Wednesday, June 25, 2014

It's Just Like Deja Vu! It's Just Like Deja Vu!

Below is a submission from my predecessor, Connie Schmidt.

As I've typed, much of what I have experienced over the last 9 1/2 years felt like a redux of Connie's experiences.  She says as much below.

In fact, in reading her accounts, I never realized how good I have it today!

When I went to my first election industry meeting after becoming Election Commissioner, in 2005, I noticed the significant number of retirements taking place nationwide.  The fallout of the 2000 presidential election, new legislation, and a growing group of election activists who climbed over the backs and good names of some election integrity advocates forced many changes that for many industry veterans simply wasn't worth the stress.

Here is the Johnson County view from then, in Connie's words:


I read Brian Newby’s blog on a regular basis, and grin from time to time because he is actually putting down in writing some of the inside stories that have never been told (because I was afraid to tell them). 
Lately his blog posts have focused on the particular issue of budget needs for his office (and I might add for election offices nationwide).  That said, it is a known problem, one that has plagued the Johnson County election office for many, many years. 
I asked Brian if I could join the conversation on his blog, to share some war stories that have never been told, and to reinforce that some things never change – the budget process for the election office!  Brian and those staff members that remain from my tenure know that during my 9+ years as Election Commissioner, there are so many war stories that were never told….many led to my early retirement from a job that I loved and a team of staff that were, and still are, the best in the nation.
One budget war story began in spring 1998, during the preparation of the 1999 budget.  I want to step back for a moment to provide a brief history of where we were at in 1998.  In September 1995, I inherited what we referred to as the” Model A” first generation DRE machines (that is truly what they was called).  We were the first county nationwide to use them.  We had 700 Model A machines, and 160 of the newer model, which were added after the 1992 election because our County had very, very long lines in polling places. 

The actual voting machine, along with the tabulation software (from what I was told) was basically designed in our office.  There were no federal voting certification processes in place during the mid 1980’s.  So the system was what it was.  We had no choice but to use it and make it work – no matter how outdated and utterly ridiculous it was to prepare for each election. 

For example, we had to data enter by hand all election information into an old DOS system, type the same data separately in Word Perfect to print long ballot strips that were hung with tape between the buttons on the face of equipment (Hats off to former Asst. Election Commissioner Karen Browning who was the house expert at this job and she did it perfectly every time).  Imagine the wrong strips with candidates and/or issues being placed on machines on Election Day.   

This was not a system that was connected in any way.  Obviously, this required lots of duplicate proofing.  Then along came the need to develop a paper ballot system that would integrate with the DRE tabulation software.  I am told this happened in 1994.  

To tabulate the paper ballots, a new software was developed and something referred to as a “bridge” brought the paper ballots votes into the DOS tabulation software where all votes were tabulated – paper and DRE.   I might add that the actual paper ballots were developed using a different system, making a total of three separate systems created with the same information that must tabulate into one place on election night.  We held our breath every election night – no one knew anything about this process except the staff of the election office.

Back to the budget process in 1998.  We worked very hard to convince the BOCC of the need to replace this voting system, which was archaic, inefficient and over 12 years old.  With much delight we made it through that process, and money was allocated in the Capital Improvement Fund to purchase new equipment in 1999, in time to implement prior to the Presidential 2000.  Thank goodness! 
However, shortly before the final budget was adopted, our funding for new equipment was pulled!  Now, we knew that we would have to conduct the 2000 Presidential election using this same archaic equipment.  In Kansas, no excuse early voting was implemented for the first time in the 1996 Presidential election, followed by a new state law that approved the use of satellite early voting locations for the 2000 Presidential.  In our county that required the use of over 1,000 unique paper ballots distributed to 3 early voting locations – voters could choose any of these locations to vote – we never knew how many of which ballots to distribute to each location.  Just remembering this caused me to take a deep breath.
The 2000 Presidential was a near disaster in Johnson County!  Funny, we had no idea what was happening in Florida…..we were handling our own “mess”.  Again, no one knew about this horror story, except those internal staff who experienced extreme stress. 

In fact, even writing this down makes me nervous and it’s been over 13 years.  First of all, we issued the largest number of paper early voting ballots to date in Johnson County.  We were using outdated school-type test scoring scanners that were set up to store paper ballot votes on cassette tapes. 

I can’t remember the exact number of tapes that we ended up with, but I do remember that it took us over 8 hours to load these cassette tapes individually into the old DOS tabulation software during the afternoon of Election Day, November 2000.  Beginning in 1996, we started the policy of releasing the early votes as soon as possible after the polls closed at 7:00 p.m. 

Obviously, the media and the candidates expected that to happen in November 2000.  Internally, the DOS software first had to sort all of the paper ballots by precinct before it could tabulate the vote totals per candidate.  When we did the command to sort the ballot images by precinct for tabulation, the DOS based computer software crashed back to the DOS prompt.  Nothing happened – the tabulation software crashed! 

We got the vendor on the phone, but there was no solution provided.  After a huge panic attack, we released this statement to the public…..funny that I can still remember the exact words today.  “Due to the large number of paper ballots cast it is taking us longer than normal to tabulate them so we will be releasing the voting machine votes first, followed by the early voting totals, accumulated into the final unofficial results.”  No one asked why – the explanation was the truth, which was my mantra, but it truly was not the entire story.  That statement bought us some time to try to get this old software to work.

Finally with no other choice available, using a totally different software outside of the tabulation computer software, we were able to finally sort the paper ballot images in precinct order.  Those votes were then returned to the tabulation DOS software and all votes – DRE equipment and paper ballots were reported to the public.  No one ever knew about this almost catastrophic situation except the staff and me, who suffered from the unbelievable stress of that moment in time.
Fortunately, our funding for new equipment was once again approved and remained in the 2001 budget.  That funding, however, was only for the equipment – only for the exact number that we already had - 860 (the same number of machines since 1994, by the way).  No funding for tabulation computers, training, disposal of the old machines, reconfiguration of the warehouse, or any PR efforts to educate the voters on how to use the new equipment.  

The staff worked miracles on several of these issues and we managed to request an old Med-Act van that was on the County’s disposal list, items that are first offered to county departments prior to auction.  We got the van for about $1.00 and we had it painted in a VOTE design with our web address on each side.   That was part of our PR solution.  ((((Editor's note--we STILL use that van, which does not run, as our JO-CO-PO-LO Billboard outside of our office.))))
Another moment frozen in my memory was a discussion with the then County Manager to request more funding for the Election Office.  The staff and I were working 7 days a week for months on end, sometimes 10-12 hour days.  We were managing 3 early voting locations, using paper ballots – totaling over 1,000 unique ballot styles in an August election; plus recruiting and training poll workers and preparing to open polling places on Election Day (all with the same number of full time staff and voting machines that were in place prior to early voting).  
That discussion with the County Manager ended with him telling me, “Connie, you do such a good job, it won’t be possible to convince the BOCC that you need additional funding.”  I got up and left realizing that to get our needed funding would require failing at our job of conducting elections – that was NOT an option, so we continued down our path of working non-stop….me and the dream team of election staff.

I think my final straw relating to budget stories was in late 2004 – we were denied our request for additional funding to conduct the 2004 Presidential election.  Once again, we received the largest number of early voting paper ballots (and this time it was a 2 page ballot) – it was non-stop early voters to the extreme that it was impossible for staff to leave our building due to traffic congestion. 

One day in the middle of October and in the midst of that onslaught of early voters, I received a phone call asking me to prepare a report and come to the Board of County Commissioners meeting to explain why our office had depleted it’s funding already.  I do believe that moment was the defining moment for me. 
My perfect number of years of service and age for early retirement occurred in early December 2004.  I took it – I realize now that I was exhausted, burned out, and tired of the stress of making everything perfect with few resources – and with the same number of full time staff and voting machines that were there when I started.  
That is the ending of a collection of budget horror stories - there were many others!  I have noticed nationally that when there is a huge election failure, it is a huge media event, the person in charge loses their job, and the election office finally receives the necessary funding to correct the problems and make the improvements that had been needed and requested for a very long time. 
This indeed is a very bad way to manage any business.  Johnson County voters deserve better!


Paul DeGregorio said...

Brian and Connie--Johnson County has truly been blessed to have two of the best election officials ever at the helm. They really don't know how good they have it. Fortunately for the rest of the world, both of you have shared your expertise with others, which has improved elections and democracy for millions. One of the best (and first) decisions I ever made at the EAC was to hire Connie to develop Best Practices we could share with election officials. Brian's excellent blog is a strong and realistic voice for thousands of election officials. What is sad is that while most election officials work 24/7 to ensure that democracy is alive and well in their counties (and countries), they don't get the positive recognition (or funding) they deserve, and funders don't pay attention unless something goes wrong.

Election Diary said...

Paul, I'm sorry for the tardiness in responding. This note made me misty, and I think it did the same for Connie. We have been so fortunate to have your support. You have no idea how much your inspiration, confidence, and leadership means to all of us in the profession.