Sunday, July 7, 2013

Where's the Beef?

Local events and my participation in a meeting in Washington D.C. this past week left me with a statement that will have shock value, but please stick with me.

The composition of the President's Commission on Election Administration is wrong.

That's not because of the people.  Many members of the Commission were at the meeting, hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Council.

The Commissioners all are incredibly accomplished.  They ooze awesomeness.  I was giddy to be in the same room with them.  If you had a child marry one of them, as a parent, you'd think, "Score!"

The members of the committee are perfect.

It's just that the "we have to fix that" mantra of long lines gathered the wrong "we."

Election administrators embraced "we have to fix that."  Sure, we discussed what "that" was, and exactly what it is that needed fixing, but, oh man, make no mistake, we were ON IT.  

At an Election Center conference in January, we weren't sure what was going to be fixed, but we were certain we could fix it.  Later, we were thrilled that election administrators were named to the Commission.  

This week I realized that without county commissioners, state legislators, members of Congress, or someone from the White House on the Commission, we are destined to explain how we could "fix that" but when it comes to actually fixing it?  Not likely.

Those who need to weigh in with the fixin' aren't engaged. 

That's not to say that our store couldn't use some fixin' (apologies to "The Dead Milkmen"). With more than 4,000 election jurisdictions, election administrators have had some face-palming moments to be sure.  I've had some.

But election administrators overall do a pretty good job.  They are dedicated.  They are an independent lot, often appointed or elected, and they internalize voting issues, taking them personally and being committed to voter satisfaction regardless of what's put in front of us. 

Election administrators, though, usually don't fall under the management or direct control of the entity that funds the operations.

I don't report to the county manager.  We're Facebook friends.  He wishes me no harm.  Our kids graduated from the same high school in the same year.  He's happy when our office is successful.  But I'm not one of his litter.  Let's just say that I don't want to face a Sophie's Choice moment between me and a department that reports to him.

We've requested some of those early cuts our office took back, in the form of two full-time positions that we need to support any possibility of expanded advance voting.  The positions are especially necessary because we've cut polling places and more will be cut with school security issues.

The general policy view we're facing, though, is that Johnson County voters are willing to wait longer in lines to vote.  No election administrator would align himself or herself with that view.  I certainly won't.  Voting is a constitutional right.  

There's even new evidence suggesting that lines themselves impact voter participation and turnout--where a voter sees a line, leaves, and doesn't come back to vote.  The same county commissioner who supports the "waiting longer" view also believe that voter turnout should be a performance metric and, in Johnson County, turnout dropped in 2012 compared to 2008.

Needless to say, the positions weren't funded.

That's not a surprise.  We have the same headcount at the Election Office that the office had 25 years ago.  The Election Center's full-time staff member per registered voter metric of 1:6,000 is exceed in Johnson County four-fold to 1:28,000.  

There's efficiency, and then there's the ridiculous.  We're an untimed illness or staff vacancy from disaster.

These two positions requested were created without funding to replace temporary hours.  So, they were essentially shell positions.  

But, they were cut, with funding, before they could be back-filled.  They were offered as cuts in lieu of layoffs or polling place cuts.  Later, as budgets were tightened, we had to cut polling places anyway.

Now, the positions are considered medium priorities because they aren't deemed necessary for basic services, although the history demonstrated otherwise.  These were hours spent in 2009 and the cuts have resulted in more temporary and overtime hours.

It's all frustrating, but the root cause is that no one in the county structure shares ownership with me on successful elections.  Let's be clear:  they will share ownership with me on unsuccessful elections.  I just don't ever want to experience such a thing. 

Conversely, there's an autonomy of running my own show that's cool.  This funding issue is just one of the downsides.

So, this isn't a black and white thing.  If the Johnson County Election Office had an individual Facebook page, the relationship status would be, "It's Complicated."

Still, this headcount issue was fresh on my mind as I sat in the meeting with members of the Commission and other election officials.  

I stated that for the first presidential election ever, we had fewer polling places than we had in the previous election.  I postulated that it was the same for others in the room.

Heads nodded yes.  

(Whew!  That was sort of a leap I was taking, actually.  Bummer for me if they all responded, "No, you're just ineffective.")

But, here we are.  We didn't all get together and look to reduce polling places.  We're all facing the same budget constraints.

We'll face them again next year and when I'm told again that voters can wait in line longer, no one is going to care that a bunch of smart people appointed by the President don't agree.  They didn't care this year that the President thought so.  Why will the opinions of 10 others add more credence?

As I defended my view during our budget meeting, facing seven County Commissioners but with my back to about 75 persons in attendance, I could feel the collective yawn behind me as I said that lines were a national issue and that the President created a Commission to address this.  I didn't need to turn around to see that I'd lost the room.

So it hit me--this President's Commission should be comprised of policy makers who control the budgets, not the operations at the polls.

My role at this point, I believe, to help "fix this" is to jump up and down to frantically point this out. 

You, dear reader, are now part of an Art-Imitating-Life-Moment.  That's what I'm doing here.

For a full interactive effect, if you are reading this on an iPad, momentarily tilt the device back and forth 180 degrees a couple of times.

We've spent so much time on Voluntary Voting System Guidelines, but I think the Commission should consider Involuntary Election Administration Targets.

Another word for Involuntary is "Mandatory," thus helping my desire for a forced acronym, "MEAT"--Mandatory Election Administration Targets.

Those who create budgets should ensure budgets are set to support the MEAT, such as election staff members per registered voter, polling places or advance locations per registered voter, and other cost metrics.  These metrics should be delivered by the Commission and come with a strong wag of the finger from the President.

Otherwise, we're talking to ourselves.

Many of you reading this have pushed for initiatives such as this.  Keith Cunningham, from Ohio, led a benchmarking task force for The Election Center.  PEW has created an Elections Performance Index, for instance.

So, this isn't a new revelation.  But our view of the target audience must change.

When I'm asked about comparisons in Johnson County, no one cares that Wyandotte County (rightly) has 14 full-time-equivalent positions for 1/4th the voters we support with 16 full-time-equivalent positions.  

No one in Sedgwick County--three times the size of Wyandotte County--worried that the election commissioner there had four full-time equivalent positions until results were slow on an election night.

In government, we react to "unfunded mandates," but we basically live one in elections.  

Because elections touch all citizens, the cumulative cost of elections in large jurisdictions reaches the millions of dollars, but is usually less than $3 per voter.   Elections are expensive because citizens participate.  That's what we want.  

If we decrease funding, we decrease turnout, or at least suppress it to the point that a winning presidential candidate notices.

How we get those officials on the ground to notice is the meat of the issue.  The news flash to me this week was that there are more stakeholders on the ground than just election officials.


Election Diary said...

As if the post wasn't long enough, I want to clarify a view I have here.
The Commission has six months to deliver its report and there probably are all kinds of ways to interpret the schedule and action items going forward. Just because the groups holding the purse strings aren't represented on the Commission, that doesn't mean that this group of smart people won't figure out how to enroll them in the process. That's my hoped outcome. For instance, if the board of the National Association of Counties signs off in concurrence with the Commission's version of MEAT, that would be a win, I think.