Monday, August 2, 2021 0 comments

Reinventing the Wheel

You may not remember that foreign actor intervention was the primary headline from the 2020 presidential election.

That's because the headlines have been much different.  Suspected foreign intervention was the theme of the 2016 election and I took personal criticism for focusing on what I considered, instead, to be the true election administration issues leading into the 2018 election--the fundamentals, the proverbial blocking and tackling of election administration..

While suspected foreign intervention was a theme in 2016, that didn't even become a "thing" until early August of that year.  Similarly, COVID didn't emerge as a potential backdrop to the last presidential election until March of 2020.

In training election workers, I often noted how we always train on the LAST issue, whether or not it was the most important.  A training issue that emerged from an August election, for instance, usually didn't turn out to be the issue in November.  We made sure of that.

Never worry, that slip that wasn't signed by two election workers, or the proper completion of the provisional envelopes--we nailed that previous problem, only to have a new issue in the next election.

Superstitions exists with elections.  If we slayed a third potential operational dragon, pre-election, in Johnson County, Kansas, we took relief that the third and final issue was solved because, surely, three was the magic number of potential roadblocks in any election.

Operational issues are always the most important election issues.  There may be no such thing as a perfect election, but local election administrators will never accept such talk, always looking to prepare for a string of perfection.

I remember sitting in the office of a local election official on election day in November 2018, where he told me foreign influence was the biggest issue election officials were facing then, that very day, and as we headed into 2020.

"Is it?," I asked.  "Is it more important than making sure people today get to the right polling place, or they receive the proper ballot, or those who voted in advance get their ballots returned, or the college student who didn't get her ballot..."

I maintained, and I think 2020 bore out, that the old and boring election operations issues are always the most important.  In fact, if any of those issues arose, some may wonder if foreign intervention was the behind-the-scenes culprit.  So, in a slight nod to that local administrator's point from 2018, suspected foreign intervention made operational issues even more important than ever.

I'm not discounting the need to address foreign security threats, but if all politics are local, as the cliché goes, all election issues could be considered local as well.

In fact, it's common for a local election official to hear from a voter, "I don't worry about how elections are ran here, but I worry about how they are run elsewhere."

That's good and bad, I suppose, but reflects that local election officials know that the success of an election comes down to handling hundreds of details.  Local election officials handle those details incredibly well.

Now that I've been a state election official for almost two years, and with no offense intended to my new peers because this job has its own balls of stress, all-in-all, local election officials bear much more election-day stress.

(And my time as a federal elections official.....well, that just makes me recall one of my favorite phrases-- "Where the Rubber Meets the Sky").

Local election officials are the true heroes.

I don't use that term lightly.  I just know first-hand the immense pressure upon them, the exhausting hours they put in, and the scrutiny upon them in times of close elections.  Two assistant election commissioners died from cancer and another recovered from major cancer surgery during my time in Johnson County, Kansas.  My Johnson County predecessor is a cancer survivor.  Local election officials literally give their health and years of their lives to serve voters. 

Compared to their peer department heads in county government, for instance, the risk is much greater.  I often said that a bad day for the Public Works director is a pothole and a bad day for me as Election Commissioner would have me on CNN.

Fun Fact #1--I have been on CNN in a good way.  They spent the day with me in November 2014.  This link has the interview summing that up, where I relayed that they were like family during that visit.

It was a fun day.  "Wolf's gonna love that," is the memorable quote from that election.

But, usually, network news is not a place where election administrators want to be.  Close elections become very emotional and if the outcome isn't ideal, it's easy, as in sports, to blame the referee. Election administrators, as a whole, do a great job and are the least political people you will ever meet.

I've tried to capture the different elements local administrators face by creating a wheel of competencies.  The picture here is the third generation, after fiddling with it at the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to have the events follow chronological order of an election, and then modifying when coming to North Dakota because North Dakota, while managing a central voter file, is the only state in the country without voter registration.

Fun Fact #2--When you get down to it, voter registration is an unnecessary burden on voters, another topic I wrote about on this blog.  I'll address this further in a future post.

Back to the putting some activities in purple, to represent ongoing competencies that are year round, the events don't truly go round and round.  We thought about different bands of activities to keep the wheel image, but it got more confusing and looked too much like a dart board, although, in fairness, election officials  might feel like a dart board at times

The whole point of the wheel--this blog, as well--is to raise awareness of the work election officials undertake to make election day--nay, election season (a point discussed much in the coming months)--go well.

"Go well" is subjective, but if you consider that the center of all activities, rather than the nice logo here, is actually the voter, "go well" should mean that voters have the ability to easily vote and have confidence their votes were cast and recorded correctly.

Each one of these Trivial Pursuit-like slivers represents a huge component, and local election officials must be experts in each.  These aren't dimensions listed on a job description but major components that require expertise.

Over the next few months, this blog will discuss many of the themes in the wheel planks.

Monday, June 21, 2021 0 comments

Masks and Gloves Off

Eventually, this blog will find its voice again.

This post is the beginning, although it’s a bit more of an opinion piece than a straight-up blog post.

A lot has happened since ElectionDiary went on pause in 2015.  ElectionDiary began nearly 10 years ago, in the beginning of 2012, to document behind-the-scenes operations issues associated with election administration in Johnson County, Kansas.  The blog was well-read, and received the Minuteman Best Practice Award from The Election Center in 2014.  

But as I moved to serve as Executive Director of the United States Election Assistance Commission (EAC) in 2015, I didn’t want the blog to interfere with the messaging coming out of the agency.  I even tried to curate the blog, or give it to someone to keep it going, but, probably, just should have kept typing and posting as ElectionDiary. 

When I applied to the EAC, the big question was, “would the EAC even exist in four years?” as legislation had continually been introduced to eliminate the agency.  You will find blog posts here where I thought the EAC had lost its relevance, and I felt a calling to go and, as we said often during my four years, “Make it real.”

The EAC, indeed, began speaking to election officials. Clearly, I underestimated how much the agency existed just for the sake of Washington politics, but Congressional sentiment towards the EAC appeared to shift through 2016 and 2017.  In my opinion at least, the agency is definitely more relevant than in its darkest days—2012 and 2013—and was more relevant when I left in 2019 than it was when I started in 2015. 

The 2016 budget at the EAC was half what it was in the agency’s early days, and through efforts to raise relevancy and tie activities to election administration processes, our efforts in 2018 and 2019 to lift the budget were successfully greeted with budget increases that the agency enjoys today; the budget levels are back to those of 2010, which, sadly, is a major accomplishment.

But for all the good at the EAC, the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, in retrospect, looks a lot like the 2000 presidential election that led to the agency’s formation through the Help America Vote Act.  “Not my president,” became a phrase often used following 2016, and it is used by others in 2020.  If voter distrust in elections was high in 2000, it would be hard to make a case it is lower in 2020.

It’s hard to know if the country has ever been more divided politically.

It’s hard to know this, at least for me, because I actually have not lived and personally observed the nearly 245 years of our nation’s history.  I'm pretty sure no one has.

I’ve read books, seen the commercials for the Time/Life DVDs, listened to scholars, saw Hamilton, and even sing along to They Might Be Giant’s “James K. Polk,” but, you know….it’s all anecdotal.  I haven’t had a front-row seat to the full history.

Funny thing, the Cybersecurity Infrastructure and Security Agency (CISA) appears to have the ability to assess history differently.  CISA is essentially a unit of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson declared elections as critical infrastructure in January 2017, following the 2016 election and just weeks before he departed with the administration change.

I was personally and extremely involved in standing up the governance for this new critical infrastructure segment, although it technically isn’t a new segment, but rather a sub-segment to the Government Buildings segment.

That distinction is important because election administrators initially wondered about all of their components—buildings, mail, vendors, for instance—and how they would be impacted by the critical infrastructure distinction..  It became clear, as the agency name that makes up CISA suggests, that the focus truly was on cybersecurity.  (The oddities of this will have to wait for further posts.)

For now, though, let’s look back at history, short-term, and long-term.

Just seven months ago, in early November, while votes were still being counted and nine days after election day, CISA, through a small Joint Executive Committee of the two counsels that represent the elections as critical infrastructure governance, declared the November 2020 election as "the most secure in American history."

"In American history," I repeat.

Oh.  Maybe I’ve missed the security scorecard rating for each presidential election.  Maybe there is a letter-grade scorecard, much like the way analysts grade NFL teams after each draft.  If so, I overlooked that.

I’m not sure of the rubric CISA used to grade and make this assessment.   How did the historic 2008 presidential election compare?  For that matter, how was the 1908 election assessed and compared? 

What was the least secure election in American history?  We ought to be on that.  Which election just lost the crown and dropped to number two?  How long can 2020 reign as number one?

And, as most Americans read this statement from CISA, we were unaware of the Solar Winds cyber compromise impacting DHS at that very time.  Another global cyber event was unfolding at that time as well.  Surely, CISA knew of these events and still made this statement? (that question was typed in Hopeful font).  

I’m not convinced that the storyline of the 2020 election cybersecurity success is completely known yet, but the nationwide ironclad security that distinguished this election has been repeated to voters daily since November.

Never mind that CISA, better than anyone, would know that cybersecurity effectiveness is a lagging indicator.  There were no zero-day attacks, or attacks known before election day, but that didn’t mean there weren’t compromises yet to be discovered.

As a reminder, CISA spent all of 2017 and 2018 explaining new and emerging details of potential foreign compromises in 2016.

That’s not really the point here, either, but it gets to the fundamental reason for the blog post:

(um…when you recover your voice for good, could you please get to it a little faster?)

For whatever reason—maybe the COVID pandemic, maybe (and more likely) the politics involved—2020’s election involved a major inflection point that must change.

As a local election administrator, when receiving calls and concerns from voters, I invited them to the office for a tour. I sat down with them. I showed them our procedures.

I often say the three words you never want to hear from an election administrator—“Just trust me.” 

"Just trust me" sounds an awful lot like, "It was the most secure election in American history."

In 2020, voters instead were told the election was secure.  Voters were not shown how the election was secure.

Maybe it was the most secure.  But, let's show voters that.  Let's show what we do as election administrators.  

Let voters see the process and procedures.  Let voters decide if the process and procedures are secure.  If voters contend they are not secure, listen, and either make changes or suggest legislative discussions or changes they may want to pursue.

Many may argue this point, citing recounts and risk-limiting audits, or even verification of signature checks.  For the most part, though, to voters these were explanations of activities.  Voters were told these things occurred.

It’s akin to the person upset at a customer service counter.  It’s common to think, “They aren’t getting this so I must talk more, maybe louder,” rather than determining another way to reach the person. 

We reach voters by being inclusive, not dismissive.

I believe, for instance, in North Dakota, that our elections were secure in 2020.  But, watching activities in other states and nationally, I have to reflect.  What could we have done differently in North Dakota in 2020, or, at least, what can we learn from all of this to change the tenor for 2022 and 2024.

I think the answer is to show.  

The most secure election in history?  Show me and let me decide.

Tupperware-tight chain of custody procedures?  Show me and let me decide.

Security around voting machines?  Show me and let me decide.

Only eligible voters voting, and on time?  Show me and let me decide.

I’m not in any way suggesting our elections were anything but secure.  I haven’t met an election administrator who didn’t take security seriously.  It’s who we are as election administrators. 

We, by our nature, are process control freaks.  And, I submit, that core value was not visible the way it should have been in 2020. 

Maybe this was because of COVID, but now that the masks have come off, so must the gloves.

We must commit to showing what we do, going forward.  Transparency is at the core of election administration, and renewed commitment to transparency has to be the guiding principle leading into 2022's elections.


Monday, May 30, 2016 0 comments

Memorializing Memorial Day

It's Memorial Day weekend, a milestone weekend where we begin about a 90-day reflection upon all of those who have served our country in the military to protect us, our families, and everything associated with American life.

Memorial Day is that unofficial transition to summer.

It's also the time, in every even year during my 11-year tenure as a local election official, that I declared, "Game On!"  With a June candidate filing deadline, an August state primary, and the November general election, the Memorial Day weekend also was the unofficial transition from baking plans to ensuring we had contingency plans.

Memorial Day weekend was that last restful weekend before, in some years, Christmas.

Memorial Day is a different transition point here.  ElectionDiary was created in 2012, a presidential year to give behind the scenes views on election administration.  That's just as vital in 2016.

I have a different role and a different perspective, and one I'll try to link with my experiences.  I still would prefer to have election administrators serve as guest bloggers, but the best way to move that idea along is to be visible here.

ElectionDiary was never political in a traditional sense, as in having any view of the outcome of any election.  But the blog has chronicled the equivalent of office politics that are encountered when administering elections. 

I'm now convinced more than ever in getting to know so many of my peers over the years, that behind nearly every highly regarded election administrator, known for running elections efficiently and fairly, is a story of an entity trying to inflict some seemingly unjust amount of influence on the administration of elections. 

That adds a wrinkle of stress to election administrators.  Fact is, such a wrinkle probably is felt by nearly every public-facing government agency.  Those are topics, I guess, for other blogs--DMVDiary, PublicHealthDiary, AirportDiary, or the like.

My hunch, though, is this is more intense with elections.

I've often had an imaginary conversation about this with my father, always someone who cut through things.  My father, a veteran, passed away in May of the last presidential year and received a military 21-gun salute at his funeral.

"Elections involve politicians," imaginary dad lecture would go.  "Why wouldn't you think they were political?"

Election Administrators are professionals who are more worried about ensuring voters are registered and have access to vote than anything else.  Typically, the only reason election administrators know who is on the ballot is because the names were proofread, literally, 10 times.

So to repeat the initial mission of the blog more than four years ago (and the blog has had more than 110,000 unique visits in that time just living in little ol' Kansas), the stories here will be about elections behind the scene, what happens on the "other" 364 days we don't have elections.  Guest bloggers are invited from administrators and election geeks in the field.  I won't enlist vendors per se, but, perhaps, thought leaders representing the vendor community.

These stories--the SHARING of best practices--will be the hope from guest bloggers and my posts along the way.  ElectionDiary won't be for news. and @HHHElections handles that very well.

 But, it's Memorial Day, "Game On!" in elections, and time for updates to the diary.  As my friend at @HHHElections would say, "Stay tuned."

Friday, November 6, 2015 3 comments

The Future

Oh, what to do, what to do....

I have plenty to do, preparing to assume the responsibilities of the Executive Director of the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) and wrapping up my responsibilities at the election office.

More, that's the question with this blog.

This blog has been an unofficial voice--an administrator's personal voice, not associated with any official site.

It can't really continue in its current form.  The EAC website contains a blog with posts from the Commissioners.

Yet, this site has a brand, with nearly 100,000 unique visits since its inception.

And, it serves a purpose, especially in a presidential election year when overall interest in elections is at its highest.  Election administration issues will see their most widespread attention then.

I've given thought to curating the site, making it a place where several election administrators post regularly.  That would make it have more frequent content, and it truly would have the diary aspect.

Readership may increase.  The profession, and our common issues, may gain more visibility.

If you are an election administrator and this interests you, please let me know.  If a panel of, say, 10 administrators regularly updated, we'd have a daily update, probably, and that would be very diary-esque.

It might even elevate the site to place where it becomes The Huffington Post of Elections or, at least, a link on such a site.

I have loved doing Election Diary.  It started leading into the 2012 Presidential Election.  Maybe, as we head into 2016, it becomes a "if you love somebody, set them free" kind of thing.

I'm envisioning a little gallery of photos-but-not-photos, in that Wall Street Journal sketchy kind of way, of administrators across the country who contribute when they want to, and the collection becomes our own version of the CNN across-the-country view of what's going on.

Thus....what to do, what to do.

In the meantime, dear reader, if you return here only to see this post for a while know that the pause is intentional.

Monday, November 2, 2015 2 comments

Voters on Parade

We have a couple of elections in the works, but we don't have one tomorrow.

If this were 2017, the first year spring elections move to the fall, we would have an election tomorrow.  Many in the country will vote tomorrow and we actually have received several advance ballot applications for the election that isn't.

That's a bit of an awkward call, or at least it may feel awkward on the receiving end, but they present a terrific election worker recruitment opportunity--"You are so engaged!  We need you!"

Kansas City, Missouri, is one such area that has an election tomorrow.  As suburban neighbors, we often get potential voters who assume that we have an election at the same time.

Kansas City, though, has been through a huge, well, curveball for tomorrow.

With the Royals winning the World Series, the victory parade has been scheduled for noon-2 tomorrow.

Just when you think the world knows there is an election.....

In Kansas, there is a law prohibiting someone from impeding a voter on the way to vote.

"No officer, this is a parade...."

Hmm.  I can see the wheels turning with disruptors.

I can't imagine a parade going through Johnson County on election day.  I've had voters call to complain when a traffic accident temporarily closed a lane of traffic--that we should have had a contingency plan for any voter in those situations.

(We do, by the way, in that they could cast a provisional ballot anywhere, although we'd prefer they vote at their location).

Schools likely will be more empty tomorrow, throughout the metropolitan area.

Again, if this were 2017, and the schools had been closed for voting as we are advocating, everybody would be winning.

Maybe, in fact, that's what we should do--explain that it is likely there will be an annual World Series event on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.  History has shown that.

I, for one, am choosing to believe this Royals victory parade will be an annual event.

From now in Kansas, so will November elections.

For now, please share some warm vibes to the Kansas City Election Board as you add "World Series Parade" to the new Sporting News classic "Knotty Problems in Elections (Caused by Baseball)."
Thursday, October 22, 2015 0 comments

On the Stick!

My age was showing a couple of weeks ago in the park while running.

As I came around a turn in a pathway, I saw a young couple holding a long pole with something at the end of it.

Oh, a metal detector, I thought.  A throwback.  I haven't seen someone at the park with one of those in years.

But, no.

As I got closer, I saw the thing was being held out from their shoulders.  They're going to put someone's eye out, I thought further.

And, no, that comment wasn't (just) what showed my age.

I realized they were holding a selfie stick, one of these new inexpensive Bluetooth-enabled photo-taking devices that hold a smartphone.

Selfie sticks, and selfies for that matter, are sizing up to be the hottest election administration issue of 2016.

There's even the first political book of the season on the millenials, calling them the Selfie Voters.

But selfie votes mean a little more in elections, and, especially in a presidential election.

First, the more exciting way--first time voters or just excited voters who want to take a photo of themselves voting to put on social media.

We saw that in 2012 but we know that will be rampant in 2016.  We've talked with other election administrators about running with that in a fun way, perhaps having selfie stations for voters while they wait to vote during advance voting.

I've heard some creative ideas along this line and we plan to, um, borrow, yeah, borrow, but I won't spell them out here because they truly weren't my ideas.  We'll show you as the election gets closer, though.

Another type of selfie isn't really a selfie of the voter, but rather the machine.  I voted for "Candidate," See!

Minor problem--it is illegal to leave the polling place in Kansas with a representation of who you voted for.

Major clarification--these photos aren't illegal because they are taken at the review screen before "cast ballot" is pressed.  When that selection is pressed, the selections vanish.  There is no "proof" of how someone voted.  Voters could take 50 shots of the review screen, each portending to be who they voted for.

A couple of things are clear, though.

First, the whole selfie stick thing will be new to our election workers and we're planning to demonstrate how they work during training.  We don't want the sticks misread as something else, say...a weapon or a metal detector.

Second, we're going to need a point of view on selfies and selfie sticks at polling places.  Already, selfie sticks have been both outlawed at a polling place and endorsed at a polling place, both in locations outside of Kansas.  Expect selfie legislation to be a topic in many statehouses this winter.

As election commissioner, I have to ensure that nothing disrupts the voting process, but I doubt selfie sticks will.  Regardless, I will have to have completely thought through both sides of the lens on this issue before we begin communicating with voters.

First things first, though.  In the "it's never dull" news of the day, we now have a new mail-ballot election scheduled, for February 2.  Another is on the way, any day, likely for April.

If you are counting, we've had 16 elections in the last 20 months as it is, the most we've ever had in a 2-year period.  We've had 22 in a three-year period and already have 6 scheduled, now, for 2016.

We did have 2 weeks without an active election.  Maybe we should have taken a picture with the hope it would have lasted longer.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015 1 comments

Hay! Is That a Pumpkin?

Fall is the time for pumpkin spice lattes, pumpkin carving, pumpkin pies, and hayrides on trailers accessorized by, well, pumpkins.

And, it's time we make hay for 2016 before 2015 turns into a pumpkin and the presidential election is completely, "Game on!"

We have spring elections in 2016 (we think....) and at least two mail-ballot elections considered in early 2016.  There is even talk of a countywide mail-ballot election in May, just before the June filing deadline for August and November elections.

When January rolls around, we can get busy negotiating advance voting locations.  There are a couple of large, vacant storefronts that look like attractive sites, but landlords aren't willing to accept in October 2015 that the sites will be vacant in October 2016.

They won't magically believe us in January, but we can start the dance, with the hope of buttoning everything down by April.

We also will be sending our letters to the six school superintendents of our intent to use all schools as polling places in 2016.  The new legislation that moved spring elections to the fall also requires school districts to make any schools we request by January 1 of each year available for that year's elections. 

Winter is coming, and that's when numbers will get more serious, but here in the fall of 2015 we can spitball our expectation that we will have about 400,000 registered voters for the presidential elections, 80 percent of those voters will cast ballots, about half in advance at what we expect/hope to be four sites or by mail, and the rest will vote at one of approximately 250 polling locations.

We will need to button down those polling places.  We need a plan for that.

We will need to recruit about 1,000 new election workers.  We need a plan for that.

We will need to train about 2,500 workers.  We need a plan for that.

We will need new computers at our advance sites.  We need a plan for that.

We likely will undertake an intiative to utilize electronic poll books and, probably, new voting equipment at our advance sites.  Again, we need a plan for that.

Oh, we have a plan for that.  The four largest counties have issued a request for proposal for next-generation voting equipment.  Purchasing the equipment requires further planning, but the selection process is underway.

Likewise, we will be issuing a request for proposal for electronic poll books.  Our experience in the August 18 election, when trialing them, was satisfactory and we will be looking to scale them.

We're in the process of revamping our election worker training plans and, further, have an ambitious effort to provide more education for poll agents.  We'd also like to expand the capabilities of our website to allow for automated advance ballot applications, as well as more open data on the site to reduce the time we spend on candidate orders for information.

The theme in our office for the last few months, from me, has been, "Show me the plan."

Well, in fairness, the theme has been that I'll be saying that.  Now, with about 10 weeks before year-end, we'll be getting busy with those plans.

After that, it will be all about executing. 

We can't bail hay, but we do need to make it in these 10 weeks, or else we'll be bailing in 2016 in a different way from the oncoming election wave.

Thus, the blog theme for the next few weeks will be presidential election preparation.  Whatever activity and intensity level we are at for any given day, it will double the next. 

That means that whatever intensity we are at today, by January 1 it will be, um, a lot more. 

We're going to need a bigger boat.  We better double down on Pumpkin Spice Lattes.

(This cliché ridden post was partially brought to you by caffeine.  Imagine the clichés by January).