Wednesday, July 16, 2014 0 comments

The Day of The Voter

This is a bit of a fun photo collage essay post because we're getting ready to send ballots out this morning, first thing, for the August Election:

Our training manual cover.  The theme was more than
a blog gimmick.  It's now an election training gimmick.
Still, in all seriousness, the concept isn't a gimmick.  We are
committed to being defined by how we take care of voters.
Objects are larger than they may
seem--8,500 ballots headed out.
From the Kansas City Star today, some of our
"A" list part-timers running manual tests on each
voting machine.  The tarps, by the way, are just
protection should the warehouse sprinklers go off.



Part of our new ballot printing system.  Isn't that an attractive
cart in blue?  I'll have a post on that soon.

Many, many returned postcards.  Last
postcard mailing--spring 2014.  People move.


Friday, July 11, 2014 0 comments

Provisional Ballots By The Numbers

Last week, I participated in a meeting regarding PEW's Election Performance Index in Chicago.

The Index takes a swing at one of my favorite concepts--post something and measure it, and it will improve.

The Index, then, results in an academic way to look at elections--measuring several outcomes (such as average time waiting to vote) to drive comparisons, conclusions, and discussions.  The Index might, for instance, identify common pain points that many states encounter when administering elections.  The Index also helps begin to answer the question, "How are we doing?"

Kansas falls roughly near the middle in the Index and it's worth considering why.  One reason simply is that the categories themselves are subjective.  They aren't controversial but there may eventually be better categories to measure.  You can isolate some measurements and Kansas either soars or is at the bottom end of the range.

Another reason for the overall score is that turnout dropped, 2012 from 2008.  The major reason for the drop, though, came because it was a rare alignment where a presidential election didn't also feature a United States Senate race for Kansas.  The last time this happened, in 16 B.C. (no not really, but it was a long time ago), the turnout was less than it was in 2012, actually.

"Measure" is the key thing here. 

Without data, a category can't be included.  Much of the data comes from the Election Administration Commission's post-election survey.  That data is self-reported by jurisdictions and states.  Kansas has 105 counties, each reporting and rolled up to the state level, and, while most counties report, some don't report or have incomplete data.  That, also, impacts Kansas' score.

Beyond that, it's worth asking further, why else are we trending lower than the median?

It's not this simple, but one major reason is the policy related to provisional ballots in Kansas and, specifically, Johnson County.

I thought I'd give some insight into the categories of provisional ballots and how they are addressed by walking through the 2012 presidential election provisional ballot summary.

There are many legitimate reasons provisional ballots are cast in Kansas.  Contrary to urban legend, any provisional ballot envelope that can be opened, by law, is opened following approval by the Board of County Canvassers.  Provisional ballots aren't included only if they make a difference in a race--they are added in if the race difference is one or one million.

I've often said that provisional ballots represent one of those phrases that needs context.  Provisional ballots that protect voters' rights--good!  Provisional ballots that cause a race to flip after the canvass sound dirty.

I take that further, in fact.

A provisional ballot that protects voters' rights--good!  A provisional ballot issued because we could have prevented it--bad!

If we can get voters to the correct polling place, or if we make sure our workers fully understand photo identification requirements, or if we can help voters get registered properly in the first place, we can lower the number of unnecessary provisional ballots.

We've done this very thing, and in fact our entire Joco-Polo (think "Marco Polo") effort to get people to the correct polling place was an Election Center Best Practices winner in 2009.

Still, there is a point of view that a provisional ballot wouldn't be issued unless there was a breakdown somewhere. 

I guess that's fair--a provisional ballot is issued when there is a question about a voter's eligibility at a particular moment for a particular election. 

I'm proud to say that in my tenure at the election office, I've never experienced a voter who had an issue at a polling place but was not offered a provisional ballot.  Our election workers excel at being the advocate for the voter (the voter concierge, if you remember, in my earlier post about "The Year of The Voter.")

Our belief is that we never want a voter leaving a polling place, unless going to another polling place, without voting or being offered the chance to cast a provisional ballot.

On the other hand, many ballots become provisional but were never cast as provisional ballots. 

For instance, voters who don't have signature matches on their ballots by mail don't have their ballots rejected.  Rather, we take those into the Board of Canvassers as provisional ballots, recommend they not be counted by law, and the Board approves the recommendation.

Here is the rundown on the key categories from November 2012 (I've pasted the actual sheets at the bottom of this post):

In this election, we recommended 5,878 ballots to be counted.  More to the point, that's 5,878 envelopes to be opened.  Only when opening them, do we know what is inside the envelope.
  1. Of the 5,878, the most common reason for a provisional ballot that can be counted is that the voter moved or changed his/her name and completed the required registration information (the back of the provisional ballot is a registration form).  In this election, nearly half (2,624) of those recommended to count fit in this category.  This number is usually much larger in a presidential election, simply because of the number of voters but also because many infrequent voters don't think about voting until election day.
  2. 917 ballots were in a category that WE made provisional.  The voter returned a ballot by mail and signed the ballot, but didn't complete the address line as required by law.  We worked with Secretary of State Kris Kobach's office to request and obtain a 2012 Attorney General opinion that recommends these be counted.  Previously, these would not have been counted.  We'd advocated this position for years and are pleased that this minor technical error doesn't invalidate the vote.
  3. The next number is a bit frustrating, really--771 voters received an advance ballot but voted at the polls instead.  Now, sometimes, I think, voters worry that the mail return won't be fast enough for the ballots to reach us by 7 p.m. election day (they can be dropped off, 24 hours a day), but often I believe these are voters who simply applied for an advance ballot so they had a sample (or even a souvenir, as I believe the case was in 2008).
  4. 478 voters went to the wrong polling place and cast a ballot that can at least be partially counted (for any races that apply to them, such as president).  This number had dropped by 75 percent since our Joco-Polo voting location campaign and tools were rolled out in 2008.
  5. 412 ballots were "should have been perfect," a kind way of saying, for whatever reason, the voters didn't sign the pollbooks and vote.  Sometimes, names hide, particularly in the cases of apostrophes and such in names.
  6. In 268 cases, we had provisional ballots issued for one of these categories and all was correct, except that the voter's ID had not been marked as verified.  We had these in a separate category because we didn't know the ID had not been verified, only that it had not been recorded as such.  Therefore, we recommended these be counted (we cite the legal reference to any recommendation in the right column of the canvass sheets).
  7. "FWAB" is the Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot.  These essentially are military voters who can fax or email their ballots.  These came in late on election day and have to be hand-counted because the ballots cannot be scanned.  They could have been included in election night totals but the results would have been later in the evening.  We had 214 of these.
  8. In 103 cases, a voter did not submit photo ID but did before the canvass.  Most of these were ballots by mail.
  9. 68 times, we issued a replacement ballot in cases where the original was damaged or lost.
  10. We have a form for those voters whose name on their ID and registration don't match, but they want to keep it that way.  Usually, these are women who have different last names after life changes.  In lieu of ID, they can complete an affidavit that explains the name discrepancy.  19 voters did this.
  11. In presidential elections, because voters who move can sometimes get caught between states' voting requirements, there is a provision where voters can get a "presidential only" ballot.  4 voters fell in this category.
Additionally, on the "count side," we have 174 voters who preferred to vote on paper.  These weren't provisional voters, but we have to verify these voters were eligible to vote (perfect voters at refer to voters where everything went the way it should--recognizing that everyone in Johnson County is perfect in their own way).  We don't bring these envelopes for approval by the Board of Canvassers to open, but we do wait until the canvass to process these ballots.  We could add them in during the week leading to canvass but I prefer to have results updated once only after election night.

On the not valid side, we had 2,136 ballots where we recommended the ballot envelopes not be opened.
  1. Most--1,330--were because the voter wasn't registered.
  2. In 300 cases, the voter had an advance ballot by mail and did not sign and address the envelope or did not complete the registration form on the back of the provisional envelope at the polls.
  3. We check every signature on those voting by mail and 182 did not match their voter record.
  4. 76 voters did not provide a government-issued photo ID.  In all cases in this election, these were ballots by mail.
  5. Sometimes voters use a different envelope when mailing back the ballot or put two ballots in one envelope.  We can't count these, and we had 71 of them.
  6. 25 voters, when casting a provisional ballot, used an invalid address as their registration address.
  7. Remember those voters who get a ballot by mail but vote at the polls?  15 voted both ways, likely because they either forgot (that happens) or they were worried we wouldn't get the ballot in time.  We count the first ballot cast.
  8. There is a Attorney General letter with a ruling that persons who act as Power of Attorney cannot vote on someone's behalf.  We had 14 of those cases.
  9. In 13 situations, a voter had some issue when voting and cast a second ballot provisionally.
  10. Again, remember the voters who requested paper but we have to verify that they were qualified?  In 7 cases, they weren't eligible to cast a vote and should have voted provisionally.
  11. 2 voters voted overseas ballots but didn't meet the eligibility to do so.
The rejected provisional ballots represent about 0.7 percent of those cast.   Provisionals, overall, are about 3 percent of the total, and that's typical.

Here then, dear reader, if you're still there, is the breakdown as presented.



Sunday, July 6, 2014 0 comments

I'll Gladly Trade You Tuesday

We have emerged from the budget process with much news and I will have a post soon on the summary of that.

Dinner at local restaurant, Chen's, and an appropriate
message the night following our budget presentation.
We had tremendous support from the Board of County Commissioners on our path towards a new voting system and also with regards to funding our first new headcount in 20 years.

My primary objective with the budget process was to simply agree upon a plan that would lead us to the funding of a new voting system. 

We did that.  And, we did it at a perfect time, amidst some meetings I've been at with academics and industry supporters who will be able to provide us assistance through the process.

Secondarily, we needed some guidance as to what it would take to add headcount to fulfill our growing needs.  Our last approved headcount goes back to the time Bill Clinton was president.

The election world changed greatly with the George Bush/Al Gore election and the subsequent Help America Vote Act of 2002, let alone state legislation impacting operations in Kansas.  From a headcount perspective, our office has been stuck in the 1990s.

During the first budget cycle after I came to the county, in 2005, we requested three positions--one for registration, one for planning, and one for outreach.  It's hard to argue, in retrospect, that they weren't needed, but we didn't get support from the county manager's office at the time and, in fact, we've never had the county manager, in my time here, support any request for headcount at the election office.

It may not have felt like it then, but, economically, 2005 represented the "good times," and in 2008, all county departments began taking one for the team to deal with the budget crisis.

In fact, we all took another, and another, and another, and all county departments had some pretty lean days during that time.

That process showed me how government budgets are a bit of an economic lagging indicator--because much of government funding is based on tax dollars and because tax dollars generally are a byproduct of income and real estate value, government is often the last to take the hit from a slow economy and the last to see the upswing as the economy improves.

All to say, we hit a period of higher expectations at a time when resources, understandably, were at their scarcest.

Elections, though, are the most basic service of government.  Arguably, elections are the most important thing government does because without elections, there is no government.

And, from a headcount perspective, we have hit a wall.  So, I was gratified that that Board, actually, led the charge to support our request this year.

Locally, the large school districts should benefit from this as well because the timing of this position--if we can get the person on board January 1--allows us to support their needs to have a mail-ballot election in January, rather than June.

The approved position is for a modest level, the most common level at the county, and one that sounds more expensive from a budget perspective than its actual pay because the budget dollars are fully loaded to cover benefits.

The final approval and discussion, however, wasn't without a Scooby Doo "Whaa?" moment or two, particularly when the county manager suggested removing funding for two vacant positions that have taken forever to fill because of the county process and using those two positions to fund the one we were requesting.

That would leave us, of course, down one position and not increase our staff.

I'm still puzzled with that one.  If this blog were a video or if the event were live television, rather than a typed account, you would have seen me turning around to face the camera with a deadpanned blank stare after that recommendation.

A big reason for the delay in filling the open positions is the process we've had to undergo to have the position descriptions evaluated.  There simply hasn't been a shared sense of urgency in filling those with our county's human resource department, which reports to the county manager.

I've posted the video here when this one-for-two idea was proposed.  Go to 2:40 for the "we can eliminate two positions we've slowly taken through the process so they can have this new position" solution.



Thankfully, Commissioner Ed Eilert and other members of the Board saw through the fuzzy math.

Commissioner Eilert's argument was that because we hadn't been able to fill the positions we have open yet--not by our choice, by the way--we will save, in 2014, at least the cost of the position for 2015, making this a 2016 problem.  The budget process doesn't allow for such a clean swap, but the logic was clean and he stuck with it, to the benefit of our voters.

As we try to fill the positions that are currently open, a common piece of frustration is being told that what we need out of positions isn't appropriate, that we don't need the skill sets or levels I think we need to run the election office.  It's a case, really, of the support function in the county--which exists to help those on the front line--overstepping.

Problem is, these organizations aren't accountable to our voters.  We are.

Essentially, this is another example of the county manager attempting to have authority without accountability over us, and with these positions vacant for all of 2014, it's been killing us.  We're virtually assured of not having these positions filled for eight months, until after the August election.

This week, as I had a meeting with our human resources contact (they use the title "partner"), I advocated unsuccessfully why I believe these positions should require a bachelor's degree.  I literally have fought this issue, to no avail, for five years.

In other communities, this baseline education requirement, with experience that can be substituted, is common.  In other parts of the county (such as the county manager's office and human resources), this is a requirement.  When it comes to other parts of the county, though, I was told they were "different kinds of positions" that required more skills.

One of my arguments is that our office deals with a diverse group of voters, party chairs, candidates, and stakeholders who often have college degrees.  They expect to be greeted by those of comparable capabilities.

I was told this was condescending.  Never mind, of course, that it feels condescending to be told by a support organization that they know our business better than I do.

I explained that we are all about building future leaders of our office and that eventually, those we hire, hopefully, will be candidates for our senior positions in our office and that I would not expect someone at that level to not have at least a bachelor's degree.  Why would we hire someone who we didn't foresee could move along that path?

We left it that I would provide contacts for election offices that have position descriptions that required such degrees, so this post is a bit of a siren call asking for colleagues to please send me anything you have (to email@briannewby.com, please).  I will be contacting some offices as well.

A few hours later, I did see that night, on Craigslist, a post for an entry-level job at the election office in nearby Kansas City, Missouri, for a voter outreach and communications specialist.  The position pays $15,000 less than our positions, but requires a college degree.

More to the point, as I left the meeting and went back to my office, I saw an article in the Kansas City Star related to a post that named Overland Park as one of the smartest cities in the United States.

I guess because our office is in Olathe, that's irrelevant?

More to the point, though, the dumb-down factor is eliminated when driving two miles to the south to the administration building, where a bachelor's degree frequently is a requirement.

This really highlights two key issues:

First, as the election commissioner in the largest county in the state and tenured longer than 80 percent of elections commissioners in the history of the state, as a former director of strategic planning for a $10 billion division of a Fortune 50 company, and as an instructor in the area's largest MBA program and a member of Baker's Faculty Senate, I think I know a smidge about the talent acquisition strategy we need at our office.

To be told otherwise by part of the county manager's staff is incredulous.

Further, blocking my request that the positions require a specific education level is a violation of Kansas law, specifically KSA 19-3434, that takes from county and other local officers "all power and authority now exercised by them in relations to the supervision, conduct and control of elections within each county to which this act applies, and it is hereby made the duty of all public officials to cooperate fully with the election commissioner in response to any written request made to them by said election commissioner..."

Second, more broadly, it points to the perception that many of us in elections have discussed regarding the professionalism and certification needs for all of our employees.  Election Center certification has value, but it's unlikely a new recruit would have such a certification.  There has to be some global way that election positions are valued comparably to other positions in government.

I have some thoughts on that.  After the election, and after some upcoming posts on provisional ballots, the budget summary, polling place tools, I'll get to that.

Coming up next, though, will be a provisional ballot discussion.

That's about as geeky of an election administrator teaser as there is.  It will take some time to construct the post, but hopefully it will be up by mid-week.


Saturday, June 28, 2014 1 comments

I've Seen the Future and It's Slightly Smaller Than the Past

We may have some positive movement in the budget process, but positive movement may simply be an interesting discussion with the same results.

We'll know in a couple of days and I'll update that specific item in about a week when the dust appears settled.  The budget process now leads to a "revisit list" that is both good and bad for the election office items.

In the meantime, looking back at previous posts, I'm pasting in one from more than a year ago as we headed into the 2013 budget process.

I could have typed the exact same thing today.  The only good thing, I guess, is that it ended with an explanation that the budget would be a theme in coming months, so I feel a little better in burying you, dear reader, with this item.

Still relevant, a year later:
Monday, May 13, 2013 

Future = Present

I'm so mad at my mother.

Or, so goes the beginning of a joke on the "Let's Get Small" album by Steve Martin.

"I don't know," he says, "she calls me up the other day.  She wants to borrow ten dollars for some food!  Can you believe that?  I said, 'Hey! I work for a living.'"

I thought of that in part because yesterday was Mother's Day but mostly because that sentiment sums up how I felt when leading a panel on The Future of Elections at the Kansas Clerks conference in Manhattan this past week.

I'm so mad at The Future of Elections....

Better said, I'm tired of the Future of Elections.

I feel like we've collectively dilly-dallied talking about the future for a few years now and, gee, the future is here.

The Future Is Now!

That's not really an inspirational message.  It's a signal of a crisis.

This is the front of the t-shirts our
high-school election workers wore
in 2012.
Those voting machines that we think will need to be retired after 2016's presidential election?  In some circles, politically at least, the 2016 election is "on."  2016 is essentially here.

Heck, in the budget world, the 2014 budget is nearly locked in Johnson County.  The next budget for discussion really is the 2015 budget.  We found out about a $30,000 cost surprise last week at the conference for 2014, so we're already in the hole next year.

The future is encircling us.  I've seen the future in this case and it looks a lot like the present, only with even fewer resources.

Every year when we talk about the daunting issues surrounding certification of new voting systems, the complexity leads the capital budget team to consider not doing anything until things appear more certain.

A year later, and a year closer to the future present, the budget boulder becomes bigger.  We've advocated for a couple of years to at least put into the budget a replacement system just like what we have now (and if that doesn't spell the future is now, what does?), hoping we'll push the needle on our "Bring Your Own Voting Machine" concept I explained here more than a year ago.  If so, the financial need will be much less but, if not, we're covered financially.

We're closely following Los Angeles County's process to look at a new voting system and plan to emulate the community input and ideation process.  That's easier typed than done, though, because we barely have the headcount at our office to conduct the current elections, let alone think about the future ones.

And that's the rub.  In our case, "Dilly-dallied," is a harsh descriptor because we simply don't have the resources we need to operate.  The 2012 election emphasized that we are one untimely illness or staff member departure from failure.  We requested the replacement of two positions cut during our budget downturn in 2010 and money to replace our 1990s-based election management system that hasn't been supported since 2005.

We're likely to get neither request funded.  Without elections, there is no government, but government budget priorities don't always align with core and essential services.

One clear thing is that the future of elections will be much, much more expensive.  From postage to rent to training to facilities to simple increases in election worker pay (ours haven't had an increase in 8 years), the cost increase will be as dramatic as moving from a fully-depreciated 20-year-old Suburu to to a modest new Prius.  Any car payment, when one hasn't been paid for 20 years, will seem like sticker shock.

I think election administrators often have stayed silent about these realities.  That's not happening in the industry now, although little seems to be changing.

I wasn't around pre-2000, but I wonder if one of the root causes that led to a national financial upgrade on voting systems was that loyal government employees didn't stress the need for investment back then.     Or, and more likely, they were ignored.  Under-funded was business as usual.

It's possible that part of the future of elections is that all the 2000s will have done is raise expectations for elections without an equal increase in investment.  I often hear in this industry that sufficient funding never finds its way to the front lines until something goes wrong.

What a way to live--akin to one of my favorite song titles ever, by Panic at the Disco:  "The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage."

Make it happen with unreasonably few resources or fail and we'll give the resources to your replacement.  Many of our predecessors in the election administration industry lived that life for years and that's our future unless we accept and proclaim the urgency of the present.

Another favorite quote of mine is from Stephen Covey:  "Nothing fails like success."  The key to the future is accepting that we face a crisis in election administration unless a myriad of things are addressed.  This will become a major theme of this blog over the next few months as our staff begins to tactically address the future, er, the present of elections.
Wednesday, June 25, 2014 0 comments

Lather, Select Vendor, Budget That In, Rinse, Repeat

Tomorrow is our budget presentation day, and I'll be reacting live to the county manager statement in the budget kick-off meeting three weeks ago in regard to our voting machine replacement request not being mentioned (let alone being included) in the 2015 budget book.

We have long submitted a narrative and even vendor quotes.  The machines were once in the budget years ago but not included in the Capital Improvement Process (CIP) budget since 2011.

I'm no county budget Einstein but I'm pretty sure in going through the CIP schedules and the debt service schedules of today and past years, any purchase of $12 million in voting machines will cause a tax increase unless there are corresponding cuts.  The county can't absorb a $12 million hit and, I don't think, even a $2 or $3 million annual increase in debt service without a revenue increase.

The specific comment, though, was this, "We're still waiting with great anticipation about what the next generation is going to be advocated for by the Election Commissioner and then we will be able to go ahead and budget that in."

So, apparently, the CIP approach was never the path for us to take.  We simply need to select a system (using a process for which we've outlined) and the funds will be there.

The plan I will explain tomorrow will be to begin pursuing a consultant to manage the proposal process, with the objective of issuing a request for proposal in 2015 for a new system implemented in 2017.

I'm not sure how "budget that in," is going to happen.  It seems easier, to me anyway, to plan for a $12 million expense than to immediately figure out how to pay for it.

I would think vendors, also, would like to know we actually have money budgeted before investing in the time to prepare a proposal.  We now have a five-year-old quote that got the machines in the budget for two years before the county manager took them out.

Earlier this week, I was at an MIT/CalTech Future of the Polling Process conference with many of the industry's brightest minds.  Johnson County was fortunate to have a seat at the table among such prestigious practitioners, academics, and industry thought-leaders.  There are a handful of communities going through the process of determining a next-generation system, and much work needs to be done before such a system is live.

My objectives from the constant pounding of the budget issues right now are simple:
  1. Ensure our voters' needs are protected and future-proofed.
  2. Provide more than adequate planning time for the Board of County Commissioners to prepare to pay for this system.
  3. Keep Johnson County at the innovative forefront that our voters, taxpayers, and community leaders expect and deserve when it comes to elections.
I kind of think I'm just doing my job here.  If I don't fight for these things, who will?

I know, to a degree, I've become a bit of a one-trick pony on the blog right now regarding the budget and voting machines, but this is a major part of our annual fight for resources and a very time-consuming process at that.  The purpose of the blog is to highlight things behind the scenes and this is one scene, if shortened or put to bed, would by itself free up resources at our office.

Here's hoping tomorrow goes well.

2 comments

It's Just Like Deja Vu! It's Just Like Deja Vu!

Below is a submission from my predecessor, Connie Schmidt.

As I've typed, much of what I have experienced over the last 9 1/2 years felt like a redux of Connie's experiences.  She says as much below.

In fact, in reading her accounts, I never realized how good I have it today!

When I went to my first election industry meeting after becoming Election Commissioner, in 2005, I noticed the significant number of retirements taking place nationwide.  The fallout of the 2000 presidential election, new legislation, and a growing group of election activists who climbed over the backs and good names of some election integrity advocates forced many changes that for many industry veterans simply wasn't worth the stress.


Here is the Johnson County view from then, in Connie's words:


RETURN TO “Groundhog Day” BUDGET PROCESS

I read Brian Newby’s blog on a regular basis, and grin from time to time because he is actually putting down in writing some of the inside stories that have never been told (because I was afraid to tell them). 
Lately his blog posts have focused on the particular issue of budget needs for his office (and I might add for election offices nationwide).  That said, it is a known problem, one that has plagued the Johnson County election office for many, many years. 
I asked Brian if I could join the conversation on his blog, to share some war stories that have never been told, and to reinforce that some things never change – the budget process for the election office!  Brian and those staff members that remain from my tenure know that during my 9+ years as Election Commissioner, there are so many war stories that were never told….many led to my early retirement from a job that I loved and a team of staff that were, and still are, the best in the nation.
One budget war story began in spring 1998, during the preparation of the 1999 budget.  I want to step back for a moment to provide a brief history of where we were at in 1998.  In September 1995, I inherited what we referred to as the” Model A” first generation DRE machines (that is truly what they was called).  We were the first county nationwide to use them.  We had 700 Model A machines, and 160 of the newer model, which were added after the 1992 election because our County had very, very long lines in polling places. 

The actual voting machine, along with the tabulation software (from what I was told) was basically designed in our office.  There were no federal voting certification processes in place during the mid 1980’s.  So the system was what it was.  We had no choice but to use it and make it work – no matter how outdated and utterly ridiculous it was to prepare for each election. 

For example, we had to data enter by hand all election information into an old DOS system, type the same data separately in Word Perfect to print long ballot strips that were hung with tape between the buttons on the face of equipment (Hats off to former Asst. Election Commissioner Karen Browning who was the house expert at this job and she did it perfectly every time).  Imagine the wrong strips with candidates and/or issues being placed on machines on Election Day.   

This was not a system that was connected in any way.  Obviously, this required lots of duplicate proofing.  Then along came the need to develop a paper ballot system that would integrate with the DRE tabulation software.  I am told this happened in 1994.  

To tabulate the paper ballots, a new software was developed and something referred to as a “bridge” brought the paper ballots votes into the DOS tabulation software where all votes were tabulated – paper and DRE.   I might add that the actual paper ballots were developed using a different system, making a total of three separate systems created with the same information that must tabulate into one place on election night.  We held our breath every election night – no one knew anything about this process except the staff of the election office.

Back to the budget process in 1998.  We worked very hard to convince the BOCC of the need to replace this voting system, which was archaic, inefficient and over 12 years old.  With much delight we made it through that process, and money was allocated in the Capital Improvement Fund to purchase new equipment in 1999, in time to implement prior to the Presidential 2000.  Thank goodness! 
However, shortly before the final budget was adopted, our funding for new equipment was pulled!  Now, we knew that we would have to conduct the 2000 Presidential election using this same archaic equipment.  In Kansas, no excuse early voting was implemented for the first time in the 1996 Presidential election, followed by a new state law that approved the use of satellite early voting locations for the 2000 Presidential.  In our county that required the use of over 1,000 unique paper ballots distributed to 3 early voting locations – voters could choose any of these locations to vote – we never knew how many of which ballots to distribute to each location.  Just remembering this caused me to take a deep breath.
The 2000 Presidential was a near disaster in Johnson County!  Funny, we had no idea what was happening in Florida…..we were handling our own “mess”.  Again, no one knew about this horror story, except those internal staff who experienced extreme stress. 

In fact, even writing this down makes me nervous and it’s been over 13 years.  First of all, we issued the largest number of paper early voting ballots to date in Johnson County.  We were using outdated school-type test scoring scanners that were set up to store paper ballot votes on cassette tapes. 

I can’t remember the exact number of tapes that we ended up with, but I do remember that it took us over 8 hours to load these cassette tapes individually into the old DOS tabulation software during the afternoon of Election Day, November 2000.  Beginning in 1996, we started the policy of releasing the early votes as soon as possible after the polls closed at 7:00 p.m. 

Obviously, the media and the candidates expected that to happen in November 2000.  Internally, the DOS software first had to sort all of the paper ballots by precinct before it could tabulate the vote totals per candidate.  When we did the command to sort the ballot images by precinct for tabulation, the DOS based computer software crashed back to the DOS prompt.  Nothing happened – the tabulation software crashed! 

We got the vendor on the phone, but there was no solution provided.  After a huge panic attack, we released this statement to the public…..funny that I can still remember the exact words today.  “Due to the large number of paper ballots cast it is taking us longer than normal to tabulate them so we will be releasing the voting machine votes first, followed by the early voting totals, accumulated into the final unofficial results.”  No one asked why – the explanation was the truth, which was my mantra, but it truly was not the entire story.  That statement bought us some time to try to get this old software to work.

Finally with no other choice available, using a totally different software outside of the tabulation computer software, we were able to finally sort the paper ballot images in precinct order.  Those votes were then returned to the tabulation DOS software and all votes – DRE equipment and paper ballots were reported to the public.  No one ever knew about this almost catastrophic situation except the staff and me, who suffered from the unbelievable stress of that moment in time.
Fortunately, our funding for new equipment was once again approved and remained in the 2001 budget.  That funding, however, was only for the equipment – only for the exact number that we already had - 860 (the same number of machines since 1994, by the way).  No funding for tabulation computers, training, disposal of the old machines, reconfiguration of the warehouse, or any PR efforts to educate the voters on how to use the new equipment.  

The staff worked miracles on several of these issues and we managed to request an old Med-Act van that was on the County’s disposal list, items that are first offered to county departments prior to auction.  We got the van for about $1.00 and we had it painted in a VOTE design with our web address on each side.   That was part of our PR solution.  ((((Editor's note--we STILL use that van, which does not run, as our JO-CO-PO-LO Billboard outside of our office.))))
Another moment frozen in my memory was a discussion with the then County Manager to request more funding for the Election Office.  The staff and I were working 7 days a week for months on end, sometimes 10-12 hour days.  We were managing 3 early voting locations, using paper ballots – totaling over 1,000 unique ballot styles in an August election; plus recruiting and training poll workers and preparing to open polling places on Election Day (all with the same number of full time staff and voting machines that were in place prior to early voting).  
That discussion with the County Manager ended with him telling me, “Connie, you do such a good job, it won’t be possible to convince the BOCC that you need additional funding.”  I got up and left realizing that to get our needed funding would require failing at our job of conducting elections – that was NOT an option, so we continued down our path of working non-stop….me and the dream team of election staff.

I think my final straw relating to budget stories was in late 2004 – we were denied our request for additional funding to conduct the 2004 Presidential election.  Once again, we received the largest number of early voting paper ballots (and this time it was a 2 page ballot) – it was non-stop early voters to the extreme that it was impossible for staff to leave our building due to traffic congestion. 

One day in the middle of October and in the midst of that onslaught of early voters, I received a phone call asking me to prepare a report and come to the Board of County Commissioners meeting to explain why our office had depleted it’s funding already.  I do believe that moment was the defining moment for me. 
My perfect number of years of service and age for early retirement occurred in early December 2004.  I took it – I realize now that I was exhausted, burned out, and tired of the stress of making everything perfect with few resources – and with the same number of full time staff and voting machines that were there when I started.  
That is the ending of a collection of budget horror stories - there were many others!  I have noticed nationally that when there is a huge election failure, it is a huge media event, the person in charge loses their job, and the election office finally receives the necessary funding to correct the problems and make the improvements that had been needed and requested for a very long time. 
This indeed is a very bad way to manage any business.  Johnson County voters deserve better!
Saturday, June 21, 2014 0 comments

Business of Elections

My friend David Kimball (@kimballdc) had a tweet recently speaking to a response by the Republican National Lawyers Association to the Report and Recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA).

What?!?

I think David was actually reacting to the content of the response and, forgive me, but that's not the important thing here.

An organization outside of election administrators read the report!?  And, had a point of view!

I don't think the point of view really matters at this stage.  The fact that they had one is great news.

I feel like the model Hansel in "Zoolander":
Sting. Sting would be another person who's a hero. The music he's created over the years, I don't really listen to it, but the fact that he's making it, I respect that. 
That's how I feel about this report.  I haven't really read it, but the fact that they are making it, I respect that.

Actually, I have read through it and, true to the mission of the blog, I'm not going to address anything that could be considered political.  Many others will, I suppose, but geez-o-pete, the headline truly is that the report was created in the first place.

And, politics aside, as one might expect if something is produced by lawyers, it is well-written.  I've embedded it at the bottom of this post.

Anyway, the other obvious point about it all is that this organization really doesn't have any control over election administration.  So, as cool as it is to see a report, it provides for interesting reading but isn't very actionable.

The action, I submit, is the report itself.  Where's the report from the National Association of Counties that suggests an action plan to ensure these recommendations are funded?

How about the National League of Cities, the National Association of School Superintendents (the other NASS), or even legislative associations?

To be fair, as critical as I've been of the organizations who haven't given this report the proper register on their Give-A-Darn Meter, we election administrators haven't created a blow-by-blow plan related to the report, either.

Never missing a chance to link things back to our budget woes (I'll stop soon, I promise, because our budget will be set), creating such a plan of action is harder for election administrators with the limited resources we all have.  Few offices have a strategic planning resource, although most of us would benefit from such a resource full-time.

I still maintain that the items in the report are what we've been advocating for years, but we can't simply on the members of the PCEA to socialize the findings.  We need to be pushing an analysis locally to give our policy funders better context to the findings.

I'll be seeing some of the members of the PCEA tomorrow.  I'm excited to be traveling to participate in a conference in Cambridge, the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology "Polling Processes of the Future:  What is/What Could Be" conference.

I'll be part of a panel discussing tools local administrators use in planning and operating elections.  We need more tools, though.

I'm of a growing point of view that there is a huge window for a group providing strategic planning assistance for local election administrators, and this group could develop and provide more decision-oriented tools.

This huge window has been open for years but the draft is becoming noticeable.  It's be an unserved space because, well, consultants gotta eat, too.

I learned quickly when coming to elections from Sprint that the vendor community was much smaller in elections because, simply, there isn't much money to be made in the elections space.  There aren't any large consulting practices focused on the election administration space because we couldn't pay them enough to do so.  (That's not such a bad paragraph to read, by the way, from a taxpayer perspective).

Still, there are thought leaders in the election space--much more organized and effective than when I came to this world nearly 10 years ago--but there is a vacuum of, errrrr, "thought-doers."

I have some thoughts around this that I will raise among many people smarter than me in the coming days, but I think there is money to fund such a thing if packaged properly.  I'm not thinking of election process consultants, but really a "business of elections practice" along the lines of Boston Consulting Group or McKinsey.

None of us could afford such a thing, but maybe there are kickstarter ways to fund this at an early stage for some communities and then others could leverage the tools created.

I think I'm headed to discuss this idea with just the right group, so it should be an invigorating escape, and, perhaps, a source for a fresh perspective leading into our budget discussions later in the week.



 
;