will have to reach out beyond the Executive Committee to get these Committees functioning again.

    4. Go to a training – The Tennessee Democratic County Chairs Assn. and the TNDP are hosting a Spring Conference April 10th and 11th. Go there, and meet folks from across the state. Share ideas. Learn something new. Shelby County may be the largest Democratic County in Tennessee, but clearly we don’t know how to elect a Countywide candidate. Maybe some outside ideas will help.

    5. Don’t let up – Its easy to get discouraged, and God knows, there is plenty to be discouraged about, but don’t. The Executive Committee won’t right this ship alone. They’re going to need you, even if you have to drag them to success kicking and screaming (something this past Executive Committee was exceedingly good at). Demand access (without being a dick). Demand inclusion. But most of all, demand that the Executive Committee stop behaving like an exclusive but reclusive clique, and begin behaving like the legislative body for the Democratic faithful of Shelby County that they’re supposed to be. Make sure they know you expect to be in the conversation, even if you don’t have a vote. Demand that they adopt some real rules for the Party and rules of procedure to regulate the meetings, and that proposals and meeting agendas are sent out to all who want them, not just the Executive Committee. Show up to meetings. Talk to people outside of meetings. Find allies. Organize.

    Most of all, meet new people from outside your neck of the woods. Find areas of interest that you share with those people. Build relationships. Politics is about relationships…and relationships are something we desperately need right now to begin to grow and prosper as a party.

    Have fun at the caucus!

    Oct 28 2014

    Media Fail – 1, Transparency – 0

    Posted by Steve Ross in elections, media, Shelby County

    How I long for the good ole days.

    How I long for the good ole days.

    Once upon a time I thought the media was a defender of democracy. It was a check on the power government exercised. It was a force for good that sought to keep the people connected and the politicians and bureaucracy honest.

    Perhaps it was naiveté, or my fond memories of great journalists from the late 70’s through much of the 80’s and early 90’s.

    I gave up any illusions of this fairy tale long ago.

    That’s not to say there aren’t great journalists out there…they’re just fewer and farther between…and they’re trapped in a business environment where quantity, punch, and social media ‘engagement’ trumps a balanced account of the news.

    Such is the case with this truly ignorant report from WREG that aired in July.

    The web story is pretty benign, but the report that actually aired takes a Gary Vosot approach to reporting that demands you turn every fallen acorn into a “sky is falling” event.

    The news item I’m referencing involves a little known report called the “Participating Voter List”, aka PVL.

    What is the PVL?

    The PVL is exactly what it sounds like. Its a list of people who have participated in an election. It includes your name and address, precinct information, and in primary elections, which primary ballot you chose to vote on.

    Independent observers, political consultants, and campaigns use the PVL to see who’s voted, which areas are turning out more than others, and to tailor their communications to people who haven’t voted by purging the names of people who have voted from their direct communication list (mail, phone, and canvassing).

    If you don’t want annoying calls, knocks, or mail, vote early and all that will stop…if the campaign is managed effectively.

    Aside from primary ballot information, there is no information in the PVL that’s any more dangerous to your privacy than the information from an old school phone book, or white pages dot com.

    But reporter Michael Quander’s piece makes it sound as if the very act of voting could endanger your privacy in some way.

    That’s simply not the case. There are far easier and more informative ways and places to get that information than the Election Commission…though you’d never know it from his actual report.

    Because of Quander’s report, the Election Commission now only sends the PVL out by request, instead of publishing it in the deep dark recesses of the Election Commission website where only people who know where it is can find it.

    Why is the PVL important?

    The PVL is important because it is a way to, in nearly real time, see what’s going on with an election.

    The PVL was how Joe Weinberg and I found the redistricting errors that resulted in over 3000 voters receiving the wrong ballot in the August 2012 election.

    At that time, the PVL was posted directly on the Election Commission’s website daily. Because of this, we were able to run our tests promptly and without waiting for a gatekeeper to open the gate for us (other than waiting for the report to be posted). This allowed both of us the ability to work, as volunteers…using our own time and getting paid nothing for our efforts, to expose one of the greatest election screw-ups in recent memory.

    Had the PVL’s only been available by request, it may have taken several more days to complete our tests, causing a greater delay in resolving the problem, and potentially disenfranchising thousands of more voters in the process.

    There is a small, tightly knit group of mostly volunteers, on both sides of the aisle, who pay very close attention to this report. Any delay is a huge setback because we are working on our own time, and of our own initiative.

    Thanks to another barrier being placed due to unnecessary fear drummed up by this report, the next election disaster, should it occur, will take days longer to identify.

    Way to go Channel 3.

    Playing both sides of the privacy fence

    But what is perhaps most perversely ironic is that the PVL is more safe than many of the methods WREG, and other commercial websites use to make money off of you.

    Have you ever noticed that things you’ve browsed on Amazon or other online retailers regularly show up on ads at completely unrelated websites?

    That monetization of “Big Data” is something every single news website in the country uses to generate revenue. It uses cookies, scripts, and your browser history to tailor ads to you, to increase their revenue.

    In doing so, they’re taking advantage of your ignorance of potential privacy concerns far more than the Election Commission or any other government agency that is required by law to publish or make available information about you and yours.

    A blow to good reporting

    Aside from the report being…just dumb…the Election Commission’s decision to no longer post the PVL is also a blow to reporters who know what to do with the report…other than stir up unnecessary FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) in the minds of viewers.

    In years past, experienced reporters and election observers have used the report to do good journalism in the public interest. I remember the first time I started seeing reports like this, but in particular, the work of Commercial Appeal reporter Zack McMillian back in 2010 when he was on the political beat.

    He used the information in a way that challenged me to dig even deeper into the report…which ultimately led to the discoveries Dr. Weinberg and I made going public.

    Journalism is supposed to both inform people, and make those who engage in it, either by profession or by hobby, better. Quander’s report doesn’t do that. It preys on the uninformed fears of people, who are already scared of the very big data his company makes money off of.

    So way to go Michael Quander, and the Producers, News Directors, and other influential decision-makers at WREG Channel 3. You’ve just made it harder for people just like you to do their job. I know you’re proud.