Monday, September 23, 2013 0 comments

Olathe Post Office Woes, Continued

Yesterday, I blogged about the number of undeliverable ballots involved in the Overland Park mail-ballot election.

In today's morning mail, we received 1,997 more undeliverable ballots, bringing the total to more than 6,000, out of about 111,000 mailed.

That's not the lead here, though.

We also received one voted ballot.

Yes, one.

With 111,000 ballots mailed, and at least 100,000 arriving to valid households, with about 5,000 back through Friday, only one came through over the weekend.


I offer this as People's Exhibit A why the rhetoric espoused at the federal level by the Postal Service doesn't equal the service level on the ground.

I emailed our contact in Kansas City.  To everyone's surprise but mine, the Olathe Post Office made a special second delivery this afternoon of more than 7,000 voted ballots.

With the election ending at noon, if this had been election day, that's 7,000 voters at risk thanks to our Post Office.  Our tracking capability to assertively claim that we know ballots are "in the building," can't come soon enough.  Again, we should have it by the time we start the Olathe mail-ballot election next month.

At least we avoided the Olathe Post Office on the way out :-) 
Sunday, September 22, 2013 0 comments

There Are Returned Ballots, and Then There Are "Returned" Ballots

Our Overland Park mail-ballot election--the biggest mail-ballot election in the county's history--is underway!

The process, utilizing Pitney Bowes in Kansas City and bypassing the Olathe Post Office to send the ballots, has been incredibly better than our experience the last time (2008) we had an Overland Park mail-ballot election.

I couldn't take photos at Pitney Bowes on Monday because of their own security, but here are some of the pallets awaiting shipment from Washington state, where we have them printed by ES&S.  Once arrived at Kansas City, they were sorted by zip code and prepared to be taken to the Kansas City Post Office Tuesday night, and voters began receiving their ballots Wednesday morning.

By law, the ballots couldn't begin being received by voters until Wednesday.

We have another large mail-ballot election, in Olathe, on the heels of this one, and beginning with that election, we'll have a tracking system in place so that we will know when ballots are at the Olathe Post Office, awaiting delivery to us.  That has been an issue, where we have been told by the Post Office that they had no ballots on a Tuesday morning, only to find that they actually had a few hundred but simply hadn't counted them yet.

Ballots were mailed Tuesday night, began being received Wednesday, and by Friday, we had 10,151 ballots returned.

However, of the those, 5,994 were returned by the voter as voted ballots.  4,157 were returned as undeliverable.

"Returned" ballots.  Green envelopes are
returned, voted ballots.  White envelopes
are returned as undeliverable.  Ballots
cannot be forwarded.
This means that of the 111,069 ballots issued, 3.7 percent represented voters who have moved just since March.

That's when we mailed postcards to each voter and began working those that came back undeliverable.  Those voters became "inactive," where they sit unless we get a good address and updated registration or until they haven't voted in both the 2014 or 2016 federal election.  At that point, if they are still inactive in December 2016, they can be removed.

Mail-ballot elections only send ballots to active voters in Kansas, so none of those returned were already in inactive status.

Using the 3.7 percent as a swag and recognizing that it's been only six month since the postcard, it's fair to think that at least 7 percent of voters move without updating their registration annually.  With 370,000 registered voters, beyond those we know are inactive, that's about another 26,000 who, theoretically, will have moved and not updated their registration in a 12-month period.

This is especially complicated for a county like Johnson County, which sits on a state line.  Many of these voters likely will have moved to Missouri.  In fact, that also complicates the issue of the voters in suspense status who have registered but not yet provided proof of citizenship.  Some of those voters, nine months into the implementation of the law, have likely by now moved out of state and will remain in that suspense status indefinitely.

There has to be a better way of managing the voter rolls.  In fact, there are better ways.

That sentence was intended to say that there HAS to be a better way, meaning implementing the better way may be one way out of that continuing War on the Voter that we fight as polling places are eliminated, advance voting sites are difficult to find, and the mail service--without the crafty end run we just did for Overland Park--continues to be a worry.

Both the PEW Center for the States and the Kansas Secretary of State testified on this issue Friday to the Presidential Commission on Election Administration.

What was done after the Help America Vote Act, to create statewide voter registration systems, should be amped up, in my opinion.  I sat next to one of the co-chairs of the Commission during a meeting in early July and he had a keen interest in the solutions implemented by PEW and the state of Kansas.

PEW's solution is a comprehensive voter registration system that incorporates several databases.  Kansas has agreements with nearly half of the states in the country to compare voter registration lists and remove duplicates.

I'm hoping that because this issue seemed to be burning since at least early July with the Commission, some tangible change may result, perhaps in the year or two after the recommendations are made (by December).

One nationwide voter registration system may be too much to undertake politically, but it would go a long way to keeping us from putting an asterisk after the definition of "returned ballots."  It may also be a gateway to more innovative voting methods, such as allowing voters to call up and cast their unique ballots anywhere in a state or even anywhere in the country.

For now, we'll take the short-term win.  For Overland Park, thanks to sweat on the backs of many at ES&S, Pitney Bowes, the U.S. Post Office (our guy on the case in Kansas City), and our own employees at the Election Office, this election has started off very smoothly.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013 0 comments

Grandma's Stop Sign Analogy

Several years ago, a 12-year-old girl was hit by a car when crossing a four-lane street to get to our neighborhood swimming pool.

The subdivision developer's design, approved by our city, had the pool with about 50 homes on one side of the street while about 250 homes were on the other side.  The struck pedestrian was an inevitable outcome.

I successfully lobbied the city to install a 4-way stop sign at that intersection.  It may be a pain for drivers, but, I guess, bad planning begets more bad planning. Hundreds of people safely cross that intersection each year with no reports of anyone being struck by a car over the last decade.

But, imagine it didn't go exactly that way.

Imagine, just as occurred, there was a neighborhood meeting that I, as an interested homeowner, attended.  During this meeting, I passed out a Powerpoint presentation (all things in life come down to Powerpoint) that analyzed the benefits of doing nothing, a four-way stop, or a traffic signal.

I pushed for a traffic signal, but some residents thought that might invite other problems, and the stop-sign momentum was on.

Because I was the guy with the Powerpoint, I became the defacto leader of this movement.  Most residents who were at that meeting attended the city council hearing with me in support of this proposed legal change.  We filled the city council chamber that evening.

Imagine, just as occurred, that the city council approved this four-way stop sign.  The city's top elected official, the mayor, proclaimed this as a positive thing.

Then, suppose (as didn't occur), that the public works department appeared to have only installed one more sign, essentially creating a three-way stop.  All of us wondered why the law as passed wasn't implemented and, thus, wasn't working.

We heard varying stories.  A system issue prevented creation of the fourth stop sign.  We heard it was a training issue.  We heard that some motorists stopped and others didn't.  There was a rumor that the stop sign was installed but it just wasn't visible, hidden behind a tall tree.

All the while, angry homeowners wanted answers.  They were all directed to me.  It had been my idea, this four-way stop, and the implementation wasn't working.

Never mind that I could do nothing about it and the governing body had approved my recommendation.  This "three-way stop" was my fault.

The local paper called and asked if there was any progress in reducing the number of people crossing the street on the unmarked side.  I explained that until this intersection looked completely like a four-way stop, this would continue. The city's public works department publicly stated that it had executed the new ordinance properly, and even left fliers with all homeowners explaining that the best way to cross the street was where the third stop-sign was visible.

Continue to suppose that this stop sign solution didn't reduce the number of near-misses of cars hitting pedestrians.  In some ways, this new solution, some thought, discouraged pedestrians from going near the intersection.  Some predicted that the use of the pool would drop.  This was October, though, and the next pool season was months away, so only those most invested in this intersection issue were engaged.  It was predicted that this would heat up when the pool opened next year.

All the while, every day, I received complaints.  True, I pushed for a solution that the elected officials voted on, and passed, but the solution did not resemble what was approved.  The city council president expressed his dismay with the public works department, but the public works department indirectly reported to the mayor, who actually referred upset residents back to me.

This yarn is about as close as I can come to explain what we are living through right now regarding implementation of the citizenship requirements of the Secure and Fair Election Act, passed in 2011 by the Kansas legislature and signed into law by the governor.

There are about 17,000 voters in suspense status throughout the state because they have registered at the driver's license bureau but that agency, for reasons that aren't clear, hasn't forwarded on the voter's proof citizenship paperwork or noted on the record that this paperwork was displayed.

Some of these cases happen when voters go online to change an address for their driver's licenses, we are told, but actually people already registered in Kansas on January 1 don't need to produce proof of citizenship documents when re-registering at a different address.

In Johnson County, we have about 3,000 of these voters.  We mail letters to them and have a robocall to them at the first of each month.  Most haven't responded, perhaps because there isn't a major election still for a year.

When we do talk to one of these voters, we usually find that they showed their birth certificate when registering or offered to do so and were told they didn't need to.  Early in the year, we were told that a system issue was preventing us from receiving what we needed.

"The Department of Revenue's systems weren't ready and this law should have been delayed until they were," we were told by a former legislator and an activist against the citizenship requirement.  However, there is nothing to suggest that this IS a systems issue according to the article in The Kansas City Star today.

We're not really sure what the issue is, except that we know we can't solve it.  The Secretary of State's office can't "solve it" either.  True, the Secretary of State pushed for this citizenship requirement after being elected, ostensibly because this was part of his platform.

It was his "idea," much like the stop sign was my idea, but the idea became law, passed by a majority.  Just as in my stop-sign analogy, the legislative committee chambers were standing-room only, primarily with supporters, when the bill was reviewed in early 2011.  The governor, much like the mayor in my stop-sign story, hailed the measure as he signed it into law.

Akin to my public works example, the only agency that can solve this issue is the one required in the legislation to implement the law--the Department of Revenue's driver's license bureau.

As election administrators, many of us have seen uneven implementation of the "Motor Voter" law, the National Voter Registration Act, that allows for persons to register to vote when applying for services at other state agencies, such as when getting a driver's license.

We had some of these uneven moments in 2008 when an electronic transfer of records was created between the driver's license bureau and the Secretary of State's office, but since then things have been pretty smooth leading into this current issue.

But this is an issue and, like my stop sign story, one that requires the agency required to implement it to address.  Pool season will be upon us soon.

Thursday, September 12, 2013 0 comments

Vague Threats and Real Disruptions

Nothing frightens election officials more than the lack of a Plan B.

In fact, whenever I'm asked about the potential for an outside force to illegally impact an election, I can rattle off reasons why I don't believe it's possible.

But, could someone disrupt the election?  Cause us to have a bad day?  Absolutely, and we game theory all the time about what-ifs.

However, as we saw during our February snowstorm smackdown during our election, contingency plans can only carry you so far.  Plans B, C, and D may be feel-good scenarios that explode.

In February, for instance, we confirmed with polling places on the Friday before the election that regardless of the weather, they'd be open, only to get calls from them on Monday telling us they would be closed.

So, my back arched with the news earlier this week that all of the Shawnee Mission schools closed after the district received a "vague threat."

Without knowing what school might be impacted, the District locked down all the schools.  That's understandable, but it would be devastating on election day.

What if a "vague threat," was politically motivated, designed to disrupt?  In fact, typing about it here is a bit like giving a potential criminal an idea by writing a good thriller reeking of espionage.  But, not confronting the problem directly seems worse.

We worry all the time about losing a polling place at the last minute.  What if we lost 30?  At 8 a.m.?

I think back to the couple of voters who ventured out in the blizzard in February to their old polling place and upset that a sign wasn't posted that the polling place moved.  They missed the point that the only way we would have been able to post such a sign would have been to dogsled to the locations through impassable roads, hoping to have the signs up before nightfall.

Imagine trying to move 40,000 voters (if we lost 30 locations) on the fly.  I never tried to imagine that until this week.  I'm still trying.

As election administrators, we try to make voting as easy as possible.  The world continually makes it as hard as possible.

We've been spending time in our office going through strategic planning efforts and have reflected much on our role regarding voter turnout.  There are two primary schools of thought:  a) we should do everything we can to raise turnout because that seems to be a noble concept inherent in our role, or b) we could unintentionally impact the results by emphasizing turnout efforts among a demographic (such as young voters) who may be more inclined to vote for one candidate or another.

I fall on the side that we should not strive for higher turnout.  I know that's a bit like saying I don't believe in gravity, but I think it's the best way to ensure neutrality.

But more and more, I feel our role is to be more than the advocate of the voter.   Better, I guess, to say that we must fight for the voter.

I feel like the walls are closing in (or shutting down) on our voters.  We can't run an election with polling places that might shut down, all at once, because of a phone call, no matter how remote that possibility seems.  But we can't keep paring down polling places.

We requested funding for staff members to be able to expand advance voting in light of these issues and that request was denied.  We've got to keep marching in that direction, though, perhaps at least seeking larger sites, if we can't have more sites.

Somewhere this week, I've now gone into aggressor mode, Voters vs. the World.  And if it's a fight the World wants, the World is going to lose.

Saturday, September 7, 2013 0 comments

Shark Week

Occasionally, I've slipped in a stealth post on this blog.  That's what this is.

With every post, I send out a Twitter feed and link to the post on Facebook and LinkedIn.  Well, usually at least.

I can't explain it, other than maybe compare it to a hunger pang, but if I've been too busy to post, it wears on me.  At some point, I have to put something up, if nothing else but to reduce the guilt of not posting.

When I've done that, I haven't sent out the feeds.  Hence, the stealth post.

I'm way behind on my preparation for my first marathon next month and am running a half-marathon in gazillion degree heat tomorrow, so beyond elections, that's been time-consuming.  I'm also leading the county's United Way campaign effort and that got real over the last couple of weeks, too.

All of this while we are preparing for our large Overland Park mail ballot election.  Most of ballots have been stuffed and we expect them within a week as we work on our new process with Pitney Bowes.  I plan to take photos and post them here.

So, I'm left with the stealth filler post for a couple of days.  To have some content I've always wanted to share, I'll speak briefly to stats on the blog.

The blog gets about 2,000 unique visitors a month these days (and, no, that's not me 1,999 times).  I can see keywords used often to get to the blog and the most common one, of all time, after "electiondiary" is Fonzi.

Early on, I did a post related to "jumping the shark," and 54 people have come to the blog searching for something related to that phrase or Fonzi.

Go figure.  Election days really are Happy Days.

So, sit on that until the next post.