Saturday, May 24, 2014 4 comments

Pay (For) It Forward

Two unrelated events this week demonstrate the hurdles Johnson County voters and taxpayers face in looking at a new voting system.

Thanks to Colorado's Judd Choate for this photo.  NPR's
Pam Fessler moderated a panel among super-smart
election administrators Dana Debeauvoir, Dean Logan,
and Matt Masterson.  They let me on the stage, too.
The first was Monday, when I shared the stage with incredibly bright colleagues at a University of Chicago symposium on the future of elections.

The theme of the conference, as you can see from the photo, was implementation, or, as I quoted the "8-Ball Deluxe" pinball game I often stood by as I played Asteroids in college, it is time to "stop talking and start chalking."

The panel discussed next-generation voting systems and my big message related to funding.  More on that later (and this will be a very long post, but stick with it, please).

The second event happened Thursday at a Board of County Commissioner meeting.  The Commission voted to take $250,000 out of reserves to pay for a new request by the Enterprise Center of Johnson County.  The Enterprise Center is an admirable initiative facing funding challenges.

Now, this post has nothing to do, really, with any opinions of the Enterprise Center.  Its mission is to help incubate new businesses in Johnson County that, theoretically, will impact the long-term viability of the area. 

But I contend that this money, ostensibly taken from reserves, actually represents money that will be borrowed in the future on the back of the election office.

To make the point, let's start with an analogy.

Suppose you buy and finance a new car.

But, you don't really like the idea of financing the car and decide that the next time you buy a car, you'd love to be in a position to pay cash.  Maybe, you think, if you could sock away extra money each year you'll have enough to do that very thing.

It hurts, but you put away more than $2,000 each year, on top of your debt payments. You start to realize that even at this rate, you won't be able to pay cash for your next car, but if you drive your current car long enough, you'll have a pretty good chunk you can pay as a down payment.

A few years into this plan, your car is paid off but you've increased your borrowing for other things--necessary things, like a home--and you're still putting away $2,000 each year for your future car.

Then you hit a rough couple of years.  You have more expenses than you can afford.  Believing that the $2,000 per year won't be enough to pay for a new car anyway, you repurpose that savings.  You pay these expenses from your savings because that's better than charging things on your credit card and paying interest.

Times get better but your older car needs improvements and you take money out of your "new car fund" to pay for them.

You consider beginning to again pay into the car fund, but it's been a while since you've spent money on anything, really, and you could benefit from upgrading other items--your wardrobe, things for your home, and other expenses that, while optional, would improve your standard of living.

Soon, your savings has whittled down, your car is old, and now you face a much higher monthly payment if you buy a new car.  Worse, there is some question whether you can even get financed because you've borrowed so much elsewhere.  At the very least, you won't qualify for the best interest rate.

If only you had kept putting aside the money, or at the very least, began putting the money into the fund again as times improved.  Instead, you face an insurmountable and possibly unaffordable monthly car payment.

So, let's connect the Monday-Thursday dots with a list of events related to our voting system:

  1. Johnson County's election commissioner, Connie Schmidt, with the support of county manager Gene Denton purchased touch-screen voting machines in 2001.   This purchase was funded by bonds, issued by the county.
  2. At the same time, the Board of County Commissioners began to set aside $443,508 as an equipment replacement fund for the eventual time a new system is needed.
  3. In 2008 and again in 2012, more machines were purchased, against this fund, to be prepared for presidential election years.  These purchases were the last needed until a new system is acquired.
  4. In 2010, as the county faces budget issues, the new county manager elects to stop funding the equipment replacement fund.  One of the arguments is that this amount, set aside each year, would not be enough to meet the expense related to replacing the fleet of machines.  The other argument is that the project did not have a "clear goal," even though two previous county managers and various members of the Board over the years obviously thought it must have because the fund was established and fed without any idea of what voting systems would look like 15 years later.  Still, the move was considered temporary and funding would begin again in 2012.
  5. Incongruently, perhaps, that same year, the county's approved budget included funding of the election office's $13 million request for new voting machines in the 2015 capital budget.
  6. In 2012's budget cycle, that 2015 budgeted amount was changed by the county manager to $5 million.  Also, the 2012 budget did not represent the voting equipment replacement fund reinstating as earlier planned.
  7. All capital money for voting machines is removed in the budgets presented for 2013, for 2014, and, I expect, 2015.
  8. One argument, now, is simply that $13 million is a lot of money, and we have been asked if there are ways that amount could be split over a period of time.  Operationally, that would be terrible, but financially, one way to have split the cost, of course, would have been to use the equipment replacement fund as a "down payment," making the total more reachable.
Now, realize that the county manager faces tremendous pressure to present a budget that doesn't result in a mill levy increase, and also understand that the budget includes potential future financed projects, and that financing impacts reserves and, eventually, the mill levy as well.

But, unless something changes, voting machines will not be purchased in Johnson County without a tax increase.  (And, scanners, if paper ballots were used, coincidentally represent a cost of about $5 million to the county because we don't have scanners today.  Beyond that, Johnson County voters elected to use voting machines over paper in the late 1960s and it's likely that paper ballots would go against the proverbial will of the people).

In any event, here we are: 

On Monday, I'm professing issues with funding.

On Thursday, money is pulled from reserves to pay for a new need.  It's fair to question if this money would have been available if the elections equipment replacement fund had continued.

One thing I said Monday is that I'm convinced we will get funding for a new voting system.  It's inconceivable to think otherwise.

But how will that be paid for?  By a tax increase?  Is the voting system the trigger for such a thing, or, really, is it other spending?  Are there other voting machine-like issues in the county, representing large future expenditures that aren't anywhere in the budget book?

Kansas statute 19-3534a allows for the Board of County Commissioners to have a separate tax levy for elections.  I've long advocated this to our county manager--not as a tax increase, but as a called-out separate line item so that people see exactly how much elections are costing.  I think this is the ultimate in government transparency.

This line item is utilized in two of the three other counties in Kansas with election commissioners.  Further, I think there is value in creatively considering a scenario where the county purchases equipment, capital improvements, and supplies and leases these items to the election office.  We then could bill the county on a per-voter basis but, more importantly, do the same with jurisdictions that have special elections.

For the county, this initially would be a wash.  For the jurisdictions, costs would go up to fully capture the cost to provide elections on their behalf.  In turn, this would shift some costs from the total Johnson County taxpayer to the taxpayer of the jurisdiction that created the cost.

(I get that, for instance, a Shawnee taxpayer also is a Johnson County taxpayer, but such a scenario could reduce costs to the Johnson County taxpayers as a whole and only be represented by those in the jurisdictions that create special elections.  It's a "cost-causer is the cost-payer" model.)

But, to the point of the voting machine costs--as it is, the $400,000-plus ongoing run rate from 2001 that stopped in 2010 has been repurposed to fund other county activities.    I wouldn't disagree that these activities are important--just like the Enterprise Center funding--but when they are funded and, later, the county must borrow money or take tax action to pay for voting systems, this has to be considered.  

It's not necessarily the voting machines that are causing the impact.  At the very least, a couple of million dollars that eventually gets financed or is part of the tax increase is a bit of an innocent bystander.  $13 million might have be $10 million if the fund continued.

(That said, I'd argue strongly that there isn't a more important tax dollar spent than on elections because that's kind of where government starts).

Like the car analogy:

If only we had kept putting aside the money, or at the very least, began putting the money into the fund again as times improved.  Instead, we face an insurmountable and possibly unaffordable voting systems payment.
Saturday, May 17, 2014 0 comments

Word Search

Over Labor Day weekend in 1989, I went to a Chicago White Sox game at the original Comiskey Park.

In the first inning, first baseman Steve Lyons took the field and, during warm-ups, began creating a tic-tac-toe design in the dirt behind first base. 

I can't remember who the Orioles' first baseman was, or what the final outcome was, but I remember each of them came out and made their selection each half-inning before the grounds crew swept away the game midway through the actual baseball game.

In that spirit, those of us in the tabulation room years ago began a word search game on the giant whiteboard in that room.

I'm not sure why the whiteboard is there and it seemed a waste not to use it.

The tabulation room, by the way, is very primitive, right down to the fact that one wall is comprised of painted concrete blocks.  The server is not connected to the Internet, an Intranet, or in any way talking with anything except directly wired scanners and voting machines used to upload results off cards brought back from the polling places.

Of the three regular attendees in the room, one has the password to the server and one has the specific password to each individual election.  I have neither passwords.

So, it takes two persons to enter the tabulation system, and it is required that a minimum of two people are in the room at any time.  Attendance is logged and a camera monitors the room.

For each election, we have a Public Test, where we run results against a predetermined pretend outcome do demonstrate that all components are tabulating properly.  We have a rehearsal for the Public Test and, actually, the persons in the tabulation room also do a rehearsal of the rehearsal. 

They also conduct a post-test after each election.

Back to the whiteboard--the three of us rotate selecting a word we can make from the word "touchscreen."  It seemed like an appropriate election word and just a fun, goofy thing to do.  The tabulation room can be a very stressful place because we're generally in there when people are anxiously awaiting results--the whiteboard represents some kryptonite to stress.

A word is selected after the rehearsal, after the Public Test, and after election results are tabulated.  My turn to select is during the Public Test.

All of us, I'm sure, have words we've identified for future moves.  We're curious when we'll run out of words, but we're a few years into this and likely won't exhaust our choices before the end of 2016, at least.

After our doubleheader, two elections in one day, on Tuesday, we stared at the board and realized that we've been doing this for quite a while.  We decided to select only one word for this election cycle, even though we conducted two elections.

Hence, the asterisk.  When we do pick a new word, we'll want to see if it can outlast this one.  This word will represent one more election than is represented by the number of sub-words, divided by three.

So, there you have it--an example of what election administrators do for fun, with all apologies for not being that fun.

(Hey, no one ever promised "behind the scenes" was Bravo Channel material).

Monday, May 12, 2014 0 comments

Let's Play Two!

We're sitting on the eve of our first day-night doubleheader in Johnson County elections.

At noon, a special mail-ballot election in Fairway will close and we hope to have results out by early afternoon.

Meanwhile, polls (or a poll) open(s) at 7 a.m. in Roeland Park for a special election to select a council member for a vacated seat.

That election closes at 7 p.m.  Some in our office will come early, some will stay late, and a few of us will be there wire-to-wire.

Roeland Park is the only jurisdiction in Johnson County that fills vacated seats by election.  The rest of the cities appoint replacements, either for the remainder of the term or until the next city election.

Personally, I'm a "will of the people" kind of guy.  I think it's cool that the citizens pick their representatives.

It is, though, the fourth election of this type that Roeland Park has had in my nine years here and sixth since 2000.  Roeland Park also had a special mail-ballot election earlier this year.

A fair conclusion you may be drawing, or at least posing as a question, is why couldn't the Roeland Park elections be mail-ballots?

Simply, in Kansas, mail-ballot elections are for issues, not people.

That inefficiency is illuminated a bit with the statutory requirement that we have advance voting for every polls election of at least one week.

I've only been following the number anecdotally--for reals tomorrow--but I think we had 7 in-person advance voters over that week.

Such turnout numbers are factors for looking, again, at the potential for mail-ballot elections in Kansas.  The Kansas clerks association has created a task force--and named me co-chair (that's what I get for being out of the room).

I'm not an advocate of all-mail elections.  Mostly, I have just heard enough opinions from a cross-section of our voters to know that many (at least 7 in Roeland Park, for instance) prefer to vote in-person.

I do think it's worth looking at all-mail elections as an option for counties or jurisdictions in special elections.  For small elections, mail-ballot elections end up less costly (still about $4 per registered voter, though).

But, in the world of costly elections or, in this case, NOT COSTLY elections--I bring you the city of Shawnee:

See, the city was on the even-year election cycle, where elections were not countywide.  This meant that the city paid for elections that otherwise would be free if held in odd years.

I saw this expense immediately upon coming to the election office from Shawnee's city council and began telling anyone who cared about these unnecessary expenditures.

The city changed the cycle and, in 2013, held its first odd-year city election under the new cycle.  So, as 2014's spring invoices are being prepared, nothing for Shawnee!

Let's see:
2012 Shawnee Primary and General Election Expense:  $112,729.30
2014 Shawnee Primary and General Election Expense:  $0

To quote an obnoxious car dealer here in Olathe, "That's real money, folks."

And, Shawnee was one of five cities in the spring of even years when I came and the only one of the five to move to the odd years so far.  Maybe this real-life savings will inspire the others to hop to the land of the free (elections).

So, let's hear it for the home team!  (At least, that's MY home team).

As for tomorrow, I'm not sure who the home team is in the doubleheader, but, here's hoping the turnout in Roeland Park's election represents plenty of......wait for it......Visitors.

Sunday, May 4, 2014 0 comments

May Day, Me Day, Meh Day!

Forget Cinco de Mayo, I've had a special uno and tres de Mayo.

First, May 1 is my mother's birthday.  She died in May 1999, about three years before I was elected to the Shawnee City Council.  Once elected, I tried very consciously to offer each day I was on the council as a prayer to my mother.

I think she would have been proud yesterday morning as I received the local League of Women Voters' "Making Democracy Work" award for the effort our office has undertaken to help acquire citizenship documents for new citizens when registering to vote. 

The League attends naturalization ceremonies month and registers new citizens.  The League now checks out an iPad from our office, photographs the naturalization certificates, bring us back the iPad, and we upload the documentation, attaching it to the voters' records.

We get about 60 new registrations a month in this manner, so the process isn't insignificant.

Still, I joked when being presented the award that an election administrator seems an obvious award winner, at some point, by an organization devoted to voting.  I assume I was really the "safety net" and that there were no other ideas this year.  The pressure is on next year, now that the safety net is gone.

Seriously, the event was very nice.  County commissioners attended and said very nice things.  Many in attendance were election workers, and any award we receive is as much a reflection of the fine work they do beyond anything we do in our office.  Members of our office attended.   The crowd applauded them.

I've never heard my name said so many times, leaving me rather misty.

One thing about this iPad thing--it's really a feel-good story for everyone.

As I mentioned there, I encounter voters unhappy with the new proof-of-citizenship law but I also encounter at least a similar amount who are happy with the law.  Those persons generally are anti-illegal immigration and obviously want to applaud those who come to the country legally and follow the citizenship process.

It all puts us in one of these great places where everyone, regardless of political leanings, agrees. 

And, speaking of feel-good, May 1 marked another milestone.

You see, I followed the great Connie Schmidt, Miss Election USA, as Election Commissioner, coming to the office in January 2005.

My biggest reservation before taking the job was that I followed someone who was well-regarded.  It's easy to follow a failure.  There aren't any books about following a star.  (In fact, the Wall Street Journal agreed and did this column).

I wasn't born when Willard Cook became Johnson County
Election Commissioner.  He was Election Commissioner
from 1962-1974 and presided over the 1969 switch
by voter approval to move to voting machines.
Don't look now, but I've been Election Commissioner longer than Connie was.  May 1 marked that date.  I'm the second most-tenured Election Commissioner.

Willard Cook--I'm on your tail!

With County Commissioners at the meeting and my comments during a League of Women Voters voting forum a week ago, I wanted to give a special nod to Connie at the meeting.

During that forum, I raised concerns about looming election funding needs (and after the meeting, someone reminded me how I explained two years ago at another forum that the election office suffered more budget cuts than any department--a blog post then and also validation that at least I remain on message).

I emphasized on Saturday that our budget needs weren't blocked at the commissioner level.  We're fortunate that we have 7 (out of 7) commissioners supportive of our office. 

We do have difficulty getting our story and needs bridged from the ground, through the middle of county management, to properly be seen by the commissioners.  The filter is the problem, and it's been especially punishing to our office and our voters since 2011.

Further, we live on reputation.

If we don't invest in the election office--people and systems, requested for 18 years, plus, without any move of the needle--that reputation will exhaust.

Think of this:

Elgia Stephenson came before Connie and, as far as a I can tell, spit tobacco juice at anyone in the county who disagreed with her, but she made sure we moved from a tiny shack to a facility that was more than adequate in 1993 (but not in 2014).

Connie Schmidt made sure that we not only had new voting machines, but also an equipment replacement fund--a fund that was stopped by the current county manager in 2011. 

During my time, I feel like we've been running on fumes.  I feel very good about our processes but we're overextended on every level.

We need fuel, a point I'm raising everywhere.  Without investment, we will fail in our mission to support our voters.  We've lost considerable ground over the last three years.

Connie fought these same battles.  In fact, often, I've seen parallels between points in time during Connie's tenure and my time.  I could step back, say in year seven of my tenure, and note that Connie seemed to go through the exact same thing at the same time.

Problem is, now I'm in free-range territory.   I don't have that Connie compass.

We do need to get much more assertive about our lack of funding.  The county has funding issues but the true issue is that many departments have grown considerably, under the radar (not public safety, not mental health, and not public health, but in areas that aren't caught in traditional talking points and can only be seen by heavily scrutinizing the county budget books year-to-year).  Maybe some dollars should shift from those groups to the front line.

Many of the things in the Presidential Commission on Election Administration's report remain "posts in waiting," but that's because I want to see how the budget plays out.

Next-generation voting machines, in the capital budget in 2011 but taken out since, appear to remain unfunded.  A modest request for one additional headcount, again, appears to be unsupported by the county manager.

Quite possibly, we finally may be getting funding to replace our 1999 election management system, unsupported by the vendor, literally, since the first day I became Election Commissioner.

Budget hearings are in a month.  The long-term fate of our voters (the majority of Johnson County citizens, by the way) waits.