Friday, December 15, 2006

Preparations for 2007 Elections are Underway

With the passage and implementation of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) the landscape of elections in the United States have changed significantly. Overwhelming acceptance and success with the electronic voting equipment during the 2006 Utah elections has allowed some election officials to breathe a sigh of relief, but the costs and procedural nuances of pulling-off a successful, fully electronic election for the 2007 municipal elections could prove problematic for many cities in Utah.

Significant cost increases, technical complexity, and statutory ambiguity are weighing heavily on many city recorders and election experts in Utah as the preparations begin for the 2007 election cycle. The Utah League of Cities and Towns and members of the Utah Municipal Clerks Associations have conducted a series of meetings with the Lieutenant Governor and several counties over the last few weeks to address many of these issues and will recommend a series of statutory changes to the Lieutenant Governor (Utah’s chief election officer) and the Municipal Policy Committee for the Utah League of Cities and Towns.

The ULCT and the Municipal Clerks have identified the following issues that will require legislative action during the 2007 legislative session in order for the cities and towns to adequately conduct a successful election.

Changes in the Municipal Election Primary Date: Due to recent statutory changes which require 14 days of early voting in both primary and general elections, we felt it necessary to extend the time period between the municipal primary and the municipal general election. Currently, there is approximately one month between the primary and general election, leaving little time to conduct early voting and address any election issues that may arise during a primary election. We will be suggesting a change in the municipal primary to allow approximately two months between the primary and general to ensure that any primary election challenges that may occur can be adequately addressed prior to the general election.

Greater Consolidation of Voting Precincts: Due to the cost associated with using the electronic equipment, we felt that greater consolidation of voting precincts would help manage the cost associated with the deployment of voting equipment. The current state statute only allows 1st and 2nd class cities to consolidate up to two precincts when conducting elections. The law does, however, allow smaller jurisdictions to consolidate as many precincts as practicable. We will be recommending that 1st and 2nd class cities be allowed to consolidate up to four precincts when conducting municipal elections as a cost management strategy.

Clarify that Electronic Voting Equipment is not required during municipal elections: There are several portions of the current statute which leave some ambiguity as to whether electronic voting equipment is required when conducting municipal elections. We will be making a suggestion that several technical “clean-up” changes be made to Title 20A of the Utah State Code to ensure that there is no requirement that cities use the electronic voting equipment. We would like to ensure that optical scan balloting and paper balloting are still viable options for those communities that wish to use them. We are assuming that many jurisdictions will use the electronic equipment, but want to maintain flexibility on this issue, again as a cost containment issue.

Changes to Early Voting: Finally, we will be recommending that changes be made to the interpretation of the statute governing early voting to ensure that our small jurisdictions are only required to make early voting available during the regular operating hours for there given city or town. Currently the statute says that early voting must be made available for at least 4 hours a day during “normal business hours” for the two weeks preceding the primary and general election. Since the business hours of cities and towns vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, we would like to clarify that early voting be made available for the two weeks preceding the election, but the time frame for the requirement can be determined by the municipality.

We will be meeting with Lieutenant Governor Herbert next week to go over these recommendations and have already acquired a bill sponsor to address these issues. We will be finalizing the recommendations with our Policy Committee in early January, and will be working with the bill sponsor, Representative Doug Aagard, on these issues during the legislative process.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Local Telecommunications Issues Highlighted at the FCC

The US Federal Communications Commission may vote on Dec. 20 to change some of the rules regarding cable franchising. FCC chairman Kevin Martin has circulated a proposal to the other four commissioners to require local authorities to decide within 90 days on some phone-company applications to offer TV in competition with cable providers. The plan would require local authorities to rule within 90 days on video-franchise applications from companies that already have a community's rights-of-way. Localities would have 180 days to rule on applications from companies that don't already have such access. Martin also called for limits on the types of fees local agencies can "reasonably require" new TV providers to pay in franchise deals. The FCC also may limit local regulators' ability to impose "build-out" rules, which typically require a company selling TV in a cable market to offer service to all households in that region.

Unrelated to the FCC Dec. 20 vote, on Nov. 13 and 14 Comcast filed effective competition petitions with the FCC for selected communities in seven states. Under federal law, if a cable provider can demonstrate that effective competition exists in a community, it can apply to the FCC for relief from regulation of basic cable rates and for associated equipment and installation. These filings affect 831,344 customers nationally. Already more than a million of all Comcast customers have been certified by the FCC as being subject to effective competition. These filings demonstrate the increasing and aggressive competition present in the multichannel video marketplace. Congress and the FCC set up a process allowing cable companies to petition for regulatory relief when effective competition is demonstrated. Federal law recognizes that where certain competitive conditions exist in a marketplace, regulation of basic cable programming and equipment and installation rates is no longer necessary. These filings are customary when effective competition can be demonstrated. Comcast has filed and previously been granted numerous applications for effective competition. When effective competition exists, consumer protection is ensured by market forces, rather than rate regulation. If approved by the FCC, Comcast would still be subject to other requirements of its local franchise agreements including the payment of franchise fees and carriage of public, educational and government access channels, strict customer and technical service standards, and requirements to serve every neighborhood.

While both issues deal with telecommunications, it is important to understand that they are in no way related. While the first issue may have significant ramifications on local franchising, the ladder issue will not impact a municipalities ability to govern the franchise arrangement with Comcast within their operating area. The first issue, which deals with the FCC rule change, is problematic, but there are several national groups working to preempt any action taken by the FCC, arguing that it will take congressional action to impose “build-out” and other franchising rules.

If you are interested in additional information here are some helpful links: