Thursday, December 27, 2012 3 comments

Let's Talk Business

Eighteen months ago, I participated in an Election Assistance Commission roundtable webcast related to social media.

All of the panel participants, and many of the viewers and followers, knew that social media was  emerging as a tool for election administrators.  It was in its infancy in the 2008 presidential election and 2012 was expected to be big, really big.

Twitter, for instance, launched in 2006 and was just finding its way in 2008.  Speaking of Twitter, you may have heard that the close of the 2012 election resulted in the message that was retweeted the most IN HISTORY.

I learned this during the PEW Voting in America Conference earlier this month.  I was thrilled to see Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Twitter take the stage, but I was less enthused about the collective message.  Frankly, I'm not sure there was a message.

PEW's David Becker kicks off a much-anticipated
panel discussion related to social media and
election administration.  Representatives (l-r) were
from Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Twitter.
Doug Chapin of the Humphrey School of
Public Administration moderated.
Stick with me--this is tough love, raising the bar, expecting more, that kind of thing.  To the point I raised during the roundtable webcast, it's time to take social media in election administration from a hobby to something more useful, with a grander vision.

And, for that, we need the social media companies to be leaders.

Four years ago, such a moment on stage would have been palpitating, for me at least.  "Oh my gosh, on my gosh, can you believe Facebook sent someone to meet with us!"

But now, I've changed.

It's not them, it's me.  They were enthusiastic and very pleasant.

I'm jaundiced, I guess, but talking about a presidential tweet outpacing Justin Bieber as the most retweeted message over any in the last six years is a yawner.  I also read recently that the finale of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey," was the most talked about Bravo Housewife episode IN HISTORY as well, but history doesn't mean much when the beginning of time is a year that begins with a "20."

We have a common interest with these companies.  They target people, usually adults.  Many of these adults are potential voters.  We represent content providers for them, to get the adult eyeballs they want.  And for us, they represent a distribution channel to reach our voters.

It's time we talk like this.  Social media is a business.  Let's talk business.

Many of us in election administration are resource-poor, stretched thin.  I have familiar relationships with many voting equipment vendors, for instance, but a deep relationship with only one.

That's a singular example but it carries with all of our vendors.  We need to be convinced, among any group of vendors, who represents the high-potential horse to ride.

It's possible that one of the companies on the stage (or Yahoo, Amazon, or Apple, each not in attendance but whom should be paying attention, also) will be majorly declining by 2012.  I probably wouldn't bet against the staying power of Microsoft or Google, but there are plenty of social networks that have experienced dramatic half-lives since 2000.

As demonstration of the fast pace of technology change, go back four years ago--the top tech story related to president-elect Obama and his attachment to his Blackberry.  Could the Secret Service pry it from his hand once he took office?

Now, as he prepares for his second term, could anyone ever convince him to actually use a Blackberry?

When such a new media panel is assembled in 2016, I'd like to see the members sell themselves against the others on the stage.  Tell us specific strategies and programs that are underway, how initiatives can either drive turnout, reduce phone calls on election day, or in some way reach voters cost-effectively.

Tell us how to contact someone specific at Google, or Facebook, or Twitter, for instance, and, better, why we should want to.

The Fangirl days are over, in my view.  Election administration has become extremely more sophisticated over the last 10 years.  Much more is expected of us, and we need these companies to engage with us, with their ideas, their vision.

I think it's fair for election administrators to seek to be recruited, enrolled, and engaged by them.  We have this view with other potential partners and vendors, and I believe we do ourselves a disservice thinking of social media as the shiny object in the room as opposed to expecting disciplined thinking from a maturing industry that brings potential to help our voters.
Tuesday, December 18, 2012 0 comments

Forget Christmas--We're Thinking Easter

Outsiders to our office frequently comment how our lives must be slowing down after the November election, but the reality is that we have another election coming up in February and the election-to-election window is similar, November to February, to what it was from August to November.

Filing deadline for the spring elections is barely a month away.  The primary is at the end of February and the election is April 2.

That's April 2, as in the Tuesday after Easter.  We've had spring elections that crossed over Passover or Easter before, but they were the smaller even-year elections.  This is a countywide election and Easter is having a huge impact on our election.

I've said it before and I'll say it again (he typed in a Ferris Bueller voice), getting polling places is 10 times harder than getting election workers.  It's always a push to secure workers willing to take on a very hard job with long hours, but as I've posted before, securing polling places is even harder.

With about one-third of our polling places being churches, that fact will be on full display this spring.  We've already lost about 15 locations because of Easter, when the churches are at full capacity, unable to accept voting machines and equipment either the week before or even the Monday before the election.

Then, there is the anxious-school factor.  Schools locally, and nationally, are re-evaluating their security procedures already in the wake of the Connecticut tragedy and the stark reality is that this review will include using schools as polling places.

In 2005, I met with each school superintendent in Johnson County, introducing myself, thanking them for their support, and asking them about issues they were facing.  During my meeting with Shawnee Mission's Marjorie Kaplan, she very directly, and prophetically as it has turned out, said, "We want to work with you, but the day someone comes into a school and uses a gun is the day we stop using our schools as polling places."

She was addressing calls we get from time to time from parents concerned about the flow of persons who come into the schools on election day.  Neither of us that day considered her comments anything but a remote possibility.  Still, I've thought a lot about that conversation over the last few days.

We had the bad timing of sending out our polling place confirmation forms early Friday morning and we have since received confirmation from Shawnee Mission.  Shawnee Mission, by the way, has a long-standing policy of only placing questions on ballots during polls elections, not mail-ballot elections, so the District's interests in polling places goes a little deeper than it otherwise might.

However, the Olathe School District (the largest in the Kansas City area), is having a further review of our request and the overall use of schools as polling places.  The Connecticut shootings aren't the reason for the review; we're told the review has been underway for a while.  Still, the timing isn't good.

After my meeting with Superintendent Kaplan, we began looking at all options for polling places other than schools.  But after consolidating polling places this year from 284 to 221, we're left with about 100 schools and many of them are in Olathe.

At a minimum, because of Easter, we're facing the need to move thousands of voters to new locations in the same hurry-up mode we were in last June after the 11th-hour redistricting.  We could be looking at moving more than 100,000 voters if we don't get all of our school locations.

Beyond polling places, Holy Week wipes out some training dates.  We usually have two classes of supervising judge training on Saturday and again on the Sunday before the election.  With Sunday out, we need to find a time to train those 130 or so supervising judges.

The weekend before isn't much better because of Palm Sunday and the Saturday is already full with regular election worker training.  Holding daytime classes on Friday might work, but, of course, that's Good Friday.

Even our typical election worker training schedules are impacted because we utilize a church for that training.  We don't have an auditorium-like training environment for 200 or more workers at a time.  The church we use is packed with events and other locations are either not available or not returning our calls at this point.

The dynamics we're facing come at a time when many are weighing the value of moving spring elections to the fall.  I'm for this if we can move them to the fall of the odd years, meaning we have elections in our county every November.  Combining the spring elections with the presidential or gubernatorial elections would be costly and would greatly complicate the administration of the election. That's not to say it's a bad idea, but it's something that needs to be hashed out, I think, in a conference room before trying to debate it in a legislative hearing.

This concept, though, may have traction, too, when considering that if the elections are in November, schools, maybe, could be closed on election day, allowing for more security.  Often, we've talked with the schools about either making election day a teacher in-service day (there's usually one scheduled within a couple of weeks of an election) or actually making the November Election Day a school holiday.

There are other things that could be considered as well, many often pondered by election administrators but seldom considered by other stakeholders.  We live and breathe these issues, but legislators, for instance, have many priorities.  Burning issues to us, while important, are among many burning issues they have, and some have burned brighter.

Perhaps, the light will shine a little more on some of our issues in the coming months.   I'm hopeful we might be coming to a time where we can modernize some of our election statutes, to align them with the realities of the timing of advance voting and military/overseas voting, for instance.

We might be on the cusp of some meaningful election administration reform that might improve overall effectiveness and, possibly, voter turnout as well.  For now, we're still head-down, charging towards Easter.

Thursday, December 13, 2012 2 comments


Apparently, Christian Slater, the actor, had difficulty voting in the presidential election.

I first heard this during a panel session at PEW's Voting in America 2012, an invitation-only conference of election administrators, elected officials, and smart people that I attended earlier this week in Washington, D.C.

The comment came during a discussion by Robin Carnahan, retiring Missouri Secretary of State.  She used the actor's example to point out registration issues in elections.  An inconsistency with his registration, as the story went, kept his vote from being counted in Florida.

Registration process changes are but one of many things considered as answers to the infamous President Obama quote on election night related to, "We've got to fix that."

(Random thought #21--when boarding my flight out Sunday morning, I had a pleasant stop and chat with Senator Jerry Moran.  Obviously, one discussion with just one Senator is a small sample size, but it was evident to me during that conversation that the "fix that" comment was not anywhere near top of mind in the U.S. Senate).

(Random thought #186--you may wonder why random thoughts are numbered, if they are random, and I must point out that they are numbered solely for the convenience of the reader).

Anyway, the session before the Christian Slater example was much more impactful, in my opinion.  Heather Gerken led a panel to discuss the creation of PEW's Election Performance Index that will be rolling out soon.

Heather started this all with her book, The Democracy Index, and the whole concept here is using data to measure performance.  It gets to the foundation of Stephen Covey's concept of, "Put something on a wall and measure it, and it will improve."

Heather is a rock star when it comes to elections--not to be confused with another Heather, Heather Smith of Rock the Vote.  She spoke on Monday and is very impressive as well.

They are two of my favorite Heathers.  A third, not at the conference, is Heather Taylor of E-Consultancy, who posted about social media and elections coincidentally the first day of the conference.  I highly recommend following her on Twitter.

There, three Heathers and Christian Slater (sort of) together over two days, but this wasn't a movie with a bomb, although it was broadcast on CSpan3 and we were beginning to evacuate the Newseum just before the conference began because of some safety issue that was quickly resolved.

I'll speak to one of the other panels, related to social media, in a future post, but sticking to the Performance Index, it is something that we want to nudge along in Johnson County.  I'll have some discussion about the Index itself later as well, but Heather Gerken's book is a good read in the interim.
Panel Discussion on the PEW
Election Performance Index--Former
(and outstanding) EAC Commissioner
Ray Martinez, Michigan Election
Director Chris Thomas, Smartguy
MIT professor Charles Stewart, and
PEW Index Champion Zachary
Markovits.  Behind the podium
is Heather Gerkin--you see her boots
only, presumably used to kick
tails and take names (and
The great thing about the Index is that it is happening.  The bad thing is that no matter how it's prefaced as a discussion-starter or preliminary, first impressions are lasting impressions.  When all of us see the data, we immediately look to to see how our state has done. 

The next debate is whether these are the right measurements or are they equally weighted or what the most important measurement is or even if the measurements themselves are accurate or if we are measuring apples-to-apples.

"Wait time," for instance, is something measured but it doesn't break down if the voter voted in advance or at the polls.  And, it's self-reported by the voter, so it may actually be the perception of the wait, not the actual time.  That perception may be more important, or less, but this gives you a tiny taste of the discussions that might spin from the data.

A trendy job these days is that of Data Scientist, tracking "Big Data," and breaking it down into insightful bites.  We need a Data Scientist at the Johnson County Election Office.

For that matter, we need a financial and strategic planning manager, an outreach manager, and at least three more employees to simply assist with election blocking and tackling so we aren't dependent solely on one person without a backup at critical points in the election cycle.

We haven't been able to get those basic needs filled, having the same number of employees for the last 20 years despite seismic changes in elections administration, although we're going to take another swing that that during the next budget cycle.  Still, a push for a Data Scientist would only result in eye rolls--we'd have a better chance getting another trendy (and not needed) position, a Sustainability Manager.  We need the real positions to ensure we can sustain administering elections, so I likely won't push for a Data Scientist.

To me, that's the biggest risk with the Performance Index.  The benefits, I believe anyway, can't be disputed.  But without devoting a resource to really get our fingernails dirty with the data, we run the risk of the wrong people seeing the wrong metric and drawing false conclusions, good or bad.

It's a good start, but I'm sure I'm about 60 days or so from getting a call from our local radio news station wanting a quote on how Kansas fared on the Performance Index.  In some ways, the Index truly will be the bomb I referenced earlier and if my anecdotal "Fix That," research is any indication, we'll be talking about the Index much longer than a line from a presidential acceptance speech.

Monday, December 3, 2012 3 comments

iPads at the Polls, an Update

You might remember that we deployed iPads at our polling places as an electronic election worker resource guide.

Among the many things we will be sorting out following last month's presidential election is the effectiveness of these and the potential further uses.

The eventual goal is to consider using the iPad, or some other tablet, as an electronic poll book, saving printing costs and time.  The practicality of such a thing is complex at best.

First, we would need at least two and maybe three at each polling place. They would need to constantly talk with each other so that if one malfunctions, is dropped, or lost, we would still have a way to continue signing people in and can capture voter history.

(Voter history, by the way, is simply a record of who voted.  Right now, we have to manually go through each of our 250+ poll books and, page by page, scan the barcode next to signatures after each election.  The iPads would allow us to upload the history automatically).

There were savings and efficiencies with the iPads during this election, primarily because we were able to avoid printing election worker manuals, large countywide maps, and street index listings. These maps and listings are tools to help the workers get voters to the correct polling place.

More than half of our supervising judges gave the iPads glowing reviews.  Others hated them.  In one polling place I visited in November, at 9 a.m., it hadn't yet been taken out of the bag.  (In fairness, this was an extremely busy site that might as well have had a revolving door at the front of the gymnasium based on the traffic I saw coming and going while I was there).

Just this past week, I received three calls from technology stakeholders, including Apple and two electronic poll book providers.  Another sent me his tablet prototype announcement a couple of weeks ago.

We also submitted the resource guide as an entry in Harvard Kennedy's School's Innovations in American Government Awards and made it past the first evaluation gate.  We're not sure if we're still in the mix there, and I hope to follow up on that with the leader of that program next week when I'm at elections conference in Washington.

The award has a financial piece to it, which would let us expand our iPad use as poll books.  How we would do that is still a question, although we have at least four viable partner opportunities, and we'd like to consider building our own software with the Secretary of State's office.

Managing and storing a fleet of iPads is no small thing.  They can be updated universally, but that assumes we have the networking capability for that and that's been a big assumption.  We already had to make room for additional voting machines and our warehouse is crammed as it is.

Then there's the matter of election worker engagement.  I don't think the iPad adoption that we've seen can be stereotypically linked to the age of a traditional election worker.  For some, it's their thing and for others, it's not.

Still, if we use them as electronic poll books, they must be used, and that brings into question how hard we want to push and train something that, in the end, is simply a place where the voter signs. The printing savings in indisputable, as is avoiding the after-election scanning, but the poll books add to training that already has become exhausting.

Add to this the uneven feedback by those who use electronic poll books and we're left with a lot to ponder.  This has been expeditionary learning thus far, creating more questions than answers.  Like every other equipment issue election administrators are facing, though, there probably isn't one right answer, and that's what we're beginning to see here.

Sunday, November 25, 2012 3 comments

Let Me Say This About That

Sister Shirley, my first and second grade teacher, introduced me to the Magic Math Machine.

I remember it vividly, up to the point of near-practicality.  It was something she drew on the overhead.  It was square, with ears.

Think of Mickey Mouse with a square head, and you have the image.  Instead of a nose, the Magic Math Machine/square Mickey Mouse had a rectangle in the middle of its face, where the magic answer would appear.

Because I was a geek even at six, I re-drew the Magic Math Machine for my older brother on my chalkboard in the basement.  I invited all my friends to have a go at the Magic Math Machine.

Each ear contained numbers that were to be added.  This is the point, though, that my memory gets fuzzy.

I can't actually remember where the magic came in.

In retrospect, I don't think there was any magic at all to how this thing worked.  I believe Sister Shirley wrote one number in one ear, another in the other ear, and then told us how we added them together to write the answer in the rectangle.

Then, we could erase the numbers in the ears and the rectangle, and start again!

No wonder my friends weren't impressed.

(I should point out that Sister Shirley was my favorite teacher of all time, but when I was in the third grade, she left her vocation to get married.  I went to her wedding and yet I still only remember her as Sister Shirley.  Thus, I'm also beginning to think there is further evidence of gaps in my memory from the 1970s).

Anyway, I've been on the hunt for the equivalent of an Elections Magic Math Machine.

What I'd like to know, in some easy way, is the relationship between advance voting and polling place turnout.  My imaginary Magic Math Machine has sliders that let me increase the number of advance voting sites or machines at a site, and see instantly how that impacts the number of voters at each location on election day.

I took a crack at all of this following the 2008 presidential election and plan to follow this post with some numbers and the beginning of how such a Magic Math Machine might work.

One of the things I determined is that advance voting clearly lets us "sweat the assets," getting utilization of our voting machines at a rate of about 85 percent (meaning, of the time we are open, a machine would be idle only 15 percent of the time).  At the polls, the utilization rate is about 25 percent.

A robust Magic Math Machine is one of the things I'd like to see as an answer to the now infamous, "We've got to fix that," comment regarding lines at polling places by President Obama.  If the Election Assistance Commission is amped up as a response to this statement, this is a tool I wish the EAC would develop.

There are some statistical modeling packages out there.  Crystal Ball, by Oracle, has some capabilities and I've tried to look at R (that's what it's called, R) as a hobby, but you can imagine that any statistical package that goes by a letter already insists upon itself.

(Oh, a side note on the "fix that," comment--there has been no shortage of ideas put out by the media, scientists, and election administrators on how "that" might be fixed.  There have so many ideas, in fact, that I'm growing concerned that fixing "that" likely won't happen, primarily because no one seems to be stopping and agreeing upon what "that" is.  The entire community is in solutions-mode without a problem statement).

"That" in Johnson County terms is "this":  What's the right mix of advance voting and voting at the polls?  Does that mix change by type of election (should we offer satellite advance voting for the lower turnout spring elections, for instance)?   What role, if any, should we have in our office to steer someone one way or another, voting in advance or at the polls?  If we think we should have a role, why?

I'm hung up on the fact that 50 percent of our 2008's vote came in advance and in 2012, 43 percent was in advance.  That 43 percent is still big, but in real numbers, it put more than 15,000 people at the polls that we thought would have voted in advance.

If we knew they were coming for dinner, we'd have put a place-setting at the table.

Actually, I've simplified that statement for effect.

In our case, we were prepared for that greater turnout because we always build the election with more machines that we need, but it was an exhausting day for our workers.  We encroached our buffer.

More importantly, 2012 highlighted the lack of control we have in preparing for turnout and no one--in this election--is talking about the other side, planning for a higher turnout than occurs.

There's a cost there.

One of our county commissioners, a former mayor, once wisely compared planning for elections as buying a summer's supply of snacks for the pool.  Terrific weather, and we'd be back needing more money for more snacks.  If the summer was cool and rainy, expect a lot of chips to be wasted.

The uncertainty, and the costs that come with uncertainty, are a big deal.  I don't know the specific issues nationwide, but lack of funding, or at least reasonably cautious spending, was probably a root cause behind "that."

So, nationally, whatever "that" is, I don't think it can be solved as simply as some pundits are making it.

The answers to "that," for me will come from the elusive Magic Math Machine.  More on that soon.
Saturday, November 17, 2012 0 comments

Playoffs? Don't Talk To Me About Playoffs!

When George Brett heaved a wild throw in the first game of the 1976 American League Championship series, I first heard a phrase, often repeated, that has stuck with me.

"Everything is magnified in the playoffs," the announcer said.

Make no mistake, presidential elections are administrators' playoffs.

Playoffs in sports are the time the success paradigm changes.  Instead of, "we can win if have this, this, and this," it becomes, "we would have won if only this."

Likewise, I often say that presidential elections expose the stress points in election administration.  We prepare with contingency plans, but there's always a, "I think this would have gone better if we did this" discussion.

Good election administrators were the kids in school who got a 99 on a test and immediately obsessed with the one mistake.

Our stress points in 2008, for instance, were facility-related, leading us to taking steps to address major facility issues.

In one case, we saw our little mail slot at our door couldn't handle the onslaught of ballots being dropped off.  The envelopes fell into a foyer and could have been soiled if the floor was wet.  So, we've since converted a window into a drop box a bank would be proud of, dropping the envelopes into a secure, locked room.

This election exposed some process issues--nothing serious, but when scaled became unnecessary time-eaters, from some changes we need to make to our website to poll agent forms to training.  There's never enough time to improve our training the way we want or to conduct the training the way we'd like, but we have some changes we will be making in this cycle.

"In this cycle" is an important phrase because this election isn't quite finished and we're already gearing up for the next.  We have an April countywide election and a primary for that election in February.

In fact, we have less time to prepare for the February election, after November, than we did to prepare for November after August.  The crunch mode continues through April.

All of us are asked frequently right now about how things must be slowing down and it's totally the opposite.  We have payroll to complete, voter history to finalize, election worker training ahead, and polling places to secure for the spring, for instance.  April's election brings new issues because election day is the Tuesday after Easter.  Some polling places won't be available, so we'll have to move voters, and our training will be impacted because we typically conduct supervising judge training the Saturday and Sunday before the election.

Spring elections are the most complicated, also, because of candidate rotation schedules.  Add to all of this the holidays, filing deadline in January, a new legislative session, and the fact that none of us have had a day off in months, or even have laundry caught up, and it is anything but slow.

Our staff will conduct a post-mortem of the election in early December to document all of the areas we want to address short-term or highlight as part of our strategic approach in 2013 and beyond.  We'll prepare a presentation in the spring related to all of those issues and I'll post it here.  This was the summary after 2008 (with a nod to Tammy Patrick of Maricopa County for a couple of stock photos):

One obvious area that must be addressed is our budget, particularly in staffing.  We are seriously understaffed, have been pointing this out for a few years now, and we're near a breaking point.  I'll have a post on that in a few days.

Another post soon will be related to the hot issue of the day--lines at polling places.  I've got some interesting math on what occurred to us in 2012, but, short story, we expected an average of about 140 more voters at each polling place, compared to 2008, because of our reductions.  We had 215.

The argument to reduce polling places was that advance voting has been so successful, yet even though  overall turnout was 7 points lower in 2012 compared to 2008, we had the most persons ever vote at the polls in Johnson County history.  This, after reducing polling places.

One thing to consider, that I'll get into with that post, is that all of this goes beyond simple capacity planning.

For now, this post is long enough--more soon.
Sunday, November 11, 2012 0 comments

A Good, Fast Closing

Expect my forthcoming best-seller, "Everything I Learned in Business Life I Learned at Captain D's" to be released as soon as get around to writing it.

I have the chapter topics and I really did learn a great deal there.

Coming from divorced parents and only $500 that my father gave toward my college tuition, I worked several jobs to pay for my school.  Some jobs paid very little (such as Managing Editor at the University News or sports stringer jobs at United Press International).

I worked at Captain D's for seven years, first in high school and then until my final year in college, when I got a summer internship at Sprint.  I worked as assistant manager at a different restaurant each summer and then weekends during the school year.

I still have one of my
Captain ties.
There, I was hired by someone who was manic about customer service and, in my first job, I was very impressionable.  Captain D's had an operations manual, and I memorized it.  I recited it.  I lived my life by the manual.

We have a training manual for election workers--and it's a great manual--so I think about the Captain D's manual all the time.  Each election night, I think about the simplistic advice the manual gave about cleaning after closing.

"A good, fast closing is desired."

Well, yeeeeeaaaaahhhhh!  (sarcastic stretch)

Once the restaurant closed, we had to clean utensils and pans, filter the fryers, clean the grill and everything perfectly in all aspects of the store, mop the floors, make the closing deposit, record sales, and have the place ready to go for those coming in at 7 the next morning.

It was the type of thing that could keep us there a few hours after closing.  That would be, in the manual's view, a good, slow closing--undesirable because of the cost.

Some tried shortcuts (a bad, fast closing), leaving the restaurant dirty or less ready for those in the morning.

When we report election results, I'm always aiming for the good, fast closing: accurate results, in final form, before the 10 o'clock news is over.

Election integrity advocates will talk about how people are willing to wait for results, and that's simply not the case.  There's a belief that a switch can be flipped at 7:15 and all results (even though they are miles and miles away from our office and physically being driven back before they can be uploaded) should be ready immediately.

Our final results were up at 10:15 Tuesday, the earliest of any large county in the state or in the Kansas City area.  Tomorrow at our canvass, I'm sure I will hear from someone asking if they could have been up sooner.

I am sensitive to that with respect to candidates, who plan parties but the attendees tucker out before the results come.  But no one wants the results out faster than those of us at the office--we were at the office about 18 hours Tuesday.

Most importantly, though, we want a good, fast closing, with emphasis on "good."  An inaccurate, fast closing would serve no one.

Speaking of the canvass, we will present about 8,000 provisional ballots to the Board of Canvassers tomorrow.  Photos of the bags they come back in, and after they've been adjudicated, are to the right and below.
Thursday, November 8, 2012 2 comments

We've Got to Fix This

So much has happened in the past week that I have many topics I need to cover here.

One downside to blogging and actually working is that the work gets in the way.  It's been nutty, wall-to-wall, and until Google comes out with telepathy blogging, this old-fashioned method of catch-up will have to do.

Tuesday night, our staff was humming along uploading results to the point I thought I'd be home before the 10 o'clock news was over.  We use several voting machine stations to upload results to our server and sadly in our cross-checks, we determined that about 15 locations didn't upload.

Bummer.  That was about another 125 cards, taking an additional 20 minutes or so.  Still, we posted final results on our website at 10:15.

I then had to complete a reporting sheet to the Secretary of State's office for statewide roll-up of races and as I was faxing that, I heard that news outlets were calling the election.

Bummer, again.  I was hoping to be an Average Joe watching that at home, I thought, with an imaginary clench of the fist, "Oh, Cross Checks!"

Cross-checks are good, of course.  Hence, an imaginary clench of the fist.

So, I didn't watch election coverage when I went home.  I ate my first meal of the day, around 11:30, until I didn't have the strength to raise my fork, and went to sleep.

I missed the acceptance speech and the hub-ub-a-boo line that's got election administrators talking.

Regarding people still in line, President Obama said, "By the way, we have to fix that."

He wasn't talking about lines in Johnson County, but I wasn't happy with the lines we had.  In some locations, we had lines of about 45 minutes, particularly in the early morning.

We had lines in advance voting, too, but our advance voting turnout was lighter than in 2008.  Problem was, more people voted at the polls Tuesday than voted at the polls in 2008.

On Tuesday, more than 154,000 people voted at the polls, compared to about 142,000 in 2008.

Double problem was, we reduced polling locations in response to budget cuts, from 284 in 2008 to 221 this week.

So, nearly 10 percent more voters with 20 percent fewer polling places.  That's a bad combination.

This reduction was encouraged because of the greater acceptance of advance voting.  One county department head, in a budget meeting after the 2010 election, said she thought our voters "got too good of service," in terms of wait time at the polls. 


Early in my Sprint career, I was responsible for telecommunications relay service, which bridges persons who are deaf or hard of hearing with voice users.  An operator sits between the callers, typing what's spoken to one user and relaying what's typed to the other.

This was a call-center environment, so I'm very familiar with the issues of projecting and handling volumes of traffic.  It's akin to building a highway for thousands of cars but realizing that the entrance ramp can only let one car in at a time.

"Fix this," isn't a simple concept.  Addressing a traffic choke-point by creating more entry points (more polling places or advance locations) also implies we have some control over where voters go. 

Half of our voters voted in advance in 2008, but only 43 percent in 2012.  That's a trend that could reverse in 2016.  We heard anecdotes of voters waiting in advance lines in 2008, only to find friends had no wait at the polls.  I think Tuesday was a result of some 2008 advancers thinking they were chumps for waiting and, instead, felt the stress of waiting on election day.

Traffic and Lines During the Last Hours
of Advance Voting Monday
I talked with a reporter at The New Republic about this and have some views on what "Fix this," might mean.     Doug Chapin also had a great post about this.

The president may not even remember saying it at this point, but the election administrator community will make this topic number one, I'm sure, at the annual legislative meeting conducted by the Election Center in January.

Some of my thoughts to "fix this" were raised in The New Republic post.

A couple more "out there" solutions:

1.  Reduce Voting Options.  This is contradictory to conventional wisdom, but election administrators run three elections in Kansas--advance in person, advance by mail, and at the polls.  If Internet voting were ever allowed, we'd have four elections running.  We have the same staff size we had 20 years ago, with half of the voters we have now and before advance voting was an option.  One way to consider managing traffic is to manage the entrance ramps to highway.

2. Appoint Election Assistance Commission Commissioners.  No election administrator has been more in favor of closing the EAC than me.  Contrived through the Help America Vote Act, I think the mission of the EAC has been accomplished.  But, if  "fix this" is a mantra, this is an agency that exists and should be amped up, again.  Currently, the four commissioner seats (two Republican, two Democratic, appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate) are vacant.  It's a Dead Agency Walking right now.  Filling the EAC Commissioner posts and adopting a new strategic intent focused on solutions, not advice, would be a potential way to address the "Fix This" objective.

3. Speaking of solutions, how about e-solutions.  Specifically, I'm talking Internet voting, email voting, Bring Your Own Device voting, electronic pollbooks, online registration, and a myriad of ways to leverage technology.

Said more directly, Internet voting is coming.  There are a lot of scientists and other smart people who refute that Internet voting can happen, often citing very valid security concerns.

But here's the thing--it's not up to them.  The number one question I'm asked by voters is, "Why can't we vote on the Internet?"  One day, the people asking the question will come up with their own answer.

We like to think we're in control of our destiny, but often a big bang occurs that causes us to react.  Internet voting will be such a thing.

Social factors will lead to Internet voting.  A legislature will pass a law that Internet voting must be implemented.  A city will decide to conduct its own elections using Survey Monkey.  A natural disaster may occur during a critical voting period (oh, wait, that did happen).

Once society decides it's time for Internet voting, the scientists will no longer have a voice.

We will go from, "why not," to "how." 

Should you disagree, I give you as People's Exhibit A the buzz related to a simple "Fix This" comment by the President.

We already are all asking ourselves, "How?"
Friday, October 26, 2012 1 comments

Line Shifting

As I sit looking out my office window on the fifth day of advance voting in person, our parking lot is remarkably empty.

We have a steady stream of persons coming in, and we have more parking spaces than we had in 2008, but the difference between now and then is stark.

In 2008, it felt like a magnet was pulling in any car driving by.  I imagined we were experiencing what employees at the Apple Store felt, where just because we existed, droves of people were coming into our business.

It's not like we're dead now.  It's just not alive.

Yesterday, in our four advance locations, we had 5,214 voters.  Four years ago on the comparable day, we had 6,715.

But that's not the story. 

What we saw in 2008 were people waiting in lines to avoid potentially more inconvenient lines on election day.  Advance voting is often called convenience voting because it allows voters to accommodate voting more around their schedules.

Here's a photo of the Saturday morning before the 2008 election, before we even opened:

It's as though lines in 2008 made people happy, that democracy was vibrant.  This year, a line during advance voting is viewed by some voters as suppression.
Our county is spending nearly $100,000 to have four locations open nine or more hours a day during the week and another six hours on Saturday for two weeks before election day.  We also promoted the fact that people can vote by mail by sending out a postcard that cost another $120,000 just to mail.
And we're doing this to keep people from voting?
That was the message I got from a voter at our Metcalf South location, where we had 300 fewer people voting than we did the same day in 2008, with more election workers and more voting machines this year.
I've had other calls, too, and always the callers have referred to the advance site as the polling place.  In fact, we have 221 polling places that will be called into action on election day.  These are advance voting locations.
Every election brings new social issues, whether it be concerns of voting machines or illegal voters, as were the topics in 2006 and 2008, for instance. 
This anti-line sentiment is beginning to feel like a social shift and maybe the issue of 2012.  If people are complaining of a line during advance voting now, when we actually do have the lines we had in 2008, I can only imagine the calls. 
This is the slow week.  Next week, we'll average 10,000 voters a day.
Then, there's the Monday before the election, when we can only have advance voting at our office, and it is required to end at noon by law.
We treat the noon deadline the same as we do the close of the polls on election day, where anyone in line at noon would be able to vote.
In 2008, the only problem was, there was a line of cars waiting to turn into our parking lot for more than a mile to the south.  We had a police car travel to the end of that line and when the police car made it here, we treated everyone in the parking lot as "in line." 
We processed our last voter that day at 2 p.m.
So, I wonder what the reaction will be if we have a repeat of that in 2012.  It's as though the mere site of other voters is stifling this year.
On the other hand, on the day registration closed in 2008, we had a line out the door at 5 p.m.  This year, we had one car in the parking lot at 5.
Fewer people are engaged, but we're getting complaints that we are handling them with more resources than we applied in 2008.  I'm trying to make sense of that.
So, there's definitely a social change in 2012.  Is it a shift in attitude toward the election,  toward advance voting "rights," or was 2008 simply the shift and this is just normal?
Remember, in budget focus groups, people told the county they thought we had too many polling places, open one day.  Now, we're being told we have too few advance voting sites, open 12 days.

Sunday, October 21, 2012 0 comments

People Move, The Sequel

In July, I had a post featuring returned postcards that we mailed in advance of the August primary.

Two-thirds of the county's voters already had at least one election 2012 before that mailing (thus, a previous mailing), and yet we had thousands of postcards returned as undeliverable.

We worked all of those, either making the voter inactive or updating the voter's registration.  Theoretically, every voter in Johnson County was confirmed with a current address in July.

Then, with our election, we had more than 1,000 provisional ballots that again required updating of voter records.  Many of these were from voter moves, so, again, in August, every voter in Johnson County was confirmed with a current address.

Two months later, last Friday, we mailed a postcard to active voters who were not on the permanent sick and disabled ballot list.  Of our roughly 370,000 voters at the time, the postcard went to approximately 330,000, all verified at their address less than 60 days before.

As promised, here's a snapshot of how many have come back undeliverable:

This provides some perspective about how many transactions and registrations we handle.  A 30,000-voter increase in our rolls this year, 10 percent, results in nearly 100,000 activities to remove, update, or add voters, netting 30,000.

For fun, I've added below the photo from the earlier post in July.  You'll see we have eight trays back now and only had seven then!

Keep in mind we have the same staff size that existed 20 years ago, when we had 150,000 fewer voters, and you're likely beginning to see why photo ID never cracked the top 10 in terms of operational issues we've had to work through in 2012.
Friday, October 19, 2012 1 comments

All Dogs Go To Heaven

It's been a busy week of training and I'll have a real post that's more administrator-ey in a couple of days, but I've come to the conclusion that if all dogs don't go to heaven, at the very least, everyone eventually becomes an election worker.

My latest reminder came Monday with a flashback to my college days.

Back then, I had learned of this musical group of guys my age from Ireland called U2.  They had odd names, like Bono and the Edge and the strangely normal Larry Mullen, Jr.

I bought their album, "Boy," and I listened to it in its entirety at least twice a day.  Most of my friends laughed at me (maybe it wasn't because of U2, come to think of it...) and everyone I knew disliked their music.

They came to concert in Kansas City and I was the first person to buy a ticket, for $1.  Actually, it was $1.02, sponsored as a "Catch a Rising Star" concert by radio station KY-102.  I bought 4 tickets.  I convinced two of my friends to go; my girlfriend and now wife passed.

We had to sit in the balcony because we weren't 21.  Floor seats were 21 and older.  Bono joked that night that the band members weren't 21 so they shouldn't be allowed downstairs, also, as he sprayed a bottle of champagne onto the crowd during the encore.

The band had so few songs they played some of them twice.  My two friends who went became U2 fans for life.  And, if it was possible to be any more OCD about the group's music, I continually lamented that no radio station would play U2's songs.

In particular, I thought KY-102 should play U2.  They sponsored the concert.

So I called and requested, "I Will Follow."  I called anytime I had a free minute, always being told it would be right on.  I stayed tuned it and, of course, never heard it.

It was devotion I gave to help this struggling group out--this group that later has made several gazillion dollars.  At one point, as I drove to school my senior year, the station played "Pride," and I was giddy.

Well, actually, I was annoyed that it took so long and wished it was another, earlier song playing, but U2 on KY-102 nonetheless.  But after the song, one of the morning DJs groaned and said, "I hate U2."

Wow.  For me, it was an unforgettable moment from a song from the album, "The Unforgettable Fire."

Fast-forward more than 25 years later and that DJ was 10 feet away from me in election worker training, saving democracy.  Despite the U2 memory, here he was, a piece of my youth, and I thought it was so amazing that he was now with me and our office working the election.

Just a month ago, I stood at the Kansas City Plaza waiting for a 10k race to start as the album, "The Unforgettable Fire," was being played and I was thinking of those days when no one would play U2.  My day had come, I thought, and then I sadly realized that I never actually had a day--but they did.

And now, seeing this DJ, I wanted to go up to him and thank him for being an election worker and tell him this entire boring story that would likely make him wonder if he did the right thing by signing up to be an election worker for this crazy guy who can't let go.  Having OCD tendencies is admirable when tending to a detail-oriented thing like an election, but when speaking about a rock group, not so much.

Another Time, Another Place, I guess.

Oh, that's a U2 song reference.  For now, back to focusing on The Unforgettable Fire that is the 2012 presidential election.

Ticket Stubs From the First and Second Concerts U2 had in Kansas City.
Saturday, October 13, 2012 0 comments

Browser Wars

24 Days Before the Election
4 Days Before Advance Voting By Mail Begins
9 Days Before Advance Voting in Person Begins

This coming week brings a training explosion.

12 classes, 36 hours of training.  Most of the training this week will be at our office, and we want that training before advance voting in person begins the following Monday because we don't have enough parking spaces to conduct training and have voting at the same time.

Well, for that matter, we don't have enough parking spaces for voting.  Next week, our staff will park a block away, thanks to the generosity of Sysco.

This is the crazy time where lack of time collides with the very reason I wanted to have this blog--to show you what is happening.  I'll try to live up to that missive, although some posts may be shorter and end rather suddenly (although, I think that's the blog way--no concluding paragraph).

This is such a post, actually, because we are encountering the beginning of what I worry will be a conspiracy epidemic.  Conspiracy epidemics in the election world are huge time suckers, and since I have no spare time to suck, I'm hoping a proactive post here might avoid said time sucking.

Specifically, in the last 24 hours, I've received two emails from voters who scrolled a mouse over a word on a page on our website and then took a screenshot where an ad came up.  Actually, in one case it was a wikipedia term but I can't find it in wikipedia so I think it was an ad pretending to be wikipedia and the other was a clear advertisement.

These voters wanted to know why these ads were on our site.  Of course, they aren't on our site.  These are prompted by something in the user's browser.

(Note on conspiracy theories--right or wrong, in elections, I often have to start at the point of distrusting the person who brings the issue to me.  I'm a pretty naive guy, and I've been adequately burned trusting something at face value.

Related yarn: In 2006, a voter wanted to know why the McCaskill-Talent Missouri Senate race was on her ballot.  I told her there was no possible way that it was on her ballot.  She asked if I thought she was hallucinating, and I simply told her I was just saying that there was no way it was on the ballot.  Two hours later another woman called our office proclaiming the same thing and talked with someone else in our office who didn't yet know of my call.  During the second call, the caller asked our staff member if she was telling her she was hallucinating.  Hmm...two impossibilities and the only two references to hallucinating I've heard in years.  Putting the pieces together, I think it was a mother and a daughter, from different houses.  Why they took this on as a cause, I don't know.)

So, possibly, these emails are related or are part of a bigger push to try to discredit us in some way, as though we've laced our website with subliminal messages.  Second note on conspiracy theories--I've worked for the government for a while now, and I'm here to say that the government isn't smart enough to pull over a conspiracy.

In any event, it's possible that specific browsers have a plug-in loaded.  I can't get such a thing to occur on my Mac or my PC, but I don't use Firefox and I don't install Google plug-ins.  I've forwarded the second note to our county's IT director to see if there is a way to make our text-based site immune to mouseovers from plug-ins, but I doubt there is.

Maybe some smart IT person reading here can comment with a tip to share with our workers at training because I expect this could be a raging conspiracy story by Wednesday based on my internal meter gauging past (non) events.  In any, um, event, this isn't us, although I know soon the burden of proof will be on us to show why it isn't us.
Tuesday, October 9, 2012 0 comments

Surf's Up!

28 days until Election Day.
7 days until the Close of Registration
8 days until Advance Voting By Mail Begins.
13 days until Advance Voting in Person Begins.

This is a short post that will likely mean more to Johnson County readers than anyone.

Still, our experience right now might reflect the current nationally.

Advance Voting in Person is 13
Days Away.
Specifically, we know several tidal waves are coming.  But we know this mostly because history tells us so.  The waves right now, though, have been manageable.

We've had a lot of interest in advance voting and we're seeing ballots returned from our military and overseas voters.

But right now, we're at about 40 percent of the volume of ballots that we sent out 20 days before the 2008 presidential election. We sent out about 36,000 that day, but we're at around 14,000 right now.

We have a postcard that hits voters late this week as a reminder of the election and I expect at least 5,000 advance applications over the weekend.  By October 17, this year's date that is 20 days before the election, we'll probably be loading up about 26,000 ballots to go to the post office.

That's a significant drop from 2008.

We don't have a U.S. Senate race as we did in 2008.  The U.S. Congress race involves the incumbent Republican but no Democratic challenger.

So, there isn't a large engine driving turnout beyond president and the local state races.  I knew that would impact turnout, initially predicting a drop from 78 percent in 2008 to 75 percent.  Now, I wonder if we'll see 73.

We expected the presidential debate to trigger activity last week, and to some degree it did, and next week will be nutty regardless because of the 12 election worker training classes we have scheduled.  If the first big wave hits Monday, as I'm now expecting, it will have double the impact because of the amped up week ahead.

For now, we sit in this odd place of about 72 hours, knowing things are about to explode.  We're ready.

Sunday, October 7, 2012 0 comments

Locked and Loaded

You've probably seen the ad where the CEO of LifeLock boldly lists his social security number and invites anyone to compromise his identity.

The ad is a dare, one that enough took to compromise his identity 13 times as of May 2010.

This post is not such a dare, but an update to a post earlier this year regarding our website.

Our website is mostly static, text-based.  It's more of an online encyclopedia than anything, and with a couple of exceptions, isn't table-driven.  That's bad for editing, but good for protection.  It's another example of my view that we should think like the Jetsons and live like the Flintstones.  Simple is sometimes the hardest to hack.

I'm convinced that hackers will hit an election website within the month (they already have compromised a couple in the country) and I didn't want that website to be ours.  I expect the hack will be mischievous but could be a blow to voter confidence.

It gets to what I tell visitors to our election office who would like to know our security measures to protect the vote.

Can someone do something that will change the result of an election? No.  Can they do something that can disrupt us and cause us to have a bad day?  Absolutely, and we are always attuned to that.

With websites, here's the scenario I want to avoid:

  1. A hacker paints a mischievous message on our home page, essentially saying, "Ha, ha, ha."
  2. Voters worry that if a webpage can be hacked, how can they be assured the voting system can be hacked?
  3. We respond that our website is hosted by a separate county department, out of our control.
  4. Voters worry that despite our assurances, what if aspects of our voting system are out of control?They aren't, but this is a perception path I don't want to spend energy chasing.

Our IT department stepped up and at my request enlisted a third-party to do penetration testing on our website.  This company proudly stated before the test that they could find a vulnerability with any website.

They found a minor one with ours.  Finding something, actually, made me feel better than not finding anything because it gave me comfort that they were diligent.  This isn't a place for false positives.

The vulnerability was one area that isn't text-based, our voter lookup.  Voters can enter their names and birthdates to pull up their sample ballot--the races that will appear on their specific ballot when they come to the polling place.   Once a visitor has entered one valid combination, the visitor could change some of the string in the address line of the website and call up anyone else's sample ballot without knowing the voter's birthdate.

That's a pretty lame vulnerability, particularly because it's all public-record information.  Still, the IT department has hopped on that and fixed it.  Vulnerability identified, and fixed.

Still, I live by the concept that everyone is smarter than me.  Maybe the LifeLock CEO should do the same.

This concept has us constantly evaluating security and even with our fancy study, I'm not convinced our website is impenetrable.  I think it is, but I know there could be some hotshot programmer determined to find something that this company didn't.

But I do think the chance of us having the website hacked, if that happens, is greatly reduced, and I think we've taken the proper diligence to ensure that it won't happen.
Wednesday, October 3, 2012 2 comments

Boom Goes the Dynamite.

September was a light month for posts not because we've been busy--we're always busy--but because I've been busy typing.

I'm not exactly sure, for instance, when video games lost their charm for me but after looking at computers, tablets, and smartphones for 10 hours a day, the idea of staring at a television for anything is unappealing.

Probably, the move from two-button controllers to 450-button controllers didn't help, either.  ("To make your player smile and wink while tackling with most of his weight on his left leg, hit shift+enter+red triangle+A while moving the joystick left diagonally 32 degrees.")

I type the same thing over and over these days:

1. "In the house!"  This is to acknowledge to a voter that I have received his or her advance ballot application.
2. "In the house and in the works!"  A slight variation from above, usually reserved for persons I believe to be hipsters.
3. "Here's the scoop on advance voting:" This precedes a link to our advance voting information on our webpage, at least saving me from typing three paragraphs.
4. "I've attached an application to get a ballot by mail."  Self-explanatory, and I've yet to forget the attachment this year.  Yet.
5. "We begin sending out ballots on Oct. 17." This is code for, "Please don't email me a week from now wondering why you don't have your ballot."
6. "If you don't have your ballot by Oct. 24, please email me." That could be a busy day, but hopefully the Postal Service won't let me down.  I like to provide a real day for a voter to target, rather than waiting until the Friday before the election before alerting us to an issue.  Too soon, and it's a waste of cycles.  Too late, and as I often say but seldom type, "It can only end in tears."
7. "Groovy."
8. "Aok."
9. "Aces." All my own geeky ways of acknowledging that I'm on the same page with the emailer.

Oh, looking for "10"?  Nope, just 9.  Oh, rats, actually--"Nope!" is number 10.  Somehow, I feel like nope, with a capital N and an exclamation point conveys, "I get it," with just the right urgency and whimsy.

Sadly, "rats" makes 11.  Sadly, "sadly" makes 12.

I often think how hard it would be to be a television anchor because every day's job is just like the one before.  Yet, I type so many things over and over again.  I've dabbled with cutting and pasting responses based on the question, but other than the links, I've never been able to stick with that approach.

To voters, their question is unique.  They deserve a personal response.  I like doing that and believe someday I will have personally interacted with all 372,000 voters in Johnson County.

It has kept me from posts, though.  Here was our excitement for the day--the "rectory" was officially torn down, leaving way for a plan we are hatching to utilize the green(ish) space for advance voting traffic signs.  More on that soon.  In the meantime, here are before and after photos.

House, disposed, literally.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012 0 comments

National Voter Registration Day

42 Days to Election Day

Perhaps to the surprise of no one and as proof that there is a day for everything, today is National Voter Registration Day.

I registered to vote in 1980 and haven't changed my registration for at least 15 years, so I'm not sure how to participate individually.  Professionally, it's a little hard to do too much today, either, other than ring a bell whenever anyone comes into our office.

My license plate on my car says, "VOTE," and I'd argue that voting day is more important than registration day, but it is quite the bummer to go to vote, only to find you aren't registered, so I'm down with the concept. 

Still, "REGISTER TO VOTE" won't fit on a plate and thank goodness I was able to get "VOTE" (our state has moved to one vanity phrase among all counties), because "REG2VOTE" wouldn't feel cool at all.  My family doesn't exactly feel cool with "VOTE," but I believe that actually shows how uncool they are.

But, here at the office, our big excitement recently was a visit yesterday from Elisabeth MacNamara, the national president of the League of Women Voters.  She toured our office and warehouse and given that the League conducts voter registration drives, there was a geeky connection to National Voter Registration Day.

Still, given that about 25 percent of those registered in Johnson County won't vote on November 6, I'm going to hold onto the thought that a National Vote Day could be played up a little more.

We're getting ready.  Our paper ballots for advance voting by mail came yesterday as well, topped with little safety cones to ensure safe handling.  The pallets look like cars heading for maintenance at a dealership's service center.

We have them back earlier than normal.  I can't remember an election where our ballots came under such calm conditions.  We were due for something like that--hopefully it continues!
Thursday, September 20, 2012 0 comments

Set it and Forget It

It may seem like that's what I've done with the Diary lately, but the intensity of our election cycle has picked up with very little to show for it.

A big thing with elections is getting everything in the oven baking.  We've had our own oven scare--the potential of two different parties' presidential candidates not being on the ballot AFTER we'd send our ballot to the printer.

But, all's well that ends.  Ending well is just a bonus, everything with the paper ballots are on track.

Our constitutional amendment question, shoe-horned onto an 8 1/2 by 18 inch ballot but still very readable, has presented us some new issues when rendered on the voting machine, but our solution likely will help avoid another problem and that's worth a detailed post soon.

Mostly, for now, this is just a brief check-in to say, "Still here!"

More soon.
Friday, September 7, 2012 2 comments

Intelligent Design

60 Days From Election Day

A hot topic, and an overall good idea I'd add, is ballot design.

Make the ballot easier to read, more appealing to the eye, maybe have a scratch n' sniff peppermint area, and voters will enjoy voting so much that they cross off the days on their calendars until the next election.

Voter participation will improve and more races will be fully voted with better ballot design.

In our county, we have plenty of under-voted races, especially as you go down the ballot.  Occasionally, we'll get asked about that and we have to deliver the news to candidates that they apparently have never heard--"People just didn't care about your race."

Now, poor ballot design is an issue, and keep in mind that ballots are prepared in three formats:  paper, voting machine, and paper for military/overseas voters. 

The most famous paper ballot design controversy came from Florida during the 2000 presidential election but there was also a Florida congressional race in 2006 that literally hid from voters on the voting machines--eyes were drawn to the center of the screen, missing the race at the top of the screen.

Arguing the benefits of good ballot design is a little like arguing that gravity exists.  It's hard to make a credible argument against it.

But a dose of reality hit us as we began preparing the ballot for November.  Our ballot order was due to the printer yesterday and we began the week chasing down the final candidate list, certified by the state election board Friday, and the constitutional amendment on watercraft taxation that we'd heard about.

The amendment changes one date and adds one word to the statute, but we have to publish the entire notice that first took a full page of an 8 1/2 by 18-inch ballot.  That resulted in a three-page ballot and four for two cities with a second question.  Either way, it moved us to two sheets of paper.

We're ordering about 200,000 paper ballots, so doubling that at roughly 50 cents a page makes the impact $100,000.  Then add in extra postage to mail ballots, questions voters would have about the postage to return the ballot, and the cost we incur when ballots come back with insufficient postage.

It adds up to about a $150,000 impact.  Then, of course, there's the double scanning time, issues that arise when voters only return one page or when husband sends one page and wife sends three pages, or a myriad of other one-offs we began coming up with.

I'm reminded of an episode of The Simpsons where Homer is confronted with a high price and a salesman says, "Surely you can't put a price on your family's lives?"

"I wouldn't have thought so, either," Homer said.  "But, here we are."

And so, we are left to contemplate a cost for ballot design.  It would have helped if we only had to print the items that changed.  But, here we are.

With much tinkering, font-size changing, and column spacing adjustments, we got the ballot down to one page, front and back.

We won't need to issue a magnifying glass with each ballot, either.  It looks fine, actually, but, regrettably, no peppermint scratch and sniff.

But tears of joy are in order for taxpayers, in my opinion.  That's $150,000 saved!

Those are real dollars, saved by the ingenuity and persistence of some members of our staff. 

Oh, and our relief of not having to deal with the operational issues, that's priceless.

The back side of the ballot, with room still
for a city question in Mission and Roeland Park.
The ballot is 8 1/2 by 18 inches, which is
a special size requiring a unique paper tray in
a printer that prints edge-to-edge.  We can print ballots
at our office if we run out of a style, but most
of our ballots are printed in Washington (state).

Saturday, September 1, 2012 2 comments

Yarns and a String of Elections

Labor Day weekend is recognized as the official close of summer.

It's also that tiny little breather marking the beginning of the stretch run into the presidential election.

We're less than 10 weeks away.

Also, 10 weeks from today, I plan to run in a half-marathon race.  That would be on Nov. 10, the Saturday after the election.

Now, I'm a running wuss and I don't run outside if the temperature is below 35 degrees, so I won't be signing up for that specific half-marathon until around election day.  I ran in this half-marathon last November and I'm hoping it will be an, "In Your Face," to my broken ankle and some sort of glorious comeback I will celebrate.  It it's too cold, I'll run one in April.

Most running magazines have their own "10-week plan" to prepare for half-marathons and while I'm not sure there are parallels to running and elections, I'm going to force one here.

(Side note, when I worked at Sprint we often talked of the last mile, the phrase for the telecom facilities that came from the local switch to the home.  At a trade show, I was impressed with the creativity of a vendor to have a "Run the Last Mile" race.

I was so impressed that I considered, when running for Shawnee City Council in 2002, that on election day I would "Run for Office," running from one polling place to another and, I guess, wave to voters as I went by.  That fear of it being too cold, or icy, stopped me.)

(Further side note, what you just read was an anecdote but what we refer to in the office as a yarn.  Yarns are sometimes interesting but they take away time from the task at hand.  In election crunch mode, we declare that time as a No-Yarn Zone and Labor Day begins such a zone.)

Back to the running comparison.  This weekend is like the day before the big race, really.  We run a lighter course to rest up.  This is our last chance for a while to take care of personal errands.  It will be the last weekend we're caught up on laundry.

(One last yarn:  you're never caught up on laundry, really, and working voter registrations is the same way.  We may knock everything out that we have, but another load is ready the next day.)

Like the preparation for a big race, I'll begin my next series of posts with a timeline comparison to election day, although that's misleading.  "Election Day" is really a season of its own.

For instance, the election is Nov. 6, but voting begins this month for military voters.  Advance ballots by mail will be mailed Oct. 17 and in-person advance voting begins Oct. 22.

Unofficial results are posted Nov. 6, but counting of ballots continues for a couple more weeks.  We will prepare our recommendations related to provisional ballots from Nov. 7 up until the canvass of Nov. 12, when the Board of Canvassers will authorize to count specific ballots.

We expect to have so many that the Board will recess until the end of the day Nov. 13, or longer, before certifying the final results.  At that point, we may have situations for recounts, but we all hope to be wrapped up by Thanksgiving.

There's a general belief among outsiders that our lives will slow down Nov. 7.  While that isn't the case, it's more intense than I've painted this because we have a primary election in February and a countywide election in April.  These come at the same rapid-fire pace as the November election comes after August.  

May Day--that's our end game, we hope.  I don't know if we can hold back yarns that long.