Thursday, December 19, 2013 0 comments

The Year of The Voter

We'll be sending our annual election worker availability forms soon and the forms include an informal newsletter to our workers.

That newsletter always includes a column I write.  The column usually either sums up the year we've had or previews themes for the coming year.

The column gave me an opportunity to stress what I've been saying here for a while:
It's getting really hard to vote.

We’re losing facilities as polling places, potential advance voting locations are becoming scarce, and the United States Postal Service is much less predictable than it was when advance voting began to take off nearly 20 years ago.

We just heard, in fact, anecdotally that our bellwether advance voting site, Metcalf South Shopping Center, may not be available for use anymore.
At this point, we might need to go door-to-door on election day.  Hey, if Santa can hit the whole world in one night, surely we could hit the whole county in one day.
Our county chairman jokingly suggested we enlist Amazon Drones as voting devices.  Personally, I don't think we can rule anything out at this point, and the thought of hundreds of drones descending upon our office at 7 p.m. presents a fun and creepy sci-fi image.
Maybe Jeff Bezos could take on the needs of our voters as his new high-tech hobby.
With the obstacles ahead, I've decided our office and our election workers should adopt 2014 as The Year of The Voter.
This begs the initial question--why just this year?  After all, every day is children's day, and every year should be The Year of The Voter.
But adopting this mindset, now, is a way to demonstrate that we are resolved, no matter how hard the outside forces are making it, to ensure that anyone who legally can vote and wants to vote, will vote. We must radiate our resolve.
I fully understand that I'm leading with my chin on this, that any obstacle that arises will be thrown back at me as inconsistent with The Year of The Voter. 
I'm used to this.  In fact, years ago, as marketing director for the $1.5 billion wholesale services division at Sprint, I felt that our biggest impediment to growth was us.  We made it too hard to do business with us.
We developed an advertising theme and an internal communications program around being easy to do business with.  One campaign showed we put our customers on Easy Street, although in between Easy and Street (on the street sign), we added a few tiny words so it was "Easy to Do Business With Street.
Still, over that time, if a sales person couldn't get a specific rate for his customer or an account manager needed a maintenance report, for instance, the needs for these things were expressed under the guise of Easy to Do Business With.  That phrase became cover for anything, sort of a "gotcha" used often at the wrong times but, still, it was effective.
None of us wanted to be called out for not being Easy to Do Business With, even if we were being called out, for instance, for a conference room being too cold.
I'm sure the Year of the Voter will have similar fallout.  Ice in the parking lot?  Wouldn't happen in the Year of the Voter!  
Bad cookies at election worker training?  In the Year of the Voter?  What?!
Still, if a couple of thousand of us can take this approach, hopefully our resolve and compassion will be apparent to voters.  

As polling-place availability is compromised, for instance, voters will be moved to different sites, often to locations that were very busy already.  Advance voting sites may be less convenient, if they exist at all at this rate.

(I suggested--and not in jest--that if we don't have Metcalf South for an advance voting site that we put up long trailers in the parking lot of the King Louie facility just down the street.  This is something I seriously will be pursuing if the Metcalf South loss becomes real).
Point is, we must do all we can to serve as the Voter Concierge, a focal point where voters can count on someone looking out for them.  It’s hard being a voter these days, and to a large degree, if we don’t look out for our voters, no one will.

The first step to being committed as a Voter Concierge, or to The Year of The Voter, is go public with the concept, chin-up.

In the newsletter, and here, that just happened.
Sunday, December 8, 2013 0 comments

Bowser the Elusive

Amidst all of the talk of a next-generation voting system and the possibility of my idea of "Bring Your Own Voting Machine," we at the Election Office recently have been having a rather contrarian thought.

What if we simply recommitted to using the voting machines we have for a long time?

"Long time" may not be until the the 12th of Never, but longer than four more years.

Our machines are running on late 1990s technology and many have been in service for 10 years.  The touchscreen capability is four-wire resistive, much more primitive than the iPads and Android tablets of today.

We've provided specific cost estimates for the capital budget, for three years straight, for a scanner-based system and a voting machine system using what's certified today without being able to get them into the county capital budget plan (actually they were in and then taken out this past year).  The cost for each system is comparable, in excess of $10 million.

The argument for taking the dollars out of the budget shifts.  In general, the uncertainty of the Election Assistance Commission, certification in general, and the potential for the crazy new system I've raised seems to give enough cover for those who don't want to do anything to not do anything.

We're coming to the next capital budgeting process with a spiffy PowerPoint and a process that allows us to create a Request for Proposal with vendor input and analyze all solutions--including those not certified--before determining the right course.  We know, however, that if we had to make a decision today that we would pick a system like the one we already have costed and provided to the county.

I fully expect that during that time we will be told the equivalent of, "Good process, Mario--but our princess is another castle!"

No matter.  Kansas statutes direct the Election Commissioners to print the ballots (which includes voting machines and tabulation systems) and to annually provide a budget to conduct the election and that the county commissioners shall provide funding.

That's not really an optional thing (hence the word "shall") and one day, despite my requests for the last four years that the quotes I've provided be used for the budget, if the millions of dollars we will need are not baked into the budget, they still will need to be spent.

Bowser, eventually, will be defeated and the princess will be saved.

The big risk of delaying is that we've seen previous versions of voting machines have parts that fail, and fail quickly.  Power supplies and printers are the usual suspects.

We also know, though, that being the new kid on the block to be the first to pressure-test a new system has significant risks (Johnson County lived this in 2002 when it became the first county to try to modem results from the polls).

We further know that two vendors have many new and slightly new voting machines in the same model we have (and the one quoted for the new system that we have frequently submitted for the capital budget).

We can get more of them.  We also could got some that have been mothballed in other states, although I believe they have limited value.  We once bid one cent for 500 voting machines in Cuyahoga County and were rejected.

I think that was a fair bid.  We were willing to pay for the transportation, but the machines hadn't been used for a while.  Eventually, that county will have to pay to dispose those machines, much the way I will have to pay to remove my once-cool large screen television from my basement, and having someone take them off their hands at no expense will look like an obvious good deal they passed up.

So "doing nothing" has some intrigue.  We still have to push to get the new system budgeted, but the very idea to type this post likely will provide fodder to again not put our request in the budget.  (Again, this continual ostrich strategy won't eliminate the eventual need).

But I know how new systems will be.  Give a mouse a cookie--or a software developer a project--and just imagine the new ways new technology can slow things down.

Machines will take longer to boot.  Ballots, with the ability to be rendered more user-friendly, will be in color, maybe with a cute splash screen and a logo.

We might see the candidates' photos.  You might have the chance to watch yourself virtually walk up to the candidate and, for instance in a primary, make your selection by pinning the tail on the donkey or the trunk on the elephant of your choice.

Mark my words--it will take longer for a voter to cast a ballot on the systems under development than it does with the systems today.

And that's the beauty of the contrarian idea.  Our machines are the equivalent of that first Nintendo system of the late 1980s.

The graphics are minimal by today's standards, but there was only an A and a B button back then.  ("And that's the way we liked it!")

There was no R or L, X or Y, circle or square, and no gesture.  Madden 2014 looks like the real football game, but it was more fun to rake up 10 sacks a game in Tecmo Bowl where the big graphical push was that the players' uniforms were the correct colors for the NFL teams.

The point of all of this is way back to an earlier post when I played up a great book, Crunch Mode.  John Boddie's words of becoming comfortable working with a system that isn't developed apply to all things strategic.

We have different lanes we're managing, and truly strategic thinkers understand that monitoring several lanes to make the proper decision is necessary.

Not to be all Ferris Buehler here, but I've said it before and I'll say it again:

Voting system design is now a forever thing.  If the cliche "success is a journey, not a destination," is true, the same can be said for voting systems design.  It's a journey. 

I've been saying that here for nearly two years. It's the equivalent of living today simultaneously like it's the last day of your life and with the thought that you'll live forever.

Bowser won't live forever.  But, maybe, a slow pursuit gets us to the Bring Your Own Voting Machine castle that we never would have entered otherwise.

Thursday, November 28, 2013 1 comments

Party of 380,000 With No Waiting?

In the spirit of "a picture is worth a thousand words," the table below says a lot, but I still will need to add a couple of hundred words of color for the full effect.

"Table" in this Thanksgiving post relates to a text-based table.  But, it's worth comparing our situation to a restaurant maitre d' hoping to accommodate a large party.

The table represents a response from one of our school districts regarding school availability for 2014's elections.  The district has been very responsive to our requests, but the table highlights polling place issues on many levels.

First, know that the April election only encompasses four cities and only some portions of one of those cities spill into this school district.  The February election is a primary, if needed, for any of those four cities.

The August election is a countywide primary and the November election is a countywide general election.

Our objective is to keep voters at the same location throughout an entire cycle.  We often get complaints that polling places move frequently, and if you lived in this school district, the table below gives you a pretty good indication why they move ("X" indicates facility availability):

2/25/14 4/1/14 8/5/14 11/4/14
ABM Gym        X           X          X          X
BVA Gym        X           X          X             X
BVM Gym        X          X
HMS Gym          X
LKM Gym           X           X          X
LMS Gym Foyer        X           X
OTM Gym               X
OMS South Foyer          X
PRM Gym        X
BVH Front Foyer
BVN Aux Gym       X           X         X         X
BVNW Library Foyer         X
BVSW Aux Gym         X
BVW Aux Gym       X            X          X         X

So, of the 15 sites above, only four are available for all four elections and, actually, for the two big ones as well.  Further, only two of the four meet our needs as polling places.  

On the good side, all four are gymnasiums, so they have plenty of space.  However, one, "BVM Gym," was an extremely high-volume location in the presidential election with 10 voting machines and nearly 3,000 registered voters.  Those voters need a new home, at least for August.  If we only send them elsewhere for August, but back home in November, we'll field at least 100 complaints and we don't exactly have enough people to answer the phones on slow days.

(As an aside, we have an extremely clear-cut vision for our website:  to reduce phone calls.  This isn't flippant.  We don't have enough people to answer the phone.  We'll get 8,000 calls on election day, for instance.  Our site is essentially a reference tool where we try to guess/predict the various needs stakeholders have and provide as much self-service information as possible).

Back to the key polling place point--through 2008, our office (and, I think most others) demonstrated election service by the number of polling places utilized.  The number always increased, presidential election to presidential election.

The new paradigm is, "How few polling places can we utilize and still administer the election?"

It's akin to my Sprint days, late 1990s, when our revenue per minute was dropping.  The "Dime Lady" was an icon by then as our customers were pushing for three-cents-per-minute domestic rates.  Someone piped up in a room that soon we will be talking minutes per cent, instead of cents per minute.  

That was a revolutionary thought--and correct.  It drove different behavior.

Where I thought once that we'd be up to 300 polling places in 2016, we've got to consider what would happen if we only had 100.

Of the 300, they'd be evenly split between schools, churches, and "other."  "Other" includes banks, restaurants, senior living centers, and VFW Halls.  

Without schools--and we're headed that way unless we can get spring elections moved to November and a school holiday for voting--we're left with churches and "other," and "other" is a tenuous category, subject to economic and capacity issues.  A senior living center, for instance, may contain 700 registered voters, but few nearby voters can be assigned because there may only be five public parking spaces.

And, of course, our advance voting sites are in peril, too.  Our location in Shawnee is now a toy store, and there are fewer open storefronts than there were in 2007, or 2011 for that matter.

It's a stresser.  We have a party of 380,000 we need to seat.  They're willing to be split up, but they'd like to eat on the same day, if possible.  

We don't exactly need a bigger boat, but we definitely are going to need more boats than it's looking like we'll have.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013 0 comments

The King and I

Last Thursday, members of the Board of County Commissioners effectively slow-rolled and maybe stopped the restoration of the "King Louie" facility.

The site is a former bowling alley and ice rink, purchased at what appears to a be below-market price, for relocation of the Johnson County Museum and potential creation of a special suburbia museum. 

As the project gained potential traction, other uses for the facility were identified.  It is, after all, a huge complex with plenty of parking.  ABC used to broadcast "Wide World of Sports" Bowling Championships from this site back when ABC, "Wide World of Sports," and bowling all were things people cared about.

Advance voting was added to the list of potential uses.  Actually, I barked a bit about that initially because I didn't think enough was being done to truly address our advance voting needs if, indeed, it were to be used this way.

The county's facility department met with me and we spent considerable time conceptualizing what would be a very workable but modest advance voting site (comparable to what we do at Metcalf South, across the street and used in even years since 2006--however, we never know when our last election there will be our last and the shopping center will be demolished).

From the election office standpoint, I was fine with the plan.  Separately, I saw the arguments on all sides of this purchase. It wasn't my role to have a position on that.

Just before last Thursday's meeting ended, one commissioner suggested a task force be formed of the various building stakeholders to consider the fate of this property.  That suggestion didn't make it to a vote, but one might come up in a regular commission meeting.

I've toured the facility.  I see the warts and I see the potential.  No one asked me, and even if they do it might be a pity postulate request, but here's what I would do.

  1. I'd move the election office there.  It's centrally located to the population in the county today, and for the foreseeable future.  It's large enough to accommodate the growth we need in our building for storage, a need nearly every commissioner and many county staff persons have concurred that we have.

    Doing this allows for us to consider a mega advance voting site, not one that has 25 voting machines and processes 35,000 voters over two weeks, but rather 100 voting machines processing 100,000 voters or more in a presidential election. 

    We can do it; I've done the math, and given all of the polling place and advance voting constraints we have, it's the kind of game changer that might allow us to operate with, say, 100 polling places in the county on election day.

    (Incidentally, if you look at strip malls and empty storefronts as I do, you'll notice there are fewer than we saw, say, in 2007.  Advance voting possibilities are hardly ample).
  2. As part of the renovation, build an auditorium-type of training facility for 400, allowing us to conduct refresher election worker training at a county facility.  The building structure is conducive to this kind of idea, I think.

    Right now, we have to utilize churches and other facilities, and the rent for those is going up.  We're subject to limited availability and options.

    There is a need, I believe, within the county government structure for such a training facility beyond elections, so it would be available for other county uses as well.  We would simply have first dibs.  Further, it could be leased out to other organizations. 
  3. Move the museum (which must find a home) to our current building.  The county owns the facility and it has plenty of parking for visitors in the numbers they have.  There is even the old "rectory" site adjacent to our property that the county purchased in 2012.  It could be used for better access/egress into this site.
  4. Some of the other uses for the King Louie building could still be achieved.  As the Election Office, the site would be a terrific place for a transit station because it would make advance voting much more accessible.  The Enterprise Center--the county's incubator for new businesses--could still possibly have a home there and would be able to benefit from the training facility.  Who knows, we might be able to leverage some innovation into our operations as a result of that.
Of course, this all requires money, money which was expressly not pushed forward last week.  If there isn't a financing plan to use the site, though, it is my understanding that a note will come due requiring $3 million from the general fund in 2015.

So, it looks like some significant money will be spent, one way or another.

As I often say, I'm an idea guy.  Now it's just a small matter of implementation.  First, our leaders would need to buy in and, again, no one asked me.

I remind all that I am here to neither praise, nor bury, King Louie.  If the King can be part of an elections solution, though, it seems like it's worth, at least, a vote by the county's governing body.  At the very least, maybe these thoughts will be a good kickstarter for the task force suggested.

Friday, November 15, 2013 1 comments

Back From Georgia, Part Two

My earlier international election post focused on learnings related to elections, but I'm following that with a bit of a timeline related to the experience itself.

Following this post, it's back to issues specific to Johnson County.  We have a mail-ballot election, in fact, ending this past Tuesday with canvass Monday, another mail-ballot planned for December, and it looks like we are the in process of setting two more up.  2014 is looking like another year where we will have at least 6 elections.

My international election observation journey actually began about two years ago when I began to complete my online application at the PAE-React website.  I completed a bit of the application while on a January business trip to Washington and planned to complete it the next night when I was home.

Instead, an urgent and serious health issue greeted our daughter the next day, and any travel  in 2011 seemed unlikely.  At the encouragement of former Election Assistance Commission chair Paul DeGregorio (one of the most traveled world-travelers I know), I polished off my application recently in order to be considered for a mission this fall.

Tbilisi, Georgia, view from my first hotel room.
The application included a phone interview, submission of references who would be willing to complete a referral package and possession of a passport that had at least six month of valid time left.  Observation slots are extremely limited and very competitive, so I felt fortunate to be tentatively selected for Georgia.  Once tentatively selected, I had to complete a series of online tests related to international events and specific geographic information related to Georgia and the Caucasus Region.

I also had a collection of paperwork to urgently complete and mounds and mounds of information to read. The turnaround from notification to "ready to go" was less than two weeks.  I was notified on October 8, had to complete all requirements by October 11, and would be flying out October 21.

That left little time for planning for business and personal gaps while I was out, and the two weeks leading up to the trip--with no help from my marathon plans--were chaos.  And there was the small matter of living without Diet Dr. Pepper.  I even bought some bottles in the Chicago airport, only to have the sad experience of throwing them out in Munich.

(Actually, the Munich airport security guards kept the bottles to drink, never having heard of this strange Diet Dr. Pepper elixir.  Perhaps word will spread of this great taste and I will have started a movement, making the soda more available next time I'm in this area of the world.)

My final flight arrived in the capitol of Georgia, Tbilisi, at 3 a.m. on October 23, and I arrived at my hotel at 5 a.m.  I had traveled for about 26 hours and was ready for real sleep, but that was going to be short because our bus left for our first observation meeting at 1 p.m.

It was at that first meeting that we were introduced to the overall mission and some of the key OSCE persons who were in charge of the mission.  Steven Martin from OSCE presented on the benefits of observers and I asked him if I could borrow (steal) portions of his presentation to share with our election workers at our own training.  He sent that to me and I'm already planning on how to incorporate the information into our next training.

During our meeting, we were told not to eat food from sidewalk restaurants, which were the only things near our hotel except for a McDonald's.  Famished that night, I ordered enough food at McDonald's for a family--three fish sandwiches, two double cheeseburgers, and a large order of French Fries--ate the food at my hotel, and zonked.

The next day, we went back to our briefing meetings, where, at the end of the day, we met our observation partners (we are dispatched in teams of two, one man/one woman, one veteran/one rookie).  I was paired with a woman from Sweden who, over the next few days, turned out to be the perfect partner.  Erica had been on many missions, for more than 30 years.  She also is a bit of a private person, so her photo has been retouched (hacked) to protect her identity.

Me and my observing partner (who takes pride in not
having an Internet identity--and so it remains).
We also learned where we would be observing--a little village called Chokhatauri.  About 24,000 people live in Chokhatauri, where there are three tiny restaurants and no hotels.  We were scheduled to stay with a family at their home.

For our observation, we are provided a driver and an interpreter, but we were responsible for paying these individuals (reimbursed later).  We also knew we'd need to pay our lodging expenses to the homeowner in cash.  So, Thursday evening, I loaded up on bottled water and snacks in preparation for a long trip, and exchanged dollars for Euros and Georgian currency so I'd be able to pay everyone in cash as needed.  This whole "cash plan," came at the advice of my partner and it eliminated potential stress in Chokhatauri.

The next day, we set off on a four-hour bus ride to Samtredia, where we met with seven other two-member teams and our assigned managers (long-term observers--they were there for several weeks while I was a short-term observer, there for the week).

After a regional debriefing, we met our driver and interpreter and drove to Chokhatauri.  Our house was rugged on the outside (but had palm trees) and very elegant on the inside.  On the downside, it didn't have any heat and we had one bathroom to be shared among the 2 homeowners, our interpreter, Erica, and me.  There was no Internet access or anything electronic for that matter in our rooms. (As an aside, though, apparently no other option had an indoor bathroom--which is code for an outhouse only. In fact, few of the polling places even had an outhouse within walking distance.  Maybe they needed 13 workers just because one or more were always dispatched for restroom breaks).

Our home was elegant...
…but no heat

With the benefit of always being exhausted, I soon went to sleep, awoken a couple of times through the night by roosters.  I wore gloves to bed and layers of clothing, but I slept well in the cool weather.  Forced to drink Coke Zero (mourning the loss of Diet Dr. Pepper), I noticed how the bottle near my bed was cold when I woke up.

Pigs, cows, and goats were common when driving
(and running).
That morning, I got up early for a little three-mile run in the village, often dodging goats and cows in the roads.  I think, seriously, that the phrase "till the cows come home," relates to allowing livestock to roam, knowing it will come back at dusk.  Still, I left the USA wondering about safety and Chokhatauri was anything but dangerous.

Back at the house, we planned to visit a number of polling locations in preparation of our election observation the next day.  We spent Saturday driving among 38 different sites, determining our observation route the next day.

Erica and I created a plan the next day to visit 10 locations, staying at each for at least 30 minutes. We had reports to complete at each location, and we needed to scan and email, or fax, these to the mission's central command.  This was especially hard because there was only one location in town with this capability, an Internet cafe open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.   Polls would be open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and our job included watching a polling place close and then following the chairperson (our equivalent of a supervising judge) to the central tabulation station for Chokhatauri, and then staying that location until all results were tabulated.

We arranged for our driver to pick us up Sunday morning at 6:45 so we would be at our first location, just down the street, before 7.  We arrived at the first site as planned to observe preparations for opening.

After each observation, Erica and I would fill out an assessment of what we saw.  We had to reach consensus on each report, but we rarely were divided and that part worked out very well.  Probably our biggest disagreement of the day came when we thought we might only be able to visit 9 locations and we would have to decide which location to give up.  That issue was conveniently solved as we moved expeditiously enough to hit all 10 sites.

Throughout the day, election workers offered us coffee, tea, mineral water, fruit, cake, and candy.  Most locations were relatively slow, by Johnson County standards, because there were so many polling places (the average number of voters assigned to a location in our area was about 700 and turnout nationwide was around 50 percent).

At one location, they were letting one voter in at a time and, frequently, would have two or three people waiting to come in to vote.

One of the questions on the evaluation form asked if there was a long line at the queue.  At this location, Erica immediately said yes.  "Really?" I asked.  She was steadfast because she saw occasions where three people were waiting to vote.

Wow.  There's a presidential task force formed in the United States because of long lines in the 2012 presidential election and they would meet until the end of time if they tried to figure out how to cut lines from 3 to 2 or 1.

Anyway, "when in Rome," I thought.  For the purpose of that form at that moment, bowing to Erica's experience, I agreed with the idea of the line.  It was, after all, the longest line we saw all day.

We reached our final destination, where we stayed through closing and watched them tabulate the votes.  From there, we followed the chairperson of the polling location to the central tabulation area, where one-by-one, each chairperson came in with his or her materials and final counts.

It was mildly fun to hop in our car and tell our driver, "Follow that car!"  It was less fun to observe the check-in procedures because the room was so cramped and we had very little idea of what was going on.  All tabulating completed, the room emptied around 2 a.m.  At that point, we met briefly with the person in charge of the tabulation to get a better understanding of what we just sat through.

We completed our final report and thanks to wifi Internet at this location, took photos of our forms on my phone, and emailed them to finalize our reporting.  As we drove back to our house, we passed the Internet cafe and noticed that the owner had come back waiting for us.  We didn't need to use him, but we stopped and paid him for what we would have sent, thanked him for being there for us, and we went home for a few hours of sleep.

Early that next morning, I ran again for my last time in Chokhatauri.  It was 8 a.m. and the roads were pretty active with people walking, although there still were plenty of goats and cows to dodge.  I never saw another runner in Georgia, although the climate was perfect for running--no wind and the mountain air felt good.

At 10 we headed to Samtredia for a regional debriefing.  There, we said goodbye to our driver and interpreter, and met up with the others in our region.  We swapped stories, had a good dinner, and then went to a nearby hotel before our bus ride back to Tbilisi in the morning.

That day, we arrived in Tbilisi at 3 p.m., with a bus to take us to a meeting scheduled at 5.  I did a quick treadmill run, showered, and hopped on the bus.

That meeting concluded with a closing reception.  Busses took us back at 9:30 and my bus to take me back to the airport left at 2 a.m.  I set every potential alarm device I could find, and napped for about 2 hours.

Flying back to Kansas City, I arrived after another 26 hours of traveling.  The next day was Halloween and I finally collapsed about 6 p.m., never seeing a Trick or Treater.  My wife handed out candy but I swear I kept hearing people at the door talk in Georgian.  In fact, any time I woke up in the middle of the night for the next few nights, I was disoriented for a few seconds wondering where I was.  I'd like to say I quickly recovered from the 9-hour time difference (and 10 two days later because we moved off daylight savings time), but the adjustment took about a week.

There was a possibility that we'd have to go back for a second observation.  Georgian law provided for a run-off between the top two finishers if the leader didn't receive 50 percent of the vote.  Instead, the winner did receive more than 60 percent and, in retrospect, I think it was good that this was a one and done trip.

I'm left ready to be an observer again, even though I've been digging out at home.  I can only imagine what digging would have been necessary if I missed 20 days instead of 10.  As it is, because of the number in the observer pool, I likely won't be eligible again until late 2014.

Back at home, we've been working on the Olathe mail ballot election and plenty of other things keeping us busy.  More on that in the next post.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013 0 comments

It (Really Is) Election Day!

Today is an election day, Olathe mail-ballot election, and a good day for a couple of snippets.

As I write this, at 1:13 p.m., I'm hearing someone at the front counter dropping off a ballot for the election that closed at noon, with results posted to our web about a half hour ago.

That's unfortunate, of course.  This is a real voter who for what likely was a legitimate reason, did not have a vote count because he delivered his ballot after the election closed.

This was not an issue with the post office.  Regular readers of this blog know that I'm pretty harsh with our local post office, so I feel obliged to trumpet the local post office's great work in this election.

I'm happy to report that during this election, the Olathe Post Office has been stellar.  We received ballot delivery early each morning in a special run.  They called us today after the delivery to say they had one ballot in addition to those delivered, and they brought it.

It's been a great change.  That's not all of the postal news here, though.

Before I went out of the country to observe the presidential election, in fact, I saw an article in The Wall Street Journal that linked to all of my previous post-office and traveling thoughts.

First, being a world traveler and all now, I was intrigued that the article came from London, speaking to the Royal Mail service.

(Speaking of world travel, I actually have a follow-up post to the Georgia visit that I offered to be reviewed by PAE-REACT before posting.  They are crazy busy and I'm sure will be back in touch soon.  So, that piece is coming.)

One of my thoughts when reading about the United State's Postal Service's financial woes has been that the Postal Service leadership has poorly managed things.  I believe the United State Postal Service is doing little to change the trajectory of its losses, either because the service is poorly managed or because the leadership is either hoping for a bailout or to make some other point with Congress.

If we ran a business that lost billions, we'd do what we could to change things, rather than just put our hands up in the air.  I think there is much more in the control of the leadership than they suggest.

Plus, I postulated during a meeting with PEW in August, "What if the post office privatized?"   To my dismay, it wasn't the type of question that pumped up the room.  It didn't even pump me up, and I asked it.  So, maybe it was just the (wait for it....) delivery.

I was just trying to think of creative ways things might change going forward--it's too easy to suggest that voting by mail will cease at some point because of the Postal Service's downward spiral.

So, in response to my August question, I bring to you the Wall Street Journal article:  The Royal Mail did privatize, not without issue, but, hey, that wacky ElectionDiary guy isn't completely in left field, after all!

Speaking of left field, I also share with you some of an email we received a week ago.  We often hear that we could do more to get the word out for an election and we all know the value of outreach, but it's not uncommon for us to be taken to the woodshed for not telling a voter that there wasn't an election.

We have had voters complain to us that we should send a mailing to let them know they didn't have an election.  Really.

Here's an email from someone we missed:

I was unable to find the post card that was sent to me but I went to the Johnson County website and put in my first name, last name, and polling place.  The site returned (a specific polling place). When I went to (it), they told me that there is no polling place.  Why is the website providing incorrect information? This is infuriating... If a voter loses that card, the website is a natural backup. If the website is not providing correct information then you are FAILING the voter. I called the Johnson County Elections phone number and got a recorded message. How do you not provide a live voice on election days (held once a year) to aid the voter.  This is a BIG FAIL by Johnson County. 
We did email him back and haven't received a response again.  It is a bit funny, but a fair issue because we are just one county in a large metropolitan area that crosses state lines.  There was a one-question election in Kansas City that day.
In fact, some television outlets were reporting that the Olathe election that finished today actually completed last Tuesday.
It also highlights a precursor to what surely will be an item in the upcoming Kansas legislative session.  I believe people are conditioned to expect an election in November.  We in the industry know that, at least in Kansas, November elections only occur in even years.  Most voters don't know that.
Heck, it took me four years working here before I figured out that leap year was always a presidential election year.  That's obvious trivia even many election geeks don't know.
Point is, in Kansas, there is a suggestion of moving spring city elections to November, and I think that's a great idea.  It certainly would have kept our emailing voter's blood from boiling last week.
The issue tends to get bundled with the idea of partisan elections for local races.  I don't have an opinion on that aspect, other than that I think the two thoughts should be kept separated.  There are good administrative reasons to move the spring elections to November.
One last odd thing about today.  Some local schools, in session yesterday, are out today, a Tuesday, in November.  I'll have an update soon on schools but, in my view, this only supports that having an election school holiday in November (maybe part of that legislative action I just mentioned) is very viable.
Monday, November 4, 2013 0 comments

The Week The Lights Came On In Georgia

It's been about two weeks since I've posted and much has happened.

First, outside of elections, I did finish my first marathon, although I didn't hit the time I hoped.  I'll dwell on that later, but my focus pivoted quickly to preparing to leave 48 hours later to observe the presidential election in Georgia, where I spent about 10 days.

I planned to report here on the observation mission primarily to share things I learned and can transfer to Johnson County.  In doing so, there are a few angles to consider.

First, there's the overall experience.  Most of the persons observing had tremendous backgrounds but, seldom, dedicated election administration experience.  I think many of the regular readers of this site should consider pursuing an election observation assignment and for that I want to paint a picture of how apply and what to expect.

There's the international aspect, particularly the cultural differences.  Also, there are things related to election administration that I want to call out as learnings or just interesting to those of us who administer elections in the United States.

Finally, there's the social and political aspect.  Just as with my other posts, I won't really get into this unless it brushes with the administration of the election.

My attention was on the process, particularly comparing it to our own here.   I went to sleep at 5 a.m. the morning after the election knowing the results from my observation region but not knowing the outcome nationwide.  Just as with an election I would conduct in Kansas, my interests began and ended with the logistics of conducting the election.

English and Georgian version of my credentials.
So, with that set-up, let's jump straight to some of the learnings and observations.

I'll do a second post in a few days with the process of the mission.  That will be more lively.  What follows is for the most geeky of you.

Georgia is a country with about 3.5 million voters.  In this election, there were approximately 3,600 voting locations (so, one for every 1,000 registered voters on average) and each polling location was staffed with exactly 13 workers.

By contrast, using the same formula, Johnson County should have about 380 polling locations (we have 250ish, but 380 is very reasonable without advance voting).  In a presidential election, we average
7 workers per location.

The Georgia election was conducted on paper, and by paper I mean one little piece of paper that was the same everywhere.  In our presidential election in 2012, we had more than 500 versions of the ballot, but the ballot also was jammed full front and back with other races.

The Georgia ballots were hand-counted at the polling location, with results taken to a central area location for tabulation.  That tabulation was completed, in the region I observed, around 3 a.m., and then those results were rolled up with other regions to a countrywide level.  I'm not sure when that was completed, but I believe the country's election website was updated by 5 a.m. (I didn't have Internet access in my area and, actually, didn't know there was such a website until days later).

The hand-counting was relatively easy because there was only one race and, on average with a 50 percent turnout, each polling place team had to only count 500 votes.

Visitors to this polling place first had to get past turkeys.
It was very common to see farm animals near polling
places in my area of observation.
During our debriefing before the election, we discussed polling place accessibility for persons with disabilities and were told that if a person was expected in a wheelchair, then election administrators would arrange for a temporary ramp would be installed at the polling site.

I never saw a ramp, but I did ask if for our purposes "a ramp was a ramp was a ramp"--in the United States, there are strict requirements about how steep the ramp accelerates, and the ramp must meet distances from the floor.

No, in Georgia apparently, a ramp was all that mattered and, in some of the locations I visited, there were a couple flights of 10 stairs that even with a ramp would have challenged Popeye if he was in a wheelchair.

Wheelchairs aren't that common in Georgia, though.  I never saw a person anywhere in a wheelchair and persons homebound were allowed to have a ballot brought to them.  So, while the sites weren't accessible for those with disabilities, the country had a plan to reach those voters.

Voting Booth
Speaking of reaching voters, the voters were each provided an invitation, in person, to vote.  That was the method of communicating voters' polling locations.  In the region where I was dispatched, few homes had Internet access and I wondered how voters got the word on their polling place--valet service, as it turned out.

My observation area was very rural, and polling places often were in what appeared to be abandoned buildings or schools, although sometimes the school sites looked like former schools.  Each polling place had one voting booth for every 500 registered voters (so most had one, some had two).

The polls were open 8 to 8 ( compared to 7 to 7 in Johnson County) and workers arrived an hour early to prepare just as they do here.

When we observers watched the workers' training video during our preparation, the deputy head of the mission laughed when the video explained that, "although the set-up is a lot of work, good organization and teamwork should allow workers to relax with a cup of coffee or tea before the location opens."

Johnson County election workers will appreciate that
the registration book was split in Georgia, too,
for separate lines based on the first letter of
voters' last names.
This was especially funny to me because I say the exact same thing--or close to it--during our training.  I always tell our workers that if they are organized, they should be popping open their thermos or opening up their first of five 5-Hour Energy drinks, relaxing, and swapping election worker stories with their coworkers.

Indeed, in the polling place opening I observed, they did share coffee at 7:45.

I liked the idea of the training video--we have online training for our election workers but a video can be shared with poll agents (our version of observers) to give them a sense of what they should be observing.

I often tell our election workers to treating poll agents as family--"slaughter the calf, give them a ring and your best robe!" I say.  The video idea falls in line with that, I think, in that it would help the poll agents know exactly what should be happening in the polling place.

A friend of mine went on an earlier, similar mission and told me how he thought such a thing should be mandatory for election administrators, if for no other reason than to see what it's like for our poll agents and observers at home.  I agree with him.

With that segue, I'll follow up with a second post that explains my take on the process of applying and deployment.  I learned a lot, I think I added value to the process, I made many new friends and, as expected, came home totally exhausted.

But it was a good kind of tired.

More soon.

Thursday, October 31, 2013 0 comments

And, I'm Back!

Back in the USA from my election observation mission in Georgia.

I will updating the blog with a couple of posts related to that mission, as well news back in Johnson County.

Digging out at the moment, though.
Wednesday, October 16, 2013 0 comments

I Would Walk 500 Hundred Miles and I Would Walk 500 Hundred More....

Tuesday's Overland Park canvass closed that election and we're a week out from mailing ballots for a similar mail-ballot election in Olathe.

Ballots for Olathe will be delivered to the Kansas City post office a week from tonight, in voters' mailboxes as early as October 23.  Extra ballots--for voters who registered since we sent the voter file to have envelopes printed--arrived yesterday and the main load should arrive for sorting Friday.

In working with the two cities, we were able to create this buffer of a week; it wasn't really needed, but between the two cities, more than half of our county's voters will be involved this fall and all involved like the idea of shutting down one election and then cranking up the next.

For me, this little sweet spot between the two elections seemed like--why not--an opportunity for complete exhaustion.

This Saturday, I hope to run my first-ever marathon (and only marathon, based on my preparation experience, perhaps).  I'll then collapse, hopefully after the finish line, and about 48 hours later fly to the
Republic of Georgia to be an observer in that country's presidential election.

It's a crazy combination that reminds me of the phrase, "You are unique--just like everyone else."

For starters, millions of people have ran marathons.

I said this recently and got pushback on the word, "millions," so I thought I was overstating the number.  About 500,000 people finished a marathon worldwide in 2012 alone, so millions is a fair word, even if the total over the years (accounting for duplicates) is just a few million.

At least that's what our virtual staff member Dr. Wikipedia told me.

However, I can't say millions have observed elections internationally.  It has to be in the tens of thousands at least, though.  More than 300 observers will be deployed in this election alone and as readers of this blog will attest, there are a lot of elections.

Georgia's Big Race actually
is the day before the election.
I'll be working, but it's a fun
I doubt many ran a marathon on one continent and then observed a presidential election a week later on another continent, so there's that.  The week after a marathon is supposed to be a rest week, at least from running, so that's another reason this observation comes at a perfect time.

I'll be drained from the observing activities and unfamiliar with the surroundings, so I'll easily fend off the urge to run.  We're told to prepare for a 24-hour day on election day.

That sounds like a marathon.  I'm a lightweight, I guess.  The longest election day "day" I've sustained is 19 hours.

The whole thing, so far, feels like a whirlwind, and just the preparation of going to Georgia (just getting confirmed a week ago) has been exciting.  I'm going to Election Camp in a location where not only can I not speak the language, I can't even read the alphabet.

In fact, the pending trip has boldly replaced my marathon anxiety.

Anecdotally, having played goalkeeper on indoor soccer teams for 25 years, I was often injured, usually with nagging things that took weeks to heal.  I was always in pain, but I found that there was a limit to the places I would feel pain.  My sprained wrist, for instance, suddenly didn't hurt after I twisted my knee.

It's as though my brain could only process pain in one area at a time.

This experience has reminded me of that.

I've been apprehensive about running the marathon.  I've ran six half marathons, but never a full.  Last week, when the Georgia trip got real, the marathon seemed much more achievable.

Probably, though, at about mile 18 on Saturday, it will be the Georgia trip that will seem much more achievable.

We'll see.  I've received some great advice from a couple of colleagues and I'm convinced I'll come back with new appreciations for our processes and also a few ideas of things we may want to change.

I'll likely be dark here during the trip and a few days after, but I'll post photos and election administration stories when I return.  There's a whole political backdrop to the election, of course, but I won't touch on that.

Expect boring things like number of polling places, election procedures, turnout, and all the things that I cover here.  Election geekdom needs no visa.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013 0 comments

Out = Green, In = Yellow

Tuesday was an election day.

In fact, it was the biggest mail-ballot election in Johnson County's history.  The election involved a tax-issue in Overland Park and the turnout was pretty low, actually, at about 30 percent.

This was a renewal of a tax passed in 2008 and the turnout then was 35 percent.  Mail-ballot turnouts, in the 50s ten years ago, rarely reach that point anymore.  Most mail-ballot turnouts in Johnson County begin with a "4."

Sadly, some spring primary polls elections have had turnouts that began with a "4" and were specifically followed by the period above, as in 4 percent.  Our snow-primary last February had a 4.5 percent turnout, but a comparable primary in February 2011, with good weather, was at 5.4 percent.

Olathe ballots, queued, ready to travel from Washington
to Kansas City next week.
But, that's a different post!

Here, we're pushing on out the green envelopes, preparing for the canvass next Monday and then, one week later, on come the yellow envelopes of the Olathe mail-ballot election.

The election is for a similar tax issue and also very large--about 80,000 voters.

On the heels of that (or somewhere actually in the middle of the shoe) comes the Roeland Park mail-ballot election in December.  That's smaller, but overseas and military ballots will be going out in that election just as Olathe's ballots are hitting the traditional mail.

Things have improved, by the way, with the Olathe Post Office.  We've actually been getting separate ballot deliveries in the mornings now.

And, if there is any question that people other than election geeks read this blog, the leasing agent for Westbrooke Village, the subject of the last post, finally called us back.

The Dallas connection is gone.  That leasing group went bankrupt.  And what a shock it was to hear that!

Anyway, there is movement afoot to prepare the property for a sale so there is little interest in leasing to anyone for anything.  There may be a chance, though, and we'll be bird-dogging it.

For now, if it's Wednesday, we must be working on Olathe.