Tuesday, July 30, 2013 0 comments

Be the Change!

I just participated as a panelist today for a webinar coordinated by the Election Assistance Commission on contingency planning and change management.

The EAC has done a good job coordinating these webinars as a casting call for ideas and modifications for the next round of Quick Start Guides and other materials that provide help to election administrators. 

These documents are especially helpful in areas where an election administrator is elected and comes into an office without any institutional knowledge.

I was involved in the webinar because of all the contingencies we worked through during the Great Snowstorm(s) of 2013.  Our office is fresh from putting disaster plans into action (although we've done our best to blot most of that very painful experience out of our brains).

But that was only half of the topic of the webinar.  Change management--implied as proactively addressing laws, procedure changes, or other items--was the other component.

It left me thinking about the election administration profession since I entered it in 2005.

When I came, there was great change in election administration.  I often argued that the industry was facing more change than any other area of government.  Fresh from the 2000 presidential election and the subsequent Help America Vote Act, there were significant technical and operational changes.

Plus, there was a new group of election activists poking around procedures, writing books, making videos, and--sometimes at least--seeming more intent on attacking individuals than protecting integrity in elections.  To a large degree, those individuals have moved on, but not before many long-term election administrators--underpaid and devoted government employees--retired.

Things have simmered.  Federal legislative activity has lessened in intensity.  While many states have enacted legislation impacting elections--particularly in the area of photo identification--the pace of change has slowed.

Or, at least the driver of the change is shifting.

It occurred to me that we've spent much of the last few years being changed, reacting to change created by others.

We face significant restrainers:  the postal service, the availability of advance voting sites, increased voter expectations about the advance voting experience, school safety issues, and soon-to-be-obsolete technology and the necessary replacement, often without funding, of voting equipment.

As election administrators, we are now in a position to be the drivers of change, to deal with these factors in a way that preserves voting options and does so economically.  This is a time that begs for great innovation, akin to the innovation that many of those previous election administrators drove before retiring in the early 2000s.

I will get more into the specifics of our process, kicking off within our team on August 8, throughout the fall.  Our plan initially was to start with a meeting on July 2, but I was called to participate in a meeting that featured members of the President's Commission on Election Administration.  That delayed our kickstart a month.

I've attached my presentation from today below, but it may need some color to connect the dots, especially on the planning side.  That will come in future posts in August and September.

Thursday, July 18, 2013 0 comments

Postal End-Run

I am a smidge worried, as the new-found election blogger and all, that I've drifted a bit from my mission.

I did say this blog will have a point of view, and it's had one lately, but the true purpose of the blog was to give insight into the day-to-day aspects of election administration.

So, this brief post comes back to that.  If you've been reading lately, it would be hard not to notice my disdain for our local post office, and this post happily points out that we may have an end-run around that.

First, let me reinforce that we found a guy in Kansas City who was our postal advocate.  He's been awesome, helped us out during the snowstorm election in February, and then, he vanished.

I was worried that he took another job.  I called him.  I sent him emails.  I lit candles at church.

All, to no avail.

He emerged about 6 weeks ago and, for whatever reason, hadn't received my S.O.S.  He was back in the game, though, he said, and he has definitely jumped in.

First, he talked with our old postmaster, now in Las Vegas.  He also talked with our current post minor (I'm not sure if he is the postmaster or just the guy in charge) at our post office.  This is the guy who told us that because we had an employee engaged to our old postal carrier (who retired 2 years ago) that we got better service than we should have.

Our advocate saw through this attitude, thankfully, and then after a strong wag of the finger to the post minor, called me to let me know he was on it.

At the same time, we began exploring ways to bypass the Olathe Post Office on the way out.  We have hooked up with Pitney Bowes in downtown Kansas City.  This operation is run by a former Sprint employee (as am I) and a Johnson County voter excited to be in the mix.

Wow, someone supporting our office excited to do so.  Wow, again.  Wow, again and again.

I bashfully asked if she, by chance, sure she didn't, just asking, hope she didn't mind, but just wondered--if she knew our advocate at the United States Postal Service.

She did!  They're buds.  And, they have a meeting this week to talk about the Overland Park mail ballot election that is forthcoming.

What a turn of events--there's even more to the positive news, and we're very optimistic.  I toured the facility and took pictures for the blog, but in my excitement the photos were too jumbly to post.

We still have to deal with the post office on the way back in, as ballots are delivered.  But this takes care of a huge ordeal sending them.

Still, what a turn, all the way to an end run.  We'll know soon how it works, but right now, the best way to be a satisfied customer is to be a non-customer.  The true winner, hopefully, will be Overland Park.
Sunday, July 14, 2013 0 comments

Terrible Idea? So You're Saying There's a Chance!

I have my own voting machine.

Okay, I don't really, but I might.

You might, too.

For nearly three years, I've taken the spin on "BYOD" (Bring Your Own ((Mobile)) Device) to what I've called Bring Your Own Voting Machine.

BYOVM isn't as catchy as BYOD.  In fact, BYOVM makes BYOD seem catchy.

But, it's my thing.  I wrote about it here, just to document that I'd been thinking about it for quite a while.

Last week, I started thinking about innovative ways to deal with lines and I wondered if there was a way to pre-qualify voters.  The notion of "pre-qualify" seems rather odd, I know, because voting is a constitutional right.  Citizens are pre-qualified by breathing.

But what could constitute something that said, "I'm good to go!" when coming into the polling place?  Really, verification that the voter is registered and at the correct polling place is the answer.  It's not much more complicated than that, although such a thing would reduce the bottleneck at polling places.

That's not earth-shattering, but it would form the foundation of a smartphone app.  Many election offices either have launched some sort of app or are planning to do so.

But when discussing this at an industry meeting recently, someone carried it further.

Could that app have a sample ballot?

Sure, I said.  In fact, I think we should think of this app like a concierge service (again, something I recently typed here).

Could it allow the voter to print off the sample ballot as a ballot and cast it?

"Well, now you are getting into my thoughts of Brrrrrrr....," I began to say before being interrupted.

"They do that already," someone else said, matter-of-factly.

And, quickly the conversation picked up elsewhere.

But, wait.  I pulled it back.

Whoa, whoa, whoa--who are THEY and what do THEY do?

The company, as explained to me, was Everyone Counts, famous for star power it has attracted to join the company and for star power in dealing with the Academy Awards.

I met with Everyone Counts about this very topic more than an year ago.  I also met with other companies and spilled my same vision.

As I've said, I want to shift the cost of voting machines to the voters.  That's not because I have it out for voters--I am a voter, after all--but voting machines are expensive, and they bring security and chain of custody concerns.

What if, instead of buying voting machines, we have technology that allows persons with a smart device the ability to pull up a ballot at the polling place?  Half of the adults in the United States have smartphones today and more than 1/3 have tablet devices.

And that's today.  We're talking about the time we need a new system in Johnson County--2017.  What if, just like the IRS transferred the cost of producing publications to taxpayers who now buy tax software, we could avoid a $12 million short-lived expense of new voting machines by using devices that already are in everyone's hands?

If there is any way to do this, we will.  And that's what I told Everyone Counts.  And, ES&S.  And, that's what I told Unisyn when I met with a friend from that company on Friday.  My wife has two little dogs who hear this story daily, in fact.

I know this idea has legs because every time it comes up, there seems to be a natural conclusion of, "that's being done already."

At a conference on disabilities and voting I attended last year, we had breakout sessions to discuss the future of voting and each team came back with some version of the Bring Your Own Voting Machine Concept.

The New York Times ran a blog piece last year on this topic and quoted someone saying it was a terrible idea.  I took that as progress that this really can happen.

Good ideas anticipate user needs where users see a solution and immediately say, "Finally!" although they never articulated the need before.  Focus groups alert companies to what users want today, in today's terms.  As election administrators, we need to think ahead of that framework.

Think back to the early days of iTunes, or the first time you saw your order typed back at you on a fast-food drive through, or the giant Post-It Note whiteboard sheets that don't require pins or tape when putting them up throughout the room during a planning meeting.

To a large degree, these things were met with a mix of "Eureka!" and a yawn.  Often users know what they want when they see it before they can say what they want.

Our college intern is making progress at mapping out our process to pursue a next-generation voting system and we are borrowing (stealing) liberally from Los Angeles County and Travis County.  We hope to have his early version complete by mid-August.

Whenever we issue a Request for Proposal (probably two years from now), it will have requirements to support the BYOVM concept.  Respondents won't be eliminated if they can't support the solution, but it's very likely the final solution will incorporate this concept.

At this pace, though, by then, it will be as commonplace as seeing my order typed back to me at the Wendy's drive-through.

Sunday, July 7, 2013 1 comments

Where's the Beef?

Local events and my participation in a meeting in Washington D.C. this past week left me with a statement that will have shock value, but please stick with me.

The composition of the President's Commission on Election Administration is wrong.

That's not because of the people.  Many members of the Commission were at the meeting, hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Council.

The Commissioners all are incredibly accomplished.  They ooze awesomeness.  I was giddy to be in the same room with them.  If you had a child marry one of them, as a parent, you'd think, "Score!"

The members of the committee are perfect.

It's just that the "we have to fix that" mantra of long lines gathered the wrong "we."

Election administrators embraced "we have to fix that."  Sure, we discussed what "that" was, and exactly what it is that needed fixing, but, oh man, make no mistake, we were ON IT.  

At an Election Center conference in January, we weren't sure what was going to be fixed, but we were certain we could fix it.  Later, we were thrilled that election administrators were named to the Commission.  

This week I realized that without county commissioners, state legislators, members of Congress, or someone from the White House on the Commission, we are destined to explain how we could "fix that" but when it comes to actually fixing it?  Not likely.

Those who need to weigh in with the fixin' aren't engaged. 

That's not to say that our store couldn't use some fixin' (apologies to "The Dead Milkmen"). With more than 4,000 election jurisdictions, election administrators have had some face-palming moments to be sure.  I've had some.

But election administrators overall do a pretty good job.  They are dedicated.  They are an independent lot, often appointed or elected, and they internalize voting issues, taking them personally and being committed to voter satisfaction regardless of what's put in front of us. 

Election administrators, though, usually don't fall under the management or direct control of the entity that funds the operations.

I don't report to the county manager.  We're Facebook friends.  He wishes me no harm.  Our kids graduated from the same high school in the same year.  He's happy when our office is successful.  But I'm not one of his litter.  Let's just say that I don't want to face a Sophie's Choice moment between me and a department that reports to him.

We've requested some of those early cuts our office took back, in the form of two full-time positions that we need to support any possibility of expanded advance voting.  The positions are especially necessary because we've cut polling places and more will be cut with school security issues.

The general policy view we're facing, though, is that Johnson County voters are willing to wait longer in lines to vote.  No election administrator would align himself or herself with that view.  I certainly won't.  Voting is a constitutional right.  

There's even new evidence suggesting that lines themselves impact voter participation and turnout--where a voter sees a line, leaves, and doesn't come back to vote.  The same county commissioner who supports the "waiting longer" view also believe that voter turnout should be a performance metric and, in Johnson County, turnout dropped in 2012 compared to 2008.

Needless to say, the positions weren't funded.

That's not a surprise.  We have the same headcount at the Election Office that the office had 25 years ago.  The Election Center's full-time staff member per registered voter metric of 1:6,000 is exceed in Johnson County four-fold to 1:28,000.  

There's efficiency, and then there's the ridiculous.  We're an untimed illness or staff vacancy from disaster.

These two positions requested were created without funding to replace temporary hours.  So, they were essentially shell positions.  

But, they were cut, with funding, before they could be back-filled.  They were offered as cuts in lieu of layoffs or polling place cuts.  Later, as budgets were tightened, we had to cut polling places anyway.

Now, the positions are considered medium priorities because they aren't deemed necessary for basic services, although the history demonstrated otherwise.  These were hours spent in 2009 and the cuts have resulted in more temporary and overtime hours.

It's all frustrating, but the root cause is that no one in the county structure shares ownership with me on successful elections.  Let's be clear:  they will share ownership with me on unsuccessful elections.  I just don't ever want to experience such a thing. 

Conversely, there's an autonomy of running my own show that's cool.  This funding issue is just one of the downsides.

So, this isn't a black and white thing.  If the Johnson County Election Office had an individual Facebook page, the relationship status would be, "It's Complicated."

Still, this headcount issue was fresh on my mind as I sat in the meeting with members of the Commission and other election officials.  

I stated that for the first presidential election ever, we had fewer polling places than we had in the previous election.  I postulated that it was the same for others in the room.

Heads nodded yes.  

(Whew!  That was sort of a leap I was taking, actually.  Bummer for me if they all responded, "No, you're just ineffective.")

But, here we are.  We didn't all get together and look to reduce polling places.  We're all facing the same budget constraints.

We'll face them again next year and when I'm told again that voters can wait in line longer, no one is going to care that a bunch of smart people appointed by the President don't agree.  They didn't care this year that the President thought so.  Why will the opinions of 10 others add more credence?

As I defended my view during our budget meeting, facing seven County Commissioners but with my back to about 75 persons in attendance, I could feel the collective yawn behind me as I said that lines were a national issue and that the President created a Commission to address this.  I didn't need to turn around to see that I'd lost the room.

So it hit me--this President's Commission should be comprised of policy makers who control the budgets, not the operations at the polls.

My role at this point, I believe, to help "fix this" is to jump up and down to frantically point this out. 

You, dear reader, are now part of an Art-Imitating-Life-Moment.  That's what I'm doing here.

For a full interactive effect, if you are reading this on an iPad, momentarily tilt the device back and forth 180 degrees a couple of times.

We've spent so much time on Voluntary Voting System Guidelines, but I think the Commission should consider Involuntary Election Administration Targets.

Another word for Involuntary is "Mandatory," thus helping my desire for a forced acronym, "MEAT"--Mandatory Election Administration Targets.

Those who create budgets should ensure budgets are set to support the MEAT, such as election staff members per registered voter, polling places or advance locations per registered voter, and other cost metrics.  These metrics should be delivered by the Commission and come with a strong wag of the finger from the President.

Otherwise, we're talking to ourselves.

Many of you reading this have pushed for initiatives such as this.  Keith Cunningham, from Ohio, led a benchmarking task force for The Election Center.  PEW has created an Elections Performance Index, for instance.

So, this isn't a new revelation.  But our view of the target audience must change.

When I'm asked about comparisons in Johnson County, no one cares that Wyandotte County (rightly) has 14 full-time-equivalent positions for 1/4th the voters we support with 16 full-time-equivalent positions.  

No one in Sedgwick County--three times the size of Wyandotte County--worried that the election commissioner there had four full-time equivalent positions until results were slow on an election night.

In government, we react to "unfunded mandates," but we basically live one in elections.  

Because elections touch all citizens, the cumulative cost of elections in large jurisdictions reaches the millions of dollars, but is usually less than $3 per voter.   Elections are expensive because citizens participate.  That's what we want.  

If we decrease funding, we decrease turnout, or at least suppress it to the point that a winning presidential candidate notices.

How we get those officials on the ground to notice is the meat of the issue.  The news flash to me this week was that there are more stakeholders on the ground than just election officials.

Monday, July 1, 2013 0 comments

The Answer Is...

I'm flying to Washington to participate in a meeting tomorrow with a bunch of smart people to discuss election capacity planning and election lines, organized by the Democracy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

One outcome of this meeting is potential input for the Presidential Commission on Election Administration.

This is the Commission formed following the President's famous (to election geeks, anyway) comment regarding lines to vote, "We have to fix that."

I've been observing comments, speakers, and stakeholders in the early days of the Commission, and I've postulated some on this before here.

"That" has been the subject of discussion, as in "what is it we are fixing?"  If we're simply fixing lines, or at least slow and long lines, it's taken me 7 months to simplify the approach, but I think it's the right mantra:

To fix "that," we need to expand hours                                         and expand options.

That's it.  Expand hours and expand options.  It's a simple vision.  It's not controversial (yet) and it's not political (yet).

I'm reminded of a time way-back-when, sitting in a long line at a bank's drive-through needing to deposit a paycheck.  It was was 5:45 on a Friday afternoon.  I finally wheeled up, with at least 100 cars behind me, to the window.

"What happens at 6?" I asked.

"Oh, WE ARE closing at 6," the teller responded.

They needed to fix that.  Remember the fight against direct deposit of paychecks?  I do.  I also remember those long lines at banks on Fridays.

Remember the long lines to check in at airports?  Okay, they're still there.

However, they do move faster because of self-service.  (Mostly) gone are the days where the person at the counter taps in some crazed cluster of keyboard strokes, waits, hits it again, waits, does a move from Twister, and then taps some more before saying, "Ok, you're checked in."

Grocery day used to be Saturday.  As a kid, forced to spend 90 minutes a week in a grocery store as my parents hunted and gathered, I joined fellow youths to terrorize adults by running through aisles, playing tag, and generally be living proof that our society had no future.

Now, grocery stores are open 24 hours a day, making anytime Grocery Time, freeing up our Saturdays to spend 10 hours in a lawn chair watching our children's sporting events in some freakish payback for being free years ago.

Thanks, expansion.

Expansion of hours and options in voting likely means an expansion in cost.  There may be some tradeoffs--fewer polling places but more advance voting sites, for instance, could maximize utilization of voting machines and stave off some investment.

With all respect to my industry friends, the answer doesn't have to be electronic pollbooks or Internet voting.  Those aren't bad items for discussion, for sure.  But, definitely, solutions should stem from innovation.

And, I argue, there has to be some element of self-service.  There's an article in USA Today that mentions concierge apps for hotels.  Isn't an election administrator really a concierge for voters?

Look at that--isn't that a more fun thought to consider than the Eeyore, "Not much of a line, but I'm sort of attached to it," contestuous approach to "what exactly is 'that'?"

The answer is......expand hours and expand options.

It's simple.  It rolls off the tongue, or at least the keyboard.

I'm looking forward to discussions on how we do it.