Monday, May 13, 2013

Future = Present

I'm so mad at my mother.

Or, so goes the beginning of a joke on the "Let's Get Small" album by Steve Martin.

"I don't know," he says, "she calls me up the other day.  She wants to borrow ten dollars for some food!  Can you believe that?  I said, 'Hey! I work for a living.'"

I thought of that in part because yesterday was Mother's Day but mostly because that sentiment sums up how I felt when leading a panel on The Future of Elections at the Kansas Clerks conference in Manhattan this past week.

I'm so mad at The Future of Elections....

Better said, I'm tired of the Future of Elections.

I feel like we've collectively dilly-dallied talking about the future for a few years now and, gee, the future is here.

The Future Is Now!

That's not really an inspirational message.  It's a signal of a crisis.

This is the front of the t-shirts our
high-school election workers wore
in 2012.
Those voting machines that we think will need to be retired after 2016's presidential election?  In some circles, politically at least, the 2016 election is "on."  2016 is essentially here.

Heck, in the budget world, the 2014 budget is nearly locked in Johnson County.  The next budget for discussion really is the 2015 budget.  We found out about a $30,000 cost surprise last week at the conference for 2014, so we're already in the hole next year.

The future is encircling us.  I've seen the future in this case and it looks a lot like the present, only with even fewer resources.

Every year when we talk about the daunting issues surrounding certification of new voting systems, the complexity leads the capital budget team to consider not doing anything until things appear more certain.

A year later, and a year closer to the future present, the budget boulder becomes bigger.  We've advocated for a couple of years to at least put into the budget a replacement system just like what we have now (and if that doesn't spell the future is now, what does?), hoping we'll push the needle on our "Bring Your Own Voting Machine" concept I explained here more than a year ago.  If so, the financial need will be much less but, if not, we're covered financially.

We're closely following Los Angeles County's process to look at a new voting system and plan to emulate the community input and ideation process.  That's easier typed than done, though, because we barely have the headcount at our office to conduct the current elections, let alone think about the future ones.

And that's the rub.  In our case, "Dilly-dallied," is a harsh descriptor because we simply don't have the resources we need to operate.  The 2012 election emphasized that we are one untimely illness or staff member departure from failure.  We requested the replacement of two positions cut during our budget downturn in 2010 and money to replace our 1990s-based election management system that hasn't been supported since 2005.

We're likely to get neither request funded.  Without elections, there is no government, but government budget priorities don't always align with core and essential services.

One clear thing is that the future of elections will be much, much more expensive.  From postage to rent to training to facilities to simple increases in election worker pay (ours haven't had an increase in 8 years), the cost increase will be as dramatic as moving from a fully-depreciated 20-year-old Suburu to to a modest new Prius.  Any car payment, when one hasn't been paid for 20 years, will seem like sticker shock.

I think election administrators often have stayed silent about these realities.  That's not happening in the industry now, although little seems to be changing.

I wasn't around pre-2000, but I wonder if one of the root causes that led to a national financial upgrade on voting systems was that loyal government employees didn't stress the need for investment back then.     Or, and more likely, they were ignored.  Under-funded was business as usual.

It's possible that part of the future of elections is that all the 2000s will have done is raise expectations for elections without an equal increase in investment.  I often hear in this industry that sufficient funding never finds its way to the front lines until something goes wrong.

What a way to live--akin to one of my favorite song titles ever, by Panic at the Disco:  "The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage."

Make it happen with unreasonably few resources or fail and we'll give the resources to your replacement.  Many of our predecessors in the election administration industry lived that life for years and that's our future unless we accept and proclaim the urgency of the present.

Another favorite quote of mine is from Stephen Covey:  "Nothing fails like success."  The key to the future is accepting that we face a crisis in election administration unless a myriad of things are addressed.  This will become a major theme of this blog over the next few months as our staff begins to tactically address the future, er, the present of elections.