Friday, January 25, 2013 0 comments

We're Not So Different, You and I

I'm a big believer in the concept that everything happens for a reason.

Of course it does.  I also believe, though, that the phrase is often the cry of the desperate. When we can't make sense of something, the belief that there MUST be a reason that will unfold provides some comfort.

Truly enlightened people know the reason as it happens.

I'd love to say I'm truly enlightened, but I try, I try.  My "Happens for a Reason Awareness" grade would probably be "marginally enlightened."

My enlightenment limitations were evident earlier this month.  Closing out takeaways from the Election Center conference, I listened to many of my peers talk about the Great Line Issue of 2012, which actually was no different than the Great Line Issue of 2008, as was pointed out in the conference.

It's common to go to an industry event and realize, in retrospect, that others had the same experiences.  But, if I was truly enlightened, I would have realized that as it was happening.  It would have, at the very least, reduced some stress.

For context, first realize that tone can make the same situation positive or negative.

Years ago, my daughter's fifth-grade classmate, as an example, had a birthday party for the boys in his class.  It was a small class with fewer than 10 boys.  The mother had the boys picked up after school for their raucous evening of video games and pizza in a limousine.

That resulted in parents asking the same question in their own circles.

"Can you believe they picked the boys up in a limousine?"

Said with excitement, the $10 splurge per boy sounded pretty fun.  Said with disdain, the $10 splurge became an example of everything wrong with society.

I reported lines in advance voting causing great concern among voters in 2012.  The same lines in 2008 oozed excitement in our electoral process.  Similar to the limousine quote, same story, different tone.

Even during advance voting, my peers were seeing the same thing.  That doesn't change what we should do next, but I wish I would have realized that at the time.  I would have had at least a better perspective of what was happening.

"Is it me, diary?" wouldn't have been asked as often.

The Great Line Issue of 2012 is now, in my view, simply a distraction.  It was mentioned again in the presidential inauguration speech and even if we could agree on what a line is, or what an acceptable line is, there is no way to build one ramp on one highway big enough to prevent a line at some point.  To quote the president at a different time, "It's math."

But the issue does arise at a time when, as administrators, we're ready to do more.  That may not be by choice--as we prepare for our spring primary, everything we count on is tenuous.  Schools, post offices, and printers lead the list.

In Johnson County, we saw the second half of 2013 as a chance to organize, dust ourselves off, and shine up for 2014.  Now, the second half of 2013 is possibly going to be the most important six months of time I've spent in this job.  Everything we do operationally has to be on the table.

Because of the line issue, election administrators across the country will be going through the same thing.  We've spent the last few years absorbing the impacts of the Help America Vote Act and wanting to stabilize any election changes, not from fear of change but in recognition that the speed of change could hurt the voter experience.

I've often said that elections are a bit like having a newborn baby.  You give up your friends, never sleep, love the opportunity but curse adulthood, and then, after about a year of seeing the outcome, you forget many of the sacrifices.  "Let's have another!," and the cycle begins again.

We'll close out our spring elections in need of that time to forget the sacrifices of 2012.  But our uncertainty gives us a chance to make the second half of 2013 more meaningful.  It will let us nest with confidence in preparation of our 2014 baby.

And, if nothing else, there is comfort now in realizing that others throughout the country are going through the exact same thing at the exact same time.  We have a chance, in this case anyway, to be among the truly enlightened.

We're entering a new era in election administration.  If not new, it's different.  We're on the cusp of profound change driven from within.  Collectively, there is an innovation movement.  The efforts are different point-to-point, but they are efforts that won't be pushed by legislation.

There is some chest puffery, some goodwill bills, but in the end, nothing is going to happen because someone outside the industry said so.  Positive change is coming from those on the ground.

The reason, maybe, is the Great Line Issue of 2012--not because it highlighted a problem but instead raised awareness of solutions already underway.

For us, though, it's on:  a spring primary in a few cities, ballot preparation, and election worker scheduling.  The focus of the spring elections will be the focus of the next few posts.

Friday, January 18, 2013 2 comments

Back to the Present

Coming back from the future of election discussions with vendors and colleagues, we're facing the reality that the present state of elections could be a lot better.

Filing deadline for the spring elections is Tuesday at noon, and right now we have a relatively small primary--two wards in one city, with about 50,000 voters.

It's a good thing because we're going through uncertainty with the printing of our paper ballots.   Our printer has had some personnel changes and we need to see if performance has been impacted in advance of our countywide April election.

Printing of ballots is complex.  When I came in 2005, we had a dispute with a local printer from the 2004 presidential election.  The ballot printing was awful and the ballots often wouldn't scan.  Candidate names sometimes were in the center of ballots.

This dispute rankled the owner of the company and he told me that he wouldn't print our April ballots unless we paid this disputed invoice.  We later settled, in our favor, and he never printed ballots for us again.  We couldn't do business with someone who held us hostage like that.

So, we set out to find a new printer and had, for instance, a great conversation with Henry Wurst, the largest printer in the Kansas City area.  They printed some ballots for us in a test election but had to come back and say they couldn't support us--ballot printing is too complex.  Timing marks have to be perfect for scanning, there are literally hundreds of different ballot styles because of candidate rotation, we need some folded for mailing, and, oh, by the way, we usually need them within a week of ordering.

Many communities are looking at or using ballot-on-demand printers, and that may work at advance locations, but it wouldn't be practical for us at polling places.  Only a small portion of ballots are cast on paper at those locations.

The bigger issue related to paper continues to be the post office.  Postage is our largest office expense and the service where we have the least satisfaction.  At the Election Center meeting last week, I listened to the same presentation from the Post Office that I have heard for nearly a decade, how the office is working with election officials to make sure everything runs smoothly. 

The person presenting had been given photos of our ballots from last spring, so I hopped up to the open mic and stressed the disconnect between his view and our view on the ground.  Apparently, there is a special online reporting form where I can go to document this and all will be fixed.  We'll do this and check in with him next January, but I'm not optimistic.

Postage rates are going up and there will be more changes to post offices and deliveries.  This is all bad news in the voting-by-mail world, which more and more becomes an unrealistic option to voting at the polls.

Voting at the polls is under siege, of course, because of school safety concerns.  Churches are less available to us right now because of Easter and we get plenty of complaints from using churches.

In April 2005, with a marriage constitutional amendment on the ballot, the number one voter complaint was the use of churches as polling places.  In a special election in September 2005, regarding a sales tax that funded schools, our number one voter complaint was the use of schools as polling places.  If the "sugar tax," or a "calorie tax," ever makes it to a ballot, expect our use of Denny's to be an issue.

And Internet voting?  No way.  Never.  That's what we're told, anyway.

Detractors point to the problems with the Oscar nominations, selected through Internet voting.  Dig deeper into that and you'll find the problems were log-in questions and unfamiliarity with the Internet, not security issues.

We're left with the conventional wisdom that there's no possible way that Internet voting can be as reliable as current methods.

Really?  What's the reliability gauge?  We're running out of ways to vote here. We need the future of voting to be defined because the current state of voting is evaporating.

I still say, to the "No way, never," crowd on Internet voting, this will be forced on us eventually.  I truly believe that.  It's human nature to think we're in control of our own destiny, but we often aren't.

As department directors at Sprint we used to tell our employees that we were in a new era, the end of lifetime employment, and that they need to take control of their own careers.  We would encourage them to ponder their own career path and ask them how they would go from their current position to position A, B, or C. 

Then, we'd reorganize and tell them that they had a new role.  Or, they'd be laid off.  So much for them taking control of their destiny.

One day, a state legislature will pass a law that mandates Internet voting by a specific day.  Or, a city will somehow charter out of conventional elections to use Internet voting, requiring some sort of shift by a county election office.  Or, an equivalent of a coporate reorganization will occur, and there we'll be.

That's the future of elections--a winding road splintered from the present.

Sunday, January 13, 2013 0 comments

Back From Election Camp

I'm facing a re-entry back at the office tomorrow after being out of town for a full week in election-related meetings.

I blogged about the first meeting, the ES&S National Advisory Board.  The second half of the trip was primary a review of election-related legislation.

Real work awaits as we are only 8 days away from filing deadline for the spring elections.  That Tuesday, Jan. 22, also will be the first day everyone is back in our office at the same time since Dec. 6.

That's the result of the holidays, some travel, and many staff members catching up on personal things that were put on hold for most of 2012--everything from surgeries to car repairs to parent/teacher conferences, and everything in between.

I also expect tomorrow's staff meeting, when most of us will gather, will be the first chance we've had since January 1 to talk through learnings of the new legal requirements that went into effect this year involving citizenship.  New registrants must provide proof of citizenship and, in fact, we have to make a copy of this proof and attach it to the voter's record.

That will have downstream impacts regarding scanners and scanning time, as well as copying.  We have to preserve the confidentiality of these citizenship documents, so the copier we use will not have any kind of hard drive that records copies.  We also have a dream of creating a self-serve computer kiosk that will allow registrants to upload the information directly at our office, but we don't yet have that developed.

For now, I'm starving for routine, which elections are very good at providing.  As mundane as that previous paragraph may have been to read, it was nearly joyous to type.

I did have one major learning from last week's meetings that I'll share in a post early next week.  For now, if you can't get enough election geekdom, you might want to begin also checking out a new blog by Scott Konopasek.

I don't know that I've ever met a nicer or smarter man than Scott, and I think he will do great things to advance the thought leadership of this profession.

Back in touch after enjoying the incredibly boring drive to my office tomorrow, which I will greet as though I'm sailing along a double rainbow.
Wednesday, January 9, 2013 0 comments

What the Definition of That Is

This week, some of the country’s brightest minds will converge in a large city to consider how a new wave of technology can help them  inspire their target market of voting-age citizens.
They aren’t going to the Consumer Elections Show in Las Vegas, but they might as well be.  They will be discussing many of the same gadgets, tools, and marketing methods featured at the Show.
Instead, election officials and academics will be meeting in Washington, D.C., for an Election Assistance Commission roundtable webcast that debriefs the presidential election.  This is an advance of the annual Election Center legislative conference that begins tomorrow. 

This will be the first time many of us have seen each other in person since the infamous long-line comment stated by president Barack Obama in his November acceptance speech that, “We’ve got to fix that.” 

“That” refers to several-hour lines  in a couple of states last November.  I suspect the president has forgotten he said, um,  that.  But some legislators haven’t, already drafting bills that are more goodwill gestures than practical measures. 

Defining “that” will be as elusive as defining, “is,” used by a different president 15 years ago.
But election administrators understand the workings of the sausage that comprises, “that,” and election sage Merle King eloquently explained this during the ES&S National Advisory Board meeting yesterday in Florida. 

He’s now in D.C. today, hosting the roundtable.  I’m typing this en route, preparing to join the participants and other election officials at the legislative conference.
Yesterday, Merle explained that root causes of “that” come from components of the overall voting system, of which voting machines are only one piece.
The other pieces come from such elements as pollbooks, electronic pollbooks, ballots and ballot-on-demand devices, voter lookup features, polling place locators and mapping applications for smartphones and computers.
One of Merle’s points is that “that” rarely included voting machines, which performed well.  “That” is a fallout of how election administrators utilize these other components.
Orchestrated well, mimicking a systems administrator, and things go smoothly.  Bumps in the components, such as a slow pollbook worker or problems with an electronic pollbook, and lines happen--I mean, "that" happens.
Election administrators must be IT managers, he said. 

I go further—we have to be IT visionaries.  We have to braille the culture to know as much about everything as we can, drawing linkages to elections from seemingly unrelated companies and applications.  That's a pretty massive undertaking but one our voters (consumers) do naturally.

We must understand the personal devices and applications our voters are using.  We must understand that smartphones drive behavior and are an opportunity for innovation in voting and outreach.
We need to understand  tablet devices and begin looking at data related to tablet use differently than data related to smartphone use.  We have to know which devices are emerging, the applications that users are downloading in their daily lives, and how that user expectation carries into voting. 
For instance, users more and more often are signing for credit card purchases and online activities with their fingers on tablets and smartphones.  They will expect to be able to register to vote or apply for an advance ballot in this manner.
Fat-fingered Freddy’s signature isn’t going to match his penmanship.  Women with long fingernails will experience frustration navigating tablets, but this gives us a chance to associate these experiences to touch-screen voting machines as a more relatable way to explain the answer to "I pressed this candidate and this one came up," experience.
And, speaking of the Consumer Electronics Show, Ford and General Motors announced in Las Vegas plans to encourage developers to create applications for their vehicles.  What does that mean for elections? 
Voters who drive but are disabled, for instance, might soon have a way to send a beacon to a tablet inside the polling place so a worker can know to come out and offer curbside voting.  Or, the voting location services, designed for smartphones, might shift to voice-based, with info popping up on the user’s radio screen.
These things have nothing to do with voting as we know it.  But, the thing is, everyone is a voting expert.  That's not a facetious comment.  It's true.

Most people regularly vote at least in the largest elections and if that’s the only time they vote, they bring in two or four years of pent-up consumer experiences that they compare with something they understand—voting.
It doesn’t take long for these voters to think about how gizmos, electronics, applications, social networking, tablets, and smartphones would have fixed “that.”  As IT leaders/election administrators, we have to be ahead of that expectation.

I remember just a few years ago arguing, literally, with our county's IT department that our website had to function with the Sarari browser.  I was convinced the iPhone, just introduced, was going to be a data game-changer.

Their response was that Safari wasn't a player in the browser wars.  It wasn't, but rather than proactively meet needs, they wanted to wait until usage inched from five percent to 10 percent.

I won that fight, eventually, but suffered in the "team player" category.

The changes ahead, though, make that futuristic IT insight elementary. 
That’s Merle’s point, and it is bound to be a topic for the next couple of days.  The IT mindset is one that I’ve been committed to since the day I arrived eight years ago this week. 

This much I know:  “That” will be fixed with “IT.”  

Here’s Merle's presentation: