Sunday, May 4, 2014

May Day, Me Day, Meh Day!

Forget Cinco de Mayo, I've had a special uno and tres de Mayo.

First, May 1 is my mother's birthday.  She died in May 1999, about three years before I was elected to the Shawnee City Council.  Once elected, I tried very consciously to offer each day I was on the council as a prayer to my mother.

I think she would have been proud yesterday morning as I received the local League of Women Voters' "Making Democracy Work" award for the effort our office has undertaken to help acquire citizenship documents for new citizens when registering to vote. 

The League attends naturalization ceremonies month and registers new citizens.  The League now checks out an iPad from our office, photographs the naturalization certificates, bring us back the iPad, and we upload the documentation, attaching it to the voters' records.

We get about 60 new registrations a month in this manner, so the process isn't insignificant.

Still, I joked when being presented the award that an election administrator seems an obvious award winner, at some point, by an organization devoted to voting.  I assume I was really the "safety net" and that there were no other ideas this year.  The pressure is on next year, now that the safety net is gone.

Seriously, the event was very nice.  County commissioners attended and said very nice things.  Many in attendance were election workers, and any award we receive is as much a reflection of the fine work they do beyond anything we do in our office.  Members of our office attended.   The crowd applauded them.

I've never heard my name said so many times, leaving me rather misty.

One thing about this iPad thing--it's really a feel-good story for everyone.

As I mentioned there, I encounter voters unhappy with the new proof-of-citizenship law but I also encounter at least a similar amount who are happy with the law.  Those persons generally are anti-illegal immigration and obviously want to applaud those who come to the country legally and follow the citizenship process.

It all puts us in one of these great places where everyone, regardless of political leanings, agrees. 

And, speaking of feel-good, May 1 marked another milestone.

You see, I followed the great Connie Schmidt, Miss Election USA, as Election Commissioner, coming to the office in January 2005.

My biggest reservation before taking the job was that I followed someone who was well-regarded.  It's easy to follow a failure.  There aren't any books about following a star.  (In fact, the Wall Street Journal agreed and did this column).

I wasn't born when Willard Cook became Johnson County
Election Commissioner.  He was Election Commissioner
from 1962-1974 and presided over the 1969 switch
by voter approval to move to voting machines.
Don't look now, but I've been Election Commissioner longer than Connie was.  May 1 marked that date.  I'm the second most-tenured Election Commissioner.

Willard Cook--I'm on your tail!

With County Commissioners at the meeting and my comments during a League of Women Voters voting forum a week ago, I wanted to give a special nod to Connie at the meeting.

During that forum, I raised concerns about looming election funding needs (and after the meeting, someone reminded me how I explained two years ago at another forum that the election office suffered more budget cuts than any department--a blog post then and also validation that at least I remain on message).

I emphasized on Saturday that our budget needs weren't blocked at the commissioner level.  We're fortunate that we have 7 (out of 7) commissioners supportive of our office. 

We do have difficulty getting our story and needs bridged from the ground, through the middle of county management, to properly be seen by the commissioners.  The filter is the problem, and it's been especially punishing to our office and our voters since 2011.

Further, we live on reputation.

If we don't invest in the election office--people and systems, requested for 18 years, plus, without any move of the needle--that reputation will exhaust.

Think of this:

Elgia Stephenson came before Connie and, as far as a I can tell, spit tobacco juice at anyone in the county who disagreed with her, but she made sure we moved from a tiny shack to a facility that was more than adequate in 1993 (but not in 2014).

Connie Schmidt made sure that we not only had new voting machines, but also an equipment replacement fund--a fund that was stopped by the current county manager in 2011. 

During my time, I feel like we've been running on fumes.  I feel very good about our processes but we're overextended on every level.

We need fuel, a point I'm raising everywhere.  Without investment, we will fail in our mission to support our voters.  We've lost considerable ground over the last three years.

Connie fought these same battles.  In fact, often, I've seen parallels between points in time during Connie's tenure and my time.  I could step back, say in year seven of my tenure, and note that Connie seemed to go through the exact same thing at the same time.

Problem is, now I'm in free-range territory.   I don't have that Connie compass.

We do need to get much more assertive about our lack of funding.  The county has funding issues but the true issue is that many departments have grown considerably, under the radar (not public safety, not mental health, and not public health, but in areas that aren't caught in traditional talking points and can only be seen by heavily scrutinizing the county budget books year-to-year).  Maybe some dollars should shift from those groups to the front line.

Many of the things in the Presidential Commission on Election Administration's report remain "posts in waiting," but that's because I want to see how the budget plays out.

Next-generation voting machines, in the capital budget in 2011 but taken out since, appear to remain unfunded.  A modest request for one additional headcount, again, appears to be unsupported by the county manager.

Quite possibly, we finally may be getting funding to replace our 1999 election management system, unsupported by the vendor, literally, since the first day I became Election Commissioner.

Budget hearings are in a month.  The long-term fate of our voters (the majority of Johnson County citizens, by the way) waits.