2001 Commentary Back to Commentary
An eGovernment Strategy for Vermont - March 2001
Check the Mail... Your Privacy Depends On It. - July 2001
Closing Primary is Bad for Democracy - September 2001
Congress Must Pass Bipartisan Election Reform Bill - November 2001
Opinion Editorial: March 2001
An eGovernment Strategy for Vermont
By Secretary of State Deb Markowitz
Vermont’s cold winter days are the perfect time to let our imaginations run wild. Can you Imagine sitting in your living room or den some Saturday in the future, renewing your car registration with the Department of Motor Vehicles, applying for a tax ID number or tradename for your business and checking on the status of your state income tax refund – all from your home computer?
The Internet is more than a communications medium. It is also a practical tool for commerce, and an invaluable tool for providing essential governmental services to the people of Vermont. Done right, eGovernment will harness technology to create positive, sweeping change in the relationship between people and their government. It will make government more results-oriented and will provide better services to the public by allowing Vermonters to conduct their business with state government whenever and wherever they wish. Rather than waiting in line, Vermonters will go on line to access easy-to use- government.
Electronic government will also allow our citizens and businesses to become involved in a more active dialog with state government. With an ability to track legislation or rulemaking on line – or to participate in a public hearing or to provide instant feedback on a new form or procedure, eGovernment can provide our citizens with a better understanding of government and its
role, thereby increasing citizen confidence and participation in government and governance.
As Secretary of State I have worked hard to create a state of the art web page which makes our small piece of state government more accessible and easy to use. Our Business Search Program allows Internet users access to valuable information about businesses registered in Vermont. Users can view the campaign finance reports of their local representative or look at the official results of the 2000 Presidential and general election. Those interested in Vermont’s history or current affairs can visit our Archives pages to look at photos from the past or to gain insight into current debates about the proper role of government. Our website offers information about the licensed professionals who serve the people of the state of Vermont and provide forms for making complaints of unprofessional conduct. All these programs, and more, are now available at the Secretary of State's Office website, www.sec.state.vt.us.
But these programs only scratch the surface. Our next task is to embrace e-business applications and to build the necessary systems for integrating Internet technology into our agency’s everyday structures and processes, while ensure public access accountability into the future.
The challenge now facing our state is not just to make the information of government available electronically, but to make it easy for the public to find exactly what they need where they need it. For example, there is no reason to expect that a person will know to visit the Secretary of State’s website to learn about how to become a Notary or to find out whether a doctor or dentist was recently disciplined for unprofessional conduct. And, in order to maximize the potential of eGovernment, we must we must take the necessary steps to allow our citizens to transact their business with government over the Internet.
Now is the time for the state of Vermont to prepare for eGovernment. Vermont – all of its agencies and departments - should have a single Internet portal through which we can search and access government programs and services. This portal should be designed to easily direct Internet browsers to the information they need to conduct their business regardless of what agency or department handles the matter. We must have greater uniformity among agencies and clear standards for content and record preservation to improve the quality, efficiency and endurance of e-government.
Our legislature must help us access the full potential of the Internet by passing digital signature and digital notary laws and to open the way for the acceptance of credit card and electronic payments. Only with this legislative support will we be able to conduct the business of government electronically.
State government must move from an information based technology – where the Internet is used as a reference for people about government – to a transactional or interactive tool, enabling our citizens to conduct their business with government entirely on line. To accomplish this our agencies must work together to create consistent forms, policies and protocols, not forgetting the importance of keeping records of government that will endure into the next generations.
As we move to e-government we must work to bridge the digital divide. Many Vermonters do not have access to the Internet. While we can expect that there will always be a demand to provide government services using the traditional paper-and-people model, we must take care not to leave behind anyone in our communities. Our education system must expose all of our students to new technology and to help them gain proficiency in Internet navigation. We must find ways to provide reliable computers to libraries, schools, local governments, community organizations and low-income households. We should try to foster public-private partnerships to ensure that Internet access is available in our rural communities and for our low-income households. And, of course, we must continue to ensure that government programs and services available through our web sites are accessible to those with disabilities.
It goes without saying that skilled leadership is essential if we are to bring eGovernment to Vermont. I applaud the steps taken to date to by the state’s chief information officer, Pat Urban, working with Kathy Hoyt the Secretary of the Agency of Adminsitration to begin to develop the single portal concept. The administration has done well to appoint people to top executive branch positions who have committed themselves to the strategic development of e-government in their departments and agencies. I urge the legislature and the Courts to coordinate with these important efforts. The judiciary systems at all levels can use information technology to fully open their deliberations, calendars, and decisions to the public. And Egovernment can make a meaningful difference connecting the public with their elected representatives. With appropriate leadership and attention Vermont can make wise investments in eGovernment while our economy continues to be strong.
As noted in the Council for Excellence in Government’s E-government Report, "this is one of those exciting moments in time when leaders are challenged to act, with imagination and determination, to achieve the quantum leaps that electronic government makes possible." Not only can information technology improve the delivery of services to our citizens, but by making government more efficient it will reduce our operating costs. Indeed, I think we will see that a well-run, efficiently organized Web site that offers useful services to citizens may have a significant positive effect on public spirit and the attitude of citizens toward government. So this winter I am imagining a future for Vermont in which citizens and businesses can interact with a more streamlined, service-oriented government. Government that is accessible 24 hours a day – seven days a week. A government that leaves no one out. E-government. The people are ready. We can do this, together.
Opinion Editorial: July 2001
Check the Mail... Your Privacy Depends On It.
By Secretary of State Deb Markowitz
"The right to be left alone -- the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by a free people."
- Justice Louis Brandeis, Olmstead v. U.S. (1928).
We are all used to getting junk mail. Lots and lots of it actually. Junk mail and telemarketing are growing sources of aggravation for American households. But they're more than just irritating, they're a privacy concern. The selling of our names, addresses, and phone numbers is big business. It is ironic then that there is one piece of mail that most Vermonters have discarded that can prevent the sale of personal information for marketing purposes.
Unfortunately, these privacy policies look very much like junk mail and people are throwing them out. It is not surprising, that less than 1% of consumers have exercised their opt-out right. A recent ABA poll found that 22% of banking customers said they received a privacy notice but did not read it, and 41% could not even recall receiving a notice. Even if you kept the notice and tried to read it, you might not have realized that you had an option to opt out. You might not have realized that if you did nothing, your personal financial information could be disclosed by the company.
Public Citizen, a national public interest group has collected and studied the privacy policies of a number of corporations has discovered that many are designed to deceive. Not only are policies written in small print and filled with legal jargon, but Public Citizen also found that the explanations of how to opt out are invariably hidden at the end of the notices or are designed to discourage consumers from exercising their rights. Some imply that, in order to exercise their right to opt out, consumers have to forego valuable opportunities. And many notices make a final attempt to dissuade consumers from opting out by implying that consumers may have already opted out or that opting out will have little effect.
According to polling data, most of us do not want our personal financial information shared. One of the most comprehensive polls on public attitudes toward the sale of marketing data indicated that
Source: "Are You Concerned?" Time Magazine, November 11, 1995.
Vermont is ahead of most of the country when it comes to protecting privacy. In 1994 we enacted our own privacy law that prohibits banks from sharing our personal information without getting permission. This is a great start. The Department of Banking and Insurance is working on rules that would place similar opt-in requirements on securities firms and insurance companies; however, until that time doing nothing when you get these notices may mean that you have given companies permission to share, sell or market your personal information. In addition, it is important to know that even if you "opt out," the new federal law will still allow affiliated companies (insurance companies, credit card providers, securities firms and banks who have a legal association) to share information. This information will allow companies to cross-market services and products.
In today’s world, our personal privacy is of great importance. The opportunity to protect it should not be thrown away!
Opinion Editorial:November 2002
Closing Primary is Bad for Democracy
By Deborah Markowitz, Secretary of State
In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of discussion about how our political parties select candidates for public office. One proposal offered by a committee of the Republican Party chaired by Jack McMullin, seeks to restrict access to the primary, for candidates and voters, to those willing to register their party affiliation. I believe this move is bad, not only for the political parties, but also for democracy in Vermont.
As Secretary of State my duties include overseeing the practice of democracy (elections) and measuring the results (archives). A quick trip to the Archives confirms this is not the first time candidate selection was the subject of heated public debate. In 1916 Vermont moved from using a caucus system to a primary system because of concern that the party caucus system restricted citizens’ ability to nominate candidates. At that time, supporters of the caucus system warned that the “primary makes possible the choice of a candidate by a small faction of the party decidedly in the minority . . .. There is no sufficient guarantee that the successful candidate really commands sufficient general support in the party to warrant his choice as a representative.” (For the primary debate see, The Direct Primary, Legislative Reference Bureau, Montpelier, VT 1914, http://vermont-archives.org/govhistory/governance/Primary/report.htm)
As in 1914, today’s supporters of the closed nomination process assert that open primaries allow members of an opposing party to influence candidate selection. However, history has shown us that this fear has never borne out. While we have all heard of people who crossed over to vote a ballot without a genuine affiliation with the party or candidates, there is no evidence they influenced the outcome of an election. The primary plan offered by Jack McMullin argues that a protest candidate defeated the leadership's preferred candidate for US Senate in 1998. However, in the same Republican primary that Fred Tuttle (54%) beat Jack McMullen (44%), another Party favorite, Ruth Dwyer (57%), beat moderate Bernie Rome (40%), with a similar number of people voting. Mrs. Dwyer was not a candidate who appealed to potential crossover Democrats. (For election results see http://vermont-archives.org/govinfo/ elect/prindex.htm.) It can be argued that Mr. McMullin's loss reflected voter concern over a candidate of uncertain residency. Recently members of the Republican State committee, angered over Senator Jefford's defection, cried foul because they had made sure he had not confronted a primary opponent. In light of that claim, legally restricting primary participation seems to be a solution in search of a problem. Vermont history shows that we can trust our voters.
Who we nominate to run determines whom, eventually, will govern. For that reason, restricting access to the nomination process is bad for democracy. The open primary system allows the greatest number of Vermonters to participate in the nomination process. Indeed, we cannot automatically assume that greater participation in a primary is a sign of partisan shenanigans; is it not as likely that it reflects a clear choice on important issues?
In contrast, under the McMullin proposal, candidate access to the primary would be restricted to those individuals whose party credentials will be determined by a handful of party managers. It will be difficult to convince voters that such a closed system does not mark a return to political bosses and back rooms. We have a hard enough time already trying to convince our citizens that their voices and their votes count!
With most Vermont voters identifying themselves as independents, the challenge for all parties is to open their doors to non-partisan voters who may share their values and support their candidates. Establishing ideological tests will only further marginalize parties. The goal of our democratic institutions is participation, not exclusion. In Vermont we must continue to trust our voters.
Opinion Editorial:November 2001
Congress Must Pass Bipartisan Election Reform Bill
By Deborah Markowitz, Secretary of State
One year ago this month, the United States was in the middle of a political nightmare that would keep our nation in a cold sweat for five weeks.
Uncertainty about who would become our 43rd President shook our great democracy. Public confidence in our election system - the mechanics of which had been sorely neglected for years - plummeted. Our great nation had worked so hard to guarantee every citizen's right to vote. Yet, the most technologically advanced country in the world fell short of that promise on Election Day 2000.
For most Vermonters, last year's top news story may seem remote - particularly in light of the unprecedented terrorist attacks on September 11. But those of us responsible for overseeing elections know that unless we act boldly as a country to address the problems we saw last November, we will be condemned to repeat them.
Fortunately, Congress is now showing that it is serious about helping the states send hanging, dimpled and dangling chads to the dustbin of history. Two weeks ago, Congressmen Bob Ney (R-OH) and Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the top Republican and Democrat on the committee with jurisdiction over federal election reform, introduced the "Help America Vote Act of 2001."
This bipartisan legislation is now supported by more than 125 House Members, and the list continues to grow. Among other groups, the National Association of Secretaries of State has issued a strong endorsement. David Broder, the respected syndicated columnist, recently wrote that the bill may be "the most significant piece of federal election law since [the] Voting Rights Act."
The Help America Vote Act is a crucial mixture of federal assistance to the states and basic election standards, which must be adopted without regard to whether a state receives federal money. Under this bill, states must adopt a statewide voter registration system linked to local jurisdictions, (in Vermont, the lack of such a system means we cannot know whether there is voter fraud in our elections), a system for maintaining the accuracy of voter registration records, and assurances that voters will be able to correct voting errors.
In addition, states must adopt safeguards to ensure that overseas and military voters have their votes counted, uniform standards defining what constitutes a vote on the different types of voting equipment, and practical and effective means for voters with disabilities to cast secret ballots on new voting equipment.
Furthermore, this bill authorizes $2.65 billion for federal election reform, including $400 million for one-time payments to states and counties to replace unreliable punch-card voting systems. The remaining $2.25 billion will be available to help states maintain accurate lists of eligible voters, improve equipment, recruit and train poll workers, improve access for disabled voters, and educate voters about their rights.
This bipartisan legislation is not perfect; no bill is. However, it will shore up the integrity of our electoral process, improve voter participation, and renew public confidence in this most cherished democratic right.
It's clear that with just a few short weeks before Congress adjourns for the year, time is of the essence. And the time for action on election reform is now.
Even though we do not have dimpled chads in Vermont, it is important for our country that we to join the growing chorus of legislators and election officials urging Congress to pass the bipartisan Help America Vote Act without delay. This legislation will help bolster our democracy and prevent a repeat of last year's national election nightmare.
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