Sunday, January 29, 2012 0 comments

Fractions, Onions, and Inactive Voters

Much of this blog thus far has been an intro, the setup to the plot.

You're meeting the characters and getting some of the background so posts over the spring and summer are 10 paragraphs instead of 100.

This is one of those background pieces.

I traded emails with a friend this weekend about turnout this November and reminded him that I've been predicting a drop in the turnout, 2012 from 2008, since the day after the 2008 presidential election.

That's important, because if the turnout is lower, the convenient story line will be that it happened because of Photo ID.  That won't be why--photo ID legislation was barely a gleam in the eye when I began predicting lower turnout in 2012  3 1/2 years ago.

I believe the Johnson County turnout will be 75 percent, down from 78 percent in 2008.  I have some thoughts as to why the turnout will be lower and will present that in future posts.

For now, I wanted to take you back to the third-grade and suggest that turnout percentage is merely the first layer of the onion.  As a third-grader, I did not like onions, but that's also when I hit fractions and division with zeal, and that's the part of the third-grade we're visiting.

You see, turnout percentage is simply the number of voters divided by the number of registered voters.

Unless, in Kansas, if you are looking at a mail-ballot election, where turnout reported to the Secretary of State is the number of voters divided by the number of active voters.  For purposes of our website reporting in those elections, though, we show the percentage "straight"--votes divided by voters.

Active and inactive voters become terminology needed to understand turnout.  That's because a turnout percentage relies on the numerator (the number of voters in this case) as much as it does the denominator (the number of eligible voters).  Year to year, state to state, these simple variables can, um, vary.

Inactive voters would be eligible voters if they came into the polling place to vote.  But it is highly unlikely they will do that.

Inactive is code for, "We don't think you live there anymore."  Once inactive, a voter is included in the denominator (the number of eligible voters) although the likelihood of the inactive voter voting is very small.

How does someone move from active to inactive?

Some communities use the post office's national change of address (NCOA) to get updates.  Johnson County utilized NCOA about 25 years ago and it was essentially a disaster because the county's street guide doesn't always match the post office's and the result can be someone living on a border street being reclassified to the wrong city and getting the wrong ballot.

Postcard Mailed in Roeland Park
The other method of verifying addresses, by federal law, is to send a confirmation mailing to all active voters once a year.  That's what we do.

Every election, we send a postcard to each registered voter who's not inactive.  The postcard tells the voter about the upcoming election but the postcard can't be forwarded.  If returned to us, we flag the voter as inactive and send a second mailing that can be forwarded.  This mailing is a, "Whassup?  Did you move?" kind of notice where we ask the voter to modify his or her registration or inform us of a change.

If nothing changes on the voter's record from that point, and the voter doesn't vote, the voter can be removed from the registration list after two federal elections.  So, someone marked inactive with the upcoming Roeland Park election would be removed after the November 2014 election.  If the voter votes in that time, the voter becomes active again.

So, at any time, the voter registration list has a fair number of people registered who no longer live at the address registered.  And, by law, they can't be removed.

Factors influence the number of inactive voters.  One major factor is the economy--people have moved less frequently, I suspect, over the last two years and that makes trending on percentages alone imperfect.

Another factor is the cards themselves.  We began sending them before every election in 2007.  The frequency of the cards and elections illuminates someone as a potential inactive voter much earlier than an annual mailing only.  Depending on the timing of the inactive tag, someone could remain on the rolls for 2.5 to 4 years.

Because the purging happens after a November election, the number of inactive voters is highest heading into a gubernatorial or presidential election.  Thus, the denominator is larger than it should be if you were looking for an accurate turnout percentage.

Whew, that's a lot of typing, and I've only scratched the surface.  But, in looking at turnout, start with the numerator--voters.

Voters are real and it helps me if I start thinking about how many of them will vote in advance, and how many of those who vote in advance will do so by mail or at one of our in-person locations and then, further, how many would vote at each of those locations.

In many ways, the percentage is meaningless.  Number of actual voters is the true metric.

There will be a lot written (and there has been a lot written) about voter participation and turnout.  It almost always is in terms of percent.  If you're digging into it, take a bite out of the onion and go beyond the first layer of numbers to draw meaningful conclusions.
Wednesday, January 25, 2012 0 comments

Power Down

Curveball--a transformer blew outside our building today.

That effectively killed our hopes of getting a ballot order out today.  We were down for about 90 minutes and had some ancillary power, so the Special Board was able to keep processing mail-ballots but not scan them.

We sent a couple staff members to the post office to pick up ballots (I had a good talk with the Postmaster today--more on that in posts ahead).

We bring a portable generator to the office on election nights and we'd like to get a full-scale backup generator.  This event may help that cause. 

To some degree, this was good because we got to see what lights and functions remain up with our backup battery power in case that happened on an election night.  If anything, it supported why we bring in the generator.

Return of the Blue Bear

Yesterday at noon was the spring candidate filing deadline and we're in a mad dash to prepare for the Feb. 28 primary.  

We hope to send a ballot order to our ballot printer in Washington state by Friday, getting ballots back by late next week.  That's the best-case scenario, but one we push for so we have time to sort the ballots before sending out those for advance voting 20 days before the election (the 8th would be the first day we can do that).

To develop a ballot order, we first need to determine the turnout, which usually is different precinct-by-precinct, polling place-by-polling place, year-by-year.  We have a mayoral primary in Shawnee, so we expect a higher turnout there than some of the individual council race primaries we have elsewhere.

While I make the call on turnout for planning purposes (and we want to guess high so we have plenty of paper ballots), we have an internal poll taken in our office to see who can, in true "The Price is Right" style, come closest to the actual turnout without going over.

The prize for the staff member who comes
closest to correctly forecasting turnout.
The winner gets the little Blue Bear traveling trophy.  The Blue Bear lives in the winner's office until the next election. 

Once, the Bear lived with me for a year and later with another staff member for two years.  I haven't been a Blue Bear winner in a few years, actually, and that's a good thing.

The point of this is just to get everyone engaged in the numbers of elections.  We want to build future leaders of our office who understand all aspects of our business.  Accurately understanding and predicting turnout runs akin to tracking costs.  We don't want to prepare for a 30 percent turnout if the turnout is 15 percent, or vice versa.

The Blue Bear was a registration giveaway I received at an Election Center conference in 2006.  In a couple weeks, we'll gather everyone's estimates.  For now, we've estimated 15 percent, which is high for a primary.  But that number is used for planning, and I like to plan for about a 5 percent higher turnout than I think we'll have.

One thing that's unique about the spring elections is candidate rotation, so that every candidate has, as much as possible, equal time at the top of the ballot.  I'll explain that more in the coming days.
Tuesday, January 24, 2012 0 comments

$100,000 or Free

Before I was at the election office, I didn't understand the financial costs of elections.

I never thought about it.  Elections just happened, and I suspect most citizens don't think about election costs.

Here in Johnson County, a full-county election is paid by the county but anything less than that is paid by the jurisdiction.

One of our cities, Shawnee, moved to a different cycle in the late 1990s, moving from odd years, when the spring elections were countywide, to even years.  This meant that the city would incur the incremental cost of any election (election workers, supplies, ballots, publications, staff overtime, etc., but not voting machines or any fixed cost, such as office salaries).

I was on the city council in Shawnee from 2002 until being appointed Election Commissioner in 2005.  I've advocated to the city, since coming here, that the city's current election schedule is a waste of money, and the council responded, developing a plan to move back to the odd-year cycle after this year.

However, we just got word that the city will have a primary for mayor this year, which means a full-city election.  With more than 40,000 registered voters, at an estimated cost of between $2 and $3 per voter, the election will cost the city about $100,000.

Further, the Kansas legislature changed the laws for what would trigger a primary to reduce costs of primaries.  The legislature's law would create a primary in this case if four persons filed for mayor instead of three.  Shawnee created a charter ordinance to maintain the primary trigger at 3 candidates.

So, $100,000 to eliminate one candidate out of three for an election to be held five weeks later between two candidates that will cost a similar amount.

Elections are expensive, and this blog will get into the cost drivers over the year.  The more awareness there is to the cost of elections, I believe, the more likely governing bodies will look to more cost-efficient situations--namely, placing items on the ballot when there are countywide elections already scheduled.

There are four other cities in Johnson County that hold city elections in the off-year.  Hopefully, they will see the unnecessary cost of off-year elections.  Some of those cities also have primaries, but none has a full-city primary.  Maybe the Shawnee cost example will prompt those cities to consider moving to the other cycle proactively.

It brings up the notion of moving the spring elections to November, a concept currently being discussed by the legislature.  There are some administration impacts with that idea--workable, though, and a post topic in the months ahead.
Monday, January 23, 2012 0 comments

We Lost Two Staff Members

Downsizing has hit the election office.

Oh, I've already pointed out that we have the same number of staff members we had 20 years ago.  We are spread very thin and an employee health crisis away from an election crisis.

The downsizing I'm speaking to is a good thing, in line with crisis prevention.

As I lament my fractured ankle that's keeping me from running, possibly from two half marathons last fall but more likely because of the very large man who ran over my ankle playing soccer on Dec. 1, two of our employees ran their very first 5k race Saturday. 

It was cold, a definite treadmill day.  One of our employees ran with her husband, so maybe that counts as their first 10k.  Another employee ran his first 5k race last month.

Take a look around our office and people are smaller than they were two years ago.  In pure weight loss, our department is down the equivalent of two people over the last 18 months.

It really has nothing to do with the county's Wellness focus, but the Wellness program has made it easier with discounted fitness center rates.  We've even purchased two treadmills and converted a rather spooky looking cement vault into a fitness room:

Pretty creepy, right?  This was a storage area with an iron door. 
We called it the vault and when we removed shelves, it revealed
these battery cables.  They were installed by the building's first
tenant, Cookbook Publishing, to ground materials to prevent a fire.
   The room, now home to two treadmills (below), looks much fresher
 thanks to the county's facility group.

Those of us with previous presidential election experience know the toll it takes physically.  I don't know if that's behind each person's fitness focus, but it's been a factor.

Two key things I tested as true in 2008:  manage with numbers and maintain fitness regiments.

The numbers concept will play out in posts this year.  The fitness concept is probably as much about maintaining internal control than anything. There were plenty of days I ran at 10 p.m. in 2008 to maintain some sort of routine.  It's a lot easier to manage chaos if there is no internal chaos. 

And, yes.  Chaos is coming.

Mail Ballots, Without Using the Mail

Not yet a month into the blog, and the persistent topic theme is the Post Office.

This sign ironically hangs in our post office.
We have two mail-ballot elections going on, with about 90,000 first-class ballots sent and all those returned coming back first-class.  The return rate for mail-ballot elections is about 40 percent.

The postage on the two is about $60,000.

This morning, for the third time, we didn't get any ballots with our regular mail.  We received some that were returned as undeliverable, but our carrier today said he was told there weren't any others.

Really?  All weekend, no ballots came through the office?

We called.  Yes, we were told, there are five trays, but they were not ready when the carrier was ready to leave.  We can get them delivered tomorrow.  The local office would not bring them to us today, so we've sent staff members to get them.

We asked why they weren't ready earlier and we were told that the office wasn't going to spend money on overtime for these.

I certainly don't want anyone to work extra, but as a matter of policy, these are pieces of election mail and $60,000 probably would cover a little overtime, wouldn't it?

By the way, this is one of the post offices slated to close, a fact that came without surprise to me.  This is the same post office that only accepts business from businesses from noon until 4.

This is why it's hard to take seriously comments from Paul Vogel at the U.S. Postal Service that "the post office is here to stay."
Sunday, January 22, 2012 2 comments

Wet Signatures

Is there an election administrator term any more geeky than "wet signature?"

The term means an actual, physical signature, as in, "with ink."  Get it?  Ink is wet.

Most election jurisdictions, including Kansas and the Department of Defense (for military and overseas voters), require a wet signature on the voter registration form.  That's why voters can't go to our website, complete a registration online, hit "submit," and call it done.

Instead, they must print off the form and sign it, then mail, fax, or scan and email it.  Some drop it off in person, old school.

We were the first election office in Kansas to begin accepting faxed and scanned registrations after getting permission from the Secretary of State's office.  There is a drawback to accepting anything faxed; primarily, if the voter faxed the form upside down, the voter has a confirmation that the fax went through and we have a blank piece of paper with no idea how to contact the person who now thinks he or she is registered.

That will be an issue when voters begin faxing photo identification for advance voting or when citizenship verification goes into effect next year.  I expect we will get a lot of faxes that have black boxes where the photos were.

PDF Expert, an iPad Application
that makes wet signatures dry
So, in those cases, email is better.

We set this all up around the Dark Ages of technology, back around the 2008 presidential election, before iPads even existed (I was the first kid on the block to get one on the day they came out and believe it or not that was less than two years ago, April 2010).

Why does that matter?  Well, now there is an app and I'm sure many more coming that push the, um, email envelope.  The app, PDF expert, allows voters to complete a voter registration form, for instance, and sign it with their finger or a stylus.  Then, the voter can email that application to us.

So, is that a wet signature?  Probably, although if this catches on, election geeks will have to huddle for a new phrase.  Jargon is hard to come by in the election world, and many eyes will be wet if this phrase goes away.

We received our first registration that looks like it came through this way.  Here's the rub, though--signing your name with your index finger on a piece of glass looks a lot different than your signature with a pen on a piece of paper.  We check signatures on advance voting applications and on mail-ballots against the registration signature.  Likely, some of these signatures won't match the PDF Expert version.

Our recommendation to anyone using this new technology is to sign their name with a stylus, as well use as a steady hand holding the iPad.
Saturday, January 21, 2012 0 comments

Was Monday MLK Day or Labor Day?

We've had an active election every day in my seven years at the Johnson County Election Office.

That means that as we've come in to work each day, there has been an election in the works, one we specifically are working on, as opposed to just knowing we've got one down the road.  Part of that is because elections go on for a couple of weeks after election day as we process provisional ballots and do post-election audits.

Coincidentally, Doug Chapin just posted about that yesterday: "When is an Election Over?"

For those who have been at the office longer than me, that streak goes back to 2003, so nine years with an active election.  It's the reason why, although I'm the 5th most tenured out of the eight election commissioners the county has had, I will have administered more elections than any other commissioner after our February elections.

Right now, we're working on elections 41, 42, 43, and 44 in my time, and I've been here seven years and one week.  My predecessor, Connie Schmidt, was the previous "champ" with 43 in nine years.

Yesterday, a member of our staff came in to my office today and said, "I don't know what it is, I just can't seem to get focused right now."  I told her we were all feeling that way, that it just seems busier than normal for January.  (January is busy enough, because the spring filing deadline for candidates is next week).

Reality is, we ARE busier than normal.  We've never had four elections in a 5-week period before.  The two mail-ballot elections we have cross county lines and we're the "home" county, so that adds to the prism of complexity.

Oh, and looking at the tags of my posts, I'm surprised that the most common tag is the post office, but postage changes will add to our zaniness.

Jurisdictions pay for the actual costs of administering the elections.  Midway through these mail-ballots, this weekend, we have a postage rate increase.  In mail-ballot elections, voters return the ballots postage-paid.  In tracking the costs now, we'll have some returned at one rate and others returned at a different rate.

We also mail postcards out to voters to let them know of an upcoming election.  We just got our cards printed for the small election in Roeland Park and planned to mail them next week, but we rushed Friday afternoon to the post office to beat the price increase.

It saved the city $9, to which you might say, "Eh?"  And, if this truly was Labor Day week and not Martin Luther King Day week, our stepped-up workload might have led us to the same thought.

But just guessing at the city's sales tax rate, it would take about $300 in sales at Walmart to generate $9, so $9 is at least a little more significant than it sounds.
Friday, January 20, 2012 0 comments

Video Shoot Follow-Up

Wednesday was spent filming the actor I mentioned in a number of (hopefully) humorous skits to show over-the-top versions of scenarios election workers might experience on election day regarding Photo ID.

We plan to show the video and then take a still from each segment and discuss procedures if the scenario occurred.  Some of the scenarios include voters who want to engage in a discussion with the election worker about Photo ID, a voter who left ID in the car, a voter with a non-government ID, a voter who didn't want to show ID, a voter whom the election worker knows personally (still must show ID), and a voter who goes by various names.

The crew shot clips with 10 different characters, all played by the same actor.  Actual election workers played the roles of election workers.  More on this as the video is edited.  Expect some more posts soon on election worker training.  Here are some of the characters:

Thursday, January 19, 2012 0 comments

There Will Be a Test

Just a quick post coming out of Public Test rehearsal.

State law requires that before each election, we test the tabulation equipment against an expected outcome, with test votes applied to all candidates or options.

Public tests are conducted at 2 p.m. on the Thursday before the election.  Rarely, does someone come, but we like to be ready and therefore have a public test rehearsal, usually at 2 p.m. on the Thursday before the Public Test. 

Being election types, our team in the tabulation room have a rehearsal of the Public Test rehearsal before that.

Not much can or does go wrong with a Public Test, but all the preparation gives us comfort in case we forgot to write down the number of registered voters in an election or didn't make enough copies for our guests.

With all of our elections, we are having a Public Test or a rehearsal every Thursday from today through most of February.  We actually did two rehearsals today, one for each of our two mail-ballot elections.
Wednesday, January 18, 2012 0 comments

Our Board Is Special

Ballots mailed out for two school district elections hit voter mailboxes last Thursday.

We mailed out about 87,000 ballots.  After the long holiday weekend, we got our first batch returned by voters, about 30 trays.

For each election, by law, I appoint a special board to process the ballots returned.  What this means is that regular staff members are not part of the canvassing process.

The Special Board meets in a Secure Room, which requires two staff
members (one with a key and another with a code) to allow entry.  
One of the rules--no black or blue pens allowed in the room.

There really isn't a long list of qualifications for the special board, except that we should have a mix of registered voters who have affiliated with each major party.  In Kansas, that registration simply means which state primary you would be eligible for every other August.

We pull from past election workers.  The most important role on this board is that of the supervising judge of the board and we use her input when identifying members of the board.  We look for reliable persons, neutral and pretty much void of opinions, and persons who are available the entire time, including the week or more after the election as we prepare for the final canvass and approval of results, as well as any potential recount.

We've had three different persons leading this room since I've been here.  The first two, eventually, were hired as full-time staff members, so we had a good transition.  In November, we'll need a special board of about 20.

A voter asked me last year to describe members of the special board and I asked the supervising judge once what she would say. 

Her answer came in less than two seconds.

"We're all grandmothers," she said.

For these elections, we have a special board of 7 and the two school districts will save a little money by sharing the cost of the board.  They will be here all day for a couple of days, then schedule their time to be here half days, coming after the mail arrives.

For each envelope, before it can ever be opened, the board verifies the signature on the envelope against the voter's registration card.  Some communities have an automated system.  Here, they eye-ball it, with deference to the voter.  If it looks different, they pull all of the registrations in that household and compare.  Non-matches are made provisional and taken to the Board of County Canvassers for determination if they can be opened and counted.

30 trays of voted ballots came today, ready
for signature verification.
It's usually pretty obvious if mom or dad, for instance, signed for a child.  Sometimes, they have to dig deeper and look at the digits and writing on the registration cards to compare letters beyond the signature--the voter also has to rewrite his or her address.

With the volume we process, there isn't time to go back to voters and say, essentially, "Denied."  If the signature is off and it's not obvious that it was signed by someone else, we send a letter to the voter that basically says, "We think we need an updated signature.  Please sign and return this."  Then, we scan that new signature to the voter record.

We also don't have any systematic way, election to election, to track if a voter's signature didn't match.  The outcome of the ballot is stored on the voter's record, though.  So, it's possible that there could be someone who has signed for another family member for years, each time the ballot not counting, with the person who signed wrongly thinking he or she has outsmarted the system.

About 10 percent of ballots
mailed come back undeliverable.
They can't be forwarded.
Beyond the ones voted and returned, in each election, we get a significant amount returned as undeliverable.  In mail-ballot elections, we mail to each active voter, so the amount returned is at least 10 percent.  But we get many returned in every election, even for cases where people applied for a ballot just a month before we mailed it.

It just shows how frequently people move.  When working for the local telephone side at Sprint, I learned that that one-third of our directory turned over each year in terms of adds, moves, and changes.

If you have children on sports teams, take a look at the team pictures over a five-year period, and you'll see the turnover.

The undeliverable ballots start a whole process that begins the clock, by law, for removable from the voting rolls.  We run that process pretty tightly and you can still see that a good 10 percent of our voters, at a minimum, are no longer living where they registered.  Look for a future post on this whole process.
Sunday, January 15, 2012 0 comments

The Written Word

Journals and diaries, by nature, are text-laden.

But in blog form, they look very gray.  Over the year, I plan to augment the written word with video clips, from training to voting machine setup.

I can promise you that these videos will not be exciting.  If a video can be made to be gray, I will be the one to do it.  That's a bit of the point of this site, though--somehow, a collection of boring things can be interesting.

This site is where, "No one has really done that before, " collides with, "Boy, that's mundane."  Hopefully, there's comfort in boring.

Elections is a logistics-based business.  And, it's a business where scale matters.  A $10 extension cord becomes $3,000 when one is tossed in each supply bag for polling places.  There's a time and motion cost for getting it into the bag, let alone getting the bag out the door.

It's a bit of a jaw-dropping experience when going into our warehouse for the first time, seeing rows of voting machines and rows of supply suitcases organized by polling location.  I'm hoping to give you some sense of that over the year.

The site itself will evolve over time, as I become more adept at ways to incorporate visuals into the site.  Users of Internet Explorer 9 may need to put the site into compatibility mode to see all photos.

Saturday, January 14, 2012 0 comments

NCSL Presentation

I'm posting this as much to see if I know how as I am to follow up on my post last week.

Jennie Bowser from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) did give me to post her presentation.  I've pulled out the key slides below that show how Voter ID legislation has gone over the years.

By the way, "Strict Photo ID," is NCSL's phrase but is meant to imply that there isn't an alternative to the ID.  In some states, voters without an ID can sign an affidavit instead.

I'm going to use these slides during election worker training.  I think it's worth pointing out that the Voter ID changes in Kansas are part of a nationwide trend.

Friday, January 13, 2012 0 comments

Websites and Hacking

The short reason for this post came about because functions of our website will be inoperable this weekend. 
Some county services are centralized, including website hosting.  The county has a pretty sophisticated redundancy program that thwarts attacks but also which becomes an issue for us when we post election results.  The websites are not updated instantaneously and it takes a few minutes for the updates to go across all of the servers.
So, for instance, we might posts results at 9:45 p.m., but some persons in the county may not be able to see them until 10.
Our website is huge for us.  Our very direct mission for the site is to reduce phone calls.  As mentioned, we have the same staff size we had 20 years ago and we simply don’t have the people to answer all the calls we would get it if we didn’t have the website.  The day before the 2004 presidential election, our office received 8,000 calls, mostly to find out polling place locations.
In 2008, with an aggressive web approach, we cut that in half.
So, our website becomes part of our operation.  We asked the county’s IT group what would happen if our site was compromised on election day.  This is a worry because three election offices in the country have been hacked within the last 12 months.
Anonymous, proud hacker
Even though the website hosting is outside of the control of our office, such a hack could cause voters to wonder what parts of the election could be compromised.  We’d probably never get a chance to explain that our voting tabulation server isn’t connected to the Internet or Intranet and all election programming and testing on the voting machines are done by our office.  (Think Like the Jetsons, Live Like the Flintstones is an approach that works for elections and, as you might guess, will be the subject of a future post).
Even if we could explain that, the confidence would be eroded. 
Further, if our website were down at the wrong time, calls increase, we can’t answer the calls, and people don’t know where to go vote.
So, when I asked the question, I was kind of greeted with a view that, “it’s just a website” (my words).  The point was, the IT manager didn’t see the mission critical need of keeping the website up, that we basically were out of business when it was down.
This weekend, because of power maintenance at the county’s administration building, portions of our site that are stored there will not be accessible.  So, voters who look up their information or where they vote won’t be able to retrieve that on Saturday.  We’ve lived through this before, a couple of years ago, and a four-hour delay became a full day, and this could very well extend beyond Saturday.
I’m sure we will get angry calls and emails.  We’ve sent out a media advisory and posted the information on our website.  I get frustrated when a website is down for maintenance myself.  It’s akin to the feeling of finding a restroom at an airport or office building during the day only to see it closed for cleaning.  Shouldn’t that happen at 3 a.m.?  Likewise, for right or wrong, 3 a.m. seems the only acceptable time, to me, and only until 3:15 for website maintenance.
We have redundant servers at redundant locations, so we need this information stored at all of the sites so that we don’t have any maintenance periods.   I really think even my 3 a.m. to 3:15 a.m. window is so “2000s,” and not acceptable in 2012. 
I’ve asked the IT department to develop, with us, a continuity of service plan in case our site is hacked.  I guarantee you one or more election office websites in the United States will be breached in October or November in some sort of opening page hijack with a message of, “Ha, ha, ha, the Captain was here,” or some other nonsense.  I am determined to make sure our site isn’t one of those.


Vendor Meetings

It's a long and winding road that explains how the voting system our county purchased in 2002 from Global Election Management Systems makes us an ES&S customer, but that's the case.

Along the way, Global was purchased by Diebold.  When I came to the county in 2005, I was struck with the sophistication level of the election vendors compared to those I was used to during my 20-year career at Sprint.  I was used to Lucent and Nortel, and Diebold at the time was more like a couple of consultants working from their homes.

For a couple of years at Sprint, I managed something we called our Executive Forum, a collection of Chief Executive Officers from our largest wholesale customers.  The average billing on these accounts was more than $2 million/month. 

We'd pull them in a couple of times a year, play golf, tell them the latest things we had going on, listen to them, listen to them some more, and usually play golf again.  It was Relationship Marketing 101, and it was a very effective marketing tool.  Our customers, while competitors, learned from each other as well.

I asked Diebold, when I came, why they didn't do something like that (not to be "wooed," and to the contrary "something like that," to me, really meant having some regular meetings with their largest customers).  I was looking for the meeting without the golf (we're government, after all).  After a couple of years, Diebold created such a group and called it the Customer Advisory Forum.  Given that I was the pest to create such a thing, I became a member of this Forum.  It was a great way to make sure our operational issues got visibility to Diebold's senior executives.

Concurrently, Diebold competitor ES&S was doing the same thing.  When ES&S acquired Diebold's election business in 2009, ES&S merged these two customer advisory groups.

I'm coming back from one of these meetings right now.  My posting earlier on envelope pricing was timely because I think we're going to be able to identify a cost-cutting solution there.  As with what seems like every post so far, more on that later (it's going to be a long year).

ES&S's senior management team looks and acts a lot like the vendors I saw at Sprint.  The industry is more sophisticated now, but a lot of that is just the level of people ES&S has hired.  More on that later, too.
Wednesday, January 11, 2012 0 comments

Mail Ballot Elections

Our ballots for the two January 31 mail-ballot elections were taken to the post office yesterday and people began reporting that were received today.

Both of these elections are school-district elections.  Mail-ballot elections typically have a higher turnout that elections at the polls but are more costly, in part because of the higher participation.  In mail-ballot elections, the jurisdiction pays for the return postage.  In other elections, with advance voting by mail, the voters pay the return postage.

So, the higher the turnout, the greater the return, the higher the cost.

When I came in 2005, we had three mail-ballot elections in process.  Identity theft was a growing topic then and we had voters complain that their signatures on the envelopes were exposed, essentially, while coming back through the mail.

We worked to design an envelope that allowed for the signature to be covered by a flap that could be removed by our election workers, to verify signature, without yet opening the envelope.  We were pioneers in this regard, actually, and many communities use this method now.  Our envelopes offer ID protection, but are customized.

The envelopes have increased in price, however, to the point that in small quantities, the envelope alone is $2.  In the quantities for these elections, it's closer to $1, but it highlights the costs of elections.  A typical mail-ballot election costs between $2.50 and $3.00 per registered voter, and the envelope is the highest cost item. 

Not the ballot, not the workers to process, not the cost of publishing the notice, not even the postage going out, or the postage coming in, or the postage combined--instead, the envelope.
Tuesday, January 10, 2012 0 comments

Jumping the Shark, Election Style

On the surface, you probably don't want election administrators taking risks.

Fonzie's famous 'Jumping the Shark'
moment on 'Happy Days.'

As an election official, playing it safe is Value Number One.  We think through Plans B, C, and D.

As a manager, playing it safe is a path that can lead to long-term failure, missing what seem like obvious moments, in hindsight, to change.

So, in the case of the coincidentally named SAFE Act (Secure and Fair Elections Act, passed by the Kansas legislature and in effective January 1), I have very limited resources to get the word out to voters about the role of Voter ID in upcoming elections.

Even though the majority of voters in Johnson County, in my opinion, support Voter ID, the nuts and bolts of it will lead to an uptick in provisional ballots in 2012.  We knew this.  We saw the same thing happen in 2004, after the Help America Vote Act led to a Kansas requirement for first-time voters to show ID.

Provisional ballots are issued when there is a question about a voter's eligibility.  The voter casts the vote and we sort out the eligibility between election day and the day the election is certified at a canvass meeting the following Monday. 

"Provisional ballots" is one of those phrases that can elicit different emotions based on the context of the conversation.  Provisional ballots can sound like a fail-safe voter-rights kind of thing, which they are.  Or, because provisional ballots that can be counted come in after the election night results, close races can flip, causing reactions that these ballots are somehow shady.

With no outreach budget and the same staff size we've had for 20 years (despite a myriad of legal and technology changes and more than a doubling of voters), I can't take a carpet-bomb outreach approach.  I'll take a rifle rather than shotgun approach to outreach, depending a lot on social media (yes, by reading this, you are now in an art-imitating-life moment related to my outreach efforts).

I do have a more intense commitment, in terms of time, with our audience of election workers.  I conduct all training and we will have about 2,000 workers in 2012.  We have great workers in Johnson County.  Many communities think they may have the best workers, but they are wrong.  We do.

These election workers are influentials often in their circles.  They represent an outreach channel.  Likewise, candidates and campaign managers are akin to distribution agents of outreach. 

So, our rifle-focus will be in these areas.  This will be much more effective than speaking to 20 people at a time at Rotary and Optimist Clubs, although I will do that as much as possible, too.

My theory with election workers is that the more they are comfortable with the new law, the better prepared they will be for objections and issues at the polls (such as, "I left my ID in the car").  Hopefully, we can reduce the number of provisional ballots through operational preparedness at the polls.

To that end, and to my post headline, we're putting more production into our training.  We've enlisted a comedian who will be creating a video of various potential situations at the polls--portrayed over the top--to lighten the mood during training.  Then, we'll go through each scenario and cover the training.

The video will either be a home run or strikeout.  Comedy is fickle.  I've worked with this guy before, when I was at Sprint, more than 10 years ago, and I had the same feeling then.  The result was a home run, no question. 

We had a call with him yesterday to work on the script and he's coming to our office next week to shoot the video.  I'll plan to post some photos from the shoot.
Monday, January 9, 2012 0 comments

Downside of Paper Ballots, Chapter One

Election integrity activists have a romance with paper ballots.  Their point of view likely would be different if they worked with paper ballots. 

Paper ballots are a stressmaker.  If the ballots represented a romantic character, he'd be the mysterious one with an eye patch.

Pallets of more than 100,000 ballots, in
addressed envelopes, ready for our two
mail-ballot elections on January 31.
We have two mail-ballot elections on January 31 and the ballots will be mailed out Wednesday.  We're a mid-sized county (365,000 registered voters) but there is no one locally in Kansas City that can handle our ballot printing needs.  We put out a Request for Proposal a few years ago and had really only one local option, the largest printer in Kansas City.

That printer is well-regarded and we selected them on a trial basis.  After the first election, they politely said, "Uncle."  You see, in a large election, we wouldn't print 365,000 of one ballot style.  Instead, we have as many as 1,500 variations.  So, we print 30 of one style, 100 of another, 75 of a third, etc.  In a polls election, it takes a staff member about a week to prepare the ballot order and a full weekend when ballots arrive for a crew to unpack all the ballots and sort them in a secure room to prepare for mailing.  More to come throughout the year on this.

So, all of our ballots are printed in Seattle by ES&S, which is the best ballot printshop in my opinion and handles a lot of jurisdictions.  Those shipments of ballots always lead to adventure, though.  Elections are often conducted over the winter where weather has diverted our shipments to Kentucky or Ohio, for instance.  And when we take the ballots to the post office (open for "business" business noon to 4 p.m. only each day, until the local office closes later this year--remember the optimism I heard just last week from the Post Office's Chief Marketing Officer), we have to have postage checks cut, per zip code, to the penny.

This is an example of how the pallets came on Friday, so we'll be spending Monday re-palleting, re-wrapping the pallets, and scrambling to guess how much each pallet weighs with fingers crossed that the postage checks we've planned align.  It sets up a crazy and stressful 48 hours for our staff.  We're actually a day ahead of where we might be normally because we had them printed over the holidays, so getting them on Friday was a bonus.
Saturday, January 7, 2012 0 comments

Got ID?

Starting with the fact that we have no money budgeted for outreach, we're doing all we can to get the word out about the new requirements regarding voter ID in Kansas.  The Secretary of State's office is planning a full-court press, but they are money-constrained, too.

The best news for us was that the Secretary of State chose the same group for their outreach campaign that we used in 2008 in Johnson County--Whitworth Ballou.  I know them well and that familiarity has to help us in 2012.

Last year, we had the great idea of obtaining a 15-passenger van from surplus, previously used by the Sheriff's office, so we could transport election workers from the back of the parking lot to the front door during snow and ice situations when we had training.  So, a free van, but the plan backfired because (remember, this was a van for inmates), we realized after the fact that there was no way to open the doors from the inside.

We've decided to turn the van into a moving billboard.  Okay, it only moves when it runs, and it doesn't run right now (free, you know), but it will run again and in the meantime, we'll park it outside our office.  We'll take the van to festivals and such.  The wrap cost more than the van is worth, but we found this effective in 2008.
Friday, January 6, 2012 0 comments

Dateline Washington--Legislative Conference

Each January, election industry organization The Election Center (also known as the National Association of Election Officials) holds a legislative conference in Washington with election officials.  I’m at that event right now.
There aren’t too many national legislative election issues right now, but the biggest one involves the fate of the Election Assistance Commission (EAC).  The EAC was created when the Help America Vote Act passed in 2001 and is basically a defacto regulatory body for elections.  One of the roles of the EAC is to certify voting equipment, and the process has become so expensive and convoluted that very few communities actually use equipment that has been certified by the EAC, despite the fact that this organization has existed for 10 years and any new equipment deployed must be EAC-certified (well, sort of--future post on that one).
The EAC has four commissioners, two Republican and two Democractic, appointed by the President and confirmed by the United States Senate.  Only thing, right now, there are no commissioners and no executive director.  The United States House of Representatives has passed a bill to eliminate the EAC but it hasn’t been brought up in the Senate.
(By the way, when evaluating the potential for this blog, I wondered what I might write about during a “slow news day.”  Then, I thought of the EAC.  There is so much to type and talk about here, particularly the answer to the question, “Why don’t we vote on the Internet?”   In due time, dear reader.  In due time).
For now, this post is just to let you know of this event.  About 100 election officials from around the country are here, and we’ve heard from the U.S. Post Office, the EAC, the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) for military and overseas voters, national organizations such as the National Association of Secretaries of State and National Conference of State Legislatures (the NCSL), and congressional staffers.  Beyond the EAC, there’s so much here to sprinkle in over the next few weeks, including the movement to eliminate the Electoral College before the 2012 presidential election (I really don’t see that happening, but some here see it as possible, if not likely).
I had high hopes for the postal service discussion because last year, it was announced that the U.S. Postal Service was very close to rolling out a special election-mail classification that would be treated as first-class mail at less-than-first-class rates.  This is huge because after election workers, our biggest cost drivers in elections are anything tied to natural resources and fuel--postage, delivery of equipment to polling places, and the printing and delivery of paper ballots. 
What sounded promising a year ago was killed within the first 15 minutes of yesterday's meeting.  The chief marketing officer of the postal service then went on to explain that despite that and despite all of the concerns with the post office's financial troubles, mail will continue to be delivered and the post office is here to stay.  It sounded a lot like the many newspaper and magazine letters from the editor I've read over the last couple of years which said that despite cutbacks in production, the publication was thriving.  I've watched many of those publications cease and if our local paper gets any lighter on Mondays, the carrier will have to include some pebbles in the newspaper bag to keep it from blowing off my driveway.
The biggest near-term issue from the post office will be the delay in first-class delivery, from 1-2 days to 2-3 days.  By Kansas law, we have to send an advance ballot to anyone who requests a ballot by 5 p.m. on the Friday before a Tuesday election.  We get them out Friday, usually, or Saturday, worst case, so they are delivered by Monday.  Now, voters may not get the ballot in time and they certainly won't have time to mail the ballot back (those not delivered by 7 p.m. can't be counted).  This is going to be a huge issue later in the year nationwide.
The NCSL presentation was interesting because it showed the quick adoption of photo ID legislation throughout the country.  I’ve obtained the presentation to show some maps during election worker training (our first in 2012 is just in a couple of weeks and our first 2012 election at the polls is Valentine’s Day).  If I get permission, I’ll post it. 
Thursday, January 5, 2012 0 comments

Election Diary, 2012

Welcome to Election Diary, a blog written by an election geek for election geeks, as well as anybody else who has an interest in the behind-the-scenes work of election administration.

This blog has been up since 2012, when I was the Election Commissioner for Johnson County, Kansas, and earned a Best Practice award from the Election Center in 2013, one of three Election Center awards earned during my 11 years in that position.  The blog took an update hiatus upon my move to Washington, DC, to work as the Executive Director at the United States Election Assistance Commission (EAC).

This blog does not represent the views of the EAC, Johnson County Election Office, North Dakota Secretary of State office or any entity mentioned, for that matter.   All views are personal.
With a nod to government transparency, “behind the scenes,” was the first of what will be many clichés used in this space.  Election administration is hard work and stressful, but it’s very rewarding.  The primary reward comes from the accomplishment of meeting deadlines and putting together an event.  If that doesn’t sound all that rewarding, that’s probably because you work in a different industry.  Yours, in fact, may be much more exciting, and it probably pays better.
But, this is what I do, and have done for the last 17 years.  Jump-starting this blog now, with considerably more interest in election administration heading into the 2020 presidential election then there was before the 2012 presidential election, hopefully validates the initial intent.  But, “behind the scenes,” isn’t meant to imply any backroom kind of election thing.  Rather, this blog will be all about the day-to-day steps involved with administering elections.
In creating this, was easier to start by pointing out what this blog wouldn't be, and still isn't:
1.    It’s not political.  This isn’t a place to get opinions about candidates, parties, who will win, or who should win any election.   This blog is about what goes into preparing for these elections.  And, in not being political in the purest sense, it will likely evoke, for lack of a better phrase, the corporate politics of putting on an election.  The blog will have a point of view at times, but not about candidates, parties, or issues on ballots.
2.   It’s not going to be directly interactive, at least for now.  There will not be any comments section.  This ties to my concerns about any of this being political.  I understand that as the owner of the blog I could simply moderate the comments section and remove those that cross the margins into political views, but that’s an approach I don’t want to take.  There is a place where you can email me, and I’ll do my best to keep up with responding and I may address some of the emails in specific posts as the year progresses.    
3.   It’s not about the presidential election only.  The EAC is a federal government agency focused on federal elections.  There aren't any of those, just one every two Novembers, as well as special elections for vacant federal offices.  However, it it's a Tuesday, for instance, there likely is an election, or several elections, occurring in the country.  In fact, some mail ballots occur on days other than Tuesday.  So, if you came because of the Presidential election, stay for the fun of year-round election administration.  Many people think election officials only work a couple days a year—I guess that’s sort of the point of this blog, to explain what we do on the other days.
4.   Any representation of any views outside of my own.  There is nothing here that represents anyone other than me.