Thursday, November 20, 2014

Roeland Park, Part Two

Although it's been terribly long between posts, have pity, please--we started another election yesterday.

It's a special election in Roeland Park, second time this year, and comes in the most intense election period in Johnson County history.  With the November election just ending, we have this election a month later, and, on January 7, we will be mailing about 350,000 ballots for special school elections.

That election day will be about a week after the filing deadline for the spring elections.  Come April, nearly every voter in Johnson County will have had 3 elections in five months and some may have five elections in five months if we have a spring primary.

(Was that as crazy to read as it was to type?  One of our ballot envelope colors should be camouflage, to recognize ballot fatigue.)

Amidst all of this, we have some major budget deadlines ahead.  These are important because it may be 2014, but the 2016 budget gains form by March.  As mentioned in the last post, we have a lot of work to do to prepare for 2016, and the costs for that election will be much higher than in 2014.

Further, we must work on preparing our voting system request for proposal.  We were chagrined recently to learn that Sedgwick County has $4.5 million set aside for a new system.  (Actually, I'm chagrined for us but happy for them).

Douglas County had the wisdom to hire a county management leader from Johnson County a few years ago, but she took with her, apparently, the resolve to plan ahead.  Douglas County began setting aside money each year for voting systems at the same time our county manager stopped our annual set-aside amount and also pulled funding based on a quote we received, provided several times in the budget process.  We had $10 million at one time in the capital budget, but he pulled it.

Shawnee County, also, has set aside a large portion of money for its next system.

So, it's frustrating to say the least when my predecessor had the wisdom to push for and implement a plan to pay for a future system, but we are behind the other large counties in preparation years later.

This will have a major point of reckoning because even when the county issues debt to pay for the new system, it will have either a tax impact or a major cost cutting impact.  That cost cutting won't come in elections, because as we ramp up polling places and staff advance voting to 2016 levels, I estimate those additional costs to be more than $1 million from 2014.

Plus, because we will have to finance our new system, this issue also likely prevents the county from setting aside money for its next, next system.  This has created a perpetual election funding crisis.

And that's if things stay the way they are now.  Our voting machines tabulate perfectly, but reports of a vote flipping from one candidate to another--something the system has had since it was implemented in 2002--does wear us down.  Particularly, social media can turn one report into a viral epidemic.

I often talked to three or four people about the same report, and we just don't have the staff size to talk about these issues adequately, let alone address them.   It's worth considering if we need to purchase an interim solution for 2016 while we select a longer-term solution.

All of this reminds me of how, when I first came to the office 10 years ago, how the industry quaked of reports on the Black Box Voting.  There was a book of the same name.  10 years ago, that's what viral meant.

Those were the days.

Still, we're presented with an opportunity, really.  Many voters want paper, others want better touch screens, and I want a system that is easier to maintain.  Age is a relentless beast, for humans and machines, and the clock is ticking on the useful life of our system.

Legislators know this.  I just spoke at a conference of staffers put on by the National Council of State Legislators.  Two of those staffers were from Kansas, and they are coordinating an a task force of legislators looking at combining spring and fall elections.

I'm attending the meeting tomorrow, and speaking next month.  My patter is familiar--spring elections in odd years move to fall in odd years, leaving each year with August and November elections.  In conjunction with this, require that all schools be closed on election day in November and available as polling places.

One thing that has struck me, since the Black Box Voting days, is that, well, viral campaigns reach a lot of people.  We all vote, and many of us have opinions on the best way to vote (paper, machine, Internet, you name it).

There isn't much consensus on the best method, today or tomorrow.  Add in layers of policy makers, who have their own opinions and their own cost and social drivers and restrainers, and the chance of a common approach in the country, or even in a state, seems unlikely.

I'm still a believer that there will be a big bang, a disruptive moment in the industry--perhaps a single state legislature will pass a little bill requiring Internet Voting, or emailing of ballots.  All the work of standards, scientists' theories, and activist interests will go out the window.

Likewise, the opinions of election administrators will matter little in such a scenario.  Somewhere, we have to find a way to make the realities of today merge to lead to a solution.  My little presentation included here is hard to follow unless you were at the meeting this week (and even then....), but I'd be glad to explain it further if you email or comment.

For now, back to the elections.