Saturday, June 15, 2013

Pinching Voters and Budgets

This week's election contained some irony.

The election involved the Olathe School District and a capital improvement plan that passed overwhelmingly.

The projects included a new high school and improved security at all schools.

I read today that the district plans "Pinch Points" at each school.  I really like this new phrase linguistically but operationally, I think this points to further doom for us at the election office.

Pinch Points refers to the concept that visitors to a school have to come through a secure entrance, basically being buzzed in.  This, of course, would be unworkable when using schools as polling places.

Hence the irony.  An election conducted by our office for the district likely will result in the district not being able to support the election office.

I could be wrong, and, of course, this is becoming a tired message on this blog.  Namely, schools' concerns with safety, voters' concerns with churches, reduced post office service levels, and increased voter expectations for advance voting locations form the largest restrainers we have to conducting elections.

Late this year, we will go through the process of assigning polling places for 2014 elections.  That's when these points may start pinching.

This event coincides with our budget process and data related to the 2012 election.  In 2012, the county  conducted small focus groups and an online budget-cut simulation.  One conclusion drawn was that people were willing to wait in line longer to vote.  There was encouragement by the county manager and some members of the Board of County Commissioners to reduce polling places.

I was publicly skeptical of this conclusion.  In fact, the online simulation that asked residents how they would balance the budget started with questions about the election office and the DMV.  We know, of course, the impact of "top of the ballot," in elections (that's why we rotate candidate names).  The design of the simulation likely created some false positives.

The same process said that waiting longer at the DMV was okay and thanks to a new computer system put in place in 2012, the DMV's "brand" has been severely damaged.  Wait times there were measured in hours, not minutes.

Fact is, though, we were reducing polling places, anyway.  It was the first time, presidential-election to presidential-election, that polling places decreased rather than increased.  It was a signal of availability, not of my reaction to the focus groups.

I'm a pretty independent person and if I thought increasing polling places was the right thing to do, I would have, and then I would have dealt with the fall-out within the county.  I said this during my budget presentation last June.  In fairness, nobody "made me" reduce polling places.  Further, I didn't quit some polling places--they quit us.

But, now we have new data, the outcome of the semi-annual resident survey conducted by the county.  This survey has a nice trend line going since 2005 and asks residents about convenience of polling place and advance voting locations.

At my budget presentation with the Board of County Commissioners last year, I said I would use this survey data to assess if the reduction of polling places would have an impact.  I felt it would and if I wasn't the only one in the room who felt that way, I can only say that they didn't pipe up and agree with me.

But now, comes the survey data.

For the statement "Polling places in the County are convenient," satisfaction dropped, down from 90 percent in 2011 to 86 percent.  The company the county employs to do the survey defines a four-point drop as statistically significant.

The five-survey, eight-year trend goes like this:

2005      2007      2009    2011    2013
90%       88%       90%     90%     86%

This is bad news.  Residents feel polling places are less convenient at a time when we are sure to have even fewer locations available as polling places.

For the statement "The County has enough advanced voting locations," the trend is this:

2005      2007      2009    2011    2013
79%       77%       77%     76%     76%

My belief is that voters' expectations of advance voting sites are increasing.  Voters feel they shouldn't have to travel far to them and that the lines should be short.

I'm sure the push-back I would get from our county manager is that 86 percent doesn't seem that bad.  He might even point to the 2007 number showing the drop from 90 to 88 percent.  That, however, came after we experimented by reducing polling places in the 2006 election from 2004 levels.

Also, survey numbers for all items measured in the county have dropped since 2005 and that could be a sign of survey fatigue, overall economic issues impacting the frame of mind of the respondents, or specific budget cuts at the county.

But if 86 percent isn't bad, what is?  We are talking about a constitutional right, after all, with convenience required by federal and state laws.

Is 85 percent bad, or 80 percent? Is 76 percent bad?

Ah, 76 percent--the response to the advanced voting location question.  I think the answer to improving the answer to the first question comes by dealing with this question.

Point is, there likely is more than one way to address the polling place response.  The obvious one is to increase polling places.

Another, if we had a reliable post office, would be to further push voting by mail.

A third, and most timely I feel, is to improve our advance voting locations.  We either need more or larger sites.  Either will require more staff at our office to secure, manage, and operate.

We requested two more positions (replacing those cut) and signaled that we really need more, but those two positions are being recommended by the county manager as not funded.

If we could move the 76 percent closer to 80 (and maintaining it at 76 may be a win given the greater expectations), fewer voters will go to the polls and those who do go to the polls, theoretically at least, will find them more convenient.

As it is right now, we're likely to have fewer polling places, 2014 compared to 2010.  We have no satellite advance voting locations (they can't really be secured until early 2014, but it's no gimme that any of the previous locations will be available) and aren't going to get the resources to help with that.

There's nothing on the horizon, or in the proposed budget, that would suggest the survey numbers will go anywhere but down in 2015.

We might get lucky.  Despite these restrainers, we might be able to secure larger advance voting locations.  Metcalf South, always iffy if we can get it again, has other space available, although we tried to secure the larger storefront there in 2012, unsuccessfully.

Or, at least, if the numbers continue this trendline, the 2015 story will be pretty compelling (as if it isn't already) that major investment needs to be made in the county's election process, ahead of the 2016 presidential election budget process.