Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Chronicles of Yarnia, Part One

It's been a long while since I've posted and today is an election day in parts of the country, so "chop, chop," on with the post!

I've been busy, but I've been actually working on this post for several days.  You'll see that I came to the conclusion to pare it down, which explains some of  the delay.

Also, though, I realized some conclusions I drew related to the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) bothered me.  In fact, at first, I put the post on pause to ponder a different way of speaking to some of the points, thinking I was too harsh.

Then, I realized that this was a case, indeed, of  the proverbial "harsh reality." Reality was being harsh, not me.  I feel like the EAC's future is an even larger elephant in the room than it was a year ago.

Okay, so now (really) on with the post!

With the release of the report by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, I've been following the media coverage, primarily to evaluate the play this report received, which was just as important to me as the evaluation of the findings.

The report was covered as front page news in USA Today, and that's huge.  Thousands of business travelers open their hotel room doors to that paper each day, and even before fumbling for "Sports" or "Life" (I think I'm the only person who reads the "Money" section--I'm a sucker for tech reviews), hotel guests might have caught a glance of the article.

Anything that gets people to think about elections in January, even for a brief second when passing over the headlines, is good.  The President likely will mention the Commission and report tonight during the State of the Union Address, in fact, and that might spur a little more coverage.

For me, the report contained a mild surprise, and I'll speak to that, but there were no disappointments with the findings.  My only disappointment is the one I realized this past July when meeting with the Commissioners and documented in a post then--namely, the persons who control funding for election administration (usually county officials, but also state and federal legislators in some cases) won't realize or care that the Commission is talking to them.

They won't be the only ones.

One of the write-ups in the media, for instance, said that a major finding was that local election officials should do a better job of enforcing federal election laws.  What?!  I missed that I could enforce federal election laws.  I wonder if I can enforce local speed limits and zoning regulations also.

Point is, if the take among some media outlets is any indication, I think it will be very easy for many in government to skim the report and assume it is filled solely with prescriptions for election administrators.

As an election administrator, I'm thrilled with the findings and recommendations, but I've sat in many of the discussions with the Commission and watched the videos of those meetings I missed.  The report often reflects what me and my colleagues have been saying for years, but now those concerns are in a very good, crisp report with recommendations.

How the report gets used, though, remains to be seen.

Here, I've thought about the kind of review I'd give the report, and I think it's most appropriate to stay within the purpose of the blog, which is to write about the "behind the scenes" aspects of election administration. 

What I think would be best is to link the findings with actual experiences and plans here on the ground.  The context of any review, then, will be within the framework of how the recommendations affect our office and our voters in Johnson County.  

There's no short way to do that. 

At first, just like a post last week, I was ready to advise you, dear reader, to amp up the caffeine as I headed for Yarnsville.  (Interesting fact, Yarnsville is, indeed, its own city and is nestled among four other bordering cities: Yarsnberg, Yarn City, Yarntopia, and Yarnia).

Then, I started typing.  It became evident quickly that these yarns would have to be contained in a series of blog posts.  Instead, this post will just be the outline of where I'm headed and my first and only general post about the study.

As I knock the topics off, we will have some other things going on--a spring primary, new building security, and some updates on provisional ballots--so I don't know that the Presidential Commission posts will be uninterrupted, but those posts will be a running series for sure.

As the intro, then, broadly, here were my two surprises: one with the report and one with coverage.
First, I really thought the report would put a stake in the ground on the need for the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to be fully staffed with four Commissioners.  There are no Commissioners right now and the EAC's future seems more uncertain now that we have this report, if that is even possible.

There are many ways to analyze this, but in retrospect this shouldn't have been surprising at all.  If the EAC was a player, the EAC would have been tasked with this election administration study in the first place.  It's a Commission that was created to improve the voter experience, in federal legislation signed by a United States president.

Tonight, for instance, I doubt President Obama will identify some issues that could be delegated to existing agencies and, instead, rattle off the formation of commissions to address the issues.  He likely will announce some studies and commissions of some sort, but the EAC is a narrowly focused agency, with one job, really--to improve the voting experience.  The EAC would have been the obvious "go to" agency for this, and I assumed that the EAC wasn't chosen simply because it lacked Commissioners.

Likely, many more astute individuals better connected the dots a year ago.  I think I was too deep in the weeds, from an election administration perspective, to see the dynamics.  A common topic among administrators has been the filling of Commissioners, a topic that I think blinded me to the big picture even though I thought I was seeing the big picture.

"Now I Am A Was" by Morrissey
has been playing in my head
since the release of the report.
In fact, doing a word search in the report for "Election Assistance Commission" only reveals one mention before the end notes.  "EAC" is used more often, but always in descriptors of what has been done, not what it can do in the future.

I know there are some logical reasons to think differently, but I think it's pretty clear that the EAC is now a "was."

Like many, I've been critical of the EAC's voting system certification process. The Commission report wasn't necessarily critical of this process, but it did explain that others were critical.

That's only one piece of the EAC, though, and by all accounts from vendors, that process has improved.  In fact, there are a lot of good people doing good work at the EAC, particularly in the area of best practices.  I have friends at the EAC, and they are working hard on our behalf.

If this were a business environment, the agency would be ripe for a takeover, where assets could be obtained on the cheap and be reconstituted into a more powerful machine.  As it is, it feels unfair to all involved to neither invest in nor wind down the EAC.

Another surprise, not of the study, but of the coverage, was the constant media message that the report didn't address voter identification at the polls.  I never saw this "in scope," and, in fact, much like the EAC in retrospect, it was almost intentionally out of scope.

In all of the meetings and hearings, I didn't remember voter identification, or even proof of citizenship, as hot-button themes.  They were brought up by some groups, of course, but they weren't a running theme of the hearings.  So, it just seemed odd to me that this was the first place many in the media went to.

In terms of the actual discussion and recommendations, here are the areas for future posts:

  1. Schools as Polling Places and "Election Holiday" (My name is buried in the end notes regarding this item and I'm glad, because it was the issue I was constantly pushing when I was in meetings with the Commission.  The window to push hard for this is open, and I'll blog about this soon).
  2. Resources (Mentioned early in the report, but likely the last of these areas, chronologically, that I'll address).
  3. Technology (Often addressed in this blog and will be linked as we prepare for the capital budget).
  4. Definition of Long Lines (I've been reluctant to answer "what's an acceptable line?" and here, it's been answered.  I have several thoughts about what that might mean for Johnson County).
  5. Enforcement of "Motor Voter" Law (No, I can't enforce this, but this is a huge issue for us--and others--and I'm glad it's in the report.  It's another thing I've mentioned on this site, but this is another opportunity to address it).
  6. Election Workers and Persons With Disabilities (My new cause isn't related to voters with disabilities, but workers with disabilities.  I think we should be actively recruiting persons with disabilities to work at the polls and I'll explain why in a future post).
  7. Election Management Tools (I played with some of those on the Commission's site and they are a good start.  The tools need to be refined when evaluating some real-world data, and I'll trial the tools here.  But, this is the most revolutionary and potentially impactful item in this effort--management tools that help model turnout and resources.  Brilliant!).
  8. Professionalism in Election Administration (The report is spot on here, but not just with the main administrators in communities).
So, there you have it--many upcoming yarns, courtesy of topics raised in this report.  A big theme in the report centered around variations of electronic voter registration, online and otherwise, and that likely will be included among a few of the posts above. 

That's not to say that many of the other topics in the report aren't important or relevant in Johnson County.  It's just that these eight topics will be the ones I plan to paint against the actual work being done here.

For now, I'm exiting Yarnsville, but soon to return.