Sunday, August 26, 2012 0 comments

Future Exploration

If there's one area of agreement among election insiders, it's that the industry model is broken.

"Election insiders," in this geeky non-political blog, by the way, simply means anyone who has a stake in the day-to-day administration of elections--local election officials like me, state election officials, election integrity activists, academics, vendors, disability stakeholders, and the loads of smart people who somehow woke up and found themselves professionals in the election administration space.

One such smart person is David Becker at Pew's Center for the States.  I've generally been hesitant to use names in my blog, but there's really no way around it in this post.  David is the head of the elections practice at Pew and is a strategic thought-leader in election administration.

As a further aside, I always thought he was smart but I learned this week that he had been a contestant years ago on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."  Not to sound like Dianne Wiest in the movie Parenthood when she encounters someone who also attended Woodstock ("I THOUGHT you looked familiar!"), but I am certain I saw his run on the show.

So, David pulled together a small group of insider-ey types to help answer the million-dollar election question we're all facing.  Specifically, voting systems that were once shiny are nearing the end of their lives with no plan, no money, or no solution for replacement in many cases.

Consider what I typed when submitting a capital budget request last year in Johnson County:

"Election systems must be a) federally certified, b) compliant with the Election Administration Commission's Voluntary Voting Systems Guidelines, and c) Kansas state-certified.   Currently, no systems exist that meet this criteria."

We aren't alone.  Thankfully, Los Angeles County is about 18 months ahead of us in the process of looking at a new solution.  The biggest challenge is putting definition around the drivers and restrainers in the election industry in order to frame the problem, identify solutions, and make recommendations.

This isn't really hard work, but it requires time.  I spent years in strategic planning at Sprint doing this very thing.  But it is impossible to do when you're always in election mode, as we've been with nearly 50 elections in my 7 1/2 years at the county.

I feel good that I've kept up with all the reading in the 150 different arms and legs that impact the industry, and my thoughts are pretty well organized.  But I haven't really had the time to put all this into a document.

This blog, in fact, is designed to capture some of these things.  An election industry assessment, in the business world, would be a million-dollar study by Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey, or some other group of smart people.

Without this, discussions regarding the future of elections in our county often get derailed because of the myriad of uncertainty we face.  The uncertainty can be an excuse not to take any action, turning the can we kick down the street into a 100-gallon barrel.

So, smart-guy David did something that was monumental but also likely very normal-sounding to those outside of the industry.  He pulled some people in with various perspectives and put them in one room to discuss the issues we are facing.

It was a breakthrough because most election meetings are conducted with people who have the same point of view, or at least the same orientation.  We talk to ourselves a lot in this industry.  Activists who are certain they know a better way talk to themselves, too.  Rarely do opposing viewpoints--or perceived opposing viewpoints as is usually more likely--meet.

I believe this stems from Black Box Voting, a book, website, and HBO special pushed by activist Bev Harris (oops, another name) years ago.  Speaking of names, Bev Harris had no problem publishing in her book the names of election officials and, fairly or unfairly, called them out at times.

Election administrators work very hard to NOT be the news, so this was a hurtful new thing to many, especially to the friends and professional colleagues of those mentioned.  This new election activism felt very personal and set up a divisive culture that seems rather silly as more time passes.

If you start with the notion that we all want the same thing--perfect elections--disagreements on the path to get there aren't bad at all.  The only way to confront obstacles is to actually know what they are.

The meeting allowed us to identify and hash through some of those obstacles.  No pies were thrown and, in fact, I think we agreed on many things. 

We even named some potential solutions and approaches.  David's focus now is to determine if Pew has a role in helping frame the industry's roadmap.

I hope so.  All I've had time to do is obtain the domain electionroadmap, which just redirects to this site for now.  We had a part-time employee in 2008 focused on the roadmap, but he left to join Wyandotte County as a full-timer and we had to give up his position to budget cuts and couldn't backfill.

There's a long lead time in government budgeting and it's not realistic to hope a placeholder of several million dollars is put into a budget as we hash through the solution.  Likewise, if we wait until the ideal solution is developed, our current system could be kaput before we've even begun crafting a way to pay for the new system.

I'm still a proponent of my concept of Bring Your Own Voting Machine,  posted in February, and if implemented, that could save our county millions of dollars.

It's still only a gleam in the eye right now, although articulating any vision feels a little closer after the meetings this week.

Thursday, August 16, 2012 0 comments

I'm a Real Boy

In our little election administration world, we have a certification process.

To be a Certified Election/Registration Administrator means something.

Primarily, it means I've taken 12 12-hour courses, mostly delivered by faculty members at Auburn University.

It means following the footsteps of my predecessor, who practically invented the certification and administers the program.

It means I'm one of the cool kids.  Well, maybe.  It might be a sign I'm uncool.

CERA binders awaiting their innards in Auburn.
Regardless, it means I can now have the initials CERA after my name in election circles.

Graduation from the program was this week, although I couldn't attend in person at the Election Center's conference in Boston.  Another member of our office, Jeanie Nichols, also graduated and we joined Debbie Tyrrel in our office, who graduated two years ago.

When I was offered the position of Election Commissioner on the last day of 2004, our office had three CERA graduates.

Our CERA grads retired over the next few years, so it's nice for the office to have graduates of the program again.  We're trying to build new tiers of leaders in our office, so our objective moves to getting more of our employees involved in the program at various levels so that we are constantly a couple years away from another person becoming certified.

Courses include the history of elections, ethics, technology, leadership, and several others.  I've built many friendships during the 7 years of the courses, with peers and faculty members.  Congratulations to all in the class of 2012!

I took my last required class at Auburn in May.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012 0 comments

Public Service

I'm blessed to be in a job that truly feels like it matches against my skills.

There are many facets to overseeing elections, from public relations to candidate relations, from high-tech to situations that require a human touch, from logistics to statistics, and everything in between.

I have a hard time considering this job public service, though.

Anyone who has put on a military uniform--that's a public servant.  First responders in emergencies--public servants.

Election workers who give a 15-hour day for $110 in pay--yes, I think they are public servants.

But the guy running the election office?  Eh.  I don't think I've earned the same stripes.

I don't think holding a job in government automatically makes someone a public servant.  I get that we serve the public, that taxpayers are our "customers," but tying that concept into some vocation or higher calling?  I don't see the connection.

There are plenty of people--and I worked with thousands of them at Sprint--who are committed to providing excellent service in their jobs.  The fact that they work for a company instead of the government doesn't make them any less devoted to excellent service.

At one of our divisions at Sprint, we created a marketing positioning statement of "Reliability and Responsiveness From a Single Source."  I'll save you the boredom of how it fit there (although, actually it's fascinating :-)).  But those values of reliability and responsiveness were a part of all of us in that division.  They were also values I took to the election office.

I think we can be reliable and responsive without thumping our chests that we are special servants.

Point is, I think, "public service" is  a cliche, a crutch to imply a person makes less money because of a commitment to the community.  I don't share that view.  I'm a believer in service first; whether it's government or a private business is immaterial.

Looking deeper at service in elections, there are 101 counties where the elected county clerk runs elections.  Public servants or not, those are thankless jobs and it frankly amazes me that anyone would run for those positions.

It surprises me more when someone runs against an incumbent county clerk.  Clearly the challengers don't know what the job will entail.

This past Tuesday, a couple of my colleagues were defeated by someone running against them.

The general election isn't until November, so these clerks are in their positions for the rest of 2012.  And what a "rest of 2012" it will be!

Imagine working on a huge event, the biggest in the last four years, only to walk away from the job afterwards.

Imagine serving the public by putting on that event and all the while knowing that a majority of the voting public chose someone else besides you to do that job beyond this year.

Imagine the selfless devotion you'd have to have to do an excellent job.

Knowing those who were defeated, I'm certain they will throw themselves selflessly at the November election.  They will sacrifice greatly with little payback.

That's commitment.  That's public service.
Monday, August 6, 2012 1 comments

Short Code Shortcut

Well, tomorrow's the big day, election day!

Of course, it's our sixth election this year.  So, on the seventh, I'm guessing we can rest.

This is a time we try to promote a feature that I wish would go national.  I think it's a great service and I've wished for years something like this would be featured in USA Today or on Google.

Both of these organizations have short codes, which are short phone numbers for text messages.

My little dream in 2007 was that voters would text "VOTE" to a short code and get a response back with their polling place location.

I peddled this idea to anyone who would listen and learned in the process that short codes were very expensive.

We found Kansas City company Textcaster, whom we already used for text messaging updates, owned a short code, 74574.  They were excited about creating this concept, but "VOTE" was taken.  One of their customers is Sonic Drive-In and if we shared this short code, they owned "VOTE."

So, we went to KSVOTE, as well as VOTEKS, and developed the service ourselves.  By ourselves, I really mean a very smart employee at the Election Office, in conjunction with Textcaster.

In 2008, we rolled it out, mostly to yawns of, "What's a short code?"

In 2010, it gained some momentum, and I think it's time is arriving in 2012.

Voters text "VOTEKS" then a space, then their street address, a space, and their zipcode to 74574.  In 30 seconds or so, the polling place info comes back.

What a great resource for voters if it were mainstream!  And, I'd enjoy a misty moment being able to say, "It was my idea."

For now, though, I'm hoping this catches some Johnson County voters and they find the tool helpful.