Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Meet Project Ted

 Back in my Sprint days, before election geekdom, I worked in strategic planning.

At some point--I'm not sure why, it was just a "thing" pushed by our division president--all of our projects had to have code names.  I've forgotten most of them, but I remember Project Mighty Mouse, which, in retrospect wasn't mighty.

I oversaw a project addressing all ways that we could lower access costs to the local networks and expand our reach to large businesses.  I named the project Big Red--our logo was red and the goal wasn't about efficiency, but, rather, growth.

Our chief operations officer didn't like the name Big Red.  I'm not sure why.  I think he thought it conjured up thoughts of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."  I do know that as a company we were making plenty of nutty decisions at the time (drum/cymbal crash).

We always seemed comfortable with a trailing position in the market, so maybe growth was scary. In fact, it seemed logical to me that after I left Sprint, the logo color changed to yellow (second drum/cymbal crash).

The worst name was Project William, associated with the potential acquisition of Williams Communications.

Someone must have thought it was pure genius to name the code name soooooo close to the actual project.  No one would ever guess!

The project names, though, gave identity and personality to what we were doing.  I don't know if the intent was such, but the project names helped make something feel real that wasn't yet.

Fast forward to present election geek times, and as we brought in a college intern to help map our process for our next generation voting system, I thought we should give the project some personality, naming the initiative Project Ted.

Ted is the intern--the friendliest, most soft-spoken, nicest 6'5", 275-pound kid you'll ever meet.

Ted is heading back to school, but in his short time became immersed in the voting system storylines underway, specifically in Los Angeles and Travis (Texas) Counties, where some of the smartest election administrators reside.

Both communities are blazing the trail for next generation voting systems.  We've been attentive, emulating their thinking as we map out our own journey.

The issue starts a bit with the Help America Vote Act, 2002 legislation that provided funding for modern voting systems in the wake of the 2000 presidential election.  Much of that funding has been spent.

Our office, for instance received nearly 600 voting machines as part of that funding.  Problem is, that's only about one-fourth of our current fleet.  Those machines, purchased in 2006 joined others purchased in 2003.

So, communities with equipment purchased in the 2006 time frame will, soon enough, have some replacement issues with no federal funding and even fewer options than those in existence in 2003.  Most of the new systems are paper-based, almost necessary in order to be federally certified.

But, those communities that had systems sooner will be at the replacement phase, well, sooner.

No one knows how long touchscreen voting machines last.  Diebold used to suggest 12 years.  ATM's, also made by Diebold, have a suggested 7-year life and are subject to more use and weather conditions.

If 12 is the right number, our number is up.  Through a complicated process, our initial voting machines were traded for the newer, better model (Accuvote TSX) in 2003.  We purchased some new machines but also once-used machines from California, first in place in 2002.

We've augmented our fleet since then and have machines with as little as three years of service, but they were all built at the same time, in the early 2000s.

Ted helped us articulate where we're going, and we still have some refinement to do. However, his document has plenty of diagrams that capture things I've been saying for the last few months (and years). The process looks real just because it's in a document.

I leafed through the draft document recently in a meeting with county officials and the mere presence of the document make them ask why I'm not implementing and pushing this faster.


That is, I think, a sign we're on the right track. You know you're nailing the process when you anguish over the explanation, finally articulating what hasn't been articulated, and the response is, "Right. We knew that. Now, get to work!"

The document is much more simplistic than the effort put forth in LA County and Travis County. That's mostly because it can be simple. Their existence lets us refer to their processes as benchmarks and learnings.

We have some internal meetings to go before the document is ready to be shared externally, but I'll post it here when it is ready, likely within 30 days.

A snippet, literally, from Project Ted