Saturday, May 25, 2013 0 comments

The Postal Death Spiral (Continued)

It's no secret that I'm unhappy with the service our office gets from the post office.

It's heightened anytime we have a mail-ballot election. 

During one-such election last year, as ballots were coming back sawed in half, the postmaster in Olathe agreed to meet with me.

I'd tried for years to get some sort of communication going.  Finally, I had it.

Sadly, he's no longer there.

For a while, we had a local Kansas City contact "here for you," following a dustup made on our behalf by Tammy Patrick, who is on the Election Center Postal Task Force (and, congratulations to her--also on the new Presidential Voting Commission named this week).

But, he's gone dark as well.

This past Tuesday, we took our 80,000+ ballots to the post office during their "business business hours," noon to 4 (!), and left feeling lucky that the ballots would be mailed because we made the tremendous blunder of not numbering our trays.

Today, expecting returned ballots in the mail, we got none.  Not one.

How odd.  Many people turn them around the day they get them and they come back postage-paid.  Mailed Tuesday, people started calling us Wednesday with questions so we know they were delivered, but not back in the Friday mail.

We got a call in the early afternoon that about 3,000 were at the post office. 


Joe Biden frequently gets mail at our office, but on
Friday, no ballots came.
So they were there, just not counted--now to be delivered a day later (in this case, with a holiday weekend, four days later) than they should have been.

Mail-ballots have to be returned by noon on election day.  In this case, election day is June 10.  If today were June 10, that means 3,000 voters' ballots would not have counted.

Count me as outraged.

On election day we call the post office to see if any ballots are there and we pick them up.  Who knows what they would have said today?  We would have called at the same time our delivery came.

We have some insight into what the answer would have been:

On our infamous blizzard election snow day in February, we called on election day, realizing mail would not be delivered, to see if there were ballots to go get.  We were told they didn't have any ballots.  I didn't believe them.

So, I contacted our "there for you," guy (no longer, it appears there for us) and about a half hour later, we got a call from the post office that they, indeed, had ballots.  Again, had we not escalated, and gotten lucky it appears, voters would had their ballots not counted.

It's another example of the War on Voting that we're facing.  The post office considers cancelling Saturday delivery, raises postage, and reduces service levels.  We'd like to encourage people to vote by mail but it's hard to do that with a straight face.

Compound that with schools as polling place issues and limited options for advance voting sites, and the environment is making it hard for voters.

Again, I'm not necessarily an advocate FOR Internet voting, but the mail and other external factors are doing a pretty good job of clearing the fog around the Internet voting possibility.  At some point, it likely will be an option that will look better and better just because traditional methods look worse and worse.

It's hard to fathom that the postal service doesn't see this.  The story line about the need to eliminate Saturday delivery is that fewer items are mailed because of the Internet.  Their own service levels likely are pushing a huge customer (voters are the customer, we are the conduit) to the Internet.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013 0 comments

Are You Receiving Me?

The election administrator grapevine is literally all a'Twitter with the news of the President's Voting Commission members being announced.

(Okay, sidebar for humor, but the initial order said there would be no more than nine members and now there are 10?  Helloooo, colleagues, we count things for a living!  I feel like the amplifier just went "to 11" and no one noticed.)

Anyway, one member's name that caught my eye was Brian Britton from Walt Disney World.

I took note for a few reasons:

  • He has a great first name, spelled properly, with an I. (In fairness, in my college video game days, when I reached a high-score and was asked for my initials, I always typed "BRY").
  • Former Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning once talked of learnings from crowd flow that could be obtained by watching best practices at Disneyworld.  He mentioned this during a panel at a PEW Conference in December 2008.  That night, a dinner speaker railed on the idea, offended that Disneyworld and voting were said in the same sentence.
  • I've always thought Kurt was right, validated, I believe, by today's announcement.

I posted last week that I led a panel on "The Future of Elections," at our annual Kansas clerks meeting and as I prepared for that, I was reminded of TED Talks.  No one would have confused my speech with a TED Talk, but I was going for that flavor a bit when talking about the future.

I'm an idea guy, after all, and I think coming up with ideas is the easy work.  Implementing is the hard job (and something elections people do very well).  So, I was trying to provoke thought without actually solving any problems.

I'm good at that.

My plan was to play the role of "Teddy K" in In Good Company:

"You ask some excellent questions.  Excellent, excellent questions.  I'm glad you asked them.  And, I'm leaving it to you, to all of you, to answer them."

Anyway, I got to wondering what "TED" stood for, so I checked in with Dr. McGoogle, and learned it stood for "Technology.  Entertainment.  Design."

So, I kicked off my speech with that definition and said, "If you really think about it, that's the business we're in:  Technology, entertainment, and design."

I thought that was pretty profound.  I could tell by the expressions of the audience that no one else did, though.

"Okay, maybe you could replace "Entertainment" with the word "Elections," I said.

Heads nodded.

But, fact is, we live in a world where learning is more effective if it's fun.  Experiences are more meaningful if they are fun.  Typing this blog is, well, more fun when it's fun (he typed, circling back to the 9 vs. 10 member comment).

I'm not saying elections should be wacky Southwest Airlines fun (but, then again.....).  I'm just saying you can't discuss the voter experience without considering the actual experience.

It seems that's what this Commission is all about.  Standing in line to vote is about the experience of voting, just as much as the effectiveness of postal mail or options for persons who have disabilities.

Voting doesn't have to be fun to effective.  Voting doesn't have to be entertainment.

But there's nothing wrong with taking that attitude to the job.  Approaching voting as a voter is the first step to making voting better.

One of my biggest messages, often, is related to communications:  it's meant to be received.  Too often, we think about giving communications, rather than how it is received.

"Receiving" is the starting point of entertainment.  Receiving is the starting point of engagement.

Something tells me that this Commission, with the make-up of the members, gets that.
Monday, May 20, 2013 2 comments

Advance Prep for Advance Voting

This week, I received a call from someone who was interested in helping our office secure advance voting sites.

Maybe he can help.  We'd like to go from four to six sites in 2014 but our ability to do that is dependent upon several things falling our way.

He asked about some of that.

The number one thing is that our office has to identify and negotiate property leases.  We don't have an advance voting procurement division so this is a linear effort (we chase one lead down until it dries and go after another) on the part of an assistant election commissioner and me.

That empty storefront that's been vacant for three years?  Don't even suggest to the leasing agent that it might be vacant a year from now, let alone July through November of 2014.

We can't begin to pursue sites until January and, historically, we're scrambling in April to close the deals, even as we conduct our April election.  So, we have may have grand plans to have advance locations strategically located throughout the county, but by March we'll be on a site land grab.

I equate this effort to that of a college basketball coach.  We're always recruiting.  In our case, we're always recruiting workers and locations.

If we have a chance to snag a blue chipper, even if we were after a center but get a strong shooting guard to commit, we'll pounce and recast our team and our needs going forward.  If we want a site at 135th and State Line but we get the Great Mall in Olathe, we'll build a new plan around that.

Expectations for advance voting locations have escalated--voters want the sites close and they don't want to wait to vote.  Hence, our desire to increase to six sites.

If we had bigger sites, though, we could put more machines at the locations.  Metcalf South, our signature site, can hold about 25 machines.  We tried for a bigger store at the mall in 2012 but were unable to get it, and it's always iffy if we'll ever be able to return at the location, anyway.  Someday, the mall will be demolished.

It's a landmark location, so we'd love to have it forever.  The rent we've paid there is "nearly free," compared to the $25,000 we've had to pay in Shawnee.

Again, the Shawnee location is a good site, but it could be bigger and it also demonstrates that each site brings at least this much in rent expense.  That storefront has been vacant now for six years, so depending on your perspective, we're working on borrowed time there, too, or we shouldn't be worried at all for 2014.

(As we discuss locations, this is about the time someone at the county asks, "Have you ever thought about ......?"  Thank you--yes, whatever comes in place of the ellipses, yes, we have looked into that.)
Some of our advance voting election workers, at our office
just before we opened during the presidential election
cycle last year.  They were still zippy at the end.

We need several carts of paper ballots at each location, resulting not only in increased printing costs, but storage space at our warehouse.  In August, we have more than 1,500 unique ballots.

(Yes, thank you, we HAVE looked into ballot on demand printing, but it's not practical in these cases.  It might be, with about a $60,000 investment per site and we will have to try that if we move to six sites.  We don't have the physical space to bring in 30 more file cabinets into our warehouse).

We have learned that we need to retain the sites for the period from mid-July to mid-November. This reduces short-term moving of some items (like tables, chairs, and break supplies), but increases the cost of the facility. 

(Why, yes, imaginary question-asker, we have considered the county facility on ABC Boulevard....and every library in the county).

Our extended-period needs knock out any potential for a county facility but, actually, just the fact that we need the location for more than one day already dealt that blow.  Any facility being used is, well, to type the obvious, being used.

Finally, the big issue is that we need more staff members to pull it off.  During advance voting, most of our staff works 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday.  Two additional staff members would help keep them, literally, alive, and allow for some rotation of a light day where one or two employees work just 12-hour days.

There is thought that advance voting as percentage of total vote has peaked, between 40 and 50 percent of the total.  Perhaps, but as we face fewer options for election day, the drive for 6 sites is more vital.  Complaints of lines are never good, but they are much better if they are related to advance locations than election-day locations.

And right now, speaking of lines, neither type of facility is lining up to be amply available in 2014 and 2016.
Monday, May 13, 2013 0 comments

Future = Present

I'm so mad at my mother.

Or, so goes the beginning of a joke on the "Let's Get Small" album by Steve Martin.

"I don't know," he says, "she calls me up the other day.  She wants to borrow ten dollars for some food!  Can you believe that?  I said, 'Hey! I work for a living.'"

I thought of that in part because yesterday was Mother's Day but mostly because that sentiment sums up how I felt when leading a panel on The Future of Elections at the Kansas Clerks conference in Manhattan this past week.

I'm so mad at The Future of Elections....

Better said, I'm tired of the Future of Elections.

I feel like we've collectively dilly-dallied talking about the future for a few years now and, gee, the future is here.

The Future Is Now!

That's not really an inspirational message.  It's a signal of a crisis.

This is the front of the t-shirts our
high-school election workers wore
in 2012.
Those voting machines that we think will need to be retired after 2016's presidential election?  In some circles, politically at least, the 2016 election is "on."  2016 is essentially here.

Heck, in the budget world, the 2014 budget is nearly locked in Johnson County.  The next budget for discussion really is the 2015 budget.  We found out about a $30,000 cost surprise last week at the conference for 2014, so we're already in the hole next year.

The future is encircling us.  I've seen the future in this case and it looks a lot like the present, only with even fewer resources.

Every year when we talk about the daunting issues surrounding certification of new voting systems, the complexity leads the capital budget team to consider not doing anything until things appear more certain.

A year later, and a year closer to the future present, the budget boulder becomes bigger.  We've advocated for a couple of years to at least put into the budget a replacement system just like what we have now (and if that doesn't spell the future is now, what does?), hoping we'll push the needle on our "Bring Your Own Voting Machine" concept I explained here more than a year ago.  If so, the financial need will be much less but, if not, we're covered financially.

We're closely following Los Angeles County's process to look at a new voting system and plan to emulate the community input and ideation process.  That's easier typed than done, though, because we barely have the headcount at our office to conduct the current elections, let alone think about the future ones.

And that's the rub.  In our case, "Dilly-dallied," is a harsh descriptor because we simply don't have the resources we need to operate.  The 2012 election emphasized that we are one untimely illness or staff member departure from failure.  We requested the replacement of two positions cut during our budget downturn in 2010 and money to replace our 1990s-based election management system that hasn't been supported since 2005.

We're likely to get neither request funded.  Without elections, there is no government, but government budget priorities don't always align with core and essential services.

One clear thing is that the future of elections will be much, much more expensive.  From postage to rent to training to facilities to simple increases in election worker pay (ours haven't had an increase in 8 years), the cost increase will be as dramatic as moving from a fully-depreciated 20-year-old Suburu to to a modest new Prius.  Any car payment, when one hasn't been paid for 20 years, will seem like sticker shock.

I think election administrators often have stayed silent about these realities.  That's not happening in the industry now, although little seems to be changing.

I wasn't around pre-2000, but I wonder if one of the root causes that led to a national financial upgrade on voting systems was that loyal government employees didn't stress the need for investment back then.     Or, and more likely, they were ignored.  Under-funded was business as usual.

It's possible that part of the future of elections is that all the 2000s will have done is raise expectations for elections without an equal increase in investment.  I often hear in this industry that sufficient funding never finds its way to the front lines until something goes wrong.

What a way to live--akin to one of my favorite song titles ever, by Panic at the Disco:  "The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage."

Make it happen with unreasonably few resources or fail and we'll give the resources to your replacement.  Many of our predecessors in the election administration industry lived that life for years and that's our future unless we accept and proclaim the urgency of the present.

Another favorite quote of mine is from Stephen Covey:  "Nothing fails like success."  The key to the future is accepting that we face a crisis in election administration unless a myriad of things are addressed.  This will become a major theme of this blog over the next few months as our staff begins to tactically address the future, er, the present of elections.

Sunday, May 5, 2013 0 comments

Google Me This: Ballots and Pallets

Something that catches my eye frequently, now that I'm a blogger and all, are others' posts and tips on how to come up with blogging content.

I don't see how that's a problem.  Ideas haven't dried up here at least and it seems counter intuitive that anyone would create a blog and then have difficulty coming up with content (ergo, no content = end the blog).

(2013 To Do Item: Use "ergo" in a blog post before June 1--check!).

Focus is more my blogging issue.  (Did you just see that demonstrated above?).

Sometimes there are some thoughts floating that are not broad enough for a blog post and a couple of them will be loosely tied here.

I've often thought "Ballots and Pallets" would be an
interesting (to me) reality TV show.
In elections, we cross many points of view, particularly about technology.  One man's secure system is another's gateway to fraud, for instance.

Take paper ballots.

They are touted as the only way to go by many, but recognized as fraught with problems regarding voter intent by others.  Add in the component of ballots by mail and worries escalate.

My worry is that the post office won't deliver the voters' ballot.  If the voter doesn't get the ballot, the voter can call us and we can issue another.  If we don't get the voted ballot, we really don't know we should have been expecting it in the first place.

Others, though, worry that ballots by mail could be cast by someone other than to whom they are issued.  The Kansas Secure and Fair Elections Act of 2010 added some language and signature requirements to envelopes as an assurance that ballots were cast properly.

For some reason, this assurance didn't apply to mail-ballot elections.  In Kansas, these elections can only be for questions, not people, but we will have three large ones in 2013.

Nearly as many voters--possibly a smidge more, even--will be issued ballots in 2013 than in the presidential year of 2012 in Johnson County because of these mail-ballot elections.  

One fraud concern raised by a local paper a few years ago was that these single question ballots allowed for the persons opening the envelopes to see how a voter cast a vote.  The ballot does have to be removed from the envelope and unless the special board members wear blindfolds during the process, this is a risk.

Members of this board are sworn to not to disclose how someone has voted, but in these situations it is still unlikely that the votes are even noticed.  Ballots come folded and are unfolded in a separate process after the envelope has been removed from the table.

We have other odd rules about that room, by the way, including no dark-ink pens allowed (red only) and no trash cans.

We spend considerable time, and most of it wasted energy thankfully, trying to think of any potential security hole.  My overall view is that if there is a potential fraud area in any part of our voting system, I want it identified and addressed well before some smart scientist thinks he or she has discovered it.

We've therefore become manic about new technology, first to understand how we can benefit (such as the Harvard iPad award) but also to see the risks.

Thus, the closing of this post is really an illustration of the loss of focus I mentioned before and, journalism students, an example where the lead was buried:

Google Glass
I am becoming growingly worried about what I don't know regarding Google Glass, the new wearable device by Google.  I've emailed a contact at Google, but I'd love to try a pair out, even if it's on loan (developers pay for a pair, which I'm fine with, too).

I'll admit that I always like to be the first kid on the block to try a gadget, but these devices can take photos by winking, for instance.  Forget our special board opening each ballot (although, I guess, that's a risk, but I've never seen any of our board of grandmothers wink), what about voters and workers at the polls?

One of my concerns, for instance, in large general elections is that we might have a new election worker, signing up for November as the first election, with an activist cause.  We can sniff that out a bit, but we've had to discuss more and more that the use of social media while the polls are open is prohibited.

I never want anyone to think we stirred the results of the election.  A social media post of "few voters here today" or "lines all day!" could impact turnout, for instance.  I cringe at the possibility of "first voter at our polling place," sent out on Twitter.

By the November election in 2014, I expect Google Glass will be out there.  When the CEO of Google already is talking about ethical guidelines for the use of the devices, my guard is up.

Then, of course, comes the other side of this--could we use these devices for voting (not sure how, but I wonder) or even voter check-in?

38 months ago, iPads were not yet released.  Now, they are a central part of our culture.  It's possible that Google Glass will have similar prominence by the 2016 presidential election and, if so, I want to know what that means to election administration.
Wednesday, May 1, 2013 0 comments

That's a Bright Idea!

Our office received some validation last month with our use of iPads.

Specifically, Harvard University's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation has awarded our iPad solution at the polls (now branded the Election Worker Electronic Resource Guide) a 2013 "Bright Idea."

Our employees conceived of the innovative and cost-saving use of technology after we deployed iPads in our office last year.

We received word of the award last month but were asked not to announce it yet.  However, I saw today that the 13 winners were announced last week.

So, beans spilled :-)

The link below simply goes to the Harvard site and the list of national award winners.

I'll plan to follow up here with the entry info and description in the coming days.

The brief summary on the site reads:

Johnson County has matched election worker needs with technology by using electronic aides in election day administration. This initiative evolved from training election workers online to the deployment of an Election Worker Electronic Resource Guide, which includes training presentations, opening and closing checklists, countywide precinct maps, a keyword-searchable soft copy version of the training manual, examples of photo IDs that are acceptable for voting, and a street index guide that is used to direct voters to their correct voting locations.