Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Throw Elections From the Train

If our elections were a 1920s silent movie, our April 3rd election would represent the valiant moment where we narrowly untied the beautiful girl from the railroad tracks and saved her from an oncoming train.

That was, remember, our fifth election of the year.

So, whew, the girl is saved!  Yay, us!

Oh, there's an election in four months, August 7, but that's not for, well, four months from now.

That's more than a season.  The Royals could lose 100 games in that span.  Four months is a long time.

Then, instead of five elections in nine weeks, we'll have had six elections in 25 weeks.  That's a lot, but much less dramatic-sounding.

What's to worry?

This movie is starting to sound like a love story.

But this isn't a 1920s silent movie.  August is coming at us like a Hitchcock or Spielberg thriller.

As background, note that Kansas is the only state that hasn't resolved its redistricting following the census.

I just learned that yesterday.

I've made a point of not paying attention to the redistricting effort, but I feel like I've Rip-Van-Winkled it at this point.  The only state:  well, we gotta stand for something.

Last week, a bill was introduced to move the August 7 primary election to August 28 if the redistricting isn't complete soon.

That would be bad from an election administration standpoint.  We have polling places lined up for August 7, election workers committed, training sites reserved, and training scheduled.

Then, yesterday, as he said he would do nearly a year ago when he met with election commissioners and county clerks, the Secretary of State faced a date with a big "X" on his calendar indicating it was time for him to have the press conference he hoped he wouldn't have.

The purpose of the conference was to stress that the August 28 date may not be consistent with the Kansas constitution and that having the election on August 7 would be the way to go.

I remember the Secretary saying last May 5 that if we got into the third week of April without redistricting approved, he would do all he could as Secretary of State to move the process.

So, there we were:  an August 7 election or an August 28 election.  Preference given, by legal minds, to August 7.

But wait--curveball:  if August 28 isn't constitutional and August 7 isn't possible, a new option was introduced by the media as "no election."  I'm not sure how that would fly, but from everything I've read, it seems like a possibility.

So, now:  August 7, August 28, or not at all.

But wait, round 2--Johnson County government has a unique charter that requires its primaries to be conducted the first Tuesday in August.  We already have a commissioner race that requires a primary.

The new list of choices, then:  August 7 and/or August 28, or August 7 for the county but no state races.


We just saved the girl, hopped onto the next set of tracks, shared an embrace, and turned around to see this charging at us?

In pure homage to silent movies, I'm pretending I can't hear all the concerns rattling around in my mind.  In thriller mode, I'm just assuming it will all work out.

Next week, clerks and election commissioners meet in Dodge City and this will likely be topic number one.

Dodge City is rarely the theme for thrillers.  Western movies end with the good guys heading happily into the sunset.

Here's hoping for a change in genre, as well as the obvious hope to be validated--that election administrators are, indeed, the good guys.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

War on Polling Places

It may not be as dramatic sounding as the media's phrase, "War on Christmas," or many of the other wars on societal issues, but as we prepare for more elections, we're reminded of the constant war on polling places.

Selecting polling places is a no-win endeavor.

For instance, in April 2005, the election featured a question on same-sex marriage.  I received several complaints from voters that some of our polling places were churches, potentially influencing the outcome of this vote.

Then, in September 2005, we had a special election for a sales tax that was directed to schools.  I received a similar number of complaints from voters that some of our polling places were schools, potentially influencing the outcome of this vote.

We used the same polling places for both elections.

Most of our polling places are donated space.  That's important because one thing I hear often from our county manager is how expensive elections are.

They are expensive.  But that expense is relevant if you are comparing the cost to zero.  Merely having an election is expensive because it's an event for, in our case, 360,000 people.

Consider that voting machines are a sunk cost, polling places are nearly free, election workers make minimum wage (if that) and that our most expensive part of the election is the bundle that comes as an advance ballot by mail (ballot printing, envelope printing, and postage).

Of the 284 Polling Places used
in the 2008 Presidential election,
we spent $5,000 in rent because
the majority of them were free.
Of course, fewer polling places with more election workers squeezes efficiencies.  Instead of having 500 polling places with 3 workers, we could have 300 with 5 workers--same number of workers, but less expense in transporting voting supplies, fewer overall supplies, and fewer machines needed.

We do that already.  Ideally, we'd match polling places to precincts and we have about 550 precincts.

Instead, we utilized 284 in 2008, down from 286 in 2004.  Incidentally, that's not two we lost--we lost 100 and found 98 new sites, for a net reduction of 2.

This year, we'll probably be at around 275.  We'd like to secure the same location for voters for a string of elections so they aren't moved frequently (another complaint).

Johnson County is fortunate that we have many newer churches and facilities that can be used as polling places, that are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and have adequate parking.

Parking is vital.  Putting 2,000 voters into a polling place with 40 parking spaces causes problems (another complaint).

So, what if we went nutzoid, didn't "pin" a person to a particular polling place and had, essentially, the advance voting model on election day?  In other parts of the country, this has been tried and is often termed "vote centers."

We have a pretty good feel for the number of persons who would vote in a presidential election and how many would vote in advance, so, roughly, we would need to take care of about 200,000 voters on election day.

If we had 60 locations, that would average about 3,300 persons voting at each site.  That's more than we've had at any of our advance voting locations on any day, but it gives us a feel for the size of the facilities we would need.  Our advance voting locations have handled 2,500 voters before with about a 45-minute wait.

So, that's leap one, that 60 would be okay and that 45-minutes, on average, would be an acceptable wait to vote.

About those 60--they'll have to be networked together so we make sure someone doesn't vote at one place and bop on to another.    First, though, where exactly are these 60 places?

We might be able to secure some very large churches and community centers, but we'd probably have to rent facilities:  likely, hotels.  So, when we look at the network costs, although there may be some wireless options at times that are cheaper, we'll often have to go through the facility itself.

We have one person negotiate space with our polling places and our advance voting locations.  The polling places are relatively easy but when we get to the advance sites--with rent, contracts, insurance, etc.--it becomes extremely time consuming.  We have no resource, or support, to identify and negotiate with 100 potential locations to get us to 60 that work.

Assuming we could get through that knothole, though, this idea looks pretty good.  We'd still have about the same number of election workers, but we would gain efficiencies in machine use.

Our rent costs, though, would increase from about $5,000 for an election to a couple hundred thousand dollars.  Again, elections are expensive when compared to a cost of zero, but compared to real-world costs, elections are a bargain.  We'd hit the real world if we sign leases with hotels and other for-profit locations.

Results would take longer because it would take about an hour to close all of the machines (they'd have every race in the county loaded instead of just those at one polling place).  Of course, the line at 7 p.m. would be longer, too, so the machines may not be shut down until about 7:45 p.m.,  with cards leaving the facility at about 8:45, arriving at our location for uploading perhaps by 9, with uploading done by midnight.

We get skewered when our results for a presidential election aren't up by 10:30 now, even though we're traditionally the first in the area and the first large county in the state with final results.

Hmmm...this reminds me of a voting task force meeting I was in a couple of years ago when a professor from Washburn provoked, "If you thought about it, starting from scratch, would it make sense to design a voting system where you had hundreds of polling places where people could only vote where they were assigned?"

"Of course not!," I thought.  We were all nodding our heads in agreement with the wisdom this question brought.

But, as I sat and thought more about that question, and in pondering some of the details I just typed, I think my answer would be yes.  I almost think that successfully moving from that model would require something even more dramatic than vote centers and that would be a single voting location for the county on election day.

Of course, there are some who might say that a single location would be possible if that location was a website and we had Internet voting, but that's a whole 'nother discussion and blog post.

A single location is equal part crazy talk and genius, but it probably leans eventually to the crazy talk side.

For now, having opened up a topic without a clear solution, we're off to assigning voters for this fall to polling places.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Poverty, Pain, and Planning

You may remember that I suffered a broken ankle, with surgery needed.

I've been awaiting my time with THE ankle guy, and I'll be wheeled into surgery tomorrow morning.  Crutches for a couple of months--at least our election flurry is over.  I'm hoping this is the ultimate, "Measure twice, cut once," moment.

What this has done is set up three phases for the first half of my year.  The first phase is over: pre-surgery, April 11, where I focused on wrapping up everything with our spring elections.

In case you've been counting--we have--that was five elections in about seven weeks.  There has been plenty of activity to keep my mind off of my ankle pain.

I'll be working from home for a short period during phase 2, until I'm mobile enough to be allowed to drive, or at least crawl out of my house and climb into the car, telling myself I can drive.

During this phase, I have stockpiled a lot of planning topics and things I want to research for use in the rest of 2012 and 2013.  I'll be evaluating, for instance, vendors that do crowdsourcing, iPad apps for use in elections, and app development that we might be able to leverage going forward.

Meanwhile, the election office staff will be focused on cleanup of the Spring election, invoicing the jurisdictions, re-arranging the warehouse, and buttoning down advance voting sites and polling locations for the August and November elections.

I also have two trips in May that are really unavoidable.  One is our annual election training with the Secretary of State's office.  That training is always good but this year--and no offense to the residents because I'm sure the town is nice--the meeting is in Dodge City.

That's Dodge City as in, "the city that's almost as far away as Chicago but in the middle of nowhere when we have no time to waste."

You've heard the phrase, "Get out of Dodge," but have you ever heard anyone talk about getting into Dodge?

Of course not.  There's only one direct way there, and that's a long ride down the highway.

We've rented a bus, so I can stretch out with all my gimp toys and work during the drive both ways.

The second trip is to Auburn, Alabama, for my final class for the Election Center's Certified Elections/ Registration Administrator (CERA) distinction.  I want this completed before the presidential election, and graduation is in August.  I'll miss the ceremony, but by taking the class in May, I'll be among those recognized.

That will bring me to the third phase, hopefully the post-crutches phase and the phase that will coincide with us getting final word on redistricting.  We'll have a crazy couple of weeks preparing maps and moving voters to new boundary lines, working with a flurry of candidate changes, and finalizing our ballots for August.  Military ballots, for instance, will need to be mailed in mid-June.

Incidentally, this will be the first August election where military voters will be able to vote for precinct committee persons.  That may eliminate some of our coin tosses in ties where only a handful of voters cast ballots.

So, I have high hopes for my lamed-up period.  It will be my equivalent of the two weeks Bill Gates takes off each year to catch up on reading.  Except, mine is more laden in poverty and I'll be accompanied with some pain.

Hmmm, the three Ps of any election administrator:  Poverty, Pain, and Planning.  That's a normal day for us, actually. :-)

Regardless, it really will be good to hole up and plan the rest of the year.

Look for some remote posts in the next few days.
Thursday, April 5, 2012

Think Like the Jetsons, Live Like the Flintstones

We've wrapped up our flurry of five elections in 10 weeks and soon hope to have a moment to soak in things we've learned for adjustments heading into the August primary. trolling

We're still not done with this one, though.  We have one city council race separated by 9 votes with 13 provisional ballots to recommend being counted on Monday.

It would be very unlikely that the 13 flip the outcome (that would have to number 13-0, 12-1, or 11-2; anything else would result in a delta of 8 or fewer).  But the race could tighten to the point that a recount is requested.  If there was a tie, the winner is decided by coin toss, and that has happened several times in my seven years here.

In Kansas, there is no automatic recount provision.  In November state races, a recount, if requested, would be free to the losing candidate if the difference is .5 percent or smaller.

In this case, a recount could be requested and the person requesting puts up the cost of the recount, which is refunded if the actual outcome changes and the once losing candidate becomes the winner (or there is a tie, to be decided by coin toss).

Since Tuesday, I believe I have talked with every stakeholder in this race.  My approach in elections that are close heading into the canvass is that I tell each candidate everything, of course, including any discussions I've had with the other candidate.

Having been a candidate for office before, I have a sense for how hard they've worked and what it's like to have your life in front of the public for all to see and comment.  Many people talk about running for office but few do, and those who do are very brave.  Most have entered politics for all the right reasons and I admire them.

But, all that activity has kept me from at least giving an update here, making this post primarily a, "No, I haven't stopped blogging," piece.

On the key learning front, I've learned that we have to change the structure of our training.  There is just too much to cover now in three hours.  Adding to the length of training creates a couple of issues, primarily financial (we'd have to pay more and we don't have that budgeted) and administrative--I'm not sure I have another 10 hours to give in July and again in October by increasing each class by an hour.

Instead, we need to change the structure.  I've got some ideas, but primarily we need more visuals and less talking in the lecture portion to compress the time and maintain knowledge retention on the part of our new workers.  More on that soon.

The pace of the last week has kept me from taking photos of the logistics of our operation around the election, and I wanted to give you a flavor of some of that before we head into August.  I've taken photos and pasted them below, but they really reflect the slower volume of this election, which covered just one-fourth of our 365,000 voters.

In August, I'll paste similar photos that give you more of a sense of the magnitude.   For now, I've inserted just a few random thoughts and notes, including an explanation of the blog headline.

Suitcases of supplies are sent out with voting machines
before election day.  Here, the suitcases are staged,
awaiting pickup.
Johnson County is fortunate in that most polling place
locations are already fully compliant with the
Americans with Disabilities Act.  Only a few places
in the older parts of the county require a ramp or something
to prop a door open for a wheelchair.  Previously, we've
relied on the county's mowing crew to deliver these
separately, but they were spread too thin to commit
to us this election, so we sent the ramps out with the
supplies, using a moving company.  We've used
the same moving company (below) for the entire
7 years I've been here.  They've been selected by
competitive bid three times and do a good job for us.

Different high-school organizations work
election nights as fund-raisers.  This time, the Olathe
North National Honor Society sent workers to
check in voting results and supplies.  We bring back
all results to our office (we don't modem or network).
This approach is the culprit if you are awaiting results
and are frustrated that they aren't up yet.  Physical
delivery (Sneakernet) ensures that our results cannot
be electronically intercepted.  Our tabulator is not connected
to an Internet or Intranet and the results we put on our website
are burned to a compact disc (instead of using a flash drive)
for 100-percent assurance that nothing from the outside
world could be uploaded to the tabulator.  "Think Like the
Jetsons, Live Like the Flintstones," is our motto
when it comes to election integrity and security.
I try very hard to stay atop IT and security trends
and issues, but we believe one way to
protect the integrity of our elections
is to keep the process as reasonably
low-tech as possible.  Biblical monks, for instance,
 were never hacked (although they were poisoned,
but that's one thing we really don't worry about).
 We don't go total Flintstone, but we do have the
proverbial walled garden when
it comes to our IT.

Results come back first, then other supplies.