Thursday, December 27, 2012 3 comments

Let's Talk Business

Eighteen months ago, I participated in an Election Assistance Commission roundtable webcast related to social media.

All of the panel participants, and many of the viewers and followers, knew that social media was  emerging as a tool for election administrators.  It was in its infancy in the 2008 presidential election and 2012 was expected to be big, really big.

Twitter, for instance, launched in 2006 and was just finding its way in 2008.  Speaking of Twitter, you may have heard that the close of the 2012 election resulted in the message that was retweeted the most IN HISTORY.

I learned this during the PEW Voting in America Conference earlier this month.  I was thrilled to see Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Twitter take the stage, but I was less enthused about the collective message.  Frankly, I'm not sure there was a message.

PEW's David Becker kicks off a much-anticipated
panel discussion related to social media and
election administration.  Representatives (l-r) were
from Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Twitter.
Doug Chapin of the Humphrey School of
Public Administration moderated.
Stick with me--this is tough love, raising the bar, expecting more, that kind of thing.  To the point I raised during the roundtable webcast, it's time to take social media in election administration from a hobby to something more useful, with a grander vision.

And, for that, we need the social media companies to be leaders.

Four years ago, such a moment on stage would have been palpitating, for me at least.  "Oh my gosh, on my gosh, can you believe Facebook sent someone to meet with us!"

But now, I've changed.

It's not them, it's me.  They were enthusiastic and very pleasant.

I'm jaundiced, I guess, but talking about a presidential tweet outpacing Justin Bieber as the most retweeted message over any in the last six years is a yawner.  I also read recently that the finale of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey," was the most talked about Bravo Housewife episode IN HISTORY as well, but history doesn't mean much when the beginning of time is a year that begins with a "20."

We have a common interest with these companies.  They target people, usually adults.  Many of these adults are potential voters.  We represent content providers for them, to get the adult eyeballs they want.  And for us, they represent a distribution channel to reach our voters.

It's time we talk like this.  Social media is a business.  Let's talk business.

Many of us in election administration are resource-poor, stretched thin.  I have familiar relationships with many voting equipment vendors, for instance, but a deep relationship with only one.

That's a singular example but it carries with all of our vendors.  We need to be convinced, among any group of vendors, who represents the high-potential horse to ride.

It's possible that one of the companies on the stage (or Yahoo, Amazon, or Apple, each not in attendance but whom should be paying attention, also) will be majorly declining by 2012.  I probably wouldn't bet against the staying power of Microsoft or Google, but there are plenty of social networks that have experienced dramatic half-lives since 2000.

As demonstration of the fast pace of technology change, go back four years ago--the top tech story related to president-elect Obama and his attachment to his Blackberry.  Could the Secret Service pry it from his hand once he took office?

Now, as he prepares for his second term, could anyone ever convince him to actually use a Blackberry?

When such a new media panel is assembled in 2016, I'd like to see the members sell themselves against the others on the stage.  Tell us specific strategies and programs that are underway, how initiatives can either drive turnout, reduce phone calls on election day, or in some way reach voters cost-effectively.

Tell us how to contact someone specific at Google, or Facebook, or Twitter, for instance, and, better, why we should want to.

The Fangirl days are over, in my view.  Election administration has become extremely more sophisticated over the last 10 years.  Much more is expected of us, and we need these companies to engage with us, with their ideas, their vision.

I think it's fair for election administrators to seek to be recruited, enrolled, and engaged by them.  We have this view with other potential partners and vendors, and I believe we do ourselves a disservice thinking of social media as the shiny object in the room as opposed to expecting disciplined thinking from a maturing industry that brings potential to help our voters.
Tuesday, December 18, 2012 0 comments

Forget Christmas--We're Thinking Easter

Outsiders to our office frequently comment how our lives must be slowing down after the November election, but the reality is that we have another election coming up in February and the election-to-election window is similar, November to February, to what it was from August to November.

Filing deadline for the spring elections is barely a month away.  The primary is at the end of February and the election is April 2.

That's April 2, as in the Tuesday after Easter.  We've had spring elections that crossed over Passover or Easter before, but they were the smaller even-year elections.  This is a countywide election and Easter is having a huge impact on our election.

I've said it before and I'll say it again (he typed in a Ferris Bueller voice), getting polling places is 10 times harder than getting election workers.  It's always a push to secure workers willing to take on a very hard job with long hours, but as I've posted before, securing polling places is even harder.

With about one-third of our polling places being churches, that fact will be on full display this spring.  We've already lost about 15 locations because of Easter, when the churches are at full capacity, unable to accept voting machines and equipment either the week before or even the Monday before the election.

Then, there is the anxious-school factor.  Schools locally, and nationally, are re-evaluating their security procedures already in the wake of the Connecticut tragedy and the stark reality is that this review will include using schools as polling places.

In 2005, I met with each school superintendent in Johnson County, introducing myself, thanking them for their support, and asking them about issues they were facing.  During my meeting with Shawnee Mission's Marjorie Kaplan, she very directly, and prophetically as it has turned out, said, "We want to work with you, but the day someone comes into a school and uses a gun is the day we stop using our schools as polling places."

She was addressing calls we get from time to time from parents concerned about the flow of persons who come into the schools on election day.  Neither of us that day considered her comments anything but a remote possibility.  Still, I've thought a lot about that conversation over the last few days.

We had the bad timing of sending out our polling place confirmation forms early Friday morning and we have since received confirmation from Shawnee Mission.  Shawnee Mission, by the way, has a long-standing policy of only placing questions on ballots during polls elections, not mail-ballot elections, so the District's interests in polling places goes a little deeper than it otherwise might.

However, the Olathe School District (the largest in the Kansas City area), is having a further review of our request and the overall use of schools as polling places.  The Connecticut shootings aren't the reason for the review; we're told the review has been underway for a while.  Still, the timing isn't good.

After my meeting with Superintendent Kaplan, we began looking at all options for polling places other than schools.  But after consolidating polling places this year from 284 to 221, we're left with about 100 schools and many of them are in Olathe.

At a minimum, because of Easter, we're facing the need to move thousands of voters to new locations in the same hurry-up mode we were in last June after the 11th-hour redistricting.  We could be looking at moving more than 100,000 voters if we don't get all of our school locations.

Beyond polling places, Holy Week wipes out some training dates.  We usually have two classes of supervising judge training on Saturday and again on the Sunday before the election.  With Sunday out, we need to find a time to train those 130 or so supervising judges.

The weekend before isn't much better because of Palm Sunday and the Saturday is already full with regular election worker training.  Holding daytime classes on Friday might work, but, of course, that's Good Friday.

Even our typical election worker training schedules are impacted because we utilize a church for that training.  We don't have an auditorium-like training environment for 200 or more workers at a time.  The church we use is packed with events and other locations are either not available or not returning our calls at this point.

The dynamics we're facing come at a time when many are weighing the value of moving spring elections to the fall.  I'm for this if we can move them to the fall of the odd years, meaning we have elections in our county every November.  Combining the spring elections with the presidential or gubernatorial elections would be costly and would greatly complicate the administration of the election. That's not to say it's a bad idea, but it's something that needs to be hashed out, I think, in a conference room before trying to debate it in a legislative hearing.

This concept, though, may have traction, too, when considering that if the elections are in November, schools, maybe, could be closed on election day, allowing for more security.  Often, we've talked with the schools about either making election day a teacher in-service day (there's usually one scheduled within a couple of weeks of an election) or actually making the November Election Day a school holiday.

There are other things that could be considered as well, many often pondered by election administrators but seldom considered by other stakeholders.  We live and breathe these issues, but legislators, for instance, have many priorities.  Burning issues to us, while important, are among many burning issues they have, and some have burned brighter.

Perhaps, the light will shine a little more on some of our issues in the coming months.   I'm hopeful we might be coming to a time where we can modernize some of our election statutes, to align them with the realities of the timing of advance voting and military/overseas voting, for instance.

We might be on the cusp of some meaningful election administration reform that might improve overall effectiveness and, possibly, voter turnout as well.  For now, we're still head-down, charging towards Easter.

Thursday, December 13, 2012 2 comments


Apparently, Christian Slater, the actor, had difficulty voting in the presidential election.

I first heard this during a panel session at PEW's Voting in America 2012, an invitation-only conference of election administrators, elected officials, and smart people that I attended earlier this week in Washington, D.C.

The comment came during a discussion by Robin Carnahan, retiring Missouri Secretary of State.  She used the actor's example to point out registration issues in elections.  An inconsistency with his registration, as the story went, kept his vote from being counted in Florida.

Registration process changes are but one of many things considered as answers to the infamous President Obama quote on election night related to, "We've got to fix that."

(Random thought #21--when boarding my flight out Sunday morning, I had a pleasant stop and chat with Senator Jerry Moran.  Obviously, one discussion with just one Senator is a small sample size, but it was evident to me during that conversation that the "fix that" comment was not anywhere near top of mind in the U.S. Senate).

(Random thought #186--you may wonder why random thoughts are numbered, if they are random, and I must point out that they are numbered solely for the convenience of the reader).

Anyway, the session before the Christian Slater example was much more impactful, in my opinion.  Heather Gerken led a panel to discuss the creation of PEW's Election Performance Index that will be rolling out soon.

Heather started this all with her book, The Democracy Index, and the whole concept here is using data to measure performance.  It gets to the foundation of Stephen Covey's concept of, "Put something on a wall and measure it, and it will improve."

Heather is a rock star when it comes to elections--not to be confused with another Heather, Heather Smith of Rock the Vote.  She spoke on Monday and is very impressive as well.

They are two of my favorite Heathers.  A third, not at the conference, is Heather Taylor of E-Consultancy, who posted about social media and elections coincidentally the first day of the conference.  I highly recommend following her on Twitter.

There, three Heathers and Christian Slater (sort of) together over two days, but this wasn't a movie with a bomb, although it was broadcast on CSpan3 and we were beginning to evacuate the Newseum just before the conference began because of some safety issue that was quickly resolved.

I'll speak to one of the other panels, related to social media, in a future post, but sticking to the Performance Index, it is something that we want to nudge along in Johnson County.  I'll have some discussion about the Index itself later as well, but Heather Gerken's book is a good read in the interim.
Panel Discussion on the PEW
Election Performance Index--Former
(and outstanding) EAC Commissioner
Ray Martinez, Michigan Election
Director Chris Thomas, Smartguy
MIT professor Charles Stewart, and
PEW Index Champion Zachary
Markovits.  Behind the podium
is Heather Gerkin--you see her boots
only, presumably used to kick
tails and take names (and
The great thing about the Index is that it is happening.  The bad thing is that no matter how it's prefaced as a discussion-starter or preliminary, first impressions are lasting impressions.  When all of us see the data, we immediately look to to see how our state has done. 

The next debate is whether these are the right measurements or are they equally weighted or what the most important measurement is or even if the measurements themselves are accurate or if we are measuring apples-to-apples.

"Wait time," for instance, is something measured but it doesn't break down if the voter voted in advance or at the polls.  And, it's self-reported by the voter, so it may actually be the perception of the wait, not the actual time.  That perception may be more important, or less, but this gives you a tiny taste of the discussions that might spin from the data.

A trendy job these days is that of Data Scientist, tracking "Big Data," and breaking it down into insightful bites.  We need a Data Scientist at the Johnson County Election Office.

For that matter, we need a financial and strategic planning manager, an outreach manager, and at least three more employees to simply assist with election blocking and tackling so we aren't dependent solely on one person without a backup at critical points in the election cycle.

We haven't been able to get those basic needs filled, having the same number of employees for the last 20 years despite seismic changes in elections administration, although we're going to take another swing that that during the next budget cycle.  Still, a push for a Data Scientist would only result in eye rolls--we'd have a better chance getting another trendy (and not needed) position, a Sustainability Manager.  We need the real positions to ensure we can sustain administering elections, so I likely won't push for a Data Scientist.

To me, that's the biggest risk with the Performance Index.  The benefits, I believe anyway, can't be disputed.  But without devoting a resource to really get our fingernails dirty with the data, we run the risk of the wrong people seeing the wrong metric and drawing false conclusions, good or bad.

It's a good start, but I'm sure I'm about 60 days or so from getting a call from our local radio news station wanting a quote on how Kansas fared on the Performance Index.  In some ways, the Index truly will be the bomb I referenced earlier and if my anecdotal "Fix That," research is any indication, we'll be talking about the Index much longer than a line from a presidential acceptance speech.

Monday, December 3, 2012 3 comments

iPads at the Polls, an Update

You might remember that we deployed iPads at our polling places as an electronic election worker resource guide.

Among the many things we will be sorting out following last month's presidential election is the effectiveness of these and the potential further uses.

The eventual goal is to consider using the iPad, or some other tablet, as an electronic poll book, saving printing costs and time.  The practicality of such a thing is complex at best.

First, we would need at least two and maybe three at each polling place. They would need to constantly talk with each other so that if one malfunctions, is dropped, or lost, we would still have a way to continue signing people in and can capture voter history.

(Voter history, by the way, is simply a record of who voted.  Right now, we have to manually go through each of our 250+ poll books and, page by page, scan the barcode next to signatures after each election.  The iPads would allow us to upload the history automatically).

There were savings and efficiencies with the iPads during this election, primarily because we were able to avoid printing election worker manuals, large countywide maps, and street index listings. These maps and listings are tools to help the workers get voters to the correct polling place.

More than half of our supervising judges gave the iPads glowing reviews.  Others hated them.  In one polling place I visited in November, at 9 a.m., it hadn't yet been taken out of the bag.  (In fairness, this was an extremely busy site that might as well have had a revolving door at the front of the gymnasium based on the traffic I saw coming and going while I was there).

Just this past week, I received three calls from technology stakeholders, including Apple and two electronic poll book providers.  Another sent me his tablet prototype announcement a couple of weeks ago.

We also submitted the resource guide as an entry in Harvard Kennedy's School's Innovations in American Government Awards and made it past the first evaluation gate.  We're not sure if we're still in the mix there, and I hope to follow up on that with the leader of that program next week when I'm at elections conference in Washington.

The award has a financial piece to it, which would let us expand our iPad use as poll books.  How we would do that is still a question, although we have at least four viable partner opportunities, and we'd like to consider building our own software with the Secretary of State's office.

Managing and storing a fleet of iPads is no small thing.  They can be updated universally, but that assumes we have the networking capability for that and that's been a big assumption.  We already had to make room for additional voting machines and our warehouse is crammed as it is.

Then there's the matter of election worker engagement.  I don't think the iPad adoption that we've seen can be stereotypically linked to the age of a traditional election worker.  For some, it's their thing and for others, it's not.

Still, if we use them as electronic poll books, they must be used, and that brings into question how hard we want to push and train something that, in the end, is simply a place where the voter signs. The printing savings in indisputable, as is avoiding the after-election scanning, but the poll books add to training that already has become exhausting.

Add to this the uneven feedback by those who use electronic poll books and we're left with a lot to ponder.  This has been expeditionary learning thus far, creating more questions than answers.  Like every other equipment issue election administrators are facing, though, there probably isn't one right answer, and that's what we're beginning to see here.