Wednesday, September 17, 2014

You Get a Car! You Get a Car!

It's been quite a while between posts and that is a fallout from many, many moving pieces we're chasing right now.

The moving pieces bring up a political thought, not in the purest political sense but closer than others this blog has addressed.  I'll explain.

First, it may seem all non-Election Commissionery and all, but I like to watch Family Guy.  Maybe it's because the dog is named Brian. 

In any event, there is an episode where the characters play out the movie Star Wars.

Stewie, as Darth Vader, gets a briefing on security and learns of a tiny vulnerability in the Death Star, where if a missile entered this area at just the right trajectory (a 0.01 chance of happening, he's told), the entire planet-sized ship would explode.

"I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't ask," Stewie says, "but what's the 0.01?  That sounds like a pretty big design flaw.  Can't we board it up or, you know, put some plywood there?"

I don't observe anything as dramatic as destruction of an entire ecosystem, but I do think we are going through something that I feel like I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't raise.

It's not really a problem.  I wouldn't even call it an issue.  For us, it's life, but it is a dynamic that deserves awareness.

The trigger for this is the simple fact that we have seven elections in the next four months.  Six were unscheduled.

We have the big one that everyone knows about on November 4.  Then, five school districts will each have mail-ballot question elections on the same day in January.  This, essentially, will be a full-county election, in five pieces, and is the source of many moving pieces, mostly in my mind.  The elections carry equal parts excitement and panic, but I expect excitement will prevail.

Those elections were prompted by state legislation that allowed the schools to modify their budget formulas, but the elections were required to be mail-ballot elections.  Mail-ballots may have been the best method for the schools, but making them special elections shifts the cost from a pile-on to an existing county election, where there would be no cost, to an expense of nearly a million dollars.

This is the rub (and not yet the "political" part of this post).  Elections cost a lot of money because we have a lot of people in the county.

If Oprah Winfrey drew a winner from her audience and that winner got a new car, that would be expensive--a $25,000 prize.

But when Oprah gives one to everyone--"You get a car, and you get a car, and you get a car," the overall cost balloons.  It's just math.

So, an election that costs about $3 per voter reflects 21st century costs of paper, envelopes, postage, and persons to scan the ballots.  But, if you turn to 375,000 people and say, "You get a ballot, and you get a ballot, and you get a ballot..." the overall cost balloons.

Math, it turns out, works the same in elections as it does with Oprah.

There can be debate whether an election should be a stand-alone, or added to an existing one, and that's really the area of awareness that should be raised.

But the idea that elections are expensive?  Of course they are, because there are a lot of people involved.

(We've been looking at some old budgets and realized that our 2014 county expenses for elections will be the same as 1999's.  Office expenses aren't the driver in election costs--the number of participants are).

It links to my ongoing belief that the cost of elections in Johnson County should be itemized on the property tax bill, as allowed by Kansas law and done in other large counties in the state.  Such itemizing would cause some to be concerned about how little is spent on elections, some will be concerned with how much is spent, and this overall transparency and discussion, in my view, is government goodness.

As we go to the Board of County Commissioners for money related to these elections (with much of the cost later reimbursed by the jurisdictions), I'm sure the overall cost of the elections will surprise some.

Back off the overall cost--a function of the number of voters--and question, more, this:  should something be done to limit special elections?

This isn't a question related to the school districts, except that it might drive more discussion on moving spring elections in odd years to the fall of odd years, obtaining a school holiday to use the schools as polling places, and, perhaps, having a more timely way for jurisdictions to utilize scheduled elections in the future rather than conduct special elections.

But we just found out that we needed to add into the mix of our November, then January (and the March and April) elections a special election in Roeland Park.

Roeland Park has a city council vacancy and is the only city in the county that fills these vacancies with special elections.  This will be the second election of this type in Roeland Park this year and the fifth special election in my 10 years because someone has not fulfilled the full term in office.

We have that election in December now, completing the Election of the Month trajectory.  It gets in the way, operationally, as we prepare for the school district mail-ballots and will cost the city about $5,000.

The alternative--and this finally leads to the political thought--would be the city council or the mayor appointing a replacement until the next election.  Many cities do this.

Personally, I'm not a fan of that, and not because I'm on some business development bender at the election office.  I just think that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people should be selected by, well, the people.

I also left my position early while on Shawnee's City Council when I was appointed election commissioner.  I didn't have to, but I thought it would eliminate any potential conflict of interest.

Point is, I'm not judging anyone for not fulfilling their term.  And, there's a large part of me that thinks that Roeland Park has it right, so there's no judgment there, either.

But, like Stewie, I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't point this out.  When people wonder what election administrators do on the other 364 days when there isn't an election, they are usually surprised to find that we average an election about every two months and that more than half of our elections are unscheduled, special elections.

But the conversation stops there.  The cost of the elections is the elephant in the room.

Better yet, the cost of the elections is the flea in the room, hardly noticeable when there is one but difficult to ignore when there are nearly 400,000 in the room.

The issue here is that there are nearly 400,000 voters in our county, several jurisdictions, and probably a better and more economical way to make the government for the people more affordable to the people.

Not the same elephant/flea
concept in elections that is
discussed in this book, but
you try and find a royalty-free
Star Wars or Family Guy image!
(Besides, this book is a good read).
Maybe we should have quarterly, countywide scheduled elections and if something misses, it must wait.  Or, maybe two of those would be mail-only and the parameters of the state's mail-ballot elections would change (currently, mail-ballots can only be for issues, not people).

It's time for a broad and thoughtful discussion of this, with the overall community, not just among election administrators.

Part of election geekery, in fact, is the discussion of, "Is there a better way?"

Is there a better way, for instance, to present items on the ballot?  Is there a better way to get the word out?  Is there a better way to streamline the voter experience?

These are questions we consider for fun.

This one requires a larger net, partnering with legislators, and engaging cities and voters.

The county clerks in Kansas have created a mail-ballot election task force and I'm co-chairing it, although you wouldn't know it because we haven't met yet.  Why?  Because we have so many elections; we're all too busy.

When we do meet, I plan to expand the scope of our thinking to cover these aspects.

In the meantime, the Election of the Month Club awaits!