Friday, January 18, 2013

Back to the Present

Coming back from the future of election discussions with vendors and colleagues, we're facing the reality that the present state of elections could be a lot better.

Filing deadline for the spring elections is Tuesday at noon, and right now we have a relatively small primary--two wards in one city, with about 50,000 voters.

It's a good thing because we're going through uncertainty with the printing of our paper ballots.   Our printer has had some personnel changes and we need to see if performance has been impacted in advance of our countywide April election.

Printing of ballots is complex.  When I came in 2005, we had a dispute with a local printer from the 2004 presidential election.  The ballot printing was awful and the ballots often wouldn't scan.  Candidate names sometimes were in the center of ballots.

This dispute rankled the owner of the company and he told me that he wouldn't print our April ballots unless we paid this disputed invoice.  We later settled, in our favor, and he never printed ballots for us again.  We couldn't do business with someone who held us hostage like that.

So, we set out to find a new printer and had, for instance, a great conversation with Henry Wurst, the largest printer in the Kansas City area.  They printed some ballots for us in a test election but had to come back and say they couldn't support us--ballot printing is too complex.  Timing marks have to be perfect for scanning, there are literally hundreds of different ballot styles because of candidate rotation, we need some folded for mailing, and, oh, by the way, we usually need them within a week of ordering.

Many communities are looking at or using ballot-on-demand printers, and that may work at advance locations, but it wouldn't be practical for us at polling places.  Only a small portion of ballots are cast on paper at those locations.

The bigger issue related to paper continues to be the post office.  Postage is our largest office expense and the service where we have the least satisfaction.  At the Election Center meeting last week, I listened to the same presentation from the Post Office that I have heard for nearly a decade, how the office is working with election officials to make sure everything runs smoothly. 

The person presenting had been given photos of our ballots from last spring, so I hopped up to the open mic and stressed the disconnect between his view and our view on the ground.  Apparently, there is a special online reporting form where I can go to document this and all will be fixed.  We'll do this and check in with him next January, but I'm not optimistic.

Postage rates are going up and there will be more changes to post offices and deliveries.  This is all bad news in the voting-by-mail world, which more and more becomes an unrealistic option to voting at the polls.

Voting at the polls is under siege, of course, because of school safety concerns.  Churches are less available to us right now because of Easter and we get plenty of complaints from using churches.

In April 2005, with a marriage constitutional amendment on the ballot, the number one voter complaint was the use of churches as polling places.  In a special election in September 2005, regarding a sales tax that funded schools, our number one voter complaint was the use of schools as polling places.  If the "sugar tax," or a "calorie tax," ever makes it to a ballot, expect our use of Denny's to be an issue.

And Internet voting?  No way.  Never.  That's what we're told, anyway.

Detractors point to the problems with the Oscar nominations, selected through Internet voting.  Dig deeper into that and you'll find the problems were log-in questions and unfamiliarity with the Internet, not security issues.

We're left with the conventional wisdom that there's no possible way that Internet voting can be as reliable as current methods.

Really?  What's the reliability gauge?  We're running out of ways to vote here. We need the future of voting to be defined because the current state of voting is evaporating.

I still say, to the "No way, never," crowd on Internet voting, this will be forced on us eventually.  I truly believe that.  It's human nature to think we're in control of our own destiny, but we often aren't.

As department directors at Sprint we used to tell our employees that we were in a new era, the end of lifetime employment, and that they need to take control of their own careers.  We would encourage them to ponder their own career path and ask them how they would go from their current position to position A, B, or C. 

Then, we'd reorganize and tell them that they had a new role.  Or, they'd be laid off.  So much for them taking control of their destiny.

One day, a state legislature will pass a law that mandates Internet voting by a specific day.  Or, a city will somehow charter out of conventional elections to use Internet voting, requiring some sort of shift by a county election office.  Or, an equivalent of a coporate reorganization will occur, and there we'll be.

That's the future of elections--a winding road splintered from the present.


Sean said...

What's your take on the use of online absentee ballot applications and 24/7 ballot drop boxes as a way to reduce dependency on the post office and maintain/improve the effectiveness of "vote by mail" programs?

Election Diary said...

2 questions:
1. We use "online" applications in that you can print them off and email, scan or fax, needing the proverbial wet signature. We're cool with those with iPad apps who let the voter sign on the screen and email directly from the iPad to us. If that becomes pervasive, though, we're going to have to reconcile "finger signatures," vs. other signatures. That's not too hard now, but it would be if we had to look at 20,000 like that.
2. I'm a little nervous with 24/7 drop boxes in that they would be unattended. We have a slot into a secure room in our building and that's used extensively. I've often considered using area grocery stores for secure drop-offs. We have 3 major chains here but none of have ever thought it was as good of an idea as I did. Then, we'd have the issue that the law requires ballots to be at our office by 7 p.m. on election night, so we'd have to work through that.