Friday, October 26, 2012 1 comments

Line Shifting

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

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

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

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

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

But that's not the story. 

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

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

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

Sunday, October 21, 2012 0 comments

People Move, The Sequel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Dogs Go To Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Time, Another Place, I guess.

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

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

Browser Wars

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

This coming week brings a training explosion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surf's Up!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's a significant drop from 2008.

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 7, 2012 0 comments

Locked and Loaded

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boom Goes the Dynamite.

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

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

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

I type the same thing over and over these days:

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

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

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

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

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

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

House, disposed, literally.