Sunday, February 23, 2014

No Lines Here!

This week, I received some LinkedIn notices of congratulations for my anniversary as an MBA faculty member at Baker University.

(Note to self--I've been doing that for eight years now; time to purchase an orange Baker Wildcats sweatshirt).

It got me thinking of the selection process years ago, and that led to some linkage with election events this week.

One of the components of the selection process was to deliver a short 10-minute presentation on any topic so that the evaluators could get a gauge of my presentation approach, style, and interaction with participants.

I'd been at the election office for about a year when I did this and rather than trove through my Sprint presentation collection, I decided to create a presentation on voter participation.

I'm not sure I had a grounded position on voter turnout and participation before I came to the election office.  It's a much more complex topic than it might seem on the surface.  The short presentation was just a summary of points others raise when discussing turnout.

Often, for instance, in spring elections particularly, turnout is very low.  Usually, turnout is less than 15 percent and, more likely, less than 10 percent.

Such turnout rates evoke criticism of our voters, and I'm not down with that.  I'm a believer that compelling races, compelling issues, and compelling candidates attract voters.

I once heard my smart colleague Dean Logan of Los Angeles County say that the number one objective for an election administrator is to increase voter turnout.

I see the logic of that.  He may be right.  I definitely think that's correct if turnout can be increased universally.

I'm more of the view that for those who are inclined to vote, my job is to make it as easy as possible for them to do so.  Blanketed messages to all voters, I think, is the role of our office, but, personally, I get uneasy concerning targeted approaches to improve voter participation.

There are the cliches in turnout--young people don't vote, for instance--that I think are often unvalidated or maybe self-perpetuated.  Any election office resource targeting one type of voter might eliminate resources to assist others, potentially excluding voters in the name of inclusion.

More importantly, if I were to target get out the vote messaging to a specific age group, or area of the county, I could be inadvertently stirring the outcome of an election and I don't want any part of that, Dewey!  I'm not smart enough to know what motivates our voters.

I'd rather leave the targeting to those who have a vested interest in the outcome and just make sure that our home has as many "Welcome" mats as possible for guests who decide to check in.

(As an aside, as a teaser to my eventual post related to voters with disabilities and the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, I've often pondered if the fact that older citizens are more likely to vote AND also more likely to be election workers are related.

Human nature, I believe, leads people to associate with others like them.  We feel more comfortable when we see people who look like us--economically, socially, the way we dress, for instance--and tend to frequent places accordingly.

In our elections, we see very few voters with disabilities.  They probably often vote by mail.  Maybe, though, they feel uncomfortable coming in to vote.  Accommodating voters AND workers with disabilities are both important to me.

At the very least, in a turnout view, I am extremely interested in having our cadre of election workers be representative of the voters they serve.  Otherwise, I worry that we could be stifling turnout by not being inclusive, leaving some voters feeling uncomfortable about voting.)

Anyway, I bring all of this up because we have advance voting underway for a Prairie Village city council primary.  Yesterday, a rare 60-degree Saturday in February, our office was open for advance voting from 9 to 3.

We didn't have a single voter.

There are more than 2,000 eligible voters in this primary and we've mailed out about 200 ballots.

Is it bad that we had no voters yesterday?

I suppose it is in that the city paid for 3 workers to be at the ready all day.

But you would have to been purposeful about voting in this race yesterday.  Our office is required to be open for the week before the election for advance voting, but it is about a 30-minute drive from the area of the primary.  Perhaps someone with travel plans next week may have come out, but the overall story of turnout likely will be told Tuesday.

Saturday's turnout was just one data point.  I have mixed feelings about it says--or the fact that we've had fewer than 10 in-person voters since Tuesday--but I do feel all chest-puffy if someone criticizes voters for not participating.

The turnout discussions are more relevant right now as Kansas lawmakers consider moving spring elections to the fall.

I'm cool with that move because I believe people like predictability, and one reason turnout may be low in the spring is the overall awareness that we have elections in the spring.  City candidates often go door-to-door to campaign and, having been a city candidate doing that long ago, I know many persons are unaware of spring elections.

I'd like to see elections every November--city races moved to the fall of odd (not even) years so that every November, there is an election.  Other things naturally will find their way to the November ballots (constitutional amendments and city or school questions) and over time--maybe a long time--the turnout needle would move.

The legislature is considering bills that would do this.  My concern about moving city elections to even years is that it will be much more costly, while moving to odd years is cost-neutral.

Moving city elections to the fall of even years combines our highest turnout election with our most complicated election (city candidate rotation and city/school boundaries result in myriad of ballot styles).  Plus, we'd surely have a two-page ballot, doubling our printing costs, increasing our postage costs, and even creating some tabulation issues because many persons may not return both pages of the ballot.

Further, as nutty as this seems, our election office building is full.  We have no space to securely store the large volume of new ballots we'd have to print.  It sounds crazy to say we would need a new building, but we would.  (Or, the land just next to us goes up for auction next month--maybe we could buy it and build an annex).

Still, a bill that moves elections to the fall (odd or even years, but odd, please) creates a terrific and timely opportunity to include language that schools be available as polling places and that the schools be closed on election day to students.  This would address the safety issues parents have been raising since the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012 and make polling places predictable for our voters.

Predictability is a key lever to improve overall turnout.

The schools are closed in August, when the primary would occur, and if closed on the election day in November--budda-bing, budda-boom, voting life just got much more predictable for our voters.

This school in-service day, or election holiday, was a recommendation of the Presidential Commission and one I advocated to be part of the recommendations.

It's a different kind of Wildcat than the Baker mascot.

But, the combination of spring elections moving to the fall and the November in-service day could be a game-changer that would make a no-voter day even more rare than a 60-degree Saturday in February.