Sunday, August 26, 2012

Future Exploration

If there's one area of agreement among election insiders, it's that the industry model is broken.

"Election insiders," in this geeky non-political blog, by the way, simply means anyone who has a stake in the day-to-day administration of elections--local election officials like me, state election officials, election integrity activists, academics, vendors, disability stakeholders, and the loads of smart people who somehow woke up and found themselves professionals in the election administration space.

One such smart person is David Becker at Pew's Center for the States.  I've generally been hesitant to use names in my blog, but there's really no way around it in this post.  David is the head of the elections practice at Pew and is a strategic thought-leader in election administration.

As a further aside, I always thought he was smart but I learned this week that he had been a contestant years ago on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."  Not to sound like Dianne Wiest in the movie Parenthood when she encounters someone who also attended Woodstock ("I THOUGHT you looked familiar!"), but I am certain I saw his run on the show.

So, David pulled together a small group of insider-ey types to help answer the million-dollar election question we're all facing.  Specifically, voting systems that were once shiny are nearing the end of their lives with no plan, no money, or no solution for replacement in many cases.

Consider what I typed when submitting a capital budget request last year in Johnson County:

"Election systems must be a) federally certified, b) compliant with the Election Administration Commission's Voluntary Voting Systems Guidelines, and c) Kansas state-certified.   Currently, no systems exist that meet this criteria."

We aren't alone.  Thankfully, Los Angeles County is about 18 months ahead of us in the process of looking at a new solution.  The biggest challenge is putting definition around the drivers and restrainers in the election industry in order to frame the problem, identify solutions, and make recommendations.

This isn't really hard work, but it requires time.  I spent years in strategic planning at Sprint doing this very thing.  But it is impossible to do when you're always in election mode, as we've been with nearly 50 elections in my 7 1/2 years at the county.

I feel good that I've kept up with all the reading in the 150 different arms and legs that impact the industry, and my thoughts are pretty well organized.  But I haven't really had the time to put all this into a document.

This blog, in fact, is designed to capture some of these things.  An election industry assessment, in the business world, would be a million-dollar study by Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey, or some other group of smart people.

Without this, discussions regarding the future of elections in our county often get derailed because of the myriad of uncertainty we face.  The uncertainty can be an excuse not to take any action, turning the can we kick down the street into a 100-gallon barrel.

So, smart-guy David did something that was monumental but also likely very normal-sounding to those outside of the industry.  He pulled some people in with various perspectives and put them in one room to discuss the issues we are facing.

It was a breakthrough because most election meetings are conducted with people who have the same point of view, or at least the same orientation.  We talk to ourselves a lot in this industry.  Activists who are certain they know a better way talk to themselves, too.  Rarely do opposing viewpoints--or perceived opposing viewpoints as is usually more likely--meet.

I believe this stems from Black Box Voting, a book, website, and HBO special pushed by activist Bev Harris (oops, another name) years ago.  Speaking of names, Bev Harris had no problem publishing in her book the names of election officials and, fairly or unfairly, called them out at times.

Election administrators work very hard to NOT be the news, so this was a hurtful new thing to many, especially to the friends and professional colleagues of those mentioned.  This new election activism felt very personal and set up a divisive culture that seems rather silly as more time passes.

If you start with the notion that we all want the same thing--perfect elections--disagreements on the path to get there aren't bad at all.  The only way to confront obstacles is to actually know what they are.

The meeting allowed us to identify and hash through some of those obstacles.  No pies were thrown and, in fact, I think we agreed on many things. 

We even named some potential solutions and approaches.  David's focus now is to determine if Pew has a role in helping frame the industry's roadmap.

I hope so.  All I've had time to do is obtain the domain electionroadmap, which just redirects to this site for now.  We had a part-time employee in 2008 focused on the roadmap, but he left to join Wyandotte County as a full-timer and we had to give up his position to budget cuts and couldn't backfill.

There's a long lead time in government budgeting and it's not realistic to hope a placeholder of several million dollars is put into a budget as we hash through the solution.  Likewise, if we wait until the ideal solution is developed, our current system could be kaput before we've even begun crafting a way to pay for the new system.

I'm still a proponent of my concept of Bring Your Own Voting Machine,  posted in February, and if implemented, that could save our county millions of dollars.

It's still only a gleam in the eye right now, although articulating any vision feels a little closer after the meetings this week.