Sunday, July 26, 2015 0 comments

The Lehman Proposal

Typically, I don't use many names in my blog posts.

Today, I will, just for the context of the post and also to laud the owner of the centerpiece of this post.

First, readers of this blog and election geeks everywhere know that voting systems in the United States are aging, with often no identifiable funding mechanisms to fund the replacements.

I've written about that extensively here regarding Johnson County.

In fact, we've painted ourselves into a corner in Johnson County.  Our office has been promised the funding for a new system when that system is defined.  Alternatively, money was being socked away annually to prepare for the system but that process stopped in 2011.

We're defining the system, planning for a 2017 rollout, promises remain, but the county's financial position to back up that promise is suspect at best.

I've been continuing to advocate that the cost of elections be itemized on residents' property tax bills and be funded through a separate mill levy.

That isn't some nutty idea--it's in Kansas law, a separate mill levy for elections, and Wyandotte County, for instance, does it.  I'm not pushing for a tax increase, although that could be a vehicle county commissioners have to link actual costs against dollars raised.

It's the ultimate in public transparency.  Residents would know exactly how much (how little, in fact) elections are costing them and when callers ask for more advance voting options or newer equipment, for instance, they'd know what the impact would be to their pocketbook.

Personally, I think an itemized tax statement would drive more government accountability, so I can't see how it's a bad thing.

Another reason supporting this change, I believe, is a new law passed this year that soon will require governing bodies to receive public approval through a (costly) election if mill levy rates are increased above the rate of inflation.  Special elections are funded by the jurisdictions calling for them and not the election office.  However, in the board of county commissioner's case, county tax dollars will have to pay for such an election.

Being proactive now by utilizing this elections mill levy and pulling out election costs from the general fund would help them later, I'm convinced.

I'm the only one convinced at this point, though.

I guess I should just pause and the take the win from another legislative item I'd pushed for years--schools being out of session on election day.  Coupled with moving spring elections to the fall, this essentially has happened with the elections law that passed this year.  Schools don't have to out of session, but are required to be available.

That win took 10 years.

I'm into about year four of the elections mill levy advocacy.

But, back to the equipment.

Conventional wisdom says the county will issue long-term debt as the method to find the funding for the voting system.  Problem is, long-term debt has an annual price tag.

Debt retires.  Annual price tags drop as a result.  Smart governing bodies (Shawnee Mission School District, especially) ensure that new debt follows the old and the amount being paid annually doesn't drop off.

A drop off would be good in the short-term for taxpayers, but then the sticker shock for new debt might keep new projects from being started and soon, a school district (for instance, not the one mentioned) would need to make operational spending cuts or request a tax increase to operate the same way it had 10 years ago.

So, in Johnson County, if the amount of annual debt added exceeds the amount retiring, that money is going to have to come from the operating budget--the same one that for 2016 already exceeds the existing mill levy.

The amount of annual debt service payments required for a voting system will exceed the retiring debt service payments.  (There is some fuzzy math that might say otherwise, but if you dig deep enough, you'll find this to be true).

Down the road, our voting equipment will be a tax increase in the making because we haven't planned and now, ironically, it would take a costly election to approve the funding.

This, by the way, is what happened in the late 1960s that led to Johnson County taxpayers voting to approve the purchase of voting machines (and the legislative creation of the mill levy tax for elections that some counties utilize).

Fact is, though, the mill levy in those counties is paying for operating expenses, not debt on capital.

So, while I try to push on that item, funding for voting systems needs a similar press with the legislature.

One Johnson County commissioner, John Toplikar, wondered if there was a way to create a technology fee within the Kansas legislature to pay for new equipment.

I'm not a fan of fees--he isn't either, I think--because they are hidden taxes.  Tipping fees for landfills, for instance, are built back into the cost of service for trash haulers and passed on to residents.

But if there was a fee that didn't impact taxpayers?

My peer in Sedgwick County, Tabitha Lehman, has suggested a portion of political contributions be funneled back to the state for new voting equipment.

(Quick interlude--Tabitha represents one member of a cadre of election administration superstars in Kansas; I travel and meet with my colleagues across the country, and Kansas election administrators show very well.  They fall behind the shadow of a loudmouth know-it-all with a blog, and are among the country's best-kept election administration secrets).

Back to Tabitha's idea.  It's akin, I guess, to a portion of money raised by college athletics to be put back into the campus infrastructure--parking fees, reduced ticket prices for students, and campus security.

I'm not sure of the dollars--it's worth building a case based on actual contributions from 2012 and 2014.  What if, for instance, candidates who raised more than $2,000 or $5,000 in a race had to contribute, say, five percent back to the state for the administration of an election technology fee?

There are probably ways to exempt loans and contributions from the candidate (it would seem unfair to self-fund a campaign and pay, essentially, a penalty for not taking contributions).  It's possible that 5 percent wouldn't even make a dent, unless, of course this became federal legislation.

In fact, I know there are several immediate reasons why this wouldn't work.  "Dark money," for instance--how would that be captured?

But the fact is we are about to see an outrageous amount of political spending, heading into 2016.  These candidates will expect voting systems of the same sophistication as their campaigns.

Major league players deserve major league stadiums.

One thing is clear to me--communities will get new election systems when these expire.  We're not going to collectively raise our hands to vote and the Internet appears, for now, off limits as an idea (I mean, come on, when the IRS is hacked....)

It's time to drive the discussion and find a funding solution before it's funding out of crisis.  Frankly, I think we're heading into funding out of crisis in Johnson County despite my barking.

But we're on the leading edge of this issue--Johnson County's voting system fleet is among the oldest in the nation.  Many communities implemented new systems about three years after we did, with funding from the Help America Vote Act, and we're just the leading indicator of pain ahead.

So, I proudly will begin pushing the Lehman Proposal.  Or the Tabitha Tabulation Solution.

My experience has been that the best way to push for ideas is come up with one that, worst case, can be criticized and drive debate.  If there are reasons why this won't work, let's discuss them and determine what will work.

Otherwise, many of us in Kansas may eventually be conducting special elections on outdated equipment to determine if taxpayers are willing for a tax increase to pay for a new voting system.

Maybe that's the logical outcome of all of this, but being proactive now may avoid it.
Saturday, July 11, 2015 0 comments

MEOC Update

It's been a while between posts as I get back in the groove in the United States and further in the groove with our two elections.

There's much to report, and the next few days will show me back in the posting groove as well.

For now, it's time for an update on the Midwest Election Officials Conference.

It's scheduled for September 30-October 2, open to any election official, not just those in the Midwest. (See, even if you are not in the Midwest, on those days you would be.....)

We will be contacting potential speakers soon. We have a list and we're checking it twice.

The theme will be Bridging Today with Tomorrow.

Very specifically, the theme will focus on execution of the largest issues facing election officials. Often, there are "future of elections" discussions where we gather and talk about the many pending crises ahead, from funding to lack of polling places to aging equipment.

This conference will be intended to take those topics and lay out a prescriptive path, moving from "the sky is falling," to "here's how you build a roof."

For now, those interested in MEOC can line up a few things:

  • Text MEOC to 74574 to be prepared for updated on the conference.
  • Bookmark, where updates to MEOC will occur very soon, including an online registration form
  • Contact the Hilton President Hotel in Kansas City to reserve rooms with our room block, with the rate of $106. As a government office, we committed to a fairly small number of rooms (we'd be responsible for the unused rooms) and we can increase the block if people start booking now. Information regarding the hotel will be on the website, but MEOC2015 is the room block.

As for the blog, I'll be speaking with the Johnson County NAACP today on new election laws and will post related to that. And, an update from Albania awaits.

More soon.

Saturday, June 20, 2015 0 comments

Election Theater, Albanian Style

Greetings from Albania!

I'm here on an election observation mission and I'll blog about the experience, just as I did last time in the Republic of Georgia, when I'm back.

I was out scouting my areas of observation today, in advance of tomorrow's election, and there were a couple of, um, observations that are safe to report early on and give a flavor of my day tomorrow.

Yes, tomorrow--Sunday--is election day.

What a great day for an election tomorrow will be.  It's debatable that Sunday is a good day, but elections over here are on Sunday for much the same reason they are on Tuesdays in the United States. This day fits with with the farming and business lifestyles of residents.

There's been a lot of talk in Kansas about the value of moving municipal elections from the spring to the fall, but these municipal elections are in June and benefit from the same thing I believe we will with elections in November:

The elections will be conducted in empty schools.  That means available polling places and no student safety concerns.

June 22, I believe, also has the longest amount of daylight in the year.  The sun was up before 5 here this morning and I'm typing outside with a bright sky at 8:15 p.m.  The polls will be open totally during daylight hours.  That's voter friendly, especially when polling places don't have lit signs to direct voters.

Of interest to me is the fact that Albania has roughly the same number of voters as we have in Kansas, but there will be more than 5,000 polling places open tomorrow.  Granted, they don't have advance voting, but that's a lot of polling places.  Some might even say that's an "adequate number."

By contrast, there's continued pressure to reduce polling places in Johnson County.

Mind you, that pressure isn't coming from voters or citizens (who just named the convenience of polling places as one of the 5 best things offered by the county in the most recent citizen satisfaction survey).

It's not being pressed by the highest elected official in the country--president Barack Obama formed a commission based on long voting lines in 2012 and declared, after the commission's findings, that no one should wait more than 30 minutes to vote.

It's not being pressed by election administration officials, well-represented, in fact, on the president's commission.

In any event, these opinions exist, in part because of a lack of understanding how polling places are assigned.  Our most common complaint we hear from voters is, "why did my polling place move?" followed by "why do I drive past one polling place to get to mine?"

I have never had a voter, however, in my 10 1/2 years as election commissioner, call, write, or say in a meeting to me that we had too many polling places.

Not one.

Oh--did you hear something?  That was my microphone drop on the issue.

After a two decade trend of increasing polling places in Johnson County we went from 286 polling places in 2004 to 212 in 2012, and we found that we cut too much. Other communities cut as well in this time, and it's no coincidence that line concerns became a national topic.

I don't know how many polling places we will have yet for 2016. We will target 300 but that's so we might net 250, or 225. We can talk about 212 being the minimum, but we work with what's available, and we might find that 212 is aggressive, necessitating either us leasing hotel meeting room space as polling places in some cases or paying more for advance voting sites in order to ensure we have large advance sites.

Either way, we won't be reducing for the sake of reducing, or growing for the sake of growing, for that matter.

We match voters to facilities, just as they did here in Albania.

Today, I visited four polling places not a block apart, not next door to each other, but in the same school campus, technically in the same building!

Each polling place is supporting about 1,000 voters, the number we use as our high-water "expected to vote" amount in Johnson County.

Did you just hear a squeal?

That was speaker feedback as I picked the microphone back up and dropped it again.  It was nice to bump into a community that made such an effort to make voting accessible.

Polling places aside, the most fun thing to share today are photos from how I'll spend by night, from about 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. Sunday night after reporting for duty Sunday at 6:00 a.m.

The votes will be tabulated in central counting rooms.  The ones I saw today are small theaters, with the counting on stage and show on large televisions.

High tech and voter transparency, my two favorite things.  The seats look comfy, too.  I didn't see a place to store my fountain drink, though, in the armrest.

So, just sharing for fellow election geeks out there.   More afterwards!

Sunday, June 14, 2015 2 comments

Play Ball!

Here in Kansas City, we are the proud fans of the defending American League champions, the Kansas City Royals.

The last year that could be typed, the Internet wasn't even a gleam in the eye.

Who knows, if we wait another 30 years to say it, we will be communicating, maybe, through gleams in our eyes.

In any event, the Royals were 90 feet from tying the game in the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 7 and, had they done that, who knows?  They might not have been the best team in baseball, or lost the World Series to the best team in baseball, but in October at least, the Royals and the San Francisco Giants were the two best teams in baseball.

The Royals are playing like defending champions this year, with the best record in the American League one-third of the way into the season.

As the All Star Game approaches, and fan balloting cascades, it would be reasonable to think the Royals would be well-represented in the fan vote.  The Royals are good, and they became America's darlings, to a degree, because, well, most of America didn't know Kansas City had a baseball team until last October.

What's this have to do with elections?

This year, fan balloting is entirely on the Internet.

This year, if voting ended today, we would see a Royals player starting at almost every position.

That's exciting here.  I remember years where the Yankees or Red Sox or Mariners dominated the roster, and those teams were good then.  This doesn't seem surprising to me, and I'm just glad to be a lifelong Royals fan.

But this year, because of the wrinkle of Internet voting, the whole thing is wrong.  Or, at least that's what the national sports media things.  Something must be done, say baseball purists.  Fans are unfairly voting for the Royals players too much!

Internet voting advocates should take note.  This is a tiny piece of what would happen in the real world.

Candidate A wins a city council race.  It must be because the Internet voting was rigged.

I often point out, and no one seems to listen, that we should be thankful for our old, falling apart voting equipment.  We know the objections with what we have.  With new technology, we will face a whole new round of wild claims and voter concerns.  Some will be valid, but most will not.

It will be Black Box Voting all over again.

Black Box Voting times 1,000, Cartman from "South Park" might say.

One thing with the All Star voting--what if they didn't give updates?  I understand that the "who is winning" stories are designed to stir interest in the sport, but would the Royals players have the same lead if all of the results were an election-night surprise?

Academy Award voting is done on the Internet--"And the Oscar goes to...."--no claims of wrongful voting there.  There were gripes of the usability or the age old "did my vote really count?" question, but the All Star voting questions are new.  Maybe the updates are to blame.

Regardless, the All Star game points out that society thinks it's normal to vote over the Internet.  No one is complaining that paper-based balloting is the way to go.  The complaints are more about control of the number of votes someone is allowed to make.

The other elephant in the room with Internet voting is the continued cyber attacks on systems.  When the IRS is attacked, it makes it harder to suggest that a voting system couldn't be hacked.

All of this just points out what we election administrators have always known:  there is security and there is the perception of security, procedures we follow to give voters more confidence that votes are secure.  Without voter confidence, we have nothing.

It is with that thought that I leave soon to observe local elections in Albania.  The mere presence of observers instills voter confidence of a fair election.  Any system, even the the All Star voting online, must be open to scrutiny.  Even, more than anywhere else in fact, the system in Johnson County must face that scrutiny, in my opinion.

Transparency is the key to fair elections, just as it is the key to good government.

I expect to come back with ideas to further increase transparency in our election process and am anxious to begin applying those learnings upon my return, just in time to learn the final results of the fan voting.

I'm taking Royals trinkets as gifts for our interpreter and driver.  If the Internet results are real, these will be the only 2 people in the world who can't rattle off the starting lineup of the Royals.
Sunday, June 7, 2015 0 comments

Things Got Busy

Long time readers of this blog likely know that when the postings become less frequent, it's a sign that we are extremely busy, and such a thing has happened again.

Just a couple of weeks ago, things looked as though we wouldn't have an election until the spring of 2016.

Now, we have a recall election scheduled for August 18 and a Gardner mail-ballot election expected on September 15.  That will give us nine elections so far this year, tied for the most ever in one year with 2005, my first year here.

The 2014 and 2015 total now is at 16 elections, the most in a two-year period ever.  That's more than an election every other month. (Okay, okay, you can do math, too--it's two elections, on average, skip a month, two months, skip a month, and so on).

But as much as that crazy keeps on giving, it's that time of year again to focus on the budget, and we are preparing for our June 11 budget presentation to the Board of County Commissioners. 

Our biggest economic issue is how we'll handle the expected 80 percent voter turnout we'll have in 2016.  That's what we had in 2008, factoring in provisional ballots, and 2016 looks to be a repeat.

The county has bet the farm (or at least used House Money) on renovating a bowling alley and making it a cultural arts center that moonlights as an advance voting site.  It likely won't be ready for 2016's elections, though.  Other sites we had won't be available, either.  Metcalf's location was temporary and the Great Mall of the Great Plains is closing.

Of course, advance voting is required to take place in our office, but our office can't handle the volume of voters it gets.  Our office isn't even compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, particularly in that persons with a wheelchair needs assistance getting in the building and using the men's restroom.

Pointing out things like this year after year doesn't raise my popularity with county officials at the administration building, but we will be raising it this year again, especially given the concerns about polling places as well.

With any luck, the new state bill, just passed and expected to be signed into law soon, that moves municipal elections to the fall and requires schools to be available as polling places will result in more schools available for use in 2016. 

I type "with any luck" because the language in the bill is more of the "strongly recommends" than "strongly requires" variety.

Next year will be the first presidential election following the Presidential Commission on Election Administration's report that recommended voters not wait more than 30 minutes to vote.  I presented to a group of clerks in Wichita on Friday and pulled up some of the survey material from that report.   It's been a while since I've thought about this and, as a result, looked at the data fresh-faced.

I giggled when realizing that the survey brought to light the insight that 56 percent of election administrators felt the reason for lines in 2012 was that a bunch of people came to vote at the same time.

I was reminded of my time on the city council in Shawnee when a fellow council member approved expansion of the landfill only under the condition that a study be undertaken to determine why the landfill emits odors.

Duh, it's a LANDFILL!  I think it emits odors because people dispose of trash there, and trash stinks.

(I interrupt this post so you may insert an obligatory correlation to landfills and politics here--you know, Dear Reader, you want to.  I'll wait...)

Anyway, I'm not sure how the 30-minute thing will play in Peoria, let alone Olathe.  I don't think we'll find the budget relief we'll need related to the 30-minute guideline and, further, I expect the 30-minute guideline will be used unfairly against an election administrator somewhere next November.

For now, we plan to trial electronic poll books in the recall election to determine the feasibility of using them next year.  I'm not sold at all that electronic poll books address line issues, but they may cut down on provisional ballots issued because voters are at the wrong polling place.

I am optimistic that we'll have enough polling places that it will be even possible for voters to go to the wrong one. 

To that point, we also caught up with the owner of Textcaster, the company that we have worked with to create a text messaging lookup tool to get people to the correct polling place.  That's been a successful tool since 2007.  We have some exciting things planned with him that deserve a post all of their own, so that will come soon.

Lastly, because chaos is my friend apparently, I soon will be traveling to Albania for an election observation mission.  That will lead to some more dark moments, but I'll be blogging from there as I can as well.

My international mission to the Republic of Georgia led to ideas and new practices, so I'm sure this will, too.  In particular, I think we can learn a lot from these elections in terms of election worker training and processes poll agents. 

It's been a year.  Well, actually, it's still spring, but 2015 has felt like a whole year.  No summer vacation here--more updates soon.

Friday, May 22, 2015 2 comments

Spring Backward, Fall Forward

Election irony met elections of the future in Kansas yesterday.

The Kansas legislature, by one more vote than necessary, passed a measure to move spring elections to the fall of odd years.

I have been a very vocal advocate of this move, demonstrating how the highest April election turnout in the last five years was still lower than the lowest turnout of special elections conducted in any other month.

Also, we're more likely to have schools available as polling places.  This was a major factor in my support of this move.

But passing by one vote?

That's classic.

(Editor's Note--more irony since I'm my own editor--thanks to the League of Women Voters for pointing out it passed by one MORE vote than needed.  I want to represent that accurately and have inserted this little parenthetical addition).

Does your vote matter?  It did here.

Whether or not you agree now, or will agree or disagree later after implementation, the bill technically passed the House by one vote.  It would have been more ironic if one of the votes for was elected by one vote, but such a realization, if that were the case, would cause even me to skip a heartbeat.

I would imagine, though, that at least one representative started as being appointed by precinct committee members to fill a vacancy and then later was elected.

Precinct committee members frequently are elected by a handful of votes and, in Johnson County, we have averaged 2 coin toss decisions for precinct committee ties for the five August primary elections since I've been election commissioner.

We often hear that elections have consequences, and this blog isn't the place to talk about the politics of any consequence from legislation.

I'll wear this
spiffy outfit
to election
worker training
if 5 people
become new
election workers
based on this post.
But there is real consequential value to administrators.

The value to me, non-political, is the use of schools as polling places.  This legislation should make election administration in Johnson County easier and polling places more stable for voters.

Plus, perhaps even greater, the bill allows us to have more high-school student election workers.  We were limited to one per polling place and turned away hundreds in presidential years. 

Now, 1/3 of our workers at the polls can be high-school students.

(Note to you, dear reader, if you aren't an election worker--that means 30 percent of our workers aren't even old enough to vote and these youngsters, who can't vote, are making sure you do.  Any pangs of guilt, thinking about being an election worker--please?--contact our office).

But, this is a great example of the value of what one vote looks like, and what better example than in an election bill.

The practicality of executing the bill will be discussed here if and after the governor signs the bill into law.  

The bill is more than 80 pages, so there are plenty of details to scour, and even the potential for unintended consequences, so I'll be reading it more thoroughly and reporting back.
Sunday, May 10, 2015 2 comments

I Give You MINI ME (OC)

We  just got back from a well-organized conference of state election officials, part of the annual required training by the Secretary of State.

(A side thought--said before and worth pointing out again--I've served under three Secretaries of State, all men with whom I'm extremely proud to be affiliated.  The current Secretary, Kris Kobach, gets his fingernails dirty in the nuts and bolts of elections operations as though he truly is one of us.  It means a lot to all of us in the trenches that he knows how our voter registration system works as well as the drivers and restrainers we face).

Anyway, back to the point, the conference is terrific for state issues.  We received training required by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), but also updates on systems, issues, and legislation.

When I came into office, in 2005, then Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh had coordinated with his peers in nearby states to host a local, nationally oriented conference.  It was called the Midwest Election Officials Conference (MEOC).  It was the second MEOC, after one in 2001.

The conference concept considered that many local election officials can't get to a national conference and hear from thought leaders or those with emerging best practices.  So, he thought, he'd bring the conference to the Midwest, for election officials in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska.

We had a similar conference in 2009.  Every member of our office was allowed to go, and those who went came back with their eyes wider.  Our voters benefited.

But, for a variety of reasons, that was the last conference.  We didn't have one, as the schedule would have gone, in 2013

I've had an interest in revising the concept, at least for the Kansas City area.  I decided I'd create a Mini-MEOC for the Kansas City metro area, interested counties in Kansas, and any others regionally.

I have plenty of election cool kid friends and have asked some if they'd be willing to speak.  The response has been heart-warming and overwhelming with my initial small sample.

(In fact, if you are a cool kid--and if you are reading this you are--and want to speak, please contact me).

I wanted to pull it off last year but those 14 elections in 13 months got in the way.

So, Thursday, at the Kansas clerks' conference, we planted a stake in the ground and announced a date for the conference.  I figured if we did that, it was official. was until I changed the date.  We found out about a clerks' conflict.

So, the new dates are Sept. 30-October 2, 2015, in the Kansas City area.

We'll probably piggyback some other meetings earlier in the week, particularly related to our potential new voting system.  We'll have vendors.  We'll have a gathering that Wednesday night, a full day of sessions on Thursday, and a half day on Friday to break so those who do travel can get home.

We had a small smattering of applause when the conference was announced at the clerks' conference this week.  We'll likely work closely with the Kansas County Clerks and Election Officials (KCCEO) organization on the arrangements.

And, now announced in the blog, MEOC is even more officially launched.

Oh, yes, I dropped the "mini."  I feel like an Internet patent troll claiming the conference name as my own, but there is some brand cache to MEOC, and I'm looking forward to building on it.