Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Election Marathon

I ran a half-marathon on Sunday.

Half-Marathon Finisher Medal
I ran it because I could, a great release from what has been a grueling marathon of an election.  I hadn't trained, but I was okay with my time of 1:55 and finishing it was the win, anyway.

That real marathon ends today, with the board of canvassers reconvening at 1:30.  With about 3,000 provisional ballots to count and many having to be hand-counted partials, the special board worked 12 hours yesterday to finalize results.

That's a marathon in its own right.  These are some of our office's most dedicated part-timers, working for nearly nothing, pushing paper.

Even years bring with them many things, including a very long ballot, two-sided, 8 1/2 by 17 inches, with approximately 30 items to select.  With 190,000 voters, that's nearly 6 million voting transactions.

Even years also bring a long October, one which doesn't allow for training for such things as real marathons.  I ran my only marathon in 2013.  I'm not sure I'll run another, but I knew I wouldn't run one in 2014. Besides, we had election worker training the day of the Kansas City Marathon.

Election Results, Halfway From Finishing, on CNN
We had our own virtual marathon at the office, though.  In fact, all of Kansas City had the World Series run for the Royals that was exhausting, and we didn't even play the games.  The post-season ran the entire month of October and held the city captive.  Who knew October baseball really now lasts all of October?

It hasn't always been that way.

Baseball great Reggie Jackson referred to himself as Mr. October and as a kid, I thought that was a silly nickname because the World Series ended halfway through the month.  I ran a half-marathon, but I'm not Mr. Marathon.  Why wasn't he Mr. Half-October?  Or, Mr. Late Summer?  Or, Mr. 30-Days-Some-In-September-Some-In-October?

Anyway, there definitely was a Royals factor to the whole election.  In training, I began giving the milestones in Royals dates--registration ended as the Royals won game 3 of the division series, advance by mail began the day they clinched that series and--oops--Supervising Judges pick up supplies the day of the victory parade (my guess on the date).

We saw advance voting in person trail off in the afternoon of game days and explode after the World Series ended.  Voters were giddy.  People were dressed in blue but if their voting experience was blue, we didn't know it.

After the Series, those things we typically see when voting is going on for two weeks began emerging.  Voters selected candidate A on a machine, for instance, but candidate B came up.  They changed it, voted accurately, but worried about all of the others who may not be as observant as them.

This has gone on since the machines were purchased, 2002--before my time, and as much as I'd like to use this as THE excuse for needing a new voting system (oh, it's an excuse, believe me), it usually happens because of pilot error.  The machines are not your father's iPads, which then just tells you how old the technology is if your father didn't even use it.

To provide some context there, the scroll bars on the review screen on the voting machines are on the LEFT.  Look at your web browser.  Note the scrolls are on the right--always have been.  Yep, we're voting with pre-Internet design.

In any event, we record whenever these anomalies are reported, and in this election it seemed to happen, as it usually does in an election, on just once race.  We had a couple of reports for governor and Secretary of State, and one on a judge, but the other 25 were on the US Senate race.

Again, I have absolutely no incentive to defend the machines, other than that I can demonstrate our testing that assures they tabulate perfectly.  I didn't select the machines, I want a new system, and I have no problem throwing the machines under the bus, except that the machines would probably cause the bus to crash, and while unlikely around here, someone might be on a bus and be hurt.  That would be bad.

But if it was a simple case of bad calibration, many of the races would have this issue.  At the very least, the races in the same place on the screen, as voters advance, would experience the same thing, on screen two, screen three, and screen four.  30 reports out of nearly 6 million transactions don't lead to a widespread diagnosis of poor calibration.

The reports and calls suggest we equally were favoring candidates, not only suggesting that we were trying to engineer the election but also that those Palm Pilot devices had the capability of guessing who the voter wanted in a race and then forcing the other candidate's name to be selected.

I heard about these reports, often the same report from different sources, through many poll agents and lawyers.  I talked to only two angry voters on election day, mostly because I was on the phone with other stakeholders the rest of the day.  We had media throughout the day, and with a position that had gone a year to fill not yet filled until yesterday (woo hoo!) and the sad loss of our assistant election commissioner over election workers and polling places, being understaffed took its toll in terms of my availability on election day.

I was so excited to talk to these actual voters that they probably wondered if they were being punk'd.

We had some key learnings in this election:

  1. We have consolidated polling places for the last time.  We had the fewest, 182, we've had in a November election and in 2016, we'll need at least 75 more.
  2. We won't get to 250 polling places, let alone 284 that we had in 2008.  They just won't be available.
  3. We will need more advance sites.
  4. We won't get those either, with the economy improving and storefronts filling, without paying excessive rent.
  5. My reaction to these issues is, "So?"  These are elections.  These are real cost issues, including staffing needs and election worker pay increases that are needed.  My job is to administer the elections and the county's role, very harshly, is to fund it.  I expect the 2016 cost to be at least $1 million more than it was this year, at least.  This is not my problem.  It is a problem, for sure, only to get worse with the funding of our voting system.  But there is a huge expense ahead to be adequately prepared for 2016.
And, finally, we had the learning of the poll agents--about 400 deployed in this election.

Imagine, instead, if just half of them had been election workers.  We'd have had one more worker per polling place and then some.

Now, back to running the half-marathon.  I like running races and I pay for that.  Similarly, I played indoor soccer for years.  I like participating in competitive events.

As a competitor, I've had my share of times that I felt, for instance, that the soccer referees could have been better.  But the idea of becoming a referee myself--no thank you.  Just, I thought, I wish that they would hire better referees.

Likewise, I think voters deserve to carry expectations that their participation in competitive government events (elections) are handled professionally.  Voters pay entry fees (taxes) to have voting convenient, and never would I suggest to a voter who is unhappy that if the voter really cared, the voter should get more involved in the process, to be one of our referees.

But I would make such an appeal to poll agents.  In fact, I plan to do that very thing.  One area we will target, for new workers, will be the poll agents.

If someone has made the leap to assist with a campaign or candidate, and had time on election day to monitor the process, the best way they could help the process is to be part of it, as an election worker.

We're fortunate that these 400 were engaged.  Now, we hope to engage them further for the marathon ahead in 2016.