Sunday, November 25, 2012 3 comments

Let Me Say This About That

Sister Shirley, my first and second grade teacher, introduced me to the Magic Math Machine.

I remember it vividly, up to the point of near-practicality.  It was something she drew on the overhead.  It was square, with ears.

Think of Mickey Mouse with a square head, and you have the image.  Instead of a nose, the Magic Math Machine/square Mickey Mouse had a rectangle in the middle of its face, where the magic answer would appear.

Because I was a geek even at six, I re-drew the Magic Math Machine for my older brother on my chalkboard in the basement.  I invited all my friends to have a go at the Magic Math Machine.

Each ear contained numbers that were to be added.  This is the point, though, that my memory gets fuzzy.

I can't actually remember where the magic came in.

In retrospect, I don't think there was any magic at all to how this thing worked.  I believe Sister Shirley wrote one number in one ear, another in the other ear, and then told us how we added them together to write the answer in the rectangle.

Then, we could erase the numbers in the ears and the rectangle, and start again!

No wonder my friends weren't impressed.

(I should point out that Sister Shirley was my favorite teacher of all time, but when I was in the third grade, she left her vocation to get married.  I went to her wedding and yet I still only remember her as Sister Shirley.  Thus, I'm also beginning to think there is further evidence of gaps in my memory from the 1970s).

Anyway, I've been on the hunt for the equivalent of an Elections Magic Math Machine.

What I'd like to know, in some easy way, is the relationship between advance voting and polling place turnout.  My imaginary Magic Math Machine has sliders that let me increase the number of advance voting sites or machines at a site, and see instantly how that impacts the number of voters at each location on election day.

I took a crack at all of this following the 2008 presidential election and plan to follow this post with some numbers and the beginning of how such a Magic Math Machine might work.

One of the things I determined is that advance voting clearly lets us "sweat the assets," getting utilization of our voting machines at a rate of about 85 percent (meaning, of the time we are open, a machine would be idle only 15 percent of the time).  At the polls, the utilization rate is about 25 percent.

A robust Magic Math Machine is one of the things I'd like to see as an answer to the now infamous, "We've got to fix that," comment regarding lines at polling places by President Obama.  If the Election Assistance Commission is amped up as a response to this statement, this is a tool I wish the EAC would develop.

There are some statistical modeling packages out there.  Crystal Ball, by Oracle, has some capabilities and I've tried to look at R (that's what it's called, R) as a hobby, but you can imagine that any statistical package that goes by a letter already insists upon itself.

(Oh, a side note on the "fix that," comment--there has been no shortage of ideas put out by the media, scientists, and election administrators on how "that" might be fixed.  There have so many ideas, in fact, that I'm growing concerned that fixing "that" likely won't happen, primarily because no one seems to be stopping and agreeing upon what "that" is.  The entire community is in solutions-mode without a problem statement).

"That" in Johnson County terms is "this":  What's the right mix of advance voting and voting at the polls?  Does that mix change by type of election (should we offer satellite advance voting for the lower turnout spring elections, for instance)?   What role, if any, should we have in our office to steer someone one way or another, voting in advance or at the polls?  If we think we should have a role, why?

I'm hung up on the fact that 50 percent of our 2008's vote came in advance and in 2012, 43 percent was in advance.  That 43 percent is still big, but in real numbers, it put more than 15,000 people at the polls that we thought would have voted in advance.

If we knew they were coming for dinner, we'd have put a place-setting at the table.

Actually, I've simplified that statement for effect.

In our case, we were prepared for that greater turnout because we always build the election with more machines that we need, but it was an exhausting day for our workers.  We encroached our buffer.

More importantly, 2012 highlighted the lack of control we have in preparing for turnout and no one--in this election--is talking about the other side, planning for a higher turnout than occurs.

There's a cost there.

One of our county commissioners, a former mayor, once wisely compared planning for elections as buying a summer's supply of snacks for the pool.  Terrific weather, and we'd be back needing more money for more snacks.  If the summer was cool and rainy, expect a lot of chips to be wasted.

The uncertainty, and the costs that come with uncertainty, are a big deal.  I don't know the specific issues nationwide, but lack of funding, or at least reasonably cautious spending, was probably a root cause behind "that."

So, nationally, whatever "that" is, I don't think it can be solved as simply as some pundits are making it.

The answers to "that," for me will come from the elusive Magic Math Machine.  More on that soon.
Saturday, November 17, 2012 0 comments

Playoffs? Don't Talk To Me About Playoffs!

When George Brett heaved a wild throw in the first game of the 1976 American League Championship series, I first heard a phrase, often repeated, that has stuck with me.

"Everything is magnified in the playoffs," the announcer said.

Make no mistake, presidential elections are administrators' playoffs.

Playoffs in sports are the time the success paradigm changes.  Instead of, "we can win if have this, this, and this," it becomes, "we would have won if only this."

Likewise, I often say that presidential elections expose the stress points in election administration.  We prepare with contingency plans, but there's always a, "I think this would have gone better if we did this" discussion.

Good election administrators were the kids in school who got a 99 on a test and immediately obsessed with the one mistake.

Our stress points in 2008, for instance, were facility-related, leading us to taking steps to address major facility issues.

In one case, we saw our little mail slot at our door couldn't handle the onslaught of ballots being dropped off.  The envelopes fell into a foyer and could have been soiled if the floor was wet.  So, we've since converted a window into a drop box a bank would be proud of, dropping the envelopes into a secure, locked room.

This election exposed some process issues--nothing serious, but when scaled became unnecessary time-eaters, from some changes we need to make to our website to poll agent forms to training.  There's never enough time to improve our training the way we want or to conduct the training the way we'd like, but we have some changes we will be making in this cycle.

"In this cycle" is an important phrase because this election isn't quite finished and we're already gearing up for the next.  We have an April countywide election and a primary for that election in February.

In fact, we have less time to prepare for the February election, after November, than we did to prepare for November after August.  The crunch mode continues through April.

All of us are asked frequently right now about how things must be slowing down and it's totally the opposite.  We have payroll to complete, voter history to finalize, election worker training ahead, and polling places to secure for the spring, for instance.  April's election brings new issues because election day is the Tuesday after Easter.  Some polling places won't be available, so we'll have to move voters, and our training will be impacted because we typically conduct supervising judge training the Saturday and Sunday before the election.

Spring elections are the most complicated, also, because of candidate rotation schedules.  Add to all of this the holidays, filing deadline in January, a new legislative session, and the fact that none of us have had a day off in months, or even have laundry caught up, and it is anything but slow.

Our staff will conduct a post-mortem of the election in early December to document all of the areas we want to address short-term or highlight as part of our strategic approach in 2013 and beyond.  We'll prepare a presentation in the spring related to all of those issues and I'll post it here.  This was the summary after 2008 (with a nod to Tammy Patrick of Maricopa County for a couple of stock photos):

One obvious area that must be addressed is our budget, particularly in staffing.  We are seriously understaffed, have been pointing this out for a few years now, and we're near a breaking point.  I'll have a post on that in a few days.

Another post soon will be related to the hot issue of the day--lines at polling places.  I've got some interesting math on what occurred to us in 2012, but, short story, we expected an average of about 140 more voters at each polling place, compared to 2008, because of our reductions.  We had 215.

The argument to reduce polling places was that advance voting has been so successful, yet even though  overall turnout was 7 points lower in 2012 compared to 2008, we had the most persons ever vote at the polls in Johnson County history.  This, after reducing polling places.

One thing to consider, that I'll get into with that post, is that all of this goes beyond simple capacity planning.

For now, this post is long enough--more soon.
Sunday, November 11, 2012 0 comments

A Good, Fast Closing

Expect my forthcoming best-seller, "Everything I Learned in Business Life I Learned at Captain D's" to be released as soon as get around to writing it.

I have the chapter topics and I really did learn a great deal there.

Coming from divorced parents and only $500 that my father gave toward my college tuition, I worked several jobs to pay for my school.  Some jobs paid very little (such as Managing Editor at the University News or sports stringer jobs at United Press International).

I worked at Captain D's for seven years, first in high school and then until my final year in college, when I got a summer internship at Sprint.  I worked as assistant manager at a different restaurant each summer and then weekends during the school year.

I still have one of my
Captain ties.
There, I was hired by someone who was manic about customer service and, in my first job, I was very impressionable.  Captain D's had an operations manual, and I memorized it.  I recited it.  I lived my life by the manual.

We have a training manual for election workers--and it's a great manual--so I think about the Captain D's manual all the time.  Each election night, I think about the simplistic advice the manual gave about cleaning after closing.

"A good, fast closing is desired."

Well, yeeeeeaaaaahhhhh!  (sarcastic stretch)

Once the restaurant closed, we had to clean utensils and pans, filter the fryers, clean the grill and everything perfectly in all aspects of the store, mop the floors, make the closing deposit, record sales, and have the place ready to go for those coming in at 7 the next morning.

It was the type of thing that could keep us there a few hours after closing.  That would be, in the manual's view, a good, slow closing--undesirable because of the cost.

Some tried shortcuts (a bad, fast closing), leaving the restaurant dirty or less ready for those in the morning.

When we report election results, I'm always aiming for the good, fast closing: accurate results, in final form, before the 10 o'clock news is over.

Election integrity advocates will talk about how people are willing to wait for results, and that's simply not the case.  There's a belief that a switch can be flipped at 7:15 and all results (even though they are miles and miles away from our office and physically being driven back before they can be uploaded) should be ready immediately.

Our final results were up at 10:15 Tuesday, the earliest of any large county in the state or in the Kansas City area.  Tomorrow at our canvass, I'm sure I will hear from someone asking if they could have been up sooner.

I am sensitive to that with respect to candidates, who plan parties but the attendees tucker out before the results come.  But no one wants the results out faster than those of us at the office--we were at the office about 18 hours Tuesday.

Most importantly, though, we want a good, fast closing, with emphasis on "good."  An inaccurate, fast closing would serve no one.

Speaking of the canvass, we will present about 8,000 provisional ballots to the Board of Canvassers tomorrow.  Photos of the bags they come back in, and after they've been adjudicated, are to the right and below.
Thursday, November 8, 2012 2 comments

We've Got to Fix This

So much has happened in the past week that I have many topics I need to cover here.

One downside to blogging and actually working is that the work gets in the way.  It's been nutty, wall-to-wall, and until Google comes out with telepathy blogging, this old-fashioned method of catch-up will have to do.

Tuesday night, our staff was humming along uploading results to the point I thought I'd be home before the 10 o'clock news was over.  We use several voting machine stations to upload results to our server and sadly in our cross-checks, we determined that about 15 locations didn't upload.

Bummer.  That was about another 125 cards, taking an additional 20 minutes or so.  Still, we posted final results on our website at 10:15.

I then had to complete a reporting sheet to the Secretary of State's office for statewide roll-up of races and as I was faxing that, I heard that news outlets were calling the election.

Bummer, again.  I was hoping to be an Average Joe watching that at home, I thought, with an imaginary clench of the fist, "Oh, Cross Checks!"

Cross-checks are good, of course.  Hence, an imaginary clench of the fist.

So, I didn't watch election coverage when I went home.  I ate my first meal of the day, around 11:30, until I didn't have the strength to raise my fork, and went to sleep.

I missed the acceptance speech and the hub-ub-a-boo line that's got election administrators talking.

Regarding people still in line, President Obama said, "By the way, we have to fix that."

He wasn't talking about lines in Johnson County, but I wasn't happy with the lines we had.  In some locations, we had lines of about 45 minutes, particularly in the early morning.

We had lines in advance voting, too, but our advance voting turnout was lighter than in 2008.  Problem was, more people voted at the polls Tuesday than voted at the polls in 2008.

On Tuesday, more than 154,000 people voted at the polls, compared to about 142,000 in 2008.

Double problem was, we reduced polling locations in response to budget cuts, from 284 in 2008 to 221 this week.

So, nearly 10 percent more voters with 20 percent fewer polling places.  That's a bad combination.

This reduction was encouraged because of the greater acceptance of advance voting.  One county department head, in a budget meeting after the 2010 election, said she thought our voters "got too good of service," in terms of wait time at the polls. 


Early in my Sprint career, I was responsible for telecommunications relay service, which bridges persons who are deaf or hard of hearing with voice users.  An operator sits between the callers, typing what's spoken to one user and relaying what's typed to the other.

This was a call-center environment, so I'm very familiar with the issues of projecting and handling volumes of traffic.  It's akin to building a highway for thousands of cars but realizing that the entrance ramp can only let one car in at a time.

"Fix this," isn't a simple concept.  Addressing a traffic choke-point by creating more entry points (more polling places or advance locations) also implies we have some control over where voters go. 

Half of our voters voted in advance in 2008, but only 43 percent in 2012.  That's a trend that could reverse in 2016.  We heard anecdotes of voters waiting in advance lines in 2008, only to find friends had no wait at the polls.  I think Tuesday was a result of some 2008 advancers thinking they were chumps for waiting and, instead, felt the stress of waiting on election day.

Traffic and Lines During the Last Hours
of Advance Voting Monday
I talked with a reporter at The New Republic about this and have some views on what "Fix this," might mean.     Doug Chapin also had a great post about this.

The president may not even remember saying it at this point, but the election administrator community will make this topic number one, I'm sure, at the annual legislative meeting conducted by the Election Center in January.

Some of my thoughts to "fix this" were raised in The New Republic post.

A couple more "out there" solutions:

1.  Reduce Voting Options.  This is contradictory to conventional wisdom, but election administrators run three elections in Kansas--advance in person, advance by mail, and at the polls.  If Internet voting were ever allowed, we'd have four elections running.  We have the same staff size we had 20 years ago, with half of the voters we have now and before advance voting was an option.  One way to consider managing traffic is to manage the entrance ramps to highway.

2. Appoint Election Assistance Commission Commissioners.  No election administrator has been more in favor of closing the EAC than me.  Contrived through the Help America Vote Act, I think the mission of the EAC has been accomplished.  But, if  "fix this" is a mantra, this is an agency that exists and should be amped up, again.  Currently, the four commissioner seats (two Republican, two Democratic, appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate) are vacant.  It's a Dead Agency Walking right now.  Filling the EAC Commissioner posts and adopting a new strategic intent focused on solutions, not advice, would be a potential way to address the "Fix This" objective.

3. Speaking of solutions, how about e-solutions.  Specifically, I'm talking Internet voting, email voting, Bring Your Own Device voting, electronic pollbooks, online registration, and a myriad of ways to leverage technology.

Said more directly, Internet voting is coming.  There are a lot of scientists and other smart people who refute that Internet voting can happen, often citing very valid security concerns.

But here's the thing--it's not up to them.  The number one question I'm asked by voters is, "Why can't we vote on the Internet?"  One day, the people asking the question will come up with their own answer.

We like to think we're in control of our destiny, but often a big bang occurs that causes us to react.  Internet voting will be such a thing.

Social factors will lead to Internet voting.  A legislature will pass a law that Internet voting must be implemented.  A city will decide to conduct its own elections using Survey Monkey.  A natural disaster may occur during a critical voting period (oh, wait, that did happen).

Once society decides it's time for Internet voting, the scientists will no longer have a voice.

We will go from, "why not," to "how." 

Should you disagree, I give you as People's Exhibit A the buzz related to a simple "Fix This" comment by the President.

We already are all asking ourselves, "How?"