Sunday, June 24, 2012 0 comments

Take That, Redistricting!

I'm learning that in the 2012 social media world of elections, silence can be deafening.

With Twitter and Facebook, I try to balance being the Town Crier, providing too much information, with being some sort of wise owl, typing nuggets at just the right point.

Fewer, good tweets, as opposed to several nuisance tweets is the goal.

Last week, I saw some of my peers tweet regular updates as they worked through the maps created from the court-ordered redistricting.  I wondered if my lack of tweets might be a sign of concern, as if no news was bad news.

I've seen this on election night, where giving an update on how many polling places have returned results--even though they aren't yet tabulated--provides assurance that things are going as they should.  It's human nature to assume that if things are dark, they've gone horribly wrong.

So, I tweeted a brief update that we were, essentially, "on it."  That tweet was retweeted by many, quickly, and validated that the updates were beneficial.

Yesterday, thanks to the amazing dedication of many of our staff members who gave up the last couple of weekends and a few evenings, we mailed out the last of the military and overseas ballots on Saturday, meeting the deadline of 45 days before the election.

Our employees are squeezing four months of work into four weeks, and they are halfway there.

I'm very proud of their dedication and competence, so the tweet in my mind was, "Military ballots out in time.  In your face, redistricting!"

The reason I thought I would instead type that here is because of the context of social media.  (As an aside, I'm beginning to think this Internet thing is going to take off).

I've typed here before about some social media awareness we will be taking with our election workers during training and I thought it was worth reinforcing here a personal social media policy I've tried to adopt.

I say "tried" because I see the flaws and I'm sure some have slipped through, but once we enter a particular election time, I make a point to not accept social media friend or connection requests from candidates.

I'm touched that I'm asked and I feel bad if the person who asks thinks I'm haughty by not accepting, but I will accept the moment the election is over.  I just don't want to give any appearance that I'm in cahoots with any candidate.

Now, some of those I accept after the election will have won the election (and others will think I'm cruel by accepting after their defeat) but of course I then am connected with elected officials who later might be candidates again.  I don't ferret out those and occasionally, if I'm friends with all the other candidates in a race, I will accept the friend request from the outlier, lest he or she feel I'm now in, um, anti-cahoots.

And, for reasons that probably only make sense to me, I don't see Twitter as the same as Facebook and LinkedIn.  Our office benefits, I think, from reading updates on Twitter, particularly on election day. So, this policy, if that's what it is, only applies to social media things like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ that require connection rather than following.

If all of my social media thought process bores you, then I think I've succeeded, actually.  That probably means I've over-thought this, and that's never a bad thing in election administration.

But for now, a big milestone has passed.  Military and overseas ballots are all out.  Our next item on the critical path is preparing our paper ballot order that has to be out Tuesday.  Then, we can begin moving voters to their proper districts in our voter registration system, with the goal of having a postcard ready to mail to voters by July 4.

We're 45 days from the the election, 25 days from the day advance ballots are mailed, and 33 from the day we open up for advance voting in person in four locations.

So, it's on us.  Thanks to our staff and as I tweeted, though, we're on it.
Tuesday, June 19, 2012 1 comments

Personas Personified

Almost a year ago to the day, I had the honor of being part of an online roundtable produced by the Election Assistance Commission.

The roundtable was on social media and was the second of a successful series of roundtables the EAC had conducted over the last 15 months.  Another one is being conducted today.

I made many new friends that day, one of my Top 10 best days of 2011.  One new friend, Dana Chisnell, was featured this week in a post by Doug Chapin.  He's got some more details coming, he says, but Dana is representative of a wave of smart people who are transferring their skills to the election administration profession.

She's become defined as the usability lady.  Oh, that calls for an interlude:

In my 20 years at Sprint, I learned a key survivability trait.  Namely, get known for something, have it etched on your forehead, be known as that person, and then devote your life to shaking that identity and  building a new one.

At Sprint I went from the PR guy to the relay services guy to the wholesale guy.  Now, I'm an elections geek.  I guess here, my identity is evolving in elections to the blogging guy.  It carries over into other industries, too--our Photo ID campaign was developed by the "Pork, the Other White Meat" guy.

So, for Dana to build this identity is impressive.  Equally impressive is what she advocated in Doug's post--personas.

The first election website to use personas?  Why, that would be the Johnson County Election Office in its website redux in 2006.

Instead of organizing our website by topics that only our website administrator would know, we customized content by visitor, with tabs, such as "For Voters," "For Candidates," and "For Election Workers."

I'm a big believer in using personas.  In fact, the "Persona Guys," Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg have a great book about it, "Waiting for Your Cat to Bark?"

In 2005, I got a call from a college student looking to intern.  The summer of 2005 was not an election-intensive period, so I put her on the case of creating our web personas.  Not what she expected from elections, she quit after a couple of weeks, but she actually did a pretty good job at defining what was then a pretty airy concept.

We used this concept most recently for training, creating personas of the types of persons who may come in related to Photo ID.  I've attached what we submitted as an entry for the Election Center's Best Practices program as background into how the personas can be used:

We are about to undertake a process for defining our next generation voting system.  As we do that, we will create personas for various voters, particularly those who are disabled, so that we can build a system that meets those needs.

Personas can go a lot farther than websites, a cause I'm sure Dana will be championing.  And, personas can go a lot farther in government than elections.  Elections are becoming an innovation engine in public administration, and the use of personas is a small example of why.

Monday, June 18, 2012 0 comments

Steady as She Goes

In the aftermath of the redistricting pass by the Kansas legislature and the ensuing court decision, I think it's worth opining about how lucky Kansas has been with its Secretaries of State.

I've worked for three of them, initially appointed by Ron Thornburgh.  That vacancy came after the retirement of Connie Schmidt, Johnson County Election Commissioner from 1995 to 2004 and still a great leader in election administration as a consultant on a national level.

The Secretary of State can use whatever process he or she wants to fill vacancies, but Secretary Thornburgh treated an Election Commissioner vacancies as any job that was to be filled.

He created a screening committee and posted the job.  In my case, I was proud that I was selected from among 65 candidates at the time and, so you know there's no cronyism, I had never met Ron Thornburgh until the week of the final interviews.

Working as Election Commissioner is a different kind of job, almost like running a small business.  We have laws and statutes to govern our processes but Election Commissioners make all day-to-day decisions.  There are four Election Commissioners in Kansas, appointed by the Secretary of State.  These four are in Johnson, Shawnee, Wyandotte, and Sedgwick counties.  Elections in the other 101 Kansas counties are administered by the elected county clerk.

Elections is a logistics business and a scale business.  A $10 extension cord becomes $3,000 if it goes to all polling places, for instance.  Election administration varies across the country, but in my case we're left to do much on our own, and more than we'd like at times, from arranging cleaning and security services in our building to identifying and negotiating lease terms at advance voting locations.  When our fire alarm goes off in the middle of the night, for instance, I'm the one who gets the call to meet the police and fire units at midnight.

As the empowered administrator of our office, I try very hard to never take the Secretary a problem.  In fact, I don't think I've ever escalated an issue for resolution, although I've often asked for advice.  I probably talk to someone at the Secretary of State's office three times a week, but discussions with the Secretary are generally strategic, long-term discussions, such as plans for voting systems when the day comes to replace our fleet.

In the Ron Thornburgh era, I saw how well-respected he was within the election industry.  He was extremely involved in the development of the Help America Vote Act, for instance.  He resigned in 2010 to go to the private sector and was replaced by the Governor with Chris Biggs.

I thought Secretary Biggs took office at a tough time.  He was running for Secretary of State (Ron had announced he wasn't running for reelection) and we were knee-deep in preparations for the gubernatorial election.

Much like Ron Thornburgh before him, he attempted to not be the news.  Most Kansans probably couldn't have named their Secretary of State, and that's not such a bad thing, in my opinion.

Chris Biggs had a short tenure, losing to Kris Kobach in the 2010 election, but has been remembered as a steady hand.  He retained the staff at the Secretary of State's office and that staff is nationally admired as well.

I submit that Kris Kobach deserves similar recognition to his predecessors, and the redistricting process we're undertaking underscores why.  The chaos that has come from the court reshuffling all the districts has provided moments of stress to candidates, incumbents, and potential candidates.  The Secretary of State's office has been snowed, to say the least, just like us as we're trying to compress at least four months of work into about four weeks.

But especially through the last few weeks, Secretary Kobach has been that steady hand that Kansans expect of their Secretary of State.  This week, I attended a local session on his outreach tour to explain changes created  by the Secure and Fair Elections Act, passed in 2011.
Life imitating Art--Secretary Kobach speaks
in person during an outreach session in Overland Park.
The Secretary spoke to a Powerpoint, showed Public Service Announcements, handed out highly professional materials from a website built for the law, and answered questions. This, while he and his staff  are busily scurrying to implement the most far-reaching redistricting changes in the history of the state. He answered questions about that process, too.

As election administrators in Kansas, we are required to attend annual training, by law, with the Secretary of State, and we've been impressed with his knowledge of our voter registration system.  He even has led some of the technical training.

He visited our polling places this spring and in two locations there was a large stretch of time without any voters.  During that quiet time, he stayed and spoke with each election worker, thanked them for working, and listened to them when they gave input about their experiences.

We likely will not have such quiet times at the polls in the short term.  This crunch-mode environment isn't a bubble where everything returns to some slower pace in a couple  of weeks.  I'm not sure there ever will be a slower pace, but we will be operating at an escalating intensity for about the next 11 months, though the wrap-up of the April 2013 election.

We have four countywide elections between now and then, including the presidential election, and little preparation time.

Election employees, as I've stated here before, excel at getting things done.  One reason is the ability to methodically break down projects into meaningful milestones and another is the mental approach to keep both hands on the steering wheel.

It's easier to do that when we know the Secretary of State has control of the bigger picture, and I've been fortunate to work in an environment where that's always been the case.  This year will go down as one of the zaniest, but as has been the case before, to the outside world we will look like our boring and steady selves, and that's a tribute to the election administration leadership we have in Topeka.

Saturday, June 9, 2012 0 comments

Redistricting Update

Breaking news just after midnight Friday that the federal court had released its redistricting order and maps is creating a four-day election frenzy.

The changes are massive, renumbering districts and putting two incumbents in one district, no candidates in another, and, overall, leading to a different kind of race.  Namely, candidates are racing to get filed or even withdrawn by noon on Monday.

We've already seen one candidate move on Friday so he could file in his new district.

In a clinical way, this is a fun time, almost starting from scratch and reinventing jurisdictions.

I know, though, that it has caused upheaval in so many lives that I doubt those impacted would call this fun.  I feel especially bad for those who woke up to see a friend and someone they respected ideologically suddenly also be an opponent in a primary.

In our office, we're now head-down putting the districts together.  We have 16 employees and while that may seem like a lot, each are specialized and spread pretty thin.  We have one mapping person and one person who has an end-to-end understanding of all our systems.
This is the screen projected by the mapping software
our team was using in a conference room Friday as they
made sure exact precincts were placed
in the proper Senate districts.

Those two locked up on Friday, are likely working as I type, and will be sorting all of this out for several more days.  They have to ensure that each precinct is placed in the proper district.  We have about 450 precincts and likely will have more because the maps split several precincts.

They finished four of the county's nine Senate districts on Friday.  They'll have the State Board of Education and House districts to do this week.

From there, we can begin placing voters in their correct jurisdictions and create ballots.  We need to mail military ballots within 2 weeks and we should meet that goal, but that's just the first milestone.

We'll need to create our ballot order to give our printer time to prepare and mail back about 150,000 ballots.  Permanent sick and disabled ballots, and ballots for those who already have requested an advance ballot, will be in the mail July 18.  We send a postcard to each voter, also, and that will go out the week before.

We're gathering a waiting list of map requests, and the maps take considerable time to print.  We should be in a position to print maps by the end of the month, but also have about a thousand we need to print for the August election--such as the "Vote Here if You Live Here" maps.

At some point, our mapping priority will have to be on the maps we need to administer the election.  If you're among those anticipating ordering some maps, I encourage you to call as soon as possible to get in line.

All that being said (or at least typed), we're nearing the other side of the work created by the census.
Tuesday, June 5, 2012 0 comments

Redistricting: Where No News is No News

In the "It's Election Day, Somewhere," mode, I'm leaving a quick post during an unexpectedly non-hectic moment.

We haven't seen any white smoke coming from the courthouse to indicate that the three-judge panel considering new statewide districts have reached any resolution.

In fact, as I've been reading the electronic tea leaves (Twitter, mostly), it feels like nothing will be decided until next week at the earliest.  If that's the case, the Monday filing deadline will move a week back and our office's immediate focus will be the Secretary of State's Town Hall visit in Johnson County on June 14.  I'll be the overly attentive one in the front row, hoping to use that day as a chance to sync up and make sure we are like-minded in our election planning.

Particularly, we're continuing to watch the possibility of having two elections in August and the craziness that could be happening with a voter coming in to cast two separate advance ballots for two different elections at the same time.

Meanwhile, we're building the election in our systems, fully mindful that it may not all hold as revisions are made.  Typically, after the filing deadline, we'd be preparing our paper ballot order but that's a futile task at this point.

August of even years presents the most complicated ballot printing scenario.  We print enough paper ballots for advance by mail voters, anticipated provisional voters, and for persons who request paper ballots.  We expect about 75,000 voters in August and only a portion of those voters will cast paper ballots.

But with nearly 500 precincts and unique ballots for Democratic, Republican, and Unaffiliated voters, we'll have more than 1,000 ballot styles.  Then, we'll order 25 of one, 50 of another, 30 of a third, and so on.  It's a very complex process and to be prepared, we have to over-print and end up literally throwing away thousands of dollars worth of unused ballots after every election.

We're going to take a stab at printing paper ballots on demand at our advance voting sites, but we thought that was better as a 2014 initiative.  At this rate, though, we may be combining the 2012 and 2014 elections.

For now, our office is starting to feel like a Fire Station.  We're polishing and testing our equipment, washing the truck, laying out our uniforms, and waiting for the next alarm.

Saturday, June 2, 2012 0 comments

Hurry Up and Wait, Then Wait and Hurry Up

The election story of the year in Kansas is redistricting.

Of course, there are election stories regarding candidates and issues, but that's not the focus here.  There are candidate impacts from redistricting, though, and, in particular, potential candidates sitting on the sidelines trying to determine if this is the year they should run.

A principled candidate may want to run if he or she feels a void of those principles exist in leadership of a particular district.  But that same potential candidate may not want to run if there is another candidate already running who shares his or her values.

If candidates are on the sidelines at this late date for an August 7 election, voters will have little time to be captivated.  Military ballots need to be mailed in three weeks and advance voting starts about a month later.

The August election, usually with a turnout of about a third of the November presidential election, is looking like it will have a stark turnout.

Yesterday was the filing deadline for candidates except for those races impacted by redistricting, currently in the hands of a federal court.

We had our usual flurry of filings until the noon deadline and then a few precinct committee filers who thought the deadline was 5 p.m., only to have those filings rejected.

Our office had been madly proofing candidate names and pushing to get information updated on our website.  Usually at this point we would begin creating the election in our election management system, build the races, set the rotation (candidate names in many races have to be rotated by law so each candidate gets equal time at the top of the ballot), and create the ballots.

But this filing deadline was only Part A.  The second act is scheduled for June 11.  That's assuming the federal court is able to resolve the redistricting next week.

Drawing of boundary maps is not easy and although the court has plenty of people offering help in the forms of maps drawn, the court is trying to do something in two weeks that the legislature couldn't do in more than two months (really, five months, but I wanted to use "two" twice there).

Drawing the boundaries is complicated by the need to have comparable numbers of voters in each district (the deviation in the four U.S. congressional boundaries has to be incredibly low, less than 10 voters).  Even if there were no political factors at play, this is not an easy task.

There's still the potential of two elections in August, still the unresolved issue of whether or not the voter registration system can have the same voter in two elections at the same time, and the major issue that we don't have polling places or election workers secured for the second floating potential election day.

We have buttoned down advance voting sites for August and November and we could try to turn those sites into mega-polling places for August's second election day, if that happened.  It would be the vote center concept mentioned on the site before.

Such an idea may be pure genius or crazy talk (or both) but we plan to hash through the drivers and restrainers of such a focus early next week.  I will create a post related to that if it looks like maps won't be approved next week.