Point, Click, Vote

Posted June 17, 2005 at 5:49pm

Last year’s federal election was supposed to be the first with votes cast over the Internet. [IMGCAP(1)]

The Pentagon, in an attempt to overcome chronic lapses in the absentee balloting system used by soldiers, was prepared to spend $22 million on a project to let them vote online.

But after winning money for the program, and paying the consulting firm Accenture to develop the software, the military was forced to scrap it when a team of academics determined that it was riddled with holes hackers could exploit.

Now, a small Seattle outfit that was runner-up to Accenture in the first bidding is trying to revive it.

The company, called Vote Here, has hired the Livingston Group — the lobbying firm founded by former House Appropriations Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.) — to try to win federal money for a second try.

Company founder and president Jim Adler said his original offer included technology to protect against tampering, but it was rejected by Pentagon officials who decided it was unnecessary.

The company has improved its technology since then, published its details online and submitted it for review by experts, Adler said.

“I don’t think this is going away,” he added. “Military ballots fall on the floor every election. Either the absentee ballots don’t find the soldiers, or they don’t make it back in time. We think technology is the answer.”

Former Rep. Toby Moffett (D-Conn.), now lobbying the issue for the Livingston Group, said his team has been working to create a coalition of supportive lawmakers, mostly from states that have the largest populations of deployed soldiers.

“We’re also glommed in on the Appropriations committee in the Senate, hoping they will support a resumption of the pilot program,” he said.

The company hopes that a modest debut in a non-presidential year will help the program gain traction, so that it can be expanded in time for the 2008 elections.

Fighting Back. Despite the best efforts of trial lawyers, insurers, labor unions and some manufacturers to defeat the asbestos-litigation bill sponsored by Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the measure won committee approval late last month. But the Coalition for Asbestos Reform — a loose collective of companies facing asbestos lawsuits and insurers who could be on hook for much of the payouts — aligned against the bill, and they’re not giving up yet.

With the bill now awaiting action on the Senate floor, the coalition, which includes such corporations as ExxonMobil, DuPont and AIG, is planning a major new drive to sink it.

No budget has been set for the campaign, according to Tom O’Brien, the coalition’s executive director. To lead it, the group has hired public relations powerhouse Fleishman-Hillard and its affiliated advertising and research firm, Mercury Public Affairs.

O’Brien said he expects the campaign to be in print and on the air soon in about 12 states.

Hitting the Road. Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores, a popular stop for Interstate travelers looking for down-home grub and folksy trinkets, has picked up a crew of lobbyists from Kilpatrick Stockton to work out an issue of crucial importance to the company: Road signs.

Cracker Barrel often has trouble getting its name on government-sponsored highway signs that direct drivers to gas, food and lodging businesses at upcoming exits. Under current law, the Transportation Department only considers the distance from the exit ramp to the driveway of the establishments when deciding which businesses get listed on the signs.

Cracker Barrel, with its large lots, often requires drivers to backtrack, thus increasing the driving distance to its door, explained Kilpatrick Stockton’s Christopher Ott.

“Cracker Barrel is being treated unfairly,” he said. “Their restaurants are often close, but a lot of times you have to drive down a frontage road to get there.”

Ott and a team that includes John Walk have been working with the Environment and Public Works Committee and other lawmakers to ensure language within the long-delayed Transportation reauthorization legislation remains in the bill. That language says that in addition to considering distance from the exit ramp, the DOT secretary could also give restaurants priority consideration for being full-service establishments, as opposed to just fast food.

“What this language would do is give them a greater chance to be on the signs,” Walk said.

“Having worked the issue on the Senate side, currently, we’re optimistic,” Ott said. “It’s not controversial.”

K Street Moves. The bipartisan lobbying firm Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti has landed Kelly Bingel, former chief of staff to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.). … Daniel Spellacy, a Capitol Hill veteran and former senior adviser to the Agriculture Department undersecretary for food safety, has left to form his own lobbying shop, The Spellacy Group. … Ruth Ravitz Smith, formerly a top lobbyist for St. Paul Travelers Companies and, before that, for Northeast Utilities, is heading to Brown Rudnick to become a principal in the law firm’s government law and strategies practice group. The firm is also adding Marlene English, another lobbyist for St. Pauls Travelers Companies, as a government relations specialist. … Margaret Conway has been promoted to director of the Washington office for DDB Issues and Advocacy. Prior to joining the firm in 2004, Conway worked as national political director for the Sierra Club.