Sunday, March 17, 2013

No White Smoke, Film at 11

Not photoshopped, but, actually, not really our office.
There is a street between our sign and that building.
Still, a fun image given the events last week.
With the white papal smoke billowing the end of an election, I've thought a lot about election offices reporting results.

Can you imagine waiting days for election results to be tallied?

Technically, that is what happens in Johnson County because the canvass occurs the Monday after the election.  Just a couple of weeks ago, in the February election, we had a tie heading into the canvass that was decided after provisional ballots were added.

Another race was separated by one vote that was tied after the provisional ballots.  That race was decided by a coin toss.

Overall, though, there is a yearning for fast results on election night.  Heck, we yearn for that.  After getting up at 5 a.m. or sooner, nobody wants to wrap up the day more than we do.

Voting integrity activists and paper-ballot enthusiasts suggest a "So what?" approach if counting paper ballots meant results came after the 10 o'clock news ended.

Reality is, candidates have gatherings on election night.  They want news.  Well, they want good news, at least.  No news is always perceived as bad news.

There is a belief that votes are accumulating at each voting machine, plugged into some elaborate network, and each machine is rolling along adding numbers the way your gas pump rolls gallons and dollars.  Then, at 7, we push a button, and at 7:01 the results are posted.

Not so, of course.  In fact, we bring results physically back from each polling location, so the uploading doesn't even begin until about 7:45.

Eleven years ago, April 2002, Johnson County used touch-screen voting machines for the first time and modemed results back to the office.  That transmission capability was one of the benefits of the new technology.

I wasn't working at the office then, but actually was a city council candidate that year.

I saw online that I was the victor, whoo-hoo'd it, and then woke up the next day hearing about an anomaly.  The results didn't transmit correctly.   Ugh.

(Being a candidate is stressful.  I have great empathy for all candidates, in part because I know first-hand this feeling of "It's over," "No, it's not," "I won," followed by "Did I?"   Candidates put so much of themselves out in front of the public, and as I've often said, I wish there was a place at the table for everyone who had the guts to run for office).

In my election, the election commissioner ordered a recount and I came to observe it.

I observed about the first five minutes before realizing that watching people count ballots was about as exciting as, well, watching people count anything.  I left, got the final results later, and still won but by a slightly different margin.

It was a great experience, in retrospect.  I had no idea I'd ever be working at the election office at the time, so having seen that recount was helpful in conducting the recounts we have had since.

I also know the "story," then, first-hand, of why results are physically transported back.  This practice became the standard in Kansas and in many communities in the country.  In King County Washington, there apparently is one polling place that has results brought back by law enforcement because of the distance.  The squad car comes with sirens and lights flashing.

Like a little kid, I asked our sheriff's office if they could do that when they brought results back during our February blizzard.  They politely said, "No way."  They didn't even offer to turn on the siren in our parking lot.

To complete the tabulating thought, though, results are uploaded directly to a server that sits in its own cement-walled cell.  We burn a CD of the results and take that to another computer to upload the results to the web.

All of this is done as assurance that no outside forces can impact the results.  We have internal security procedures, requiring two-people in the tabulation room with separate passwords, and as a double-dog precaution, this is the one techie area where I'm intentionally incapable.

I don't know the password to the computer, to the election, or how to run the software.

My big role in the tabulation room is to pull the results off the printer in the room.  Goofy, but tradition.

The tabulation team and I do cross-checks to make sure all results have been uploaded before they burn the CD.

One other goofy tradition is a word game we play.  With three people in the tabulation room and three major events (public test rehearsal, public test, and election night results), we alternate picking a word from "TOUCHSCREEN."  We take turns alphabetically, so my time is always the public test.

I can't really explain why, or what will happen when one of us is finally stumped.  But, there you go--that's what "behind the scenes," means in our office.

I'm sorry "behind the scenes" isn't more colorful, or even lacking color--it's not quite white smoke, but we can't all work at the Vatican.