141 posts categorized "Massachusetts" Feed

Senator Warren Calls For the Firing Of All Wells Fargo Board Members

Wells Fargo logo In a letter sent Monday to the Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) has called for the firing of all 12 board members at Wells Fargo bank for failing to adequately protect accountholders. CNBC reported first the Senator's letter, which read in part:

"The fake accounts scandal cost Wells Fargo customers millions of dollars in unauthorized fees and damaged many of their credit scores," the senator wrote. "The scandal also revealed severe problems with the bank's risk management practices — problems that justify the Federal Reserve's removal of all responsible Board members."

After implementing sales targets and an incentive program, many of the bank's employees secretly opened new accounts and transferred money from other accounts to fund the new accounts -- all without the customers' knowledge nor consent. In some cases, employees applied for credit cards, created PIN numbers, and operated fake e-mail accounts in customers' names.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced in September, 2016 the consent order with the bank. As a result of the fake-account scandal, the bank paid about $185 million in fines and fired 5,300 lower-level employees for setting up 2 million bogus accounts. Few or no senior executives have been punished.

Many Republicans and President Trump seek to defund and shut down the CFPB.

During October, 2016 Timothy J. Sloan was elected chief executive officer at Wells Fargo bank after the former CEO, John Stumpf, retired. Sloan also joined the board of directors as a member.

CNN Money reported:

"... Wells Fargo suffered from inadequate risk management systems that should have flagged the illegal activity earlier. Shareholder advisory firm Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) agrees. ISS argued the Wells Fargo board made the scandal worse by failing to provide oversight that could have limited the damage..."

In her letter, Senator Warren urged the Federal Reserve to act:

"I urge you to use the tools Congress has given you to remove the responsible board members and protect the continued safety and soundness of one of the country's largest banks..."

Reportedly, the Senator's letter mentioned the following Wells Fargo board members: John D. Baker II, John S. Chen, Lloyd H. Dean, Elizabeth A. Duke, Enrique Hernandez, Donald M. James, Cynthia H. Milligan, Federico F. Pena, James H. Quigley, Stephen W. Sanger, Susan G. Swenson, and Suzanne M. Vautrinot.

Some banking experts see the demand as unprecedented and unlikely. All of the bank's board members were re-elected during the annual shareholder meeting in April , 2017. Also during April, the bank announced an expansion of its class-action settlement agreements for its retail sales practices. The expansion covered account holders affected as early as May, 2002 by the bogus new account scandal, and added $32 million to the settlement amount total.


Dozens Of Uber Employees Fired Or Investigated For Harassment. Uber And Lyft Drivers Unaware of Safety Recalls

Uber logo Ride-sharing companies are in the news again and probably not for the reasons their management executives would prefer. First, TechCrunch reported on Thursday:

"... at a staff meeting in San Francisco, Uber executives revealed to the company’s 12,000 employees that 20 of their colleagues had been fired and that 57 are still being probed over harassment, discrimination and inappropriate behavior, following a string of accusations that Uber had created a toxic workplace and allowed complaints to go unaddressed for years. Those complaints had pushed Uber into crisis mode earlier this year. But the calamity may be just beginning... Uber fired senior executive Eric Alexander after it was leaked to Recode that Alexander had obtained the medical records of an Uber passenger in India who was raped in 2014 by her driver."

"Recode also reported that Alexander had shared the woman’s file with Kalanick and his senior vice president, Emil Michael, and that the three men suspected the woman of working with Uber’s regional competitor in India, Ola, to hamper its chances of success there. Uber eventually settled a lawsuit brought by the woman against the company..."

News broke in March, 2017 about both the Recode article and the Grayball activity at Uber to thwart local government code inspections. In February, a former Uber employee shared a disturbing story with allegations of sexual harassment.

Lyft logo Second, the investigative team at WBZ-TV, the local CBS afiliate in Boston, reported that many Uber and Lyft drivers are unaware of safety recalls affecting their vehicles. This could make rides in these cars unsafe for passengers:

"Using an app from Carfax, we quickly checked the license plates of 167 Uber and Lyft cars picking up passengers at Logan Airport over a two day period. Twenty-seven of those had open safety recalls or about 16%. Recalls are issued when a manufacturer identifies a mechanical problem that needs to be fixed for safety reasons. A recent example is the millions of cars that were recalled when it was determined the airbags made by Takata could release shrapnel when deployed in a crash."

Both ride-sharing companies treat drivers as independent contractors. WBZ-TV reported:

"Uber told the [WBZ-TV investigative] Team that drivers are contractors and not employees of the company. A spokesperson said they provide resources to drivers and encourage them to check for recalls and to perform routine maintenance. Drivers are also reminded quarterly to check with NHTSA for recall information."

According to the president of the Massachusetts Bar Association Jeffrey Catalano, the responsibility to make sure the car is safe for passengers lies mainly with the driver. But because Uber and Lyft both advertise their commitment to safety on their websites, they too could be held responsible."


Verizon To Exit Its Copper Wire Telephone Business In Several States In 2018

Verizon logo If your home uses a copper wire telephone service, often called a "landline" or POTS (e.g., Plain Old Telephone Service), you may soon have to make a change. In Boston, Verizon will abandon its landline business in June 2018.

On Saturday, my wife received a letter via postal mail from Verizon. We live in Boston. The "Notice of Copper Retirement" stated:

"Currently, Verizon brings voice and/or data services to your home over copper cables. However, the company is updating to fiber-optic technology in your area, and will be retiring its copper facilities that currently serve you and your neighbors.

To continue to provide you service, Verizon will have to move your service to these fiber-optic facilities. If fiber is available to your home now, we will be contacting you individually soon to schedule an appointment to transition your services to fiber. Otherwise, we will be contacting you once fiber is available. In either case, we will need to move your service well before we retire the copper in your area which is scheduled for on or after June 1, 2018

We will transfer your voice services from copper to fiber at no cost to you. This transfer will not result in any change to the voice service that you currently receive from Verizon. You may continue to subscribe to the same voice service at the same price, terms, and conditions. In addition, any devices that rely upon your voice service, such as fax machines, medical devices, or security alarms connected to a central station, will continue to work in the same way as they currently do over copper. We will also provide you with a battery backup device at no charge. For almost all residential customers, that device uses standard D-cell batteries that can support up to 24 hours of standby voice service during a commercial power outage. In case of a prolonged power outage, you can simply replace the batteries and extend the backup power.

If you subscribe to our High Speed Internet service, the migration to fiber will require a change since that service is not available on our fiber facilities. The Internet access service that we offer on fiber is FiOS Internet. FiOS Internet is available at significantly faster speeds than High Speed Internet. We will offer the service at a special rate for customers who migrate from copper to fiber facilities as a result of the retirement of our copper facilities. In some cases, this price may be lower or higher than what you currently pay for internet access.

Please review the Frequently Asked Questions for additional information about the fiber update or visit us at verizon.com/fiberupgrade. If you still have questions, please call us Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. - 8 p.m., or Saturday 9 a.m. - 5 p.n. at 1-877-439-7442.

You may also contact the Federal Communications Commission or your State Commission if you have any questions. Thank you for continuing to be a loyal customer. We greatly appreciate your business.

Sincerely

Janet Gazlay Martin
Director, Network Transformation

I visited the website mentioned in the notice. That site pitches the FiOS Internet service, and doesn't explain the company's copper landline retirement activities. You have to do a little digging online to find the locations where Verizon announced its retirement of copper-wire telephone services. The locations include several states in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic regions. Earlier this month, Verizon announced the retirement of copper landlines next year in the following states, cities, and towns:

  • Delaware: Newark, Ocean View
  • Maryland: Bethesda, Columbia, Glen Burnie, Rockville, Towson
  • Massachusetts: Danvers, Dorchester, Framingham, Hanover, Lawrence, Leominster, Marblehead, Newton, North Chelmsford, Roxbury, Stoughton, West Roxbury
  • New Jersey: Bergen, Berlin, Cape May, Cranford, East Dover, East Orange, Ewing, Freehold, Hackensack, Haddonfield, Journal Square, Marlton, Medford, Merchantville, Morristown, New Brunswick, Red Bank, Somerville, Toms River, Union City, Wall Township, Woodbury
  • New York: Cayuga Williamsville, Cornwall, Mineola, Mount Vernon, Plainview Central, Skaneateles, White Plains, and multiple areas within all of the five boroughs of New York City
  • Pennsylvania: Allentown, Dormont, Glenolden, Jefferson, Jenkintown, Mayfair, Mechanicsburg, portions of Philadelphia, Pilgrim, Turtle Creek, Wilkinsburg
  • Rhode Island: portions of Providence
  • Virginia: Arlington, Falls Church, Reston, Springfield, Virginia Beach, and portions of Richmond

The telecommunications company made similar announcements during February, 2017 about other areas within the same states. Verizon is not alone. Telephone companies have planned for years to abandon their their copper landline services. In August 2015, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) reported that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC):

"... set new ground rules for carriers seeking to replace their old copper telephone networks. Approved by a 3-2 vote at an open meeting yesterday, the rules require carriers to notify customers in advance and to seek FCC approval before reducing services... FCC chairman Tom Wheeler and others have been pushing to shift telephone traffic to fiber optics and the Internet. Critics have charged that phone companies are allowing their old copper networks to decay to force customers to shift to fiber service. But some 37 million households —- many of them headed by elderly people —- remain on legacy copper, commissioner Mignon Clyburn noted at the hearing. Other holdouts live in rural areas that lack cellular and broadband service. Some prefer copper connections because they are independent of local power lines, and offer better 911 emergency service.

The FCC ruling requires that carriers notify retail customers at least three months before shutting down a copper network, and provide six-months notice to interconnecting carriers using the old lines. (Clyburn complained that that's much less time than the FCC gave before shutting down analog broadcast television, but voted for the measure anyway.) Carriers also must seek FCC approval if the telephone changeover would "discontinue, reduce or impair" service... In a separate vote, all five FCC commissioners agreed to require carriers to offer customers backup power supplies that maintain their phone service during prolonged power outages..."

You can read announcements by AT&T about copper landline retirements. CenturyLink notified the FCC last year about copper landline retirements in eight states: in Alabama, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Since the FCC set copper-retirement rules in 2015, technology adoption has climbed slightly. In January of this year, Pew Research reported that 77 percent of adults in the USA own a smartphone and 73 percent have broadband internet at home. However, while:

"... broadband adoption has increased to its highest level since the Center began tracking this topic in early 2000, not all Americans have shared in these gains. For instance, those who have not graduated from high school are nearly three times less likely than college graduates to have home broadband service (34 percent vs. 91 percent)... 12 percent of Americans say they are “smartphone dependent” when it comes to their online access – meaning they own a smartphone but lack traditional broadband service at home. The share of Americans who are smartphone dependent has increased 4 percentage points since 2013, and smartphone reliance is especially pronounced among young adults, nonwhites and those with relatively low household incomes."

While more people have smartphones and internet access at home, a sizeable number still have copper landlines. Phys.org reported in November 2016 the results of a recent survey:

"... 20 percent of the nation's households still view having a landline or fixed telephone as the most important of their telecommunications choices, according to a survey that queried consumers about their telephone and internet preferences... The study also found that for the average consumer, having mobile telephone service is about 3.5 times more important than a landline or fixed telephone service... Study findings suggest about 90 percent of American households have at least one mobile phone, 75 percent have fixed internet service, 58 percent have mobile internet service and 49 percent have fixed telephone service. Mobile telephone service was the most important service for the typical respondent, followed by fixed internet service, mobile internet service and fixed telephone service, although a portion rank fixed telephone first."

According to the 2012 United States Census, there are about 117 million households in the United States, and 2.59 persons on average per household. So, a substantial portion of the population will probably view negatively the termination of copper wire telephone services in their homes.

Verizon's copper termination notice was unnecessarily complicated, which could confuse many consumers. The portion of its notice which said "If fiber is available to your home..." was laughable. FiOS is already available in our neighborhood. Verizon notified me months ago, and I already migrated my antiquated DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) internet service on my phone line to FiOS. Verizon's landline business unit should know what its FiOS division is doing.The left hand should know what the right hand is doing.

So, Verizon's notice wasn't as customized nor as relevant as it could have been. It makes one wonder if, in its zeal to terminate its copper wire phone business, Verizon rushed the customer letters.

Readers of this blog remember the Boston City Council's hearings in 2015 about residents' requests for FiOS. In 2015, Verizon hadn't deployed FiOS even though it had been available in several suburban towns for many years. Example: a friend in Lexington has had FiOS since at least 2009. So, Verizon could have deployed FiOS far sooner, providing consumers more time to migrate their phone service without rushing.

What should consumers do? It depends upon your lifestyle. If you already have a smartphone, you may want to simply terminate your landline phone service and use your smartphone instead. If you don't have a smartphone, you can migrate your copper landline phone service to Verizon's FiOS fiber connection, to a smartphone, or to another telephone service provider. For example, many cable-TV providers, such as Comcast, provide phone service in residences.

Some consumers value security and privacy. If you perform phone-based banking or online banking with your desktop/laptop computer, then security is a concern. Since smartphones or wireless phones using home WiFi networks transmit using radio waves, you'll probably want to encrypt you wireless online banking transmissions to protect against theft by criminals or hackers. Several brands of Virtual Private Network (VPN) software and apps are available to encrypt your wireless transmissions. If you are unfamiliar with VPN software, this prior blog post contains links to online primers and tutorials.

If you received a copper termination letter from your phone company, what were your opinions of it? Did you switch to fiber landlines or to wireless?


Attorneys General In Several States Announce Settlement Agreements With Target

Target Bullseye logo The Office of the Attorney General (AG) for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts announced on Wednesday that the state will receive $625,000 as part of the settlement agreement with Target Corporation. The settlement agreement, which includes 47 states plus the District of Colombia, resolves claims by states about the retailer's massive data breach in 2013.

Card issuers had also sued the retailer. Target settled with Visa in August, 2015 to resolve claims in which 110 million consumers' records were stolen, including 40 million credit- and debit-card numbers. Also, debit card PIN numbers were stolen.

The announcement by Massachusetts AG Maura Healey explained:

"The investigation found that the stolen credentials were used to exploit weaknesses in Target’s system, which allowed the attackers to access a customer service database, install malware on the system and then capture data from credit or debit card transactions at Target stores (including stores in Massachusetts) from Nov. 27, 2013 to Dec. 15, 2013. The stolen data included consumers’ full names, telephone numbers, email addresses, mailing addresses, payment card numbers, expiration dates, security codes, and encrypted debit PINs... The breach affected more than 41 million customer payment card accounts and contact information for more than 60 million customers nationwide. In Massachusetts, the breach compromised information from approximately 947,000 customer payment card accounts and other personally-identifying information of about 1.5 million Massachusetts residents."

Terms of the settlement require Target:

"... to develop, implement and maintain a comprehensive information security program and to employ an executive or officer who is responsible for executing the plan. The company is required to hire an independent, qualified third-party to conduct a comprehensive security assessment... to maintain and support software on its network; to maintain appropriate encryption policies, particularly as pertains to cardholder and personal information data; to segment its cardholder data environment from the rest of its computer network; and to undertake steps to control access to its network, including implementing password rotation policies and two-factor authentication for certain accounts."

California will receive $1.4 million from the settlement. New York AG Eric T. Schneiderman said about the settlement agreement:

"New Yorkers need to know that when they shop, their data will be protected... This settlement marks an important win for New Yorkers – bringing over $635,000 into the state, in addition to the free credit monitoring services for those impacted by the data breach, and key security improvements to help protect Target consumers moving forward."

Yes, indeed. Shoppers everywhere need to know their data will be protected.

Besides Massachusetts, New York and California, the other states participating in this settlement include Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

AL.com reported:

"Alabama won't be cashing in on the largest multi-state data breach settlement in history, however. The reason, according to the Alabama Attorney General's Office, is the absence of a state law that requires entities to notify customers whose information could have been exposed in a breach and then take steps to remediate any injuries.

"Alabama is one of the few states in the nation that is not a party to the recent Target settlement because our state does not have data breach notification law," said Mike Lewis, Communications Director for the Office of the Alabama Attorney General."

Connecticut and Illinois led the states' investigation. The participating states have not yet announced how the settlement money will be distributed.

[Editor's Note: a prior version of this blog post did not include the report by AL.com.]


Speech By FCC Chairman. Time For Citizens To Fight To Keep Net Neutrality Protections

Federal communications Commission logo Earlier today, Ajit Pai, the Chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), gave a speech titled, "The Future Of Internet Freedom" at the Newseum in Washington, DC. He discussed the history of the Internet, regulation, business investment, innovation, and jobs. He also shared his views on regulation and a desire for the FCC's to pursue a "light touch" regulatory approach:

"First, we are proposing to return the classification of broadband service from a Title II telecommunications service to a Title I information service—that is, light-touch regulation drawn from the Clinton Administration.  As I mentioned earlier, this Title I classification was expressly upheld by the Supreme Court in 2005, and it’s more consistent with the facts and the law.

Second, we are proposing to eliminate the so-called Internet conduct standard. This 2015 rule gives the FCC a roving mandate to micromanage the Internet... The FCC used the Internet conduct standard to launch a wide-ranging investigation of free-data programs. Under these programs, wireless companies offer their customers the ability to stream music, video, and the like free from any data limits. They are very popular among consumers, particularly lower-income Americans... Following the presidential election, we terminated this investigation before the FCC was able to take any formal action. But we shouldn’t leave the Internet conduct standard on the books for a future Commission to make mischief.

And third, we are seeking comment on how we should approach the so-called bright-line rules adopted in 2015. But you won’t just have to take my word about what is in the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. I will be publicly releasing the entire text of the document tomorrow afternoon..."

This should not be a surprise. We've heard much of this before from Congresswoman Blackburn, the author of the recently passed House legislation to roll back consumers' online privacy protection. Blackburn said the same about FCC reclassification; that it was bad, and that the internet wasn't broken. Well it was broken prior to to 2014, and in several specific ways.

The lack of ISP competition in key markets meant consumers in the United States pay more for broadband and get slower speeds compared to other countries. Rural consumers and low-income areas lacked broadband services. There were numerous complaints by consumers about usage Based Internet Pricing. There were privacy abuses and settlement agreements by ISPs involving technologies such as deep-packet inspection and 'Supercookies' to track customers online, despite consumers' wishes not to be tracked. Many consumers didn't get the broadband speeds ISP promised. Some consumers sued their ISPs, and the New York State Attorney General invited residents to check their broadband speed with this tool. Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the internet, cited in March three reasons why the Internet is in trouble. His number one reason: consumers had lost control of their personal information. With all of this evidence, how can Pai and Blackburn claim the internet wasn't broken?

There are more examples. Some consumers found that their ISP hijacked their online search results without notice nor consent. An ISP in Kansas admitted in 2008 to secret snooping after pressure from Congress. Given all of this, something had to be done. The FCC stepped up to the plate and acted when it was legally able to; and reclassified broadband after open hearings. Then, the FCC adopted new privacy rules in November, 2016. Proposed rules were circulated prior to adoption. It was done in the open. It made sense.

Meanwhile, the rollback of FCC broadband privacy rules is very unpopular among consumers. Comments by Pai and Blackburn seem to ignore both that and key events (listed above) in broadband history. That is practicing the "revisionist history" Pai said in his speech he disliked. That leaves me questioning whether they can be trusted to develop reasonable solutions that serve the interests of consumers.

With their victory last month to roll back the FCC's online privacy protections, pro-big-telecom advocates claim they are acting in consumers' best interests. What bull. With that rollback, consumers are no longer in control of their information. (The opt-in and other controls were killed.) Plus, we live in a capitalist society where the information that describes us is valuable property. That's why so many companies want to collect it. Consumers should be in control of their online privacy and the information that describes them, not corporate ISPs.

Corporate ISPs' next target is "net neutrality." Pai referred to it in the "bright lines" portion of his speech. For those who don't know or have forgotten, net neutrality is when consumers are in control -- consumers choose where to go online with the broadband they've purchased, and when ISPs must treat all content equally. That means no blocking, no throttling, and no paid prioritization. Net neutrality means consumers stay in control of where they go online.

Pai claimed this was unclear. Again, more bull. The FCC's no blocking, no throttling, and no paid prioritization position was crystal clear.

Without net neutrality, ISPs decide where consumers can go online, which sites you can visit, and which sites you can visit only if you pay more. ISPs would likely group web sites into tiers (e.g., slow vs. fast "lanes"), similar to premium cable-TV channels. Do you want your monthly internet bill as confusing, complicated, and expensive as your cable-TV bill? I don't, and I doubt you do either.

Pai and Blackburn claim that net neutrality (and privacy) kills innovation. I guess that depends how you define "innovation." If you define innovation as the ability of ISPs to carve up the internet to maximize they profits where consumers pay more, then it should be killed. That's not innovation. That's customer segmentation by price and paid prioritization.

In his speech, Pai provided an appealing explanation about how ISPs spent less on infrastructure. He neglected to mention that decreased infrastructure spending was a choice by ISPs. They could have cut expenses elsewhere and continued infrastructure spending, but they didn't. Instead, ISPs chose the path we see: utilize a compliant, sympathetic Republican-led Congress and White House to get what they wanted -- the ability to charge higher broadband prices -- and use slick, misleading language to appear to be consumer friendly.

Take action today to defend net neutrality protections. Fight For The Future The Pai-led FCC isn't consumer friendly. The GOP-led Congress isn't, either. Regardless of how they spin it. Don't be fooled.

Anyone paying attention already knows this. Concerned citizens fought for and won net neutrality in 2014. Sadly, we might fight the net neutrality fight again.

It will be an uphill fight for two reasons. First, Republicans control the White House, House of Representatives, and Senate. Second, the Trump Administration is working simultaneously on rollbacks for several key issues (e.g., health care, immigration, wall along Mexican border, tax reform, environment, education, terrorism, etc.), making it easier to distract opponents with other issues (and with outrageous midnight tweets). Yet, people demonstrated last week at an open FCC meeting. (Video is also available here.) Now is the time for more concerned citizens to rise, speak up, and fight back. Write to your elected officials. Tell your friends, classmates, coworkers, and family members. Use this action form to contact your elected officials. Participate in local marches and protests. Join the Fight For The Future. Support the EFF.

Some elected officials have already committed to defend net neutrality protections:

What about your elected officials? Have they made a commitment to defend net neutrality? Ask them. Don't be silent. Now is not the time to sit on the sideline and wait for others to do the fighting for you.


Tax Day Protest in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Protesters Demand President Releases His Tax Returns

Rallies and marches in more than 190 cities and towns were held on Saturday April 15 to demand more transparency and fairness related to taxes. The transparency demand is for the 45th President of the United States. During the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Trump promised to release his tax returns after an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) audit was completed. After winning the election and entering office, President Trump refused to release his tax returns.

The issue is partisan. A Yougov survey in May 2016 found that 61 percent of Americans, 81 percent of Democrats, 60 percent of Independents, and 38 percent of Republicans wanted candidate Trump to release his detailed tax returns.

An estimated 2,500 persons attended the greater Boston area event held on the Cambridge Commons in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The emcee was Mike Connolly, a Massachusetts State representative for Somerville and Cambridge. Several local organizers spoke, including calls for fairness with taxes and the federal budget. The entire rally paused for a moment of silence to remember the victims in the Boston Marathon bombing four years ago.

Future rallies are scheduled to support science, public education, and recognition of climate change. Learn more about today's event at #TaxDayMarch and at #TaxMarchBoston. Photographs of today's event in Cambridge appear below.

Greater Boston area Tax Rally. April 15, 2017

Greater Boston area Tax Rally. April 15, 2017

Greater Boston area Tax Rally. April 15, 2017

Greater Boston area Tax Rally. April 15, 2017

Greater Boston area Tax Rally. April 15, 2017

Greater Boston area Tax Rally. April 15, 2017

Greater Boston area Tax Rally. April 15, 2017

Greater Boston area Tax Rally. April 15, 2017

Greater Boston area Tax Rally. April 15, 2017

Greater Boston area Tax Rally. April 15, 2017

Greater Boston area Tax Rally. April 15, 2017

Greater Boston area Tax Rally. April 15, 2017

Greater Boston area Tax Rally. April 15, 2017

Greater Boston area Tax Rally. April 15, 2017


We Fact-Checked Lawmakers' Letters To Constituents on Health Care

[Editor's Note: today's guest post, by the reporters at ProPublica, explores the problem of "fake news" and whether elected officials contribute to the problem while discussing health care legislation. The article was originally published yesterday, and is reprinted with permission. Interested persons wanting to help ProPublica's ongoing fact-checking efforts can share with ProPublica messages you have received from your elected officials.]

by Charles Ornstein, ProPublica

When Louisiana resident Andrea Mongler wrote to her senator, Bill Cassidy, in support of the Affordable Care Act, she wasn't surprised to get an email back detailing the law's faults. Cassidy, a Republican who is also a physician, has been a vocal critic.

"Obamacare" he wrote in January, "does not lower costs or improve quality, but rather it raises taxes and allows a presidentially handpicked 'Health Choices Commissioner' to determine what coverage and treatments are available to you."

There's one problem with Cassidy's ominous-sounding assertion: It's false.

The Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, includes no "Health Choices Commissioner." Another bill introduced in Congress in 2009 did include such a position, but the bill died 2014 and besides, the job as outlined in that legislation didn't have the powers Cassidy ascribed to it.

As the debate to repeal the law heats up in Congress, constituents are flooding their representatives with notes of support or concern, and the lawmakers are responding, sometimes with form letters that are misleading. A review of more than 200 such letters by ProPublica and its partners at Kaiser Health News, Stat and Vox, found dozens of errors and mis-characterizations about the ACA and its proposed replacement. The legislators have cited wrong statistics, conflated health care terms and made statements that don't stand up to verification.

It's not clear if this is intentional or if the lawmakers and their staffs don't understand the current law or the proposals to alter it. Either way, the issue of what is wrong -- and right -- about the current system has become critical as the House prepares to vote on the GOP's replacement bill today.

"If you get something like that in writing from your U.S. senator, you should be able to just believe that," said Mongler, 34, a freelance writer and editor who is pursuing a master's degree in public health. "I hate that people are being fed falsehoods, and a lot of people are buying it and not questioning it. It's far beyond politics as usual."

Cassidy's staff did not respond to questions about his letter.

Political debates about complex policy issues are prone to hyperbole and health care is no exception. And to be sure, many of the assertions in the lawmakers' letters are at least partially based in fact.

Democrats, for instance, have been emphasizing to their constituents that millions of previously uninsured people now have medical coverage thanks to the law. They say insurance companies can no longer discriminate against millions of patients with pre-existing conditions. And they credit the law with allowing adults under age 26 to stay on their parents' health plans. All true.

For their part, Republicans criticize the law for not living up to its promises. They say former President Obama pledged that people could keep their health plans and doctors and premiums would go down. Neither has happened. They also say that insurers are dropping out of the market and that monthly premiums and deductibles (the amount people must pay before their coverage kicks in) have gone up. All true.

But elected officials in both parties have incorrectly cited statistics and left out important context. We decided to take a closer look after finding misleading statements in an email Senator Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) sent to his constituents. We solicited letters from the public and found a wealth of misinformation, from statements that were simply misleading to whoppers. More Republicans fudged than Democrats, though both had their moments.

An aide to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) defended his hyperbole as "within the range of respected interpretations."

"Do most people pay that much attention to what their congressman says? Probably not," said Sherry Glied, dean of New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, who served as an assistant Health and Human Services secretary from 2010 to 2012. "But I think misinformation or inaccurate information is a bad thing and not knowing what you're voting on is a really bad thing."

We reviewed the emails and letters sent by 51 senators and 134 members of the House within the past few months. Here are some of the most glaring errors and omissions:

Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio) incorrectly cited the number of Ohio counties that had only one insurer on the Affordable Care Act insurance exchange.

What he wrote: "In Ohio, almost one third of counties will have only one insurer participating in the exchange."

What's misleading: In fact, only 23 percent (less than one quarter) had only one option, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

His response: A Tiberi spokesperson defended the statement. "The letter says 'almost' because only 9 more counties in Ohio need to start offering only 1 plan on the exchanges to be one third."

Why his response is misleading: Ohio has 88 counties. A 10 percent difference is not "almost."

Representative Kevin Yoder (R-Kansas) said that the quality of health care in the country has declined because of the ACA, offering no proof.

What he wrote: "Quality of care has decreased as doctors have been burdened with increased regulations on their profession."

Why it's misleading: Some data shows that health care has improved after the passage of the ACA. Patients are less likely to be readmitted to a hospital within 30 days after they have been discharged, for instance. Also, payments have been increasingly linked to patients' outcomes rather than just the quantity of services delivered. A 2016 report by the Commonwealth Fund, a health care nonprofit think tank, found that the quality care has improved in many communities following the ACA.

His response: None.

Representative Anna Eshoo (D-California) misstated the percentage of Medicaid spending that covers the cost of long-term care, such as nursing home stays.

What she wrote: "It's important to note that 60 percent of Medicaid goes to long-term care and with the evisceration of it in the bill, this critical coverage is severely compromised."

What's misleading: Medicaid does not spend 60 percent of its budget on long-term care. The figure is closer to a quarter, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank. Medicaid does, however, cover more than 60 percent of all nursing home residents.

Her response: Eshoo's office said the statistic was based on a subset of enrollees who are dually enrolled in Medicaid and Medicare. For this smaller group, 62 percent of Medicaid expenditures were for long-term support services, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

What's misleading about the response: Eshoo's letter makes no reference to this population, but instead refers to the 75 million Americans on Medicaid.

Representative Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tennessee) pointed to the number of uninsured Americans as a failure of the ACA, without noting that the law had dramatically reduced the number of uninsured.

What he wrote: "According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately thirty-three million Americans are still living without health care coverage and many more have coverage that does not adequately meet their health care needs."

Why it's misleading: The actual number of uninsured in 2015 was about 29 million, a drop of 4 million from the prior year, the Census Bureau reported in September. Fleischmann's number was from the previous year.

Beyond that, reducing the number of uninsured by more than 12 million people from 2013 to 2015 has been seen as a success of Obamacare. And the Republican repeal-and-replace bill is projected to increase the number of uninsured.

His response: None.

Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-Massachusetts) overstated the number of young adults who were able to stay on their parents' health plan as a result of the law.

What he wrote: The ACA "allowed 6.1 million young adults to remain covered by their parents' insurance plans."

What's misleading: A 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, released during the Obama administration, however, pegged the number at 2.3 million.

Kennedy may have gotten to 6.1 million by including 3.8 million young adults who gained health insurance coverage through insurance marketplaces from October 2013 through early 2016.

His response: A spokeswoman for Kennedy said the office had indeed added those two numbers together and would fix future letters.

Representative Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Missouri.) said that 75 percent of health insurance marketplaces run by states have failed. They have not.

What he said: "Nearly 75 percent of state-run exchanges have already collapsed, forcing more than 800,000 Americans to find new coverage."

What's misleading: When the ACA first launched, 16 states and the District of Columbia opted to set up their own exchanges for residents to purchase insurance, instead of using the federal marketplace, known as Healthcare.gov.

Of the 16, four state exchanges, in Oregon, Hawaii, New Mexico and Nevada, failed, and Kentucky plans to close its exchange this year, according to a report by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. While the report casts doubt on the viability of other state exchanges, it is clear that 3/4 have not failed.

His response: None.

Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) overstated that the ACA "distorted labor markets," prompting employers to shift workers from full-time jobs to part-time jobs.

What he said: "It has also, through the requirement that employees that work thirty hours or more be considered full time and thus be offered health insurance by their employer, distorted the labor market."

What's misleading: A number of studies have found little to back up that assertion. A 2016 study published by the journal Health Affairs examined data on hours worked, reason for working part time, age, education and health insurance status. "We found only limited evidence to support this speculation" that the law led to an increase in part-time employment, the authors wrote. Another study found much the same.

In addition, PolitiFact labeled as false a statement last June by President Donald Trump in which he said, "Because of Obamacare, you have so many part-time jobs."

His response: Rohrabacher spokesman Ken Grubbs said the congressman's statement was based on an article that said, "Are Republicans right that employers are capping workers' hours to avoid offering health insurance? The evidence suggests the answer is 'yes,' although the number of workers affected is fairly small."

We pointed out that "fairly small" was hardly akin to distorting the labor market. To which Grubbs replied, "The congressman's letter is well within the range of respected interpretations. That employers would react to Obamacare's impact in such way is so obvious, so nearly axiomatic, that it is pointless to get lost in the weeds," Grubbs said.

Representative Mike Bishop (R-Michigan) appears to have cited a speculative 2013 report by a GOP-led House committee as evidence of current and future premium increases under the ACA.

What he wrote: "Health insurance premiums are slated to increase significantly. Existing customers can expect an average increase of 73 percent, while the average change due to Obamacare for those purchasing a new plan will be a 96 percent increase in premiums. The average cost for a new customer in the individual market is expected to rise $1,812 per year."

What's misleading: The figures seem to have come from a report issued before the Obamacare insurance marketplaces launched and before 2014 premiums had been announced. The letter implies these figures are current. In fact, premium increases by and large have been moderate under Obamacare. The average monthly premium for a benchmark plan, upon which federal subsidies are calculated, increased about 2 percent from 2014 to 2015; 7 percent from 2015 to 2016; and 25 percent this year, for states that take part in the federal insurance marketplace.

His response: None

Representative Dan Newhouse (R-Washington) misstated the reasons why Medicaid costs per person were higher than expected in 2015.

What he wrote: "A Medicaid actuarial report from August 2016 found that the average cost per enrollee was 49 percent higher than estimated just a year prior 2014 in large part due to beneficiaries seeking care at more expensive hospital emergency rooms due to difficulty finding a doctor and long waits for appointments."

What's misleading: The report did not blame the higher costs on the difficulty patients had finding doctors. Among the reasons the report did cite: patients who were sicker than anticipated and required a raft of services after being previously uninsured. The report also noted that costs are expected to decrease in the future.

His response: None

Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) wrongly stated that family premiums are declining under Obamacare.

What he wrote: "Families are seeing lower premiums on their insurance, seniors are saving money on prescription drug costs, and hospital readmission rates are dropping."

What's misleading: Durbin's second and third points are true. The first, however, is misleading. Family insurance premiums have increased in recent years, although with government subsidies, some low- and middle-income families may be paying less for their health coverage than they once did.

His response: Durbin's office said it based its statement on an analysis published in the journal Health Affairs that said that individual health insurance premiums dropped between 2013 and 2014, the year that Obamacare insurance marketplaces began. It also pointed to a Washington Post opinion piece that said that premiums under the law are lower than they would have been without the law.

Why his response is misleading: The Post piece his office cites states clearly, "Yes, insurance premiums are going up, both in the health care exchanges and in the employer-based insurance market."

Representative Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) told constituents that premiums nationwide were slated to jump from 2016 to 2017, but failed to mention that premiums for some plans in her home state actually decreased.

What she wrote: "Since the enactment of the ACA, deductibles are up, on average, 63 percent. To make matters worse, monthly premiums for the "bronze plan" rose 21 percent from 2016 to 2017. 2026 Families and individuals covered through their employer are forced to make the difficult choice: pay their premium each month or pay their bills."

What's misleading: Brooks accurately cited national data from the website HealthPocket, but her statement is misleading. Indiana was one of two states in which the premium for a benchmark health plan -- the plan used to calculate federal subsidies -- actually went down between 2016 and 2017. Moreover, more than 80 percent of marketplace consumers in Indiana receive subsidies that lowered their premium costs. The HealthPocket figures refer to people who do not qualify for those subsidies.

Her response: Brooks' office referred to a press release from Indiana's Department of Insurance, which took issue with an Indianapolis Star story about premiums going down. The release, from October, when Vice President Mike Pence was Indiana's governor, said that the average premiums would go up more than 18 percent over 2016 rates based on enrollment at that time. In addition, the release noted, 68,000 Indiana residents lost their health plans when their insurers withdrew from the market.

Why her response is misleading: For Indiana consumers who shopped around, which many did, there was an opportunity to find a cheaper plan.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) incorrectly said that the Republican bill to repeal Obamacare would cut funding for seniors in nursing homes.

What he wrote: "It's terrible for seniors. Trumpcare forces older Americans to pay 5 times the amount younger Americans will -- an age tax -- and slashes Medicaid benefits for nursing home care that two out of three Americans in nursing homes rely on."

What's misleading: Wyden is correct that the GOP bill, known as the American Health Care Act, would allow insurance companies to charge older adults five times higher premiums than younger ones, compared to three times higher premiums under the existing law. However, it does not directly slash Medicaid benefits for nursing home residents. It proposes cutting Medicaid funding and giving states a greater say in setting their own priorities. States may, as a result, end up cutting services, jeopardizing nursing home care for poor seniors, advocates say, because it is one of the most expensive parts of the program.

His response: Taylor Harvey, a spokesman for Wyden, defended the statement, noting that the GOP health bill cuts Medicaid funding by $880 billion over 10 years and places a cap on spending. "Cuts to Medicaid would force states to nickel and dime nursing homes, restricting access to care for older Americans and making it a benefit in name only," he wrote.

Why his response is misleading: The GOP bill does not spell out how states make such cuts.

Representative Derek Kilmer (D-Washington) misleadingly said premiums would rise under the Obamacare replacement bill now being considered by the House.

What he wrote: "It's about the 24 million Americans expected to lose their insurance under the Trumpcare plan and for every person who will see their insurance premiums rise 2014 on average 10-15 percent."

Why it's misleading: First, the Congressional Budget Office did estimate that the GOP legislation would cover 24 million fewer Americans by 2026. But not all of those people would "lose their insurance." Some would choose to drop coverage because the bill would no longer make it mandatory to have health insurance, as is the case now.

Second, the budget office did say that in 2018 and 2019, premiums under the GOP bill would be 15-20 percent higher than they would have been under Obamacare because the share of unhealthy patients would increase as some of those who are healthy drop out. But it noted that after that, premiums would be lower than under the ACA.

His response: None.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.


Can Customs and Border Officials Search Your Phone? These Are Your Rights

[Editor's note: today's guest post is by the reporters at ProPublica. Past actions by CBP, including the search of a domestic flight, have raised privacy concerns among many citizens. Informed consumers know their privacy rights before traveling. This news article first appeared on March 13 and is reprinted with permission.]

by Patrick G. Lee, ProPublica

A NASA scientist heading home to the U.S. said he was detained in January at a Houston airport, where Customs and Border Protection officers pressured him for access to his work phone and its potentially sensitive contents.

Last month, CBP agents checked the identification of passengers leaving a domestic flight at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport during a search for an immigrant with a deportation order.

And in October, border agents seized phones and other work-related material from a Canadian photojournalist. They blocked him from entering the U.S. after he refused to unlock the phones, citing his obligation to protect his sources.

These and other recent incidents have revived confusion and alarm over what powers border officials actually have and, perhaps more importantly, how to know when they are overstepping their authority.

The unsettling fact is that border officials have long had broad powers -- many people just don't know about them. Border officials, for instance, have search powers that extend 100 air miles inland from any external boundary of the U.S. That means border agents can stop and question people at fixed checkpoints dozens of miles from U.S. borders. They can also pull over motorists whom they suspect of a crime as part of "roving" border patrol operations.

Sowing even more uneasiness, ambiguity around the agency's search powers -- especially over electronic devices -- has persisted for years as courts nationwide address legal challenges raised by travelers, privacy advocates and civil-rights groups.

We've dug out answers about the current state-of-play when it comes to border searches, along with links to more detailed resources.

Doesn't the Fourth Amendment protect us from "unreasonable searches and seizures"?

Yes. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution articulates the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." However, those protections are lessened when entering the country at international terminals at airports, other ports of entry and subsequently any location that falls within 100 air miles of an external U.S. boundary.

How broad is Customs and Border Protection's search authority?

According to federal statutes, regulations and court decisions, CBP officers have the authority to inspect, without a warrant, any person trying to gain entry into the country and their belongings. CBP can also question individuals about their citizenship or immigration status and ask for documents that prove admissibility into the country.

This blanket authority for warrantless, routine searches at a port of entry ends when CBP decides to undertake a more invasive procedure, such as a body cavity search. For these kinds of actions, the CBP official needs to have some level of suspicion that a particular person is engaged in illicit activity, not simply that the individual is trying to enter the U.S.

Does CBP's search authority cover electronic devices like smartphones and laptops?

Yes. CBP refers to several statutes and regulations in justifying its authority to examine "computers, disks, drives, tapes, mobile phones and other communication devices, cameras, music and other media players, and any other electronic or digital devices."

According to current CBP policy, officials should search electronic devices with a supervisor in the room, when feasible, and also in front of the person being questioned "unless there are national security, law enforcement, or other operational considerations" that take priority. For instance, if allowing a traveler to witness the search would reveal sensitive law enforcement techniques or compromise an investigation, "it may not be appropriate to allow the individual to be aware of or participate in a border search," according to a 2009 privacy impact assessment by the Department of Homeland Security.

CBP says it can conduct these searches "with or without" specific suspicion that the person who possesses the items is involved in a crime.

With a supervisor's sign-off, CBP officers can also seize an electronic device -- or a copy of the information on the device -- "for a brief, reasonable period of time to perform a thorough border search." Such seizures typically shouldn't exceed five days, although officers can apply for extensions in up to one-week increments, according to CBP policy. If a review of the device and its contents does not turn up probable cause for seizing it, CBP says it will destroy the copied information and return the device to its owner.

Can CBP really search my electronic devices without any specific suspicion that I might have committed a crime?

The Supreme Court has not directly ruled on this issue. However, a 2013 decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit -- one level below the Supreme Court -- provides some guidance on potential limits to CBP's search authority.

In a majority decision, the court affirmed that cursory searches of laptops -- such as having travelers turn their devices on and then examining their contents -- does not require any specific suspicions about the travelers to justify them.

The court, however, raised the bar for a "forensic examination" of the devices, such as using "computer software to analyze a hard drive." For these more powerful, intrusive and comprehensive searches, which could provide access to deleted files and search histories, password-protected information and other private details, border officials must have a "reasonable suspicion" of criminal activity -- not just a hunch.

As it stands, the 2013 appeals court decision legally applies only to the nine Western states in the Ninth Circuit, including California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. It's not clear whether CBP has taken the 2013 decision into account more broadly: The last time the agency publicly updated its policy for searching electronic devices was in 2009. CBP is currently reviewing that policy and there is "no specific timeline" for when an updated version might be announced, according to the agency.

"Laptop computers, iPads and the like are simultaneously offices and personal diaries. They contain the most intimate details of our lives," the court's decision said. "It is little comfort to assume that the government -- for now -- does not have the time or resources to seize and search the millions of devices that accompany the millions of travelers who cross our borders. It is the potential unfettered dragnet effect that is troublesome."

During the 2016 fiscal year, CBP officials conducted 23,877 electronic media searches, a five-fold increase from the previous year. In both the 2015 and 2016 fiscal years, the agency processed more than 380 million arriving travelers.

Am I legally required to disclose the password for my electronic device or social media, if CBP asks for it?

That's still an unsettled question, according to Liza Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. "Until it becomes clear that it's illegal to do that, they're going to continue to ask," she said.

The Fifth Amendment says that no one shall be made to serve as "a witness against himself" in a criminal case. Lower courts, however, have produced differing decisions on how exactly the Fifth Amendment applies to the disclosure of passwords to electronic devices.

Customs officers have the statutory authority "to demand the assistance of any person in making any arrest, search, or seizure authorized by any law enforced or administered by customs officers, if such assistance may be necessary." That statute has traditionally been invoked by immigration agents to enlist the help of local, state and other federal law enforcement agencies, according to Nathan Wessler, a staff attorney with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. Whether the statute also compels individuals being interrogated by border officials to divulge their passwords has not been directly addressed by a court, Wessler said.

Even with this legal uncertainty, CBP officials have broad leverage to induce travelers to share password information, especially when someone just wants to catch their flight, get home to family or be allowed to enter the country. "Failure to provide information to assist CBP may result in the detention and/or seizure of the electronic device," according to a statement provided by CBP.

Travelers who refuse to give up passwords could also be detained for longer periods and have their bags searched more intrusively. Foreign visitors could be turned away at the border, and green card holders could be questioned and challenged about their continued legal status.

"People need to think about their own risks when they are deciding what to do. US citizens may be comfortable doing things that non-citizens aren't, because of how CBP may react," Wessler said.

What is some practical advice for protecting my digital information?

Consider which devices you absolutely need to travel with, and which ones you can leave at home. Setting a strong password and encrypting your devices are helpful in protecting your data, but you may still lose access to your devices for undefined periods should border officials decide to seize and examine their contents.

Another option is to leave all of your devices behind and carry a travel-only phone free of most personal information. However, even this approach carries risks. "We also flag the reality that if you go to extreme measures to protect your data at the border, that itself may raise suspicion with border agents," according to Sophia Cope, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It's so hard to tell what a single border agent is going to do."

The EFF has released an updated guide to data protection options here.

Does CBP recognize any exceptions to what it can examine on electronic devices?

If CBP officials want to search legal documents, attorney work product or information protected by attorney-client privilege, they may have to follow "special handling procedures," according to agency policy. If there's suspicion that the information includes evidence of a crime or otherwise relates to "the jurisdiction of CBP," the border official must consult the CBP associate/assistant chief counsel before undertaking the search.

As for medical records and journalists' notes, CBP says its officers will follow relevant federal laws and agency policies in handling them. When asked for more information on these procedures, an agency spokesperson said that CBP has "specific provisions" for dealing with this kind of information, but did not elaborate further. Questions that arise regarding these potentially sensitive materials can be handled by the CBP associate/assistant chief counsel, according to CBP policy. The agency also says that it will protect business or commercial information from "unauthorized disclosure."

Am I entitled to a lawyer if I'm detained for further questioning by CBP?

No. According to a statement provided by CBP, "All international travelers arriving to the U.S. are subject to CBP processing, and travelers bear the burden of proof to establish that they are clearly eligible to enter the United States. Travelers are not entitled to representation during CBP administrative processing, such as primary and secondary inspection."

Even so, some immigration lawyers recommend that travelers carry with them the number for a legal aid hotline or a specific lawyer who will be able to help them, should they get detained for further questioning at a port of entry.

"It is good practice to ask to speak to a lawyer," said Paromita Shah, associate director at the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild. "We always encourage people to have a number where their attorney can be reached, so they can explain what is happening and their attorney can try to intervene. It's definitely true that they may not be able to get into the actual space, but they can certainly intervene."

Lawyers who fill out this form on behalf of a traveler headed into the United States might be allowed to advocate for that individual, although local practices can vary, according to Shah.

Can I record my interaction with CBP officials?

Individuals on public land are allowed to record and photograph CBP operations so long as their actions do not hinder traffic, according to CBP. However, the agency prohibits recording and photography in locations with special security and privacy concerns, including some parts of international airports and other secure port areas.

Does CBP's power to stop and question people extend beyond the border and ports of entry?

Yes. Federal statutes and regulations empower CBP to conduct warrantless searches for people travelling illegally from another country in any "railway car, aircraft, conveyance, or vehicle" within 100 air miles from "any external boundary" of the country. About two-thirds of the U.S. population live in this zone, including the residents of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Houston, according to the ACLU.

As a result, CBP currently operates 35 checkpoints, where they can stop and question motorists traveling in the U.S. about their immigration status and make "quick observations of what is in plain view" in the vehicle without a warrant, according to the agency. Even at a checkpoint, however, border officials cannot search a vehicle's contents or its occupants unless they have probable cause of wrongdoing, the agency says. Failing that, CBP officials can ask motorists to allow them to conduct a search, but travelers are not obligated to give consent.

When asked how many people were stopped at CBP checkpoints in recent years, as well as the proportion of those individuals detained for further scrutiny, CBP said they didn't have the data "on hand" but that the number of people referred for secondary questioning was "minimum." At the same time, the agency says that checkpoints "have proven to be highly effective tools in halting the flow of illegal traffic into the United States."

Within 25 miles of any external boundary, CBP has the additional patrol power to enter onto private land, not including dwellings, without a warrant.

Where can CBP set up checkpoints?

CBP chooses checkpoint locations within the 100-mile zone that help "maximize border enforcement while minimizing effects on legitimate traffic," the agency says.

At airports that fall within the 100-mile zone, CBP can also set up checkpoints next to airport security to screen domestic passengers who are trying to board their flights, according to Chris Rickerd, a policy counsel at the ACLU's National Political Advocacy Department.

"When you fly out of an airport in the southwestern border, say McAllen, Brownsville or El Paso, you have Border Patrol standing beside TSA when they're doing the checks for security. They ask you the same questions as when you're at a checkpoint. 'Are you a US citizen?' They're essentially doing a brief immigration inquiry in the airport because it's part of the 100-mile zone," Rickerd said. "I haven't seen this at the northern border."

Can CBP do anything outside of the 100-mile zone?

Yes. Many of CBP's law enforcement and patrol activities, such as questioning individuals, collecting evidence and making arrests, are not subject to the 100-mile rule, the agency says. For instance, the geographical limit does not apply to stops in which border agents pull a vehicle over as part of a "roving patrol" and not a fixed checkpoint, according to Rickerd of the ACLU. In these scenarios, border agents need reasonable suspicion that an immigration violation or crime has occurred to justify the stop, Rickerd said. For stops outside the 100-mile zone, CBP agents must have probable cause of wrongdoing, the agency said.

The ACLU has sued the government multiple times for data on roving patrol and checkpoint stops. Based on an analysis of records released in response to one of those lawsuits, the ACLU found that CBP officials in Arizona failed "to record any stops that do not lead to an arrest, even when the stop results in a lengthy detention, search, and/or property damage."

The lack of detailed and easily accessible data poses a challenge to those seeking to hold CBP accountable to its duties.

"On the one hand, we fight so hard for reasonable suspicion to actually exist rather than just the whim of an officer to stop someone, but on the other hand, it's not a standard with a lot of teeth," Rickerd said. "The courts would scrutinize it to see if there's anything impermissible about what's going on. But if we don't have data, how do you figure that out?"

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.

 


Boston Public Library Offers Workshop About How To Spot Fake News

Fake news image The Boston Public Library (BPL) offers a wide variety of programs, events and workshops for the public. The Grove Hall branch is offering several sessions of the free workshop titled, "Recognizing Fake News."The workshop description:

"Join us for a workshop to learn how to critically watch the news on television and online in order to detect "fake news." Using the News Literacy Project's interactive CheckologyTM curriculum, leading journalists and other experts guide participants through real-life examples from the news industry."

What is fake news? The Public Libraries Association (PLA) offered this definition:

"Fake news is just as it sounds: news that is misleading and not based on fact or, simply put, fake. Unfortunately, the literal defi­nition of fake news is the least complicated aspect of this com­plex topic. Unlike satire news... fake news has the intention of disseminat­ing false information, not for comedy, but for consumption. And without the knowledge of appropriately identifying fake news, these websites can do an effective job of tricking the untrained eye into believing it’s a credible source. Indeed, its intention is deception.

To be sure, fake news is nothing new... The Internet, particularly social media, has completely manipulated the landscape of how information is born, consumed, and shared. No longer is content creation reserved for official publishing houses or media outlets. For better or for worse, anybody can form a platform on the Inter­net and gain a following. In truth, we all have the ability to create viral news—real or fake—with a simple tweet or Facebook post."

The News Literacy Project is a nonpartisan national nonprofit organization that works with educators and journalists to teach middle school and high school students how to distinguish fact from fiction.

The upcoming workshop sessions at the BPL Grove Hall branch are tomorrow, March 11 at 3:00 pm, and Wednesday, March 29 at 1:00 pm. Participants will learn about the four main types of content (e.g., news, opinion, entertainment, and advertising), and the decision processes journalists use to decide which news to publish. The workshop presents real examples enabling workshop participants to test their skills at recognizing the four types of content and "fake news."

While much of the workshop content is targeted at students, adults can also benefit. Nobody wants to be duped by fake or misleading news. Nobody wants to mistake advertising or opinion for news. The sessions include opportunities for participants to ask questions. The workshop lasts about an hour and registration is not required.

Many public libraries across the nation offer various workshops about how to spot "fake news," including Athens (Georgia), Austin (Texas), Bellingham (Washington), Chicago (Illinois), Clifton Park (New York), Davenport (Iowa), Elgin (Illinois), Oakland (California), San Jose (California), and Topeka (Kansas). Some colleges and universities offer similar workshops, including American University and Cornell University. Some workshops included panelists or speakers from local news organizations.

The BPL Grove Hall branch is located at 41 Geneva Avenue in the Roxbury section of Boston. The branch's phone is (617) 427-3337.

Have you attended a "fake news" workshop at a local public library in your town or city? If so, share your experience below.


Town Hall With Congressman Stephen Lynch About Security And Rights

Official photo of Congressman Stephen F. Lynch. Click to view larger version Congressman Stephen F. Lynch (Democrat, 8th District of Massachusetts) held a town hall meeting on Friday February 3, 2017 titled, “Keeping America Safe While Preserving Our Constitutional Rights.” The 7:00 pm event at the Milton High School auditorium was heavily attended (see photos below) with an estimated attendance of about 500 to 700 persons. The website and e-mail invitation from Congressman Lynch’s office described the meeting agenda:

"The Town Hall will be an opportunity for constituents to come together to discuss the legal implications of President Trump’s executive actions, to discuss what can be done to resist any infringements of Constitutional rights and discuss existing and ongoing efforts to ensure safety in our homeland, and to provide resources for those who may need assistance."

Representative Lynch serves on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Financial Services Committee. He is the lead Democrat on the National Security Subcommittee, responsible for overseeing the Departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security, and the United States Agency for International Development. He was sworn in to the United States Congress in October 2001, after the sudden passing of Congressman John Joseph Moakley.

Partial view of February 3, 2017 town hall session. Milton HS auditorium. Click to view larger version Representative Lynch opened the meeting with remarks about his experience in Congress, the heavier than usual volume of emails, phone calls, and visits to his office since the flurry of Executive Orders by President Trump, his 17 trips to the Middle East including Iraq and Turkey, his visits to refugee camps, and his familiarity with the vetting process for immigrants wanting to relocate to the United States.

Representative Lynch said regarding refugees and immigrants that the "facts on the ground" are often very different than what is reported in the news media or by the current White House. He explained that many Syrians spend several years in refugee camps, since many want to return to their homes and not immigrate to other countries. And, the United States is probably number 10 in a list of desired locations of refugees wanting to relocate to another country.

He also described an overview of the vetting process, which includes interviews, biometrics, retina scans, and follow-up sessions with about 18 steps lasting 14 to 18 months. Several U.S. Federal government agencies are involved in the vetting process. Congressman Lynch described President Trump's Executive Order banning immigrants from seven Middle East countries as "wrong and unnecessary," and was conducted carelessly.

Congressman Lynch held an hour-long telephone town hall on January 24, 2017. He has co-sponsored H.R.852 in the 115th Congress (2017-2018) to:

"... amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to provide that an alien may not be denied admission or entry to the United States, or other immigration benefits, because of the alien's religion, and for other purposes."

H.R. 852 was sponsored by Representative Donald S. Beyer, Jr. (Democrat, Virginia) and introduced On February 3, 2017. It is in committee. View the list of bills sponsored or co-sponsored by Congressman Lynch.

The February 3 town hall session started at 7:00 pm. Carl Williams, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), also spoke and briefly discussed recent decisions by several federal court judges about President Trump's immigration ban, which applies to seven majority Muslim countries: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. Late on Friday February 3, a federal court judge in Seattle decided to halt the immigration ban. This was the third major decision after one in New York and a second in Boston.

Partial view of February 3, 2017 town hall session. Milton HS auditorium. Click to view larger version The question-and-answer session started at about 7:55 pm and at least 20 constituents immediately lined up in the auditorium to ask questions. At the check-in table, Congressman Lynch's staff provided index cards for constituents to write and submit questions. During the session, constituents asked a variety of questions at the microphones, including (partial list):

  • How can we help refugees?
  • What will Congressman Lynch do to keep us safe?
  • How do we get our voices heard in other states?
  • Will Congressman Lynch fight for single payer healthcare plan as Republicans propose an alternative to the Affordable Care Act (a/k/a "Obamacare)?
  • How do we get Steve Bannon off the National Security Council?

Representative Lynch reminded constituents that due to the "Separation of Powers" built into our government, the legislative branch has no power to affect how the White House chooses to organize itself. He also reminded attendees of the 55-seat advantage the Republican party has in the House.

Besides several Executive Orders by President Trump, the House of Representatives has taken several actions and votes. I have found the E-Update Newsletter by Congressman Michael Capuano (Democrat, 7th District of Massachusetts) very informative with summaries about recent House activities in easy-to-understand language; plus a running list of activities. Representative Capuano's summaries also include the vote total by party. For example:

Excerpt from February 3, 2017 E-Update Newsletter by Representative Michael Capuano. Click to view larger version

Friday's town hall's agenda was scheduled to end at 9:00 pm. I left at that time, and hadn't heard any mention of security issues about the proposed wall between the United States and Mexico. The town hall was also Live on Facebook, but I found the audio quality poor at times. Always better to attend in person and ask questions directly of a Congressperson.

I did not see any reporters from local news media at the town hall session. If you attended the town hall session, what were your questions or comments? Below is a tweet by Representative Lynch about the town hall.


Boston Women's March And Local Law Enforcement

On Saturday, January 21, 2017 the Boston Police Department (BPD) posted on its Facebook page at 5:45 pm the following about the Women's March:

"To the tens of thousands who participated in today’s Women’s March on Boston Common earlier today, Saturday, January 21, 2017, the men and women of the Boston Police Department would like to thank you for the high levels of respectful and responsible behavior on display throughout the day. Said Commissioner Evans: "Really impressed with the amount of respect and courtesy shown to my officers by everybody attending today's Women’s March and I’d just like to personally thank everybody who demonstrated in a peaceful, polite and respectful manner."

The Boston Globe newspaper reported about the event:

"... the enormous crowd began streaming from Boston Common onto Charles Street, heading to Clarendon Street, where they turned around. So many people marched that it took more than an hour and a half to file out of the Common. City officials estimated that 175,000 attended the demonstration... The Boston event was one of more than 600 marches being held nationwide and globally, on the day after Trump took office... Speakers at the Boston kickoff included Warren, Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston, US Senator Edward J. Markey, and Attorney General Maura Healey... By about 1 p.m., marchers began to hit the streets, though the crowd was so big that many had to wait before they could get out of the Common. The gathering was almost evenly split between men and women, and a diverse range of agendas was represented: climate change, antiracism, and Trump’s ties to Russia. On Twitter, Boston police thanked protesters for remaining peaceful."

There more demonstrations in Massachusetts in Falmouth, Greenfield, Nantucket, Provincetown, Northampton, and Pittsfield. Social networking posts about the Boston event by the BPD on Twitter:

Tweet about Womens March by Boston Police Department. Click to view larger version

Tweets about Womens March by Boston Police Department. Click to view larger version

Respectful behavior all around: marchers and law enforcement. Congratulations and thanks to everyone involved, plus very respectful messages on social networking sites by the BPD. Hopefully, in the future more citizens and police departments around the country will follow Boston's lead. That is truly #BostonStrong.

Yes, I live and work in Boston. What happened in your city? How did your city's law enforcement respond. Share below.


The Boston Keep ACA Rally on January 15 And Senator Warren's Remarks

Crowd gathering an hour before Boston healthcare rally. January 15,, 2017. click to view larger version On Sunday January 15, 2017 I attended the healthcare rally in Boston at iconic Faneuil Hall. It was one of a dozen rallies around the United States. Several people spoke, including Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, activist Sarah Grow, Carla Leviano, and U.S. Senator Edward Markey. The attendance was great and far exceeded the capacity for the auditorium inside Faneuil Hall, where it was originally planned.

The event continued outside with what I estimated at least five thousand people standing in the cold 27 degrees Fahrenheit temperature. This blog post contains several photographs I took. The photo on the right shows the crowd gather more than hour before the official 1:00 pm start of the rally.

Carla Lievano, a single-mother whose family is on MassHealth, is worried about losing her health benefits if the Affordable Care Act is repealed. She said:

"I could lose my health benefits... I’m very low income. I don’t know how I would take care of [my daughter]..."

Senator Warren speaking at January 15, 2017 healthcare rally in Boston. Click to view larger version Grow shared the story of her mother's battle against cancer, and how the Affordable Care Act (ACA and a//k/a Obamacare) saved her mother's life. Her mother was able to find a replacement plan under the ACA. Below is the transcript of Senator Elizabeth Warren's remarks (courtesy of the Boston Globe):

"For eight years, Republicans in Congress have complained about health care in America, heaping most of the blame on President Obama. Meanwhile, they’ve hung out on the sidelines making doomsday predictions and cheering every stumble, but refusing to lift a finger to actually improve our health care system.

The GOP is about to control the White House, Senate, and House. So what’s the first thing on their agenda? Are they working to bring down premiums and deductibles? Are they making fixes to expand the network of doctors and the number of plans people can choose from? Nope. The number one priority for congressional Republicans is repealing the Affordable Care Act and breaking up our health care system while offering zero solutions.

Their strategy? Repeal and run.

Many Massachusetts families are watching this play out, worried about what will happen — including thousands from across the Commonwealth that I joined at Faneuil Hall on Sunday to rally in support of the ACA. Hospitals and insurers are watching too, concerned that repealing the ACA will create chaos in the health insurance market and send costs spiraling out of control.

Health care reform in Massachusetts wasn’t partisan. Democrats, Republicans, business leaders, hospitals, insurers, doctors, and consumers all came together behind a commitment that every single person in our Commonwealth deserves access to affordable, high-quality care. When Republican Governor Mitt Romney signed Massachusetts health reform into law in 2006, our state took huge strides toward offering universal health care coverage and financial security to millions of Bay State residents.

That law was a major step forward. Today, more than 97 percent of Bay Staters are covered — the highest rate of any state in the country.

But Massachusetts still has a lot to lose if the ACA is repealed. One big reason for our state’s health care success is that we took advantage of the new opportunities offered under the ACA. In addition to making care more accessible and efficient, our state expanded Medicaid, using federal funds to help even more people. And we combined federal and state dollars to help reduce the cost of insurance on the Health Connector.

When the ACA passed, Massachusetts already had in place some of the best consumer protections in the nation. But the ACA still made a big difference. It strengthened protections for people in Massachusetts with pre-existing conditions, allowed for free preventive care visits, and — for the first time in our state — banned setting lifetime caps on benefits.

If the ACA is repealed, our health care system would hang in the balance. Half a million people in the Commonwealth would risk losing their coverage. People who now have an iron-clad guarantee that they can’t be turned away due to their pre-existing conditions or discriminated against because of their gender could lose that security. Preventive health care, community health centers, and rural hospitals could lose crucial support. In short, the Massachusetts health care law is a big achievement and a national model, but it also depends on the ACA and a strong partnership with the federal government.

If the cost-sharing subsidies provided by the ACA are slashed to zero, Massachusetts will have a tough time keeping down the cost of plans on the Health Connector. The state can’t make funds appear out of thin air to help families on the Medicaid expansion if Republicans yank away support. And our ability to address the opioid crisis will be severely hampered if people lose access to health insurance or if the federal funding provided through the Medicaid waiver disappears. Even in states with strong health care systems — states like Massachusetts — the ACA is critical.

The current system isn’t perfect — not by a long shot. There are important steps Congress could take to lower deductibles and premiums, to expand the network of doctors people can see on their plans, and to increase the stability and predictability of the market. We should be working together to make health care better all across the country, just like we’ve tried to do here in Massachusetts.

This doesn’t need to be a partisan fight. But if congressional Republicans continue to pursue repeal of the ACA with nothing more than vague assurances that they might — someday — think up a replacement plan, the millions of Americans who believe in guaranteeing people’s access to affordable health care will fight back every step of the way.

Repeal and run is for cowards."

Want to read more? Try these hashtags on social networking sites: #repealandrun #ourfirststand #savehealthcare #CareNotChaos. Below are more photos from Sunday's event in Boston.

Protester sign at Boston healthcare rally
Protester sign. Boston healthcare rally. 1/15/17

Protester sign at Boston healthcare rally
Protester sign at Boston healthcare rally. 1/15/17

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh speaking at healthcare rally January 15, 2017
Mayor Marty Walsh speaking at healthcare rally. 1/15/17

View of crowd at Boston healthcare rally January 15, 2017
View from crowd at Boston healthcare rally. 1/15/17


The State of Massachusetts Data Breach Archive Is Available Online

The Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulations (OCABR) announced the public availability online of its data breach notification archive. To comply with Massachusetts state laws enacted in 2007, companies and entities must notify both the OCABR and the Attorney General's Office anytime personal information is accidentally or intentionally compromised.

Consumer Affairs Undersecretary John Chapman stated:

“The Data Breach Notification Archive is a public record that the public and media have every right to view... Making it easily accessible by putting it online is not only in keeping with the guidelines suggested in the new Public Records law, but also with Governor Baker’s commitment to greater transparency throughout the Executive Office.”

The OCABR breach archive includes a tabular listing of data breaches in Adobe PDF format. Each listing includes the following data elements: date the breach was reported, organization name, breach type, number of residents affected, types of sensitive personal data (e.g., Social Security Number, account number, driver's license identifier, credit card number) exposed or stolen, whether the organization offered free credit monitoring to affected residents, if the data was encrypted, and if the breach included mobile devices. The archive does not include the full text of the breach notification letters received. The breach archive also includes summary information:

Breaches and Residents Affected By Year
Year # Notifications # Affected Residents
2007 (Nov to Dec) 30 8,499
2008 413 700,918
2009 437 357,869
2010 473 1,015,693
2011 614 1,163,917
2012 1,139 326,411
2013 1,829 1,163,643
2014 1,603 354,130
2015 1,834 1,338,048
2016 1,866 188,809
Total 10,238 5,454,294

According to the Census Bureau, Massachusetts' population was just under 6.8 million in 2015. So, the total number of affected residents equals about 80 percent of the state's population.

Nebraska, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Tennessee recently strengthened their breach laws with expanded definitions, encryption, requirements to notify the state's attorney general, and requirements to notify affected persons within forty-five (45) days. While most states -- 46 have some type of breach laws, some (California, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin) post online breach notices they have received.

Some states' sites provide their breach archives using static Adobe PDF file formats. The better-designed sites make it easy for residents to search and view information about specific breach incidents. these sites feature interactive search mechanisms that allow users to enter the name of company or state agency, date range filters, and file download options compatible with spreadsheet software. Some states -- California, South Carolina, and Washington -- produce detailed breach reports explaining the breaches by industry, type, and cause.

Without the full text, interactive search, and filter mechanisms, the OCABR breach archive is a marginally helpful resource. Consumers can still use it to verify the breach notices they have received via postal mail, since identity thieves often send fake breach notices trying to trick consumers into revealing their sensitive personal information. Using the OCABR breach archive is slow and awkward, since users must download each PDF file and perform a text search for an organization with each file. Plus, the archive lacks both street address and company business unit information, making it impossible for users to distinguish between entries with the same organization name.

Basically, something is better than nothing.

What are your opinions of the breach archive by Massachusetts? If I missed any states that provide beach notices online, please share below.


Researchers Conclude Voting Systems In the USA Are Vulnerable To Hacking And Errors

McClatchyDC reported:

"Pennsylvania is one of 11 states where the majority of voters use antiquated machines that store votes electronically, without printed ballots or other paper-based backups that could be used to double-check the balloting. There's almost no way to know if they've accurately recorded individual votes — or if anyone tampered with the count... These paperless digital voting machines, used by roughly 1 in 5 U.S. voters last month, present one of the most glaring dangers to the security of the rickety, underfunded U.S. election system."

I strongly suggest that all voters read the entire McClatchyDC article. It is an eye-opener. Let's unpack the above paragraph. There's plenty to consider.

First, a significant number of voting districts across the nation use only paperless digital voting machines. A prior blog post confirmed this usage:

"... half of registered voters (47%) live in jurisdictions that use only optical-scan as their standard voting system, and about 28% live in DRE-only jurisdictions... Another 19% of registered voters live in jurisdictions where both optical-scan and DRE systems are in use... Around 5% of registered voters live in places that conduct elections entirely by mail – the states of Colorado, Oregon and Washington, more than half of the counties in North Dakota, 10 counties in Utah and two in California. And in more than 1,800 small counties, cities and towns – mostly in New England, the Midwest and the inter-mountain West – more than a million voters still use paper ballots that are counted by hand."

That prior blog post also included a map with voting technologies by district. Second, the paperless digital voting machines make recounts difficult to impossible. Why? They lack printed ballots or paper backups to re-scan and verify against the machines' recorded totals. Optical-scan voting machines are better since they use paper ballots. Those paper ballots can be re-scanned during a recount to verify the machines' totals. Reportedly, advanced countries including Germany, Britain, Japan and Singapore all require scannable paper ballots.

Third, all of this means paperless digital voting machines are a hacker's delight. Or a corrupt politician's delight. If one is going to hack voting systems with a low to zero chance of getting caught, then smart hackers would target machines without paper backups where tampering would be impossible to detect during recounts.

Fourth, the vulnerabilities aren't just theory, or what-ifs. The McClathcyDC article also reported:

"But a cadre of computer scientists from major universities backed Stein's recounts to underscore the vulnerability of U.S. elections. These researchers have been successfully hacking e-voting machines for more than a decade in tests commissioned by New York, California, Ohio and other states."

You can easily find reports online about the vulnerable machines, such as the Sequoia AVC Advantage used in Louisiana, New Jersey, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Another example: last year, the State of Virginia de-certified using the AVS WINVote made by Advanced Voting Solutions, which had previously been used also in Pennsylvania and Mississippi. The security review by the Virginia Information Technologies Agency (Adobe PDF) is available online.

The Brennan Center for Justice (BCJ) produced a report in 2015: "America's Voting Machines At Risk" (Adobe PDF). The BCJ interviewed more than 30 state and 80 local election officials, plus dozens of election technology, administration and security experts. They also gathered input from "computer scientists, policy analysts, usability experts, election security experts, voting equipment vendors, and various innovators in the field of election technology." The BCJ's report summarized the problem:

"... an impending crisis... from the widespread wearing out of voting machines purchased a decade ago... Jurisdictions do not have the money to purchase new machines, and legal and market constraints prevent the development of machines they would want even if they had funds..."

The BCJ found:

"Unlike voting machines used in past eras, today’s systems were not designed to last for decades. In part this is due to the pace of technological change... although today’s machines debuted at the beginning of this century, many were designed and engineered in the 1990s... experts agree that for those purchased since 2000, the expected lifespan for the core components of electronic voting machines is between 10 and 20 years, and for most systems it is probably closer to 10 than 20... 43 states are using some machines that will be at least 10 years old in 2016. In most of these states, the majority of election districts are using machines that are at least 10 years old. In 14 states, machines will be 15 or more years old.

Nearly every state is using some machines that are no longer manufactured and many election officials struggle to find replacement parts. The longer we delay purchasing new equipment, the more problems we risk. The biggest risk is increased failures and crashes, which can lead to long lines and lost votes.

Older machines can also have serious security and reliability flaws that are unacceptable today. For example, Virginia recently decertified a voting system used in 24 percent of precincts after finding that an external party could access the machine’s wireless features to “record voting data or inject malicious data... Several election officials mentioned “flipped votes” on touch screen machines, where a voter touches the name of one candidate, but the machine registers it as a selection for another... Election jurisdictions in at least 31 states want to purchase new voting machines in the next five years. Officials from 22 of these states said they did not know where they would get the money to pay for them."

The USA can do better. It must do better. State and local elections officials must find the money. Elected politicians must help them find the money. Our democracy is at stake.

There is a glimmer of good news. Researchers at Rice University have developed a digital voting machine prototype that prints a paper trail. The paper trail provide verification of voters' selections, which would facilitate recounts and should replace the paperless DRE equipment. It is one of three publicly funded projects across the country. Bidding is open for manufacturers to produce the equipment.

While Stein's recount efforts ultimately failed, the vulnerabilities still exist. As McClatchyDC reported:

"The U.S. voting system — a loosely regulated, locally managed patchwork of more than 3,000 jurisdictions overseen by the states — employs more than two dozen types of machinery from 15 manufacturers.

So, something needs to be done soon to increase the security of DRE or paperless digital voting machines. It's time for voters to demand better voting security and accountability from state and local elections officials (and their politicians) who selected paperless voting equipment for their districts. It seems foolish to tighten voter ID and registration procedures while both under-funding and ignoring the vulnerabilities with paperless digital voting machines.

What are your opinions?


Driver's Licenses For 9 States Won't Be Valid ID For Domestic Flights In 2018

Residents in nine states wanting to travel domestically via commercial airlines may need to obtain alternative identification documents. Why? While new identification requirements will become effective in 2018, starting in 2017 federal agencies may no longer accept driver's licenses from these nine states.

On December 12, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announcement explained:

"The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will begin posting signs at airports this week notifying travelers that beginning January 2018 it will start enforcing REAL ID requirements at airport security checkpoints, meaning that travelers seeking to use their state-issued driver’s license or identification card for boarding commercial aircraft may only use such documents if they are issued by a REAL ID compliant state or a non-compliant state with an extension."

The U.S. Congress passed the REAL ID Act in 2005 to establish minimum security standards for state-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards. The Act prohibits federal agencies, including the TSA, from accepting licenses and identification cards for certain official purposes (e.g., boarding federally regulated commercial aircraft) from states that do not meet these minimum standards and have not received an extension for compliance from DHS.

If the nine states change their procedures, then the government may grant each state an extension or approval, as warranted. The nine states which did not receive extensions for 2016 or 2017 are Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Washington. So, starting January 30, 2017 federal agencies and nuclear power plants may not accept driver's licenses and state IDs from these nine states for identification. Federal officials may continue to accept Enhanced Driver’s Licenses from Minnesota and Washington.

See the DHS site for the compliance status for all states and territories. See the TSAa.gov site for a complete list of identification documents accepted at TSA checkpoints. Below are the notices you may see while traveling through airports.

Generic TSA notice about changing ID requirements

TSA notice for noncompliant states about changing ID requirements


Federal Reserve Survey of Experiences of Younger Workers

The Federal Reserve Board (FRB) recently released the results of its survey of younger workers ages 18 to 30 with data through 2015. The survey found that younger workers overall:

"... experienced higher rates of unemployment and lower rates of labor force participation than the general population for at least two decades, and the Great Recession exacerbated this phenomenon. Despite a substantial labor market recovery from 2009 through 2014, vulnerable populations—including the nation’s young adults—continue to experience higher rates of unemployment. Changes in labor market conditions, including globalization and automation, have reduced the availability of well-paid, secure jobs for less-educated persons, particularly those jobs that provide opportunity for advancement. Furthermore, data suggest that young workers entering the labor market are affected by a long-running increase in the use of “contingent” or “alternative” work arrangements, characterized by contracted, part-time, temporary, and seasonal work."

Specific findings about younger workers' attitudes:

"In 2015, the majority of young adults (61 percent) are optimistic about their future job opportunities, showing an increase in optimism from 2013 (45 percent)... the likelihood that a young adult is optimistic about future job opportunities increases with higher levels of education... young adults continue to have a strong preference for steady employment (62 percent) over higher pay (36 percent)... Among respondents who prefer steady employment, 80 percent would rather have one steady job than a stream of steady jobs for the next five years...

Most young adults are not sure how their standard of living will compare with their parents’ standard of living. Young adults with at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree (or higher) are more likely to believe their standard of living will be lower than their parents (4 percent) when compared with young adults whose parents have a high school education or less (1 percent)...

Specific findings about younger workers' experiences:

"28 percent of respondents are currently enrolled as students in a certificate or degree program. Most students are enrolled in degree programs... most undergraduate students are identified “nontraditional” because they are over age 23, enrolled in school part time, working full time, and/or financially independent. 10 percent of respondents are “non-completers,” meaning they are not currently enrolled in a certificate or degree program they started... 62 percent of respondents with post-secondary education worked while in school to finance all or part of their most recent education. 52 percent of respondents with post-secondary educational experience have parents that contributed financially to their education. 46 percent of respondents incurred debt to pay for some portion of their education or training...

41 percent of respondents believe they have the level of education and training needed for the type of job that they would like to hold in the next five years... 66 percent of young adults received information about jobs and careers during high school. And, 69 percent of young adults received such information in college...

Less than half (45 percent) of employees work in a career field that is closely related to their educational and training background... Many young adults gained early work experience during high school, college, or both. 53 percent of young adults had a paid job during high school, and 77 percent of young adults had a paid job during college..."

A key takeaway: about 30 percent of young adults did not receive information about jobs and careers in high school nor college. That seems to be an area the educational sector must improve upon.

4,135 potential respondents were contacted for the 2015 survey, and 2,035 completed surveys (49 percent response rate). FRB staff designed the survey, which was administered by GfK, an online consumer research company.

More notable statistics from the survey: about 69 percent of survey respondents have some form of paid employment, up from 60 percent in 2013. 63 percent of employees held a single full-time job during the past year, and 18 percent of employees held multiple full-time jobs during the past year. Profile information about employed younger workers:

"78 percent of employees have a permanent/long-term job... 75 percent of employees in the survey have a full-time job... Among part-time employees surveyed, 49 percent were identified as underemployed, as they are working part time because of economic conditions. Meanwhile, 42 percent of part-time employees prefer part-time work... The percent of young workers who have health insurance increased from 2013 (70 percent) to 2015 (82 percent). Likewise, the percent of young workers who received paid time off for sick leave, holidays, or both from any of their paid jobs increased from 2013 (59 percent) to 2015 (62 percent)...

As adults, 43 percent of employees have formed a new household with their immediate family (i.e., spouse/partner), and 20 percent have formed a new household alone or with a roommate..."

Self-sufficiency is important. The report found:

"... 73 percent of employees are able to cover their monthly household expenses with their household income. Meanwhile, 22 percent of employees report that they are sometimes able to cover their monthly household expenses, and 4 percent are not able to cover their monthly household expenses at all... Among employees who are not able to cover their household expenses some or all of the time, 64 percent reduce their monthly expenses to meet the challenge, 56 percent do not pay some bills, 54 percent borrow money from family, 46 percent use their credit cards, 41 percent use savings, and 16 percent borrow from friends.

A key consideration regarding self-sufficiency is the ability of a household to withstand financial disruptions. Among young workers, the ability to go without a paycheck temporarily improved between 2013 and 2015. The percent of young workers who can pay their living expenses if out of work for four weeks improved from 38 percent in 2013 to 45 percent in 2015..."

The report cited 4 policy implications to address the findings:

  1. Improve Alignment between Education and the Labor Market
  2. Increase Opportunities for Non-degree Education
  3. Provide Assistance and Protections for Workers with Alternative Work Arrangements
  4. Seek Opportunities to Improve Job Growth

There is plenty of information in the 120-page report, which is available at the FRB site and here (Adobe PDF; 1,190.2K bytes).


EPA Concludes Fracking a Threat to U.S. Water Supplies

[Editor's note: Today's guest post is by reporters at ProPublica. This new story was originally published on December 14, 2016. It is reprinted with permission.]

by Patrick G. Lee, ProPublica

Starting in 2008, ProPublica published stories that found hydraulic fracking had damaged drinking water supplies across the country. The reporting examined how fracking in some cases had dislodged methane, which then seeped into water supplies. In other instances, the reporting showed that chemicals related to oil and gas production through fracking were winding up in drinking water, and that waste water resulting from fracking operations was contaminating water sources.

Many environmentalists hailed the reporting. The gas drilling industry, for its part, pushed back, initially dismissing the accounts as anecdotal at best.

This week, the Environmental Protection Agency issued its latest and most thorough report on fracking's threat to drinking water, and its findings support ProPublica's reporting. The EPA report found evidence that fracking has contributed to drinking water contamination 2014 "cases of impact" 2014 in all stages of the process: water withdrawals for hydraulic fracturing; spills during the management of hydraulic fracturing fluids and chemicals; injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids directly into groundwater resources; discharge of inadequately treated hydraulic fracturing wastewater to surface water resources; and disposal or storage of hydraulic fracturing wastewater in unlined pits, resulting in contamination of groundwater resources.

In an interview, Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst at the National Resources Defense Council, said the EPA's report was welcome.

"Many of us have been working on this issue for many years, and industry has repeatedly said that there is no evidence that fracking has contaminated drinking water," Mall said.

The EPA report comes a year after its initial set of findings set off fierce criticism by environmental advocates and health professionals. That report, issued in 2015, said the agency had found no evidence that fracking had "led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources." Many accused the agency of pulling its punches and adding to confusion among the public. News organizations throughout the U.S. interpreted the EPA's language to mean it had concluded fracking did not pose a threat to water supplies and public health.

The EPA said in its report this week that the sentence about the lack of evidence of systemic issues had been intentionally removed because the agency's scientists had "concluded it could not be quantitatively supported."

"I think one of the concerns about the original document was that the EPA seemed to say that everything was fine," said Rob Jackson, a professor of earth-system science at Stanford University. "It's important that we understand the ways and the cases where things have gone wrong, to keep them from happening elsewhere."

The EPA's latest declaration comes as a Trump administration apparently hostile to almost any kind of regulation of fracking prepares to assume office. But those worried about fracking's implications for the environment have long been discouraged by the lack of consistent and stringent state or federal regulation.

"Because state regulators have not fully investigated cases of drinking water contamination, and because federal regulators have been handcuffed by Congress into how much they can regulate, the science wasn't as robust as it should have been," said Mall, the analyst at NRDC. "It's a pattern of, the rules are too weak, and the ones that are on the books aren't enforced enough."

The more significant impact of a Trump administration, however, may be in limiting the EPA's appetite for aggressive and continued study. The report issued this week was six years in the making, but made clear there was still much work to be done to better and more comprehensively determine fracking's impact on the environment, chiefly water supplies.

"It was not possible to calculate or estimate the national frequency of impacts on drinking water resources from activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle or fully characterize the severity of impacts," the report said.

The Trump administration's transition team did not immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment about its position on fracking and the EPA's final report. Trump's transition website promises to "unleash an energy revolution" and "streamline the permitting process for all energy projects." It also says it will "refocus the EPA on its core mission of ensuring clean air, and clean, safe drinking water for all Americans."

Advocates for hydraulic fracturing argue that the final EPA report is not vastly different from the draft version.

"Anecdotal evidence about localized impacts does not disprove the central thesis, which is that there is no evidence of widespread or systemic impacts," said Scott Segal, a partner at Bracewell LLP who represents oil and gas developers. "There's a lot of exaggeration. There's a lot of mischaracterization of the extent of contamination that's based on a desire to enhance recovery in tort liability lawsuits."

Read more of ProPublica's major work on fracking.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.


Adobe Settles With 15 States Regarding 2013 Data Breach

The Indiana Attorney General announced a multi-state $1.0 million settlement agreement with Adobe Systems, Inc. after a data breach in 2013 where the information about 2.9 million customers nationwide was stolen. The data elements stolen included names, addresses, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, usernames, encrypted payment card numbers and expiration dates.

14 states which joined Indiana in the settlement agreement: Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. The states alleged in a lawsuit that Adobe failed to use reasonable security measures to protect its computing systems from hacks or had proper intrusion detection methods installed. The multi-state settlement agreement covers about 552,000 residents from the 15 states.

Indiana's share of the settlement was $53,718.36 for 24,049 Indiana residents affected by the breach. Indiana AG Greg Zoeller said:

"This case is yet another example of the importance of protecting your personal and financial information... I continue to be an advocate for Indiana’s credit freeze protections and encourage all Hoosiers to place credit freezes with the major credit bureaus.”

Connecticut's share was $135,095.71. Connecticut AT George Jepsen  said:

"Consumers should have a reasonable expectation that their personal and financial information is properly safeguarded from unauthorized access... Adobe worked in good faith with my office and the states affected by this incident to better protect consumer information going forward, and for that it deserves some credit. My office will continue to be diligent in protecting Connecticut consumers by strictly enforcing our privacy laws."

46,465 Maryland residents were affected by the breach. Maryland AG Brian E. Frosh said:

“Reasonable security measures must be implemented to maintain the safety and security of consumers’ personal information... As a result of this agreement, Adobe has agreed to bolster its security to prevent another similar occurrence.”

More settlement agreements may be forthcoming.


Voting Technologies By County Across The United States

State and local governments across the United States use a variety of voting technologies. Chances are, you voted on Tuesday using one of two dominant technologies: optical-scan ballots or direct-recording electronic (DRE) devices. Optical-scan ballots are paper ballots where voters fill in bubbles or other machine-readable marks. DRE devices include touch-screen devices that store votes in computer memory.

The Pew Research Center analyzed data from the Verified Voting Foundation, a nongovernmental organization, and found that almost:

"... half of registered voters (47%) live in jurisdictions that use only optical-scan as their standard voting system, and about 28% live in DRE-only jurisdictions... Another 19% of registered voters live in jurisdictions where both optical-scan and DRE systems are in use... Around 5% of registered voters live in places that conduct elections entirely by mail – the states of Colorado, Oregon and Washington, more than half of the counties in North Dakota, 10 counties in Utah and two in California. And in more than 1,800 small counties, cities and towns – mostly in New England, the Midwest and the inter-mountain West – more than a million voters still use paper ballots that are counted by hand."

Previously, voting systems nationwide used punch-card devices and "lever machines" which were slowly replaced since 1980 by optical-scan and DRE devices. You may remember voting with one of the old-style lever machines, a self-contained voting booth where voters flips switches for candidates and then pulled a large lever to record their votes:

"Punch cards hung on throughout the 1990s but gradually lost ground to optical-scan and electronic systems – a decline that accelerated sharply after the 2000 Florida election recount debacle that brought the term “hanging chad” to brief prominence. But as punch cards faded away (the last two jurisdictions to use them, Franklin and Shoshone counties in Idaho, abandoned them after the 2014 elections), some voters became concerned that fully electronic voting would not generate any “paper trail” for future recounts. According to Verified Voting, of the 53,608 jurisdictions that use DRE equipment as their major voting method, almost three-quarters use systems that don’t create paper receipts or other hard-copy records of voters’ choices."

In August of this year, Wired reported about the state of security of the DRE devices:

"What people may not remember is the resulting Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed in 2002, which among other objectives worked to phase out the use of the punchcard voting systems that had caused millions of ballots to be tossed. In many cases, those dated machines were replaced with electronic voting systems. The intentions were pure. The consequences were a technological train wreck.

“People weren’t thinking about voting system security or all the additional challenges that come with electronic voting systems,” says the Brennan Center’s Lawrence Norden. “Moving to electronic voting systems solved a lot of problems, but created a lot of new ones.”

The list of those problems is what you’d expect from any computer or, more specifically, any computer that’s a decade or older. Most of these machines are running Windows XP, for which Microsoft hasn’t released a security patch since April 2014. Though there’s no evidence of direct voting machine interference to date, researchers have demonstrated that many of them are susceptible to malware or, equally if not more alarming, a well-timed denial of service attack."

Experts have said that, besides better built and more secure DREs, post-election auditing -- checking vote totals against paper ballots -- is the best way to ensure accurate vote totals. Reportedly, more than half of states perform post-election audits.

So, it seems appropriate for citizens living in counties that use antiquated DREs, or that don't perform post-election audits, to contact their elected representatives and demand improvements. Good entities to contact are the elections departments in your city, or the Secretary in your state. Find your state in this list. Below is an image of voting technologies by county:

Pew Research Voting technologies by county in the United States. Click to view larger version


Disenfranchised By Bad Design

[Editor's Note: Today's guest post was originally published by ProPublica on October 20, 2016. It is reprinted with permission. Some towns, municipalities, and cities -- such as Boston -- use paper ballots that are scanned. (This facilitates recounts, when needed.) The city provides AutoMARK machines at polling locations to help voters requiring assistance. The machines use audio cues, magnification, and several languages to mark ballots correctly, especially for low-vision and disabled voters. Inquire about this automation or other assistance when you vote.]

by Lena Groeger, ProPublica

This November 8, even if you manage to be registered in time and have the right identification, there is something else that could stop you from exercising your right to vote.

The ballot. Specifically, the ballot's design.

Bad ballot design gained national attention almost 16 years ago when Americans became unwilling experts in butterflies and chads. The now-infamous Palm Beach County butterfly ballot, which interlaced candidate names along a central column of punch holes, was so confusing that many voters accidentally voted for Patrick Buchanan instead of Al Gore.

Pal Beach Country butterfly ballot
Palm Beach county’s infamous butterfly ballot. (Wikimedia Commons)

We've made some progress since then, but we still likely lose hundreds of thousands of votes every election year due to poor ballot design and instructions. In 2008 and 2010 alone, almost half a million people did not have their votes counted due to mistakes filling out the ballot. Bad ballot design also contributes to long lines on election day. And the effects are not the same for all people: the disenfranchised are disproportionately poor, minority, elderly and disabled.

In the predominantly African American city of East St. Louis, the race for United States senator in 2008 was missing a header that specified the type or level of government (Federal, Congressional, Legislative, etc). Almost 10 percent of East St. Louis voters did not have their vote counted for U.S. Senate, compared to the state average of 4.4 percent. Merely adding a header could have solved the problem. Below you can see the original ballot and the Brennan Center redesign.

Brennan Center ballot redesign
Before: no header for the Senate race, after: consistent headers for all contests. (Brennan Center, Better Design Better Elections)

"When we design things in a way that doesn't work for all voters, we degrade the quality of democracy," said Whitney Quesenbery, a ballot expert and co-director of the Center for Civic Design, an organization that uses design to ensure voters vote the way they want to on Election Day.

Many mistakes can be avoided with tiny tweaks
Designer Marcia Lausen, who directs the School of Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote a whole book about how democracy can be improved with design. She even tackles the infamous butterfly ballot. The 2000 Chicago Cook County judicial retention ballot crammed 73 candidates into 10 pages of a butterfly layout punch card ballot, with punch holes packed much more tightly together than in previous elections. As in Palm Beach, Yes/No votes for the candidates on the left page were confusingly interlaced with Yes/No votes for the right page.

Lausen's proposed redesign eliminates the interlaced Yes/No votes, introduces a more legible typeface, uses shading and outlines to connect names and Yes/No's with the appropriate punch holes, and removes redundant language.

Democracy For Action butterfly ballot image

Democracy For Action butterfly ballot after redesign image
Before and after butterfly ballots. (Design for Democracy)

In the 2002 midterm election in Illinois' Hamilton County, each column of candidate names was next to a series of incomplete arrows. Voters were supposed to indicate their choice of candidate by completing the arrow on the left of the candidate name. But because we read left to right and the candidate names in two races lined up perfectly, many voters marked the arrow to the right. As presented in a Brennan Center analysis, setting the columns a bit further apart and adding borders would have cleared up this confusion:

Suggested redesign of Illinois' Hamilton County ballot
  Illinois’ Hamilton county confusing ballot, and suggested redesign. (Brennan Center)

In Minnesota in 2008, Al Franken beat Norm Coleman for the U.S. Senate seat by a sliver, less than 300 votes. In that race, almost 4,000 absentee ballots were not counted because the envelope was not signed. The Minnesota Secretary of State's office decided to redesign the mailing envelope. After a series of usability tests, they added a big X to mark where people should sign. In the following election in 2010, the rate of missing signatures dropped to 837.

Minnesota's mailing envelope is a good example of how designers can solve design problems well before any election actually happens 2014 by testing those ballots beforehand.

"Test and test and test," recommends Don Norman, a designer and cognitive scientist who wrote the the book on designing objects for everyday life. The most important aspect of ballot design, he says, is considering the needs of the voters. He suggests doing extensive testing of ballots on a sample of people, which should include those who are "blind, deaf, or people with physical disabilities as well as people with language difficulties."

Bad instructions are a design problem, too
Beyond layout and ordering, the unanimous winner for worst part of ballot design? Instructions.

"The instructions are uniformly horrible!" said usability expert Dana Chisnell, who co-directs the Center for Civic Design with Quesenbery. Confusing jargon, run-on sentences, old-fashioned language left over from 100 years ago: all of these plague ballots across the country. Here are a few example instructions (the first from Kansas, the second from Ohio) along with the Brennan Center's redesign:

Brennan Center suggested redesign of Kansas ballot instructions
(Brennan Center, Better Ballots)

Brennan Center suggested redesign of Ohio ballot instructions
(Brennan Center, Better Ballots)

Even if the instructions are clear, placement of instructions has a huge effect on whether people understand them. In usability tests conducted in Florida's Sarasota and Duval counties in 2008, the majority of participants got to the end of the ballot and stopped. Which was a problem, because the ballot continued on the other side. Despite instructions specifically telling people to vote both sides of the ballot, they didn't.

Designers have already put together guidelines for making better ballots
Luckily, there are resources for how to help avoid these predictable problems. In addition to Lausen's book, the Design for Democracy initiative has worked for years at applying design principles to improve elections. A few years ago the design association AIGA combined forces with Whitney Quesenbery and Dana Chisnell to condense their best practices into a set of handy field guides.

The ballot-specific guide, Designing Usable Ballots, has this advice:

  1. Use lowercase letters.
  2. Avoid centered type.
  3. Use big enough type.
  4. Pick one sans-serif font.
  5. Support process and navigation.
  6. Use clear, simple language.
  7. Use accurate instructional illustrations.
  8. Use informational icons (only).
  9. Use contrast and color to support meaning.
  10. Show what’s most important.

For the designers, these recommendations may seem obvious. But election officials 2014 the ones responsible for laying out a ballot 2014 are not designers.

Sometimes, reality thwarts good design
Even if officials wanted to follow every design best practice, they probably wouldn't be able to.

That's because ballots are as complicated as the elections they represent. Elections in the U.S. are determined at the local level, and so each ballot must be uniquely crafted to its own jurisdiction. Ballots must combine federal, state, and local contests, display measures and propositions, and sometime require voters to express their choices in various formats 2014 for example ranking their choices versus selecting one candidate for the job.

"There will always be special circumstances that present new problems for ballot design," said David Kimball, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who has written extensively on voting behavior and ballot design.

Take what happened this summer in California's Senate race primary. A record number of 34 candidates were running to replace incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer, and the ballot needed to fit them all. In many counties, elections officials simply couldn't follow the good design recommendation of "Put all candidate names in one column."

To make matters worse, bad design is written right into the law
Election officials are often constricted in what they can and can't do by specific language in their local election code. More often than not, the law is to blame for bad design.

For example, numerous jurisdictions require that candidate names and titles be written in capital letters. This goes against huge amounts of evidence that lowercase letters are easier to read. Other requirements like setting a specific font size, making sections bold or center-aligning headers make it next to impossible to follow all the design best practices.

Image of Illinois Election Code
Illinois Election Code used to require candidate names to be printed in capital letters. (Statutes of the State of Illinois)

Some election code requirements just seem to invite clutter. In Kansas, a candidate's hometown must be listed under their name. In California, the candidate's occupation. Designers argue that this additional text complicates the ballot with needless information, but they can't get rid of it without breaking the law.

"It's amazing how many design prescriptions are written into law by non-designers," said designer Drew Davies, who has worked with numerous jurisdictions to improve their ballots and voting materials and is design director of AIGA's Design for Democracy.

Some of those prescriptions border on the comical. In New York, election law requires that each candidate name must be preceded by "the image of a closed fist with index finger extended pointing to the party or independent row." Here's how that actually looks on real New York ballots:

[insert ny closed fist image]

In design, everything matters 2014 even the order of the candidate names
Some design problems are not as obvious as a pointing finger. Take something as simple as the order of the candidates' names. There is a well known advantage for being listed first on the ballot. The "primacy effect" can significantly sway elections, especially in smaller races not widely covered in the media where there is no incumbent. One study of the 1998 Democratic primary in New York found that in seven races the advantage from being listed first was bigger than the margin of victory. In other words, if the runner-up candidates in those races had been listed first on the ballot, they likely would have won.

As one report puts it, "a non-negligible portion of local governmental policies are likely being set by individuals elected only because of their ballot position." To combat this unconscious bias, some states have already mandated that names are randomly ordered on the ballot. Still, many states and jurisdictions do not have a standard system for organizing these names.

The future will bring new design challenges --but also new ways to make voting more accessible
As more and more states adopt absentee and vote-by-mail systems, they make voting more accessible and convenient 2014 but they also introduce new ways of making mistakes. And those errors are only caught after the ballot has been mailed in, too late to change. A polling place acts as a fail-safe, giving you the opportunity to ask a poll worker for help or letting you fill out a new ballot if yours gets rejected by the voting machine. But on an absentee ballot, if you made a mistake and your vote isn't counted, you'll never know.

There are several current efforts to overhaul the ballot entirely. Los Angeles County, for example, has teamed up with the design company IDEO to create an easier and more accessible way to vote. Their customizable device would let people fill out a sample ballot on their own time from a computer or mobile device, and then scan a code at the polling place to automatically transfer their choices to a real ballot.

The Anywhere Ballot is another open-source project that's designed to create a better voting experience for everyone 2014 including voters with low literacy or mild cognitive issues. Their digital ballot template, which came out of extensive user testing and follows all the current ballot design best practices, lets anyone use their own electronic device to mark a ballot.

But of course, the design problems that plague ballots affect all aspects of the voting process.

Voter registration materials, mailed voter guides and education booklets, election department websites and online instructions, poll worker materials 2014 all of these have problems that can be improved with better design.

"Ballots are where all the drama happens," said designer Lausen, "but there is much more to election design."

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.