Monday, November 4, 2013

The Week The Lights Came On In Georgia

It's been about two weeks since I've posted and much has happened.

First, outside of elections, I did finish my first marathon, although I didn't hit the time I hoped.  I'll dwell on that later, but my focus pivoted quickly to preparing to leave 48 hours later to observe the presidential election in Georgia, where I spent about 10 days.

I planned to report here on the observation mission primarily to share things I learned and can transfer to Johnson County.  In doing so, there are a few angles to consider.

First, there's the overall experience.  Most of the persons observing had tremendous backgrounds but, seldom, dedicated election administration experience.  I think many of the regular readers of this site should consider pursuing an election observation assignment and for that I want to paint a picture of how apply and what to expect.

There's the international aspect, particularly the cultural differences.  Also, there are things related to election administration that I want to call out as learnings or just interesting to those of us who administer elections in the United States.

Finally, there's the social and political aspect.  Just as with my other posts, I won't really get into this unless it brushes with the administration of the election.

My attention was on the process, particularly comparing it to our own here.   I went to sleep at 5 a.m. the morning after the election knowing the results from my observation region but not knowing the outcome nationwide.  Just as with an election I would conduct in Kansas, my interests began and ended with the logistics of conducting the election.

English and Georgian version of my credentials.
So, with that set-up, let's jump straight to some of the learnings and observations.

I'll do a second post in a few days with the process of the mission.  That will be more lively.  What follows is for the most geeky of you.

Georgia is a country with about 3.5 million voters.  In this election, there were approximately 3,600 voting locations (so, one for every 1,000 registered voters on average) and each polling location was staffed with exactly 13 workers.

By contrast, using the same formula, Johnson County should have about 380 polling locations (we have 250ish, but 380 is very reasonable without advance voting).  In a presidential election, we average
7 workers per location.

The Georgia election was conducted on paper, and by paper I mean one little piece of paper that was the same everywhere.  In our presidential election in 2012, we had more than 500 versions of the ballot, but the ballot also was jammed full front and back with other races.

The Georgia ballots were hand-counted at the polling location, with results taken to a central area location for tabulation.  That tabulation was completed, in the region I observed, around 3 a.m., and then those results were rolled up with other regions to a countrywide level.  I'm not sure when that was completed, but I believe the country's election website was updated by 5 a.m. (I didn't have Internet access in my area and, actually, didn't know there was such a website until days later).

The hand-counting was relatively easy because there was only one race and, on average with a 50 percent turnout, each polling place team had to only count 500 votes.

Visitors to this polling place first had to get past turkeys.
It was very common to see farm animals near polling
places in my area of observation.
During our debriefing before the election, we discussed polling place accessibility for persons with disabilities and were told that if a person was expected in a wheelchair, then election administrators would arrange for a temporary ramp would be installed at the polling site.

I never saw a ramp, but I did ask if for our purposes "a ramp was a ramp was a ramp"--in the United States, there are strict requirements about how steep the ramp accelerates, and the ramp must meet distances from the floor.

No, in Georgia apparently, a ramp was all that mattered and, in some of the locations I visited, there were a couple flights of 10 stairs that even with a ramp would have challenged Popeye if he was in a wheelchair.

Wheelchairs aren't that common in Georgia, though.  I never saw a person anywhere in a wheelchair and persons homebound were allowed to have a ballot brought to them.  So, while the sites weren't accessible for those with disabilities, the country had a plan to reach those voters.

Voting Booth
Speaking of reaching voters, the voters were each provided an invitation, in person, to vote.  That was the method of communicating voters' polling locations.  In the region where I was dispatched, few homes had Internet access and I wondered how voters got the word on their polling place--valet service, as it turned out.

My observation area was very rural, and polling places often were in what appeared to be abandoned buildings or schools, although sometimes the school sites looked like former schools.  Each polling place had one voting booth for every 500 registered voters (so most had one, some had two).

The polls were open 8 to 8 ( compared to 7 to 7 in Johnson County) and workers arrived an hour early to prepare just as they do here.

When we observers watched the workers' training video during our preparation, the deputy head of the mission laughed when the video explained that, "although the set-up is a lot of work, good organization and teamwork should allow workers to relax with a cup of coffee or tea before the location opens."

Johnson County election workers will appreciate that
the registration book was split in Georgia, too,
for separate lines based on the first letter of
voters' last names.
This was especially funny to me because I say the exact same thing--or close to it--during our training.  I always tell our workers that if they are organized, they should be popping open their thermos or opening up their first of five 5-Hour Energy drinks, relaxing, and swapping election worker stories with their coworkers.

Indeed, in the polling place opening I observed, they did share coffee at 7:45.

I liked the idea of the training video--we have online training for our election workers but a video can be shared with poll agents (our version of observers) to give them a sense of what they should be observing.

I often tell our election workers to treating poll agents as family--"slaughter the calf, give them a ring and your best robe!" I say.  The video idea falls in line with that, I think, in that it would help the poll agents know exactly what should be happening in the polling place.

A friend of mine went on an earlier, similar mission and told me how he thought such a thing should be mandatory for election administrators, if for no other reason than to see what it's like for our poll agents and observers at home.  I agree with him.

With that segue, I'll follow up with a second post that explains my take on the process of applying and deployment.  I learned a lot, I think I added value to the process, I made many new friends and, as expected, came home totally exhausted.

But it was a good kind of tired.

More soon.