Friday, September 5, 2014

The Leftovers

It would be nice if our next-generation voting system plans could be bundled into a tidy blog post.

Our system will be at least 15 years old before something new is put to use, and the emphasis is on "at least."

Quotes for replacement fall between $8.5 and $13 million.  That's before a competitive bid process but also assumes today's number of voters, polling locations, and advance voting sites.  We expect a significant cost to dispose of our existing system as well; training, for us and for our workers, will come at an extra price.

There's also the small matter that nothing out there today rocks our world.  Federal and state certification are required for any voting system, although we plan to consider systems that aren't certified, yet potentially capable of being certified.

There--I suppose that what you've just read actually could be the tidy blog post that explains our plans, or at least an assessment of our situation.  What follows is a bit of a free-for-all consciousness stream that begins to address what we're doing.

It's the first of a series.

However, much like the episodes of HBO's "The Leftovers," the author of this episode has put absolutely no thought into what might transpire in the next episode.

Well, that's extreme.  Let's just say that this post will focus on money and the process.  The next post will continue with the process and speak to what we might actually do.  (There may be a post in between that's unrelated because we are in the middle of an election, after all).

Let's start with funding:

My predecessor pushed for the creation of a voting equipment replacement fund.  It was a great idea and one successfully emulated in Douglas County and in a few other communities.

The concept was (expensive but) simple--sock away about $400,000 a year into that fund and 15 years later, we'd be $6 million closer to a new system.  That's real money.

I think we could indeed buy a system for $6 million.

For that matter, I think we could buy a system for any amount we wanted to pay, including nothing.    With no money set aside for purchases, many communities will be looking to lease systems or sign huge term and supply agreements in order to pay for the system.

It will be like walking the beaches of Mexico, hearing from vendors that something is "Nearly Free," but nearly free will be nearly unaffordable on an ongoing basis.

In essence, anything other than paying for the system up-front involves borrowing, whether in the form of the bonds or in the form of debt servicing through a vendor.  Leases and the "fax machine model" I just described (equipment is cheap, toner is not) are nothing more than adding finance charges to a purchase.

Oh.  That introduces a project value.  I'm fond of project values, those things by which we will measure our ultimate success against.  Here is our first project value.

I hate to pay interest in my personal life, so why would I want the county to do so?  At the very least, I think financing through a vendor would be a sneaky way of looking heroic on the front end, not so much later.  Surely, we can plan to avoid such a pricing model.

On the other hand, there is no way the county will be able to purchase equipment without issuing debt or raising taxes (considerably).  Budget cuts theoretically could be made, but the number is really too large to make that feasible.

Even issuing debt, which the county did with the current system, will result in a tax increase or major cuts.  Dividing the cost so that even just a million dollars is added to the annual debt level (by dividing the cost over a period of useful life years) would result in a tax increase.

Doubters need look no further than the county's 2015 budget proceedings to see how steadfast the Board of County Commissioners are against raising the mill levy and how even a half-million dollar expense would cause the mill levy to increase.

No matter you, say, because we have that equipment replacement fund!

That equipment replacement fund?  It's at around $800,000.

We've purchased new voting machines to augment the current fleet with that funding and shelves to store the machines in the warehouse.  Some money was also used to revamp the electrical work in the warehouse to power the machines.

Oh, and the county stopped putting the money aside, stashing that $400,000 for the last time in 2011.  The argument was that the fund wouldn't be enough to fully pay for a new system, anyway.  Besides, we were told, because we definitively couldn't specify in 2011 the system we'd buy years later, what's the point of saving?

That's blog water under the bridge at this point.

During our budget presentation, videotaped for God and the three people who might actually later watch it to see, I pushed for action on the voting system.  The drift had to stop.

The Board of County Commissioners agreed and instructed me to come back with a system selected and they would fund it.

Pick a system, and we'll fund it.  That's actually consistent with the Kansas statutes, so I like that, but I didn't just fall off the Touchscreen Truck yesterday.  Where's that money coming from?

While others ask, "Why," some ask, "Why not?"    In this case, I asked, "How?"

Not to worry, I was told.  The money will be there.

So, I won't worry.

I don't think the money will be there, but I'm not worried about it.

I guess that's a win.

When we have to buy a system, as in "when our touchscreens stop responding to touch" and the reality that we only have four little scanners back at the ranch sinks in, the money will be there.  That's when it would be a crisis, when taxes would have to be raised, and when I will be showing videos of all of the times I raised warning signs to God and those same three people who watched the initial video.

We obviously will have a voting method for as long as the county exists.  The method will be taxpayer funded (or sponsored, I guess, but that would be odd).  So, technically, the money WILL be there.

Will it be in 2017 when I'm proposing we pull off the switcheroo, before machine failure but just as the fleet is undergoing the equivalent of angioplasty?  For now, I'm told yes.

I explained that I would like to fund a process consultant from a portion of the voting equipment replacement fund to begin pushing a roadmap I've developed.  That roadmap (Project Ted) will create requirements against which vendors will propose.  The solutions can be certified, non-certified, and "anything out there" solutions, such as my "Bring Your Own Voting Machine" concept.

We'll build in adequate time for proposals to be developed and to be reviewed.  If we like one that isn't certified, we'll take it at that point to the Secretary of State.  If the Secretary of State would certify such a solution if we purchased it, we'll go down that path.

If not, it's off the list.

In government, this is akin to changing local zoning.  For instance, let's say an area is zoned rural but  a department store applies to locate in that area.  But, it's already zoned rural, you say.

Yes, but that zoning was based on specific factors.  Now, rather than hypothetically wondering if it should be rural, there is a concrete proposal (literally) in hand to evaluate.  The zoning board and city council can reflect on the potential change with a real-life example.

It's not hypothetical at that point, and the ruling may be different based on the application.

That's what we'd do here.  We can talk about conceptual systems and the potential for those systems to be certified.  Instead, here, we'll wait until we have a very specific proposal before evaluating the benefits of certification.

This way, we'll wonder if system ABC should be or could be certified, as opposed to some "Riddle me this..." approach.

All of this process is expected to take nearly two years, or "plenty of time for everyone to forget what we agreed upon."

Thank you, again, hardly watched video of the meeting.

Also, though, such a timeline begs for us to look at the solution in phases, creating bites towards conversion.  That's where our process will go, framing what we plan to do in chunks, with small but relatively expensive milestones that take us to the finished system.

Phase One will be the development of a new election management system and the rollout of electronic poll books.  These items will provide the foundation of interface with Phase Two, the new voting system.

In a perfect world, if we have money, the existing machines will roll out for a countywide election in April 2017 and never return.  The warehouse will be gussied, and a new system will be utilized in the spring of 2018.

There may be no such thing as a perfect election and, thus, a perfect world is equally elusive, but that's the plan, with the process further defined in the next post.

In the meantime, I'm going to a meeting early next week to talk with smart people who are undertaking a similar path, a bit ahead of us (LA County and Travis County) and others, such as PEW Charitable Trusts' Election Initiatives group.

I bring them up, further, because they have a couple of job postings and in those postings I read something I hadn't before.  Maybe they've been staring at me in different documents and I missed them, but they generally reflect some of the discussions election administrators have been discussing.

They reflect the discussions so much, in fact, that I've decided to embrace them (steal them) as my own, adding to my project values for this overall project.  They are simple statements, really, but very profound:

  1. Building an election system that reflects the way people live.
  2. Putting voters in charge of their own voter experience.
By the time we roll out our new system, I will have convinced myself that I came up with these two statements.  

Sadly, that darn permanent record gives and it takes.  These are great values, though, and ones addressed in the next post.