Monday, December 15, 2014 0 comments

Anytime But April

Sometimes, it takes a small election for a large a-ha moment.

Such was the case Tuesday, where Roeland Park picked a new city council member after a resignation.

Roeland Park is the only Johnson County jurisdiction that doesn't appoint replacements on its council.  This was the second special election in Roeland Park in 2014.

Like the previous special elections, it was a one-ward, one polling place election.

The election also wrapped by my first 10 years of elections as election commissioner.  We've had 60 elections, but only 20 of them were planned.

Averaging 6 a year, we already have 5 special elections planned for January 27--five different school districts will be having mail-ballot elections on the same day.

This election came during a busy week, as I also needed to prepare for a presentation to a Kansas House and Senate Committee on Friday.  This committee is looking at data related to the potential of moving spring elections to the fall, either in even or odd years.

I've been advocating moving the elections to the fall of odd years.  I've discussed the reasons before, but, summed up, I believe turnout may increase and I also think it could be done in conjunction with requiring schools to have a student-holiday on election days to allow consistent use of schools as polling places.

So, the preparation of that presentation was on my mind on Tuesday as we waited to see the turnout--more than 20 percent, as it, well, turned out.

Hmmm.  That's a higher turnout than spring elections (that include Roeland Park).

We got to thinking.  The turnouts for special elections usually are higher than we expect, at least at the polls.  Mail-ballot election turnout has been dropping over time, but the turnout still is very good.

We put it all on a slide, below, and note with the red arrows the lowest turnout of any special elections.  The green arrow shows the highest turnout of the last four April elections.

The lowest turnout of a special election is still higher than the best turnout in April.

We've read criticisms of the idea of moving spring elections that there is no data to suggest turnout might increase if elections were moved from April to November.

That's true.  But this data supports that elections held any time BUT April have a higher turnout.

It's fascinating, really, because the quick follow-up question is why?

It could be that these elections stand on their own, and get individual attention, even individual outreach attention on the mail-ballot side.  The why is worth exploring, but the data is fairly conclusive that April turnouts are the low achievers in the crowd.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014 0 comments

New Normal, With a Short Fuse

I haven't really intended to take the month of December off so far, but such is the paradox of this blog.

It's intended to give a behind-the-scenes view of our elections, yet, as elections heat up, it's harder and harder to update.

There's much to update but this will just stick with what's continuing to be the greatest election story ever told her--the school district's mail-ballot elections scheduled for January 27.

What's important here, and we're learning this more and more each day, is the scale ahead of us.

Checking in an average of 10,000 envelopes a day requires a lot of computers, hand-held scanners, and authentication tokens into our statewide voter registration system for signature verification.  The scope of that is becoming more real to us as we devilishly hop into the details.

We processed about the same the number of returned paper ballots in 2004's presidential election that we will handled this year, but most of those ballots were in-person ballots, not requiring signature verification.

We've been so focused on the scanning of 165,000 returned ballots, we realized we haven't spent enough time on the "checking in" consideration, and even simple things like, "Do we have enough tables and chairs?" and "Are our envelope openers up to the task?" need to be explored.

There's some sort of business correlation here in that we are addressing the need to scale fast.  If this was the new normal, we'd make decisions to plan for that--automated signature verification systems, for instance.

But this isn't the new normal.  It's a spontaneous breakout--like the first time you see "Rocky Horror Picture Show" in a theater and people run out to the aisles to do the Time Warp, only to come back and sit next to you.

Before we can pick up our jaws from January and ask, "What just happened?" we'll be back in the typical world of our polls elections.

Everything we know is wrong, but just for about 60 days.  That's our new normal. 

It's the Temporary New Normal.

As Roeland Park's election concluded yesterday, the reality is, the Temporary New Normal is full-on.

Sunday, November 30, 2014 0 comments

Paper, Party of 330,000?

Somewhere, there will be an election administrator in a jurisdiction using paper ballots who will read this post and consider our plight child's play.

But, here we are, short-staffed and run down following the November election and in the middle of a much smaller December election in Roeland Park.

Yet, a monster set of elections await us, with ballots going out the first week of January to about 330,000 voters in five of the six school districts in Johnson County.

If half come back, we will be processing 165,000 pieces of paper, plus the envelopes, in roughly 16 days.

That's more than 10,000 ballots returned daily, and each one of the envelopes has to be checked into our voter registration system and have the returning signature matched against the voter's record.

Then, the ballots have to be scanned and tabulated.  Never having paper at the polls, at least in the last 50 years, we operate with a handful of scanners at our office.

At most, these scanners can scan 1,000 ballots an hour, but a likely throughput for the four we have is really about 2,500 an hour.

We've never processed this many paper ballots before.  Our office used paper ballots for advance voting in the presidential election of 2004, with a two-page ballot, and that resulted in nearly 200,000 pieces of paper.

That was just before I came to this job and I still hear horror tales from that process.

Job One here is to, well, get the job done.  We've never pulled something like this off before, and the fact that it falls right between two countywide elections (spring is comin') makes this even rougher.

In fact, the election itself ends the day after the spring election filing deadline.

Job Two is to get the job done as economically as possible.  Incremental costs are passed on to the school districts, while fixed costs--such as staffing and equipment purchases--are borne by the county.

So, that creates two problems for us--at least two phases of one problem and another problem, actually.

The first problem is, how many part-time election workers do we appoint to handle the load?  Part-time is likely the wrong phrase--temporary, full-time workers. We probably could use at least 75.  In November we had 12.

We only have 20 stations for envelope check-in.  We'll pretty much be needing someone sitting at those stations the entire time.

Each signature on the return envelopes must be verified.
Could we even get 75 people?  What if we needed more?  Where would they work, securely?

Can we get by with fewer, and how?

If only we had one of those fancy high-speed scanners that's being touted with some of the next-generation voting systems.  Our system isn't compatible with such a thing but if the system was, we could scan much, much faster--10,000 in just a couple of hours.


Somewhere in the Royals' World Series euphoria, we decided to take a major leap here, using an entirely new voting system for this election.  It's akin to buying a big-screen television just before the Super Bowl. 

This isn't the major leap it could be, in that we aren't going to have any election at the polls, but we are going to set up the election and operate it with a new tabulation system. The system will use a high-speed scanner.

Election administrators don't roll like this.  Where's the mock election?  What are we doing for redundancy?  These are typical, internal questions.

Our equipment vendor, to the redundancy point, is a four-hour drive away.  If the system can't be warrantied to be fail-safe for the first 20 days of its life, there's an issue there, anyway. If the system explodes, I'm sure we will have another one within a half-day.

The system has been certified federally and in Kansas, so that's not a risk.  It's just that we're making this huge transition in December for an election that will be over on Groundhog Day, the day of the elections' canvasses.

Unlike the movie, the day after Groundhog Day, and every day after, will not be the same.

Once this election is over, we'll have a high-speed taste test, an understanding of a new system that we will evaluate for our ultimate equipment replacement, and a very large paperweight until our next large mail-ballot election, likely in late 2015 or later.  It's not quite a throwaway unit, but close.

The big question is the reconciliation between the scanner costs and the savings of people.  That's roughly going to be a wash.  Remember, though, Job One is to do the job.

And this job requires that we not bring a rinky-dink scanning system to high-speed scanner fight.

So, the battle begins.  We hope to have the unit on-site this week to begin preparations.

It's funny--that Super Bowl comparison:  in November elections, the media likes to ask us is if this is our big moment, our Super Bowl.

I'm sure, given all we have going on, our staff would much rather not have this behemoth group of elections in January.  But, we've never done something like this before, and in February, conducting the canvass they day after the NFL's Big Game, we're going to feel pretty good about what we accomplished.

That sounds like a Super Bowl party to me.

Thursday, November 20, 2014 0 comments

Roeland Park, Part Two

Although it's been terribly long between posts, have pity, please--we started another election yesterday.

It's a special election in Roeland Park, second time this year, and comes in the most intense election period in Johnson County history.  With the November election just ending, we have this election a month later, and, on January 7, we will be mailing about 350,000 ballots for special school elections.

That election day will be about a week after the filing deadline for the spring elections.  Come April, nearly every voter in Johnson County will have had 3 elections in five months and some may have five elections in five months if we have a spring primary.

(Was that as crazy to read as it was to type?  One of our ballot envelope colors should be camouflage, to recognize ballot fatigue.)

Amidst all of this, we have some major budget deadlines ahead.  These are important because it may be 2014, but the 2016 budget gains form by March.  As mentioned in the last post, we have a lot of work to do to prepare for 2016, and the costs for that election will be much higher than in 2014.

Further, we must work on preparing our voting system request for proposal.  We were chagrined recently to learn that Sedgwick County has $4.5 million set aside for a new system.  (Actually, I'm chagrined for us but happy for them).

Douglas County had the wisdom to hire a county management leader from Johnson County a few years ago, but she took with her, apparently, the resolve to plan ahead.  Douglas County began setting aside money each year for voting systems at the same time our county manager stopped our annual set-aside amount and also pulled funding based on a quote we received, provided several times in the budget process.  We had $10 million at one time in the capital budget, but he pulled it.

Shawnee County, also, has set aside a large portion of money for its next system.

So, it's frustrating to say the least when my predecessor had the wisdom to push for and implement a plan to pay for a future system, but we are behind the other large counties in preparation years later.

This will have a major point of reckoning because even when the county issues debt to pay for the new system, it will have either a tax impact or a major cost cutting impact.  That cost cutting won't come in elections, because as we ramp up polling places and staff advance voting to 2016 levels, I estimate those additional costs to be more than $1 million from 2014.

Plus, because we will have to finance our new system, this issue also likely prevents the county from setting aside money for its next, next system.  This has created a perpetual election funding crisis.

And that's if things stay the way they are now.  Our voting machines tabulate perfectly, but reports of a vote flipping from one candidate to another--something the system has had since it was implemented in 2002--does wear us down.  Particularly, social media can turn one report into a viral epidemic.

I often talked to three or four people about the same report, and we just don't have the staff size to talk about these issues adequately, let alone address them.   It's worth considering if we need to purchase an interim solution for 2016 while we select a longer-term solution.

All of this reminds me of how, when I first came to the office 10 years ago, how the industry quaked of reports on the Black Box Voting.  There was a book of the same name.  10 years ago, that's what viral meant.

Those were the days.

Still, we're presented with an opportunity, really.  Many voters want paper, others want better touch screens, and I want a system that is easier to maintain.  Age is a relentless beast, for humans and machines, and the clock is ticking on the useful life of our system.

Legislators know this.  I just spoke at a conference of staffers put on by the National Council of State Legislators.  Two of those staffers were from Kansas, and they are coordinating an a task force of legislators looking at combining spring and fall elections.

I'm attending the meeting tomorrow, and speaking next month.  My patter is familiar--spring elections in odd years move to fall in odd years, leaving each year with August and November elections.  In conjunction with this, require that all schools be closed on election day in November and available as polling places.

One thing that has struck me, since the Black Box Voting days, is that, well, viral campaigns reach a lot of people.  We all vote, and many of us have opinions on the best way to vote (paper, machine, Internet, you name it).

There isn't much consensus on the best method, today or tomorrow.  Add in layers of policy makers, who have their own opinions and their own cost and social drivers and restrainers, and the chance of a common approach in the country, or even in a state, seems unlikely.

I'm still a believer that there will be a big bang, a disruptive moment in the industry--perhaps a single state legislature will pass a little bill requiring Internet Voting, or emailing of ballots.  All the work of standards, scientists' theories, and activist interests will go out the window.

Likewise, the opinions of election administrators will matter little in such a scenario.  Somewhere, we have to find a way to make the realities of today merge to lead to a solution.  My little presentation included here is hard to follow unless you were at the meeting this week (and even then....), but I'd be glad to explain it further if you email or comment.

For now, back to the elections.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014 0 comments

Election Marathon

I ran a half-marathon on Sunday.

Half-Marathon Finisher Medal
I ran it because I could, a great release from what has been a grueling marathon of an election.  I hadn't trained, but I was okay with my time of 1:55 and finishing it was the win, anyway.

That real marathon ends today, with the board of canvassers reconvening at 1:30.  With about 3,000 provisional ballots to count and many having to be hand-counted partials, the special board worked 12 hours yesterday to finalize results.

That's a marathon in its own right.  These are some of our office's most dedicated part-timers, working for nearly nothing, pushing paper.

Even years bring with them many things, including a very long ballot, two-sided, 8 1/2 by 17 inches, with approximately 30 items to select.  With 190,000 voters, that's nearly 6 million voting transactions.

Even years also bring a long October, one which doesn't allow for training for such things as real marathons.  I ran my only marathon in 2013.  I'm not sure I'll run another, but I knew I wouldn't run one in 2014. Besides, we had election worker training the day of the Kansas City Marathon.

Election Results, Halfway From Finishing, on CNN
We had our own virtual marathon at the office, though.  In fact, all of Kansas City had the World Series run for the Royals that was exhausting, and we didn't even play the games.  The post-season ran the entire month of October and held the city captive.  Who knew October baseball really now lasts all of October?

It hasn't always been that way.

Baseball great Reggie Jackson referred to himself as Mr. October and as a kid, I thought that was a silly nickname because the World Series ended halfway through the month.  I ran a half-marathon, but I'm not Mr. Marathon.  Why wasn't he Mr. Half-October?  Or, Mr. Late Summer?  Or, Mr. 30-Days-Some-In-September-Some-In-October?

Anyway, there definitely was a Royals factor to the whole election.  In training, I began giving the milestones in Royals dates--registration ended as the Royals won game 3 of the division series, advance by mail began the day they clinched that series and--oops--Supervising Judges pick up supplies the day of the victory parade (my guess on the date).

We saw advance voting in person trail off in the afternoon of game days and explode after the World Series ended.  Voters were giddy.  People were dressed in blue but if their voting experience was blue, we didn't know it.

After the Series, those things we typically see when voting is going on for two weeks began emerging.  Voters selected candidate A on a machine, for instance, but candidate B came up.  They changed it, voted accurately, but worried about all of the others who may not be as observant as them.

This has gone on since the machines were purchased, 2002--before my time, and as much as I'd like to use this as THE excuse for needing a new voting system (oh, it's an excuse, believe me), it usually happens because of pilot error.  The machines are not your father's iPads, which then just tells you how old the technology is if your father didn't even use it.

To provide some context there, the scroll bars on the review screen on the voting machines are on the LEFT.  Look at your web browser.  Note the scrolls are on the right--always have been.  Yep, we're voting with pre-Internet design.

In any event, we record whenever these anomalies are reported, and in this election it seemed to happen, as it usually does in an election, on just once race.  We had a couple of reports for governor and Secretary of State, and one on a judge, but the other 25 were on the US Senate race.

Again, I have absolutely no incentive to defend the machines, other than that I can demonstrate our testing that assures they tabulate perfectly.  I didn't select the machines, I want a new system, and I have no problem throwing the machines under the bus, except that the machines would probably cause the bus to crash, and while unlikely around here, someone might be on a bus and be hurt.  That would be bad.

But if it was a simple case of bad calibration, many of the races would have this issue.  At the very least, the races in the same place on the screen, as voters advance, would experience the same thing, on screen two, screen three, and screen four.  30 reports out of nearly 6 million transactions don't lead to a widespread diagnosis of poor calibration.

The reports and calls suggest we equally were favoring candidates, not only suggesting that we were trying to engineer the election but also that those Palm Pilot devices had the capability of guessing who the voter wanted in a race and then forcing the other candidate's name to be selected.

I heard about these reports, often the same report from different sources, through many poll agents and lawyers.  I talked to only two angry voters on election day, mostly because I was on the phone with other stakeholders the rest of the day.  We had media throughout the day, and with a position that had gone a year to fill not yet filled until yesterday (woo hoo!) and the sad loss of our assistant election commissioner over election workers and polling places, being understaffed took its toll in terms of my availability on election day.

I was so excited to talk to these actual voters that they probably wondered if they were being punk'd.

We had some key learnings in this election:

  1. We have consolidated polling places for the last time.  We had the fewest, 182, we've had in a November election and in 2016, we'll need at least 75 more.
  2. We won't get to 250 polling places, let alone 284 that we had in 2008.  They just won't be available.
  3. We will need more advance sites.
  4. We won't get those either, with the economy improving and storefronts filling, without paying excessive rent.
  5. My reaction to these issues is, "So?"  These are elections.  These are real cost issues, including staffing needs and election worker pay increases that are needed.  My job is to administer the elections and the county's role, very harshly, is to fund it.  I expect the 2016 cost to be at least $1 million more than it was this year, at least.  This is not my problem.  It is a problem, for sure, only to get worse with the funding of our voting system.  But there is a huge expense ahead to be adequately prepared for 2016.
And, finally, we had the learning of the poll agents--about 400 deployed in this election.

Imagine, instead, if just half of them had been election workers.  We'd have had one more worker per polling place and then some.

Now, back to running the half-marathon.  I like running races and I pay for that.  Similarly, I played indoor soccer for years.  I like participating in competitive events.

As a competitor, I've had my share of times that I felt, for instance, that the soccer referees could have been better.  But the idea of becoming a referee myself--no thank you.  Just, I thought, I wish that they would hire better referees.

Likewise, I think voters deserve to carry expectations that their participation in competitive government events (elections) are handled professionally.  Voters pay entry fees (taxes) to have voting convenient, and never would I suggest to a voter who is unhappy that if the voter really cared, the voter should get more involved in the process, to be one of our referees.

But I would make such an appeal to poll agents.  In fact, I plan to do that very thing.  One area we will target, for new workers, will be the poll agents.

If someone has made the leap to assist with a campaign or candidate, and had time on election day to monitor the process, the best way they could help the process is to be part of it, as an election worker.

We're fortunate that these 400 were engaged.  Now, we hope to engage them further for the marathon ahead in 2016.

Sunday, November 2, 2014 2 comments


As always, there is much more to update that time allows, but as we head into the last day before the election, at the very least, I wanted to make sure I quickly blogged about some sort of life imitating life event.

I'm not sure art is involved in this case, except for shirt art.  I'll explain:

Any doubt that Kansas is in the public eye on Tuesday was erased when we received a call on October 15 that CNN would be broadcasting live from our office on Tuesday.

Politico, the Washington Post, and Time magazine also will have reporters here, although the Time thing is a bit misleading.  David Von Drehle of Time lives here locally and I only know that because I sold a universal weight set a few years back and he bought it.  Again, just another part of my get-to-know-all-380,000-voters plan.  Still, I may see him professionally this week, too.

CNN will be arriving tomorrow to set up and we'll discuss their time here.  I think they'll mostly be doing a behind the scenes view of the election and, of course, that's right in the wheelhouse of this blog.

A local reporter asked if we would do anything differently with CNN coming.

I told her we'll dress better.

In fact, we always give our high-school election workers a t-shirt to wear at the polls so they can be properly identified and applauded by every voter they encounter.

We also use a group of Olathe North National Honor Society students to help with the check-in of equipment on election night.  They will wear the same shirts.

The back of the shirt features a hashtag, #GoVoteJoco.

We've given birth to it, hoping it lives as long as hashtags live. We thought about a QR code, but QR codes are so 2012.  The front of the shirt has 2014 on it, so we only need the hashtag community to hold on for two months.


Also in the world of fashion, I show you a pin we give to each election worker:

We customize one for each November election and our workers proudly collect them.  In fact, in my international observation trip to Georgia last year, I took some pins from the 2010 and 2012 election and they were a huge hit with my fellow observers from around the world.

I was a little surprised.  I'm not much of a Pin Man, I guess.  But many of my peers proudly wore the pins.

So, surprised, yes.  But, also proud.

I'm further proud of our workers.  They are galvanizing for the election in the wake of losing the man who, often, hired them--Tom Ray.

I asked that they offer up the 2014 election as a prayer to Tom as we conducted supervising judge training this weekend.

For training, we broke out the interactive test-taking clickers we bought in 2012 to do polling and testing during training.  I find that asking questions before training is most effective because we see areas we need to emphasize if the group scores low on a particular item.

Besides, it's really deflating to do the questions at the end of training, only to realize we still have much work to do.

I know the question here was a bit of a creme-puff, but I've never had a group answer 100 percent correctly before!

And with that, I'll stop the post and take the win.

Thursday, October 23, 2014 1 comments

The Image of The Year of the Voter

Blog posts shouldn't be painful to write, but this one is.

I've often said that we are one poorly timed illness from a crisis because we are desperately understaffed and our employees each have monster jobs with many responsibilities.

Depending on where we are in the election cycle, from mapping to training to voting machine delivery, the entire election can grind down if we lose a player in the chain.

We lost a player in the chain today, someone who values family so much that a "player in the chain" is how I think he would want to be remembered.

Our assistant election commissioner over polling places and election workers, Tom Ray, was surprisingly diagnosed with lung cancer in May.  He left us just five months later.

This is a post that deserves to be incredibly long, filled with nearly daily anecdotes I could share with how much he meant to me, our office, our election workers, and our voters.

Yet, it's been so sudden, and there are so many people working here, and they all need to know.  The election can't stop, and that's the backdrop behind Tom's passing.  As we're internalizing the news, candidates are calling, voters are here, we continue to take request for advance ballots, and we listen to complaints.

I just took a call from a voter who thought that giving the address to our advance site at 9800 Metcalf was too vague, that no one could find it.  She felt this was voter suppression, as if seeking out a facility for advance voting, signing the lease, equipping it, and staffing it was a total ruse to keep people from voting.

It's also ironic that I took that call while typing this because Tom was a champion for advance voting, and he negotiated the lease for this location.  We wrapped up the lease just days before he found out his condition was incredibly serious.

If you found that you had a terminal disease and would die within a year, you might quit your job, pull out your savings, and live on an island.  Yet, that island might not be paradise, but rather a daily reminder of the forthcoming end. 

For Tom, making sure he left us as prepared as possible for November was his outlet.  He came in every day until his treatment amped up.  His hours here were dropping to just a couple a day.

We've been scrambling to move ahead with scheduling and assigning workers, and without question, some workers have fallen through the cracks.  We've been pushing workers into training without yet finalizing their assignment so we don't lose them, yet having 200 floaters to get to the right location sets us for a crazy week next week.

There's so much Tom knows. 

Sadly, I just left that sentence as I typed it so you see where my head is.  There's so much Tom knew, actuallyWe will have a pretty good idea of those things we didn't know by the day after election day.

It's a huge hole and a flag I've raised for many years as we've asked for more headcount through the budget process.  We are about to finally have a person start in a position next month that took a year to fill (not our choice), and a headcount we fought to get in the 2015 budget, hopefully, will be filled in early 2015 before our school mail-ballot elections.

Keen observers of the blog are probably now putting together why I was so impassioned about our 2015 headcount need during the June budget hearings.

It's hard having an obvious operational box of thumbtacks thrown in front of us on our road to the election.  Yet, I wanted to recognize Tom for his dedication to our voters before he stopped working.

Secretary of State Kris Kobach agreed, and he came to election worker training last Wednesday, at my request, and presented Tom with a National Association of Secretaries of State Medallion Award for his service.

We worked to schedule the award around Tom's work schedule and treatment, as well as the Secretary's own busy schedule.

This is an exclusive, national award.  As a point of reference, only four others have been awarded the Medallion in the last four years in Kansas and the only two people from Johnson County to have received the award were my predecessor, Connie Schmidt, and our deputy election commissioner Karen Browning, who retired after more than 40 years of service to the county. 

Tom thanked Kris in front of 250 election workers.  Ever-proud, Tom had still not made his condition known to them.  His voice was raspy as he thanked the Secretary and said that he had laryngitis, so he wouldn't be able to give a speech.

In the days ahead, he indeed lost his voice.  However, he never lost the will to be the voice of the voter, and that dedication will be his legacy.

Tom was in the office Sunday and as I left, with a bottle of water in my right hand, he came up to me and took the bottle so he could shake my hand and thank me for the award presentation. 

Clearly, that was goodbye.  I didn't see it then, and this post is the beginning of me saying goodbye to him as well.

This was just last Wednesday, 8 days ago.