Sunday, December 21, 2014 0 comments

Two Words, Many Views

King Louie.

Few short phrases conjure quick thoughts in Johnson County like King Louie, particularly these days.

In Kansas City in 1980s and 1990s, King Louie Lanes were all over town, and one very large megacenter, with an ice rink and billiards, was in the heart of Johnson County.

To many long-time Johnson Countians, "King Louie" is a phrase that immediately recalls an image of this center.  ABC's Wide World of Sports, when that was a thing, broadcast national bowling tournaments--when those were things--from King Louie's Metcalf location, when that was a thing.

Yet, King Louie isn't much of a thing these days to most Johnson Countians.

Among those most wired with Johnson County politics, that phrase creates an instant reaction. The county purchased this site a few years ago on about as much of a lark as a $3 million investment can be.

Take away the few dozen most wired with Johnson County politics, that phrase, though, likely just brings up some sentiment of moment spent there, often from a high-school party.

I see that phrase and I always think, "The Jungle Book."  Then, again, that's what I thought any time I passed a King Louie facility in the 1980s and 1990s.

Point is, the King Louie property is hyperly tuned into some because of the recent purchase, but the average Johnson Countian internalizes "King Louie" more than considers what the county is doing with this facility.

Yet, this property, since its purchase, has sat in limbo--the initial vision wasn't grounded enough to allow it come to fruition and yet repurposing the building requires investment that, to some, seems like throwing good money after bad.

The Election Office has been marginally conjoined with this property.  Possibly, this facility may be able to be used as one of the county's advance voting locations, but I first became aware that this was a reason for the purchase of the property about two hours before the concept was presented to the Board of County Commissioners a few years ago.

This past Thursday, the Board reviewed a very impressive, well-coordinated pitch on a new view of the center's future.    The total cost of plan, counting the earlier investment, is about $22 million.

Personally, if the County feels this facility meets needs and it has the money, I am extremely neutral to the whole idea.  I'm never jealous for others achieving their dreams; I just want to achieve mine, too.

My dreams are pretty basic and linked to 2016, mostly.

Speaking of 2016--looking at the turnout from the 2008 presidential election (79 percent) and the number of polling places (284 compared to 182 this past November), and considering the potential for historical firsts if candidates in both parties become the eventual presidential nominees, our cost for the presidential election will be at least $2 million more than the 2014 election.

This isn't from discretionary spending.  It's akin to "keeping the lights on," a phrase often used by our budget office and the county manager.

We will need at least 100 more polling places, and there's nothing to suggest we can find that many.

We will then need more advance voting sites, and there's nothing to suggest that's possible.  At the very least, we will be paying much more rent for advance sites than we did in 2008.  Our election workers will need to have their training costs at least adjusted for minimum wage and they really could use a raise--they haven't had one since 2006.  Postage is likely to increase.

The Non-Jungle Book Version of King Louie
Still, the hard-wired, non-negotiable cost increase will be at least $2 million.  Other operational needs--headcount to avoid the kind of crisis we experienced with a death in the office right at a critical time--are more negotiable.  They're real, but more discretionary.

Those $2 million costs don't seem to be on anyone's radar so I'm telling everyone I can at every chance I can.  (Yes, Dear Reader, you are inside the Looking Glass at this very moment).

As long as this property doesn't get in the way of elections, such a basic--the basic--piece of government, who am I to complain?

Still, of the $2 million "keep the lights on," amount, King Louie has the chance to mitigate just $25,000 IF we can use the facility for the August and November elections.

We use the same locations for both elections, so King Louie is of no use to us in November 2016 if it isn't available until July for us to set up for August.  Otherwise, our first time there will be August 2018.

This represents my rub with this issue.  A savings of $25,000 every other year, in today's dollars, as providing one advance voting location--not all advance voting, but one of at least 4 sites--is relatively small in terms of the total project costs.  Yet, advance voting is listed as a primary reason for investing in the facility.

It's not lost on me that while there was an orchestrated presentation to the Board, I wasn't asked to be part of this pitch.  Hopefully, others noticed that as well.

The need, though, to have it sooner so we can use the facility in 2016 was well-represented by the county's Bureau Chief.  Two of the Commissioners did bring up my concern in the meeting, and I talked with another before the meeting.

I think that everyone involved is on board with my 2016 concerns.  And, full circle, if we get the advance voting facility, that will be a nice thing.  It's not an advance voting panacea.  But, one less thing, that's for sure.

We spend a lot of cycles trying to negotiate advance voting sites.

We may be at place very soon where we have 10 advance voting locations because we we are losing polling place locations faster than we are getting new one.  Having one good-sized advance voting site in the can will never be bad.

In that regard, as my version of King Louie would say, "I'm tired of monkeying around." There will be less of that if we have this facility.

(Click here to the link to the meeting--in that link is a link for the presentation, worth downloading and reviewing).

Monday, December 15, 2014 0 comments

Anytime But April

Sometimes, it takes a small election for a large a-ha moment.

Such was the case Tuesday, where Roeland Park picked a new city council member after a resignation.

Roeland Park is the only Johnson County jurisdiction that doesn't appoint replacements on its council.  This was the second special election in Roeland Park in 2014.

Like the previous special elections, it was a one-ward, one polling place election.

The election also wrapped by my first 10 years of elections as election commissioner.  We've had 60 elections, but only 20 of them were planned.

Averaging 6 a year, we already have 5 special elections planned for January 27--five different school districts will be having mail-ballot elections on the same day.

This election came during a busy week, as I also needed to prepare for a presentation to a Kansas House and Senate Committee on Friday.  This committee is looking at data related to the potential of moving spring elections to the fall, either in even or odd years.

I've been advocating moving the elections to the fall of odd years.  I've discussed the reasons before, but, summed up, I believe turnout may increase and I also think it could be done in conjunction with requiring schools to have a student-holiday on election days to allow consistent use of schools as polling places.

So, the preparation of that presentation was on my mind on Tuesday as we waited to see the turnout--more than 20 percent, as it, well, turned out.

Hmmm.  That's a higher turnout than spring elections (that include Roeland Park).

We got to thinking.  The turnouts for special elections usually are higher than we expect, at least at the polls.  Mail-ballot election turnout has been dropping over time, but the turnout still is very good.

We put it all on a slide, below, and note with the red arrows the lowest turnout of any special elections.  The green arrow shows the highest turnout of the last four April elections.

The lowest turnout of a special election is still higher than the best turnout in April.

We've read criticisms of the idea of moving spring elections that there is no data to suggest turnout might increase if elections were moved from April to November.

That's true.  But this data supports that elections held any time BUT April have a higher turnout.

It's fascinating, really, because the quick follow-up question is why?

It could be that these elections stand on their own, and get individual attention, even individual outreach attention on the mail-ballot side.  The why is worth exploring, but the data is fairly conclusive that April turnouts are the low achievers in the crowd.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014 0 comments

New Normal, With a Short Fuse

I haven't really intended to take the month of December off so far, but such is the paradox of this blog.

It's intended to give a behind-the-scenes view of our elections, yet, as elections heat up, it's harder and harder to update.

There's much to update but this will just stick with what's continuing to be the greatest election story ever told her--the school district's mail-ballot elections scheduled for January 27.

What's important here, and we're learning this more and more each day, is the scale ahead of us.

Checking in an average of 10,000 envelopes a day requires a lot of computers, hand-held scanners, and authentication tokens into our statewide voter registration system for signature verification.  The scope of that is becoming more real to us as we devilishly hop into the details.

We processed about the same the number of returned paper ballots in 2004's presidential election that we will handled this year, but most of those ballots were in-person ballots, not requiring signature verification.

We've been so focused on the scanning of 165,000 returned ballots, we realized we haven't spent enough time on the "checking in" consideration, and even simple things like, "Do we have enough tables and chairs?" and "Are our envelope openers up to the task?" need to be explored.

There's some sort of business correlation here in that we are addressing the need to scale fast.  If this was the new normal, we'd make decisions to plan for that--automated signature verification systems, for instance.

But this isn't the new normal.  It's a spontaneous breakout--like the first time you see "Rocky Horror Picture Show" in a theater and people run out to the aisles to do the Time Warp, only to come back and sit next to you.

Before we can pick up our jaws from January and ask, "What just happened?" we'll be back in the typical world of our polls elections.

Everything we know is wrong, but just for about 60 days.  That's our new normal. 

It's the Temporary New Normal.

As Roeland Park's election concluded yesterday, the reality is, the Temporary New Normal is full-on.

Sunday, November 30, 2014 0 comments

Paper, Party of 330,000?

Somewhere, there will be an election administrator in a jurisdiction using paper ballots who will read this post and consider our plight child's play.

But, here we are, short-staffed and run down following the November election and in the middle of a much smaller December election in Roeland Park.

Yet, a monster set of elections await us, with ballots going out the first week of January to about 330,000 voters in five of the six school districts in Johnson County.

If half come back, we will be processing 165,000 pieces of paper, plus the envelopes, in roughly 16 days.

That's more than 10,000 ballots returned daily, and each one of the envelopes has to be checked into our voter registration system and have the returning signature matched against the voter's record.

Then, the ballots have to be scanned and tabulated.  Never having paper at the polls, at least in the last 50 years, we operate with a handful of scanners at our office.

At most, these scanners can scan 1,000 ballots an hour, but a likely throughput for the four we have is really about 2,500 an hour.

We've never processed this many paper ballots before.  Our office used paper ballots for advance voting in the presidential election of 2004, with a two-page ballot, and that resulted in nearly 200,000 pieces of paper.

That was just before I came to this job and I still hear horror tales from that process.

Job One here is to, well, get the job done.  We've never pulled something like this off before, and the fact that it falls right between two countywide elections (spring is comin') makes this even rougher.

In fact, the election itself ends the day after the spring election filing deadline.

Job Two is to get the job done as economically as possible.  Incremental costs are passed on to the school districts, while fixed costs--such as staffing and equipment purchases--are borne by the county.

So, that creates two problems for us--at least two phases of one problem and another problem, actually.

The first problem is, how many part-time election workers do we appoint to handle the load?  Part-time is likely the wrong phrase--temporary, full-time workers. We probably could use at least 75.  In November we had 12.

We only have 20 stations for envelope check-in.  We'll pretty much be needing someone sitting at those stations the entire time.

Each signature on the return envelopes must be verified.
Could we even get 75 people?  What if we needed more?  Where would they work, securely?

Can we get by with fewer, and how?

If only we had one of those fancy high-speed scanners that's being touted with some of the next-generation voting systems.  Our system isn't compatible with such a thing but if the system was, we could scan much, much faster--10,000 in just a couple of hours.


Somewhere in the Royals' World Series euphoria, we decided to take a major leap here, using an entirely new voting system for this election.  It's akin to buying a big-screen television just before the Super Bowl. 

This isn't the major leap it could be, in that we aren't going to have any election at the polls, but we are going to set up the election and operate it with a new tabulation system. The system will use a high-speed scanner.

Election administrators don't roll like this.  Where's the mock election?  What are we doing for redundancy?  These are typical, internal questions.

Our equipment vendor, to the redundancy point, is a four-hour drive away.  If the system can't be warrantied to be fail-safe for the first 20 days of its life, there's an issue there, anyway. If the system explodes, I'm sure we will have another one within a half-day.

The system has been certified federally and in Kansas, so that's not a risk.  It's just that we're making this huge transition in December for an election that will be over on Groundhog Day, the day of the elections' canvasses.

Unlike the movie, the day after Groundhog Day, and every day after, will not be the same.

Once this election is over, we'll have a high-speed taste test, an understanding of a new system that we will evaluate for our ultimate equipment replacement, and a very large paperweight until our next large mail-ballot election, likely in late 2015 or later.  It's not quite a throwaway unit, but close.

The big question is the reconciliation between the scanner costs and the savings of people.  That's roughly going to be a wash.  Remember, though, Job One is to do the job.

And this job requires that we not bring a rinky-dink scanning system to high-speed scanner fight.

So, the battle begins.  We hope to have the unit on-site this week to begin preparations.

It's funny--that Super Bowl comparison:  in November elections, the media likes to ask us is if this is our big moment, our Super Bowl.

I'm sure, given all we have going on, our staff would much rather not have this behemoth group of elections in January.  But, we've never done something like this before, and in February, conducting the canvass they day after the NFL's Big Game, we're going to feel pretty good about what we accomplished.

That sounds like a Super Bowl party to me.

Thursday, November 20, 2014 0 comments

Roeland Park, Part Two

Although it's been terribly long between posts, have pity, please--we started another election yesterday.

It's a special election in Roeland Park, second time this year, and comes in the most intense election period in Johnson County history.  With the November election just ending, we have this election a month later, and, on January 7, we will be mailing about 350,000 ballots for special school elections.

That election day will be about a week after the filing deadline for the spring elections.  Come April, nearly every voter in Johnson County will have had 3 elections in five months and some may have five elections in five months if we have a spring primary.

(Was that as crazy to read as it was to type?  One of our ballot envelope colors should be camouflage, to recognize ballot fatigue.)

Amidst all of this, we have some major budget deadlines ahead.  These are important because it may be 2014, but the 2016 budget gains form by March.  As mentioned in the last post, we have a lot of work to do to prepare for 2016, and the costs for that election will be much higher than in 2014.

Further, we must work on preparing our voting system request for proposal.  We were chagrined recently to learn that Sedgwick County has $4.5 million set aside for a new system.  (Actually, I'm chagrined for us but happy for them).

Douglas County had the wisdom to hire a county management leader from Johnson County a few years ago, but she took with her, apparently, the resolve to plan ahead.  Douglas County began setting aside money each year for voting systems at the same time our county manager stopped our annual set-aside amount and also pulled funding based on a quote we received, provided several times in the budget process.  We had $10 million at one time in the capital budget, but he pulled it.

Shawnee County, also, has set aside a large portion of money for its next system.

So, it's frustrating to say the least when my predecessor had the wisdom to push for and implement a plan to pay for a future system, but we are behind the other large counties in preparation years later.

This will have a major point of reckoning because even when the county issues debt to pay for the new system, it will have either a tax impact or a major cost cutting impact.  That cost cutting won't come in elections, because as we ramp up polling places and staff advance voting to 2016 levels, I estimate those additional costs to be more than $1 million from 2014.

Plus, because we will have to finance our new system, this issue also likely prevents the county from setting aside money for its next, next system.  This has created a perpetual election funding crisis.

And that's if things stay the way they are now.  Our voting machines tabulate perfectly, but reports of a vote flipping from one candidate to another--something the system has had since it was implemented in 2002--does wear us down.  Particularly, social media can turn one report into a viral epidemic.

I often talked to three or four people about the same report, and we just don't have the staff size to talk about these issues adequately, let alone address them.   It's worth considering if we need to purchase an interim solution for 2016 while we select a longer-term solution.

All of this reminds me of how, when I first came to the office 10 years ago, how the industry quaked of reports on the Black Box Voting.  There was a book of the same name.  10 years ago, that's what viral meant.

Those were the days.

Still, we're presented with an opportunity, really.  Many voters want paper, others want better touch screens, and I want a system that is easier to maintain.  Age is a relentless beast, for humans and machines, and the clock is ticking on the useful life of our system.

Legislators know this.  I just spoke at a conference of staffers put on by the National Council of State Legislators.  Two of those staffers were from Kansas, and they are coordinating an a task force of legislators looking at combining spring and fall elections.

I'm attending the meeting tomorrow, and speaking next month.  My patter is familiar--spring elections in odd years move to fall in odd years, leaving each year with August and November elections.  In conjunction with this, require that all schools be closed on election day in November and available as polling places.

One thing that has struck me, since the Black Box Voting days, is that, well, viral campaigns reach a lot of people.  We all vote, and many of us have opinions on the best way to vote (paper, machine, Internet, you name it).

There isn't much consensus on the best method, today or tomorrow.  Add in layers of policy makers, who have their own opinions and their own cost and social drivers and restrainers, and the chance of a common approach in the country, or even in a state, seems unlikely.

I'm still a believer that there will be a big bang, a disruptive moment in the industry--perhaps a single state legislature will pass a little bill requiring Internet Voting, or emailing of ballots.  All the work of standards, scientists' theories, and activist interests will go out the window.

Likewise, the opinions of election administrators will matter little in such a scenario.  Somewhere, we have to find a way to make the realities of today merge to lead to a solution.  My little presentation included here is hard to follow unless you were at the meeting this week (and even then....), but I'd be glad to explain it further if you email or comment.

For now, back to the elections.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014 0 comments

Election Marathon

I ran a half-marathon on Sunday.

Half-Marathon Finisher Medal
I ran it because I could, a great release from what has been a grueling marathon of an election.  I hadn't trained, but I was okay with my time of 1:55 and finishing it was the win, anyway.

That real marathon ends today, with the board of canvassers reconvening at 1:30.  With about 3,000 provisional ballots to count and many having to be hand-counted partials, the special board worked 12 hours yesterday to finalize results.

That's a marathon in its own right.  These are some of our office's most dedicated part-timers, working for nearly nothing, pushing paper.

Even years bring with them many things, including a very long ballot, two-sided, 8 1/2 by 17 inches, with approximately 30 items to select.  With 190,000 voters, that's nearly 6 million voting transactions.

Even years also bring a long October, one which doesn't allow for training for such things as real marathons.  I ran my only marathon in 2013.  I'm not sure I'll run another, but I knew I wouldn't run one in 2014. Besides, we had election worker training the day of the Kansas City Marathon.

Election Results, Halfway From Finishing, on CNN
We had our own virtual marathon at the office, though.  In fact, all of Kansas City had the World Series run for the Royals that was exhausting, and we didn't even play the games.  The post-season ran the entire month of October and held the city captive.  Who knew October baseball really now lasts all of October?

It hasn't always been that way.

Baseball great Reggie Jackson referred to himself as Mr. October and as a kid, I thought that was a silly nickname because the World Series ended halfway through the month.  I ran a half-marathon, but I'm not Mr. Marathon.  Why wasn't he Mr. Half-October?  Or, Mr. Late Summer?  Or, Mr. 30-Days-Some-In-September-Some-In-October?

Anyway, there definitely was a Royals factor to the whole election.  In training, I began giving the milestones in Royals dates--registration ended as the Royals won game 3 of the division series, advance by mail began the day they clinched that series and--oops--Supervising Judges pick up supplies the day of the victory parade (my guess on the date).

We saw advance voting in person trail off in the afternoon of game days and explode after the World Series ended.  Voters were giddy.  People were dressed in blue but if their voting experience was blue, we didn't know it.

After the Series, those things we typically see when voting is going on for two weeks began emerging.  Voters selected candidate A on a machine, for instance, but candidate B came up.  They changed it, voted accurately, but worried about all of the others who may not be as observant as them.

This has gone on since the machines were purchased, 2002--before my time, and as much as I'd like to use this as THE excuse for needing a new voting system (oh, it's an excuse, believe me), it usually happens because of pilot error.  The machines are not your father's iPads, which then just tells you how old the technology is if your father didn't even use it.

To provide some context there, the scroll bars on the review screen on the voting machines are on the LEFT.  Look at your web browser.  Note the scrolls are on the right--always have been.  Yep, we're voting with pre-Internet design.

In any event, we record whenever these anomalies are reported, and in this election it seemed to happen, as it usually does in an election, on just once race.  We had a couple of reports for governor and Secretary of State, and one on a judge, but the other 25 were on the US Senate race.

Again, I have absolutely no incentive to defend the machines, other than that I can demonstrate our testing that assures they tabulate perfectly.  I didn't select the machines, I want a new system, and I have no problem throwing the machines under the bus, except that the machines would probably cause the bus to crash, and while unlikely around here, someone might be on a bus and be hurt.  That would be bad.

But if it was a simple case of bad calibration, many of the races would have this issue.  At the very least, the races in the same place on the screen, as voters advance, would experience the same thing, on screen two, screen three, and screen four.  30 reports out of nearly 6 million transactions don't lead to a widespread diagnosis of poor calibration.

The reports and calls suggest we equally were favoring candidates, not only suggesting that we were trying to engineer the election but also that those Palm Pilot devices had the capability of guessing who the voter wanted in a race and then forcing the other candidate's name to be selected.

I heard about these reports, often the same report from different sources, through many poll agents and lawyers.  I talked to only two angry voters on election day, mostly because I was on the phone with other stakeholders the rest of the day.  We had media throughout the day, and with a position that had gone a year to fill not yet filled until yesterday (woo hoo!) and the sad loss of our assistant election commissioner over election workers and polling places, being understaffed took its toll in terms of my availability on election day.

I was so excited to talk to these actual voters that they probably wondered if they were being punk'd.

We had some key learnings in this election:

  1. We have consolidated polling places for the last time.  We had the fewest, 182, we've had in a November election and in 2016, we'll need at least 75 more.
  2. We won't get to 250 polling places, let alone 284 that we had in 2008.  They just won't be available.
  3. We will need more advance sites.
  4. We won't get those either, with the economy improving and storefronts filling, without paying excessive rent.
  5. My reaction to these issues is, "So?"  These are elections.  These are real cost issues, including staffing needs and election worker pay increases that are needed.  My job is to administer the elections and the county's role, very harshly, is to fund it.  I expect the 2016 cost to be at least $1 million more than it was this year, at least.  This is not my problem.  It is a problem, for sure, only to get worse with the funding of our voting system.  But there is a huge expense ahead to be adequately prepared for 2016.
And, finally, we had the learning of the poll agents--about 400 deployed in this election.

Imagine, instead, if just half of them had been election workers.  We'd have had one more worker per polling place and then some.

Now, back to running the half-marathon.  I like running races and I pay for that.  Similarly, I played indoor soccer for years.  I like participating in competitive events.

As a competitor, I've had my share of times that I felt, for instance, that the soccer referees could have been better.  But the idea of becoming a referee myself--no thank you.  Just, I thought, I wish that they would hire better referees.

Likewise, I think voters deserve to carry expectations that their participation in competitive government events (elections) are handled professionally.  Voters pay entry fees (taxes) to have voting convenient, and never would I suggest to a voter who is unhappy that if the voter really cared, the voter should get more involved in the process, to be one of our referees.

But I would make such an appeal to poll agents.  In fact, I plan to do that very thing.  One area we will target, for new workers, will be the poll agents.

If someone has made the leap to assist with a campaign or candidate, and had time on election day to monitor the process, the best way they could help the process is to be part of it, as an election worker.

We're fortunate that these 400 were engaged.  Now, we hope to engage them further for the marathon ahead in 2016.

Sunday, November 2, 2014 2 comments

This is CNN

As always, there is much more to update that time allows, but as we head into the last day before the election, at the very least, I wanted to make sure I quickly blogged about some sort of life imitating life event.

I'm not sure art is involved in this case, except for shirt art.  I'll explain:

Any doubt that Kansas is in the public eye on Tuesday was erased when we received a call on October 15 that CNN would be broadcasting live from our office on Tuesday.

Politico, the Washington Post, and Time magazine also will have reporters here, although the Time thing is a bit misleading.  David Von Drehle of Time lives here locally and I only know that because I sold a universal weight set a few years back and he bought it.  Again, just another part of my get-to-know-all-380,000-voters plan.  Still, I may see him professionally this week, too.

CNN will be arriving tomorrow to set up and we'll discuss their time here.  I think they'll mostly be doing a behind the scenes view of the election and, of course, that's right in the wheelhouse of this blog.

A local reporter asked if we would do anything differently with CNN coming.

I told her we'll dress better.

In fact, we always give our high-school election workers a t-shirt to wear at the polls so they can be properly identified and applauded by every voter they encounter.

We also use a group of Olathe North National Honor Society students to help with the check-in of equipment on election night.  They will wear the same shirts.

The back of the shirt features a hashtag, #GoVoteJoco.

We've given birth to it, hoping it lives as long as hashtags live. We thought about a QR code, but QR codes are so 2012.  The front of the shirt has 2014 on it, so we only need the hashtag community to hold on for two months.


Also in the world of fashion, I show you a pin we give to each election worker:

We customize one for each November election and our workers proudly collect them.  In fact, in my international observation trip to Georgia last year, I took some pins from the 2010 and 2012 election and they were a huge hit with my fellow observers from around the world.

I was a little surprised.  I'm not much of a Pin Man, I guess.  But many of my peers proudly wore the pins.

So, surprised, yes.  But, also proud.

I'm further proud of our workers.  They are galvanizing for the election in the wake of losing the man who, often, hired them--Tom Ray.

I asked that they offer up the 2014 election as a prayer to Tom as we conducted supervising judge training this weekend.

For training, we broke out the interactive test-taking clickers we bought in 2012 to do polling and testing during training.  I find that asking questions before training is most effective because we see areas we need to emphasize if the group scores low on a particular item.

Besides, it's really deflating to do the questions at the end of training, only to realize we still have much work to do.

I know the question here was a bit of a creme-puff, but I've never had a group answer 100 percent correctly before!

And with that, I'll stop the post and take the win.

Thursday, October 23, 2014 1 comments

The Image of The Year of the Voter

Blog posts shouldn't be painful to write, but this one is.

I've often said that we are one poorly timed illness from a crisis because we are desperately understaffed and our employees each have monster jobs with many responsibilities.

Depending on where we are in the election cycle, from mapping to training to voting machine delivery, the entire election can grind down if we lose a player in the chain.

We lost a player in the chain today, someone who values family so much that a "player in the chain" is how I think he would want to be remembered.

Our assistant election commissioner over polling places and election workers, Tom Ray, was surprisingly diagnosed with lung cancer in May.  He left us just five months later.

This is a post that deserves to be incredibly long, filled with nearly daily anecdotes I could share with how much he meant to me, our office, our election workers, and our voters.

Yet, it's been so sudden, and there are so many people working here, and they all need to know.  The election can't stop, and that's the backdrop behind Tom's passing.  As we're internalizing the news, candidates are calling, voters are here, we continue to take request for advance ballots, and we listen to complaints.

I just took a call from a voter who thought that giving the address to our advance site at 9800 Metcalf was too vague, that no one could find it.  She felt this was voter suppression, as if seeking out a facility for advance voting, signing the lease, equipping it, and staffing it was a total ruse to keep people from voting.

It's also ironic that I took that call while typing this because Tom was a champion for advance voting, and he negotiated the lease for this location.  We wrapped up the lease just days before he found out his condition was incredibly serious.

If you found that you had a terminal disease and would die within a year, you might quit your job, pull out your savings, and live on an island.  Yet, that island might not be paradise, but rather a daily reminder of the forthcoming end. 

For Tom, making sure he left us as prepared as possible for November was his outlet.  He came in every day until his treatment amped up.  His hours here were dropping to just a couple a day.

We've been scrambling to move ahead with scheduling and assigning workers, and without question, some workers have fallen through the cracks.  We've been pushing workers into training without yet finalizing their assignment so we don't lose them, yet having 200 floaters to get to the right location sets us for a crazy week next week.

There's so much Tom knows. 

Sadly, I just left that sentence as I typed it so you see where my head is.  There's so much Tom knew, actuallyWe will have a pretty good idea of those things we didn't know by the day after election day.

It's a huge hole and a flag I've raised for many years as we've asked for more headcount through the budget process.  We are about to finally have a person start in a position next month that took a year to fill (not our choice), and a headcount we fought to get in the 2015 budget, hopefully, will be filled in early 2015 before our school mail-ballot elections.

Keen observers of the blog are probably now putting together why I was so impassioned about our 2015 headcount need during the June budget hearings.

It's hard having an obvious operational box of thumbtacks thrown in front of us on our road to the election.  Yet, I wanted to recognize Tom for his dedication to our voters before he stopped working.

Secretary of State Kris Kobach agreed, and he came to election worker training last Wednesday, at my request, and presented Tom with a National Association of Secretaries of State Medallion Award for his service.

We worked to schedule the award around Tom's work schedule and treatment, as well as the Secretary's own busy schedule.

This is an exclusive, national award.  As a point of reference, only four others have been awarded the Medallion in the last four years in Kansas and the only two people from Johnson County to have received the award were my predecessor, Connie Schmidt, and our deputy election commissioner Karen Browning, who retired after more than 40 years of service to the county. 

Tom thanked Kris in front of 250 election workers.  Ever-proud, Tom had still not made his condition known to them.  His voice was raspy as he thanked the Secretary and said that he had laryngitis, so he wouldn't be able to give a speech.

In the days ahead, he indeed lost his voice.  However, he never lost the will to be the voice of the voter, and that dedication will be his legacy.

Tom was in the office Sunday and as I left, with a bottle of water in my right hand, he came up to me and took the bottle so he could shake my hand and thank me for the award presentation. 

Clearly, that was goodbye.  I didn't see it then, and this post is the beginning of me saying goodbye to him as well.

This was just last Wednesday, 8 days ago.

Sunday, October 19, 2014 0 comments

Advance Voting is Underway!

Advance voting in person begins tomorrow and if that has come up on you, dear reader, fast, it has on us, too.

We literally have been too busy to type, mostly because we've been having election worker training each day while pumping through thousands of advance voting applications and ballots.

This time is also the period for the latest installment of "People Move."

Our ballots went out Wednesday, with a couple thousand going out each day since.  Before that, however, we sent a teaser postcard to all voters to remind them of the upcoming election and their advance voting options.

This mailing list for the postcard was created in September, about a month after all changes from the August election were finalized.  Any postcard that came back undeliverable in July resulted in an updated voter record.  Provisional ballots that required address changes were updated.  New registrations were processed.

Yet, in that time, we have this, in terms of undelivered postcards:

The pictures show the same number, with the second picture just now sorted so we can begin working these.  Funny, those outside of elections have no sense of the number of transactions we process and what list maintenance means.

Further, the linkage to election offices and the mail service is incredible.  Postage is such a huge expense.  Mailing the postcard, which allows us to be compliant with the National Voter Registration Act, costs about $130,000.

Yes, that flimsy little drab postcard costs that much just to mail.  It makes you wonder how much all of the candidate campaign and Johnson County government mailings to households cost (well, it makes me wonder, but it also makes me wonder--how again is it that the post office is struggling)?

Our first day ballots are photographed in little cages.  They look tidy.

Ballots mailed Wednesday night, some
voted and returned by mail Saturday.
And, on Saturday, we already had some back in the mail!  Note, however, the small number of white envelopes.  We'll get more.  Those are ballots that were undeliverable.  We'll likely mail out about 40,000 ballots in this election and somewhere between 500 and 1,000 will come back undeliverable, which usually means that people moved between the time they requested the ballots in the last couple of weeks and the time we mailed them.

In-person advance voting will be at our office, 9800 Metcalf, the Great Mall of the Great Plains, and the Johnson County Northeast offices starting tomorrow morning.

Below are a couple of photos from this summer that I thought were worth a giggle from the Great Mall.

The first just looks funny to me because of the "Quite Please" that displays so prominently with no voters yet, as though it's an election museum.

The other is from advertisement inside the mall.  Apparently, mall management anticipates a stressful election season.

We have much going on with more updates soon.  Tomorrow night, we have election worker training for high-school students.  Tuesday and Wednesday, we have the all-important opening games of the World Series.

The last time a World Series came into play during a November election cycle in Kansas City, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter were running.  There was no advance voting.

I do wonder how the Series could impact voting patterns.  Maybe there will not be an impact, but that seems unlikely.

My early thought is that advance voting may trend slower than it did in, comparably, 2010, with a possible pick-up late next week.  However, Halloween is on a Friday (a great late-afternoon, early evening to vote, by the way--NO lines at our office), so that will get in the way of voting.

Intuitively, I think some advancers will just wait until election day, but election day is unpredictable (and what if it's the day of the victory parade?).

Of course, our election planning is pretty baked at this point.  Polling places were secured a year ago, advance sites buttoned down in January, and all new election worker training will be over tomorrow.  We have to finish new training before the onslaught of voters to our parking lot--we don't have enough parking for new worker training AND voters.

We conduct refresher training now offsite, in classes of 250+ at a time, at the University of Kansas Edwards campus.  Moving new worker training is much more problematic because we have smaller classes and an entire "Perfect Polling Place" for skits to help the workers connect the dots.

Something's got to give on that, though, space-wise.  That's a problem to ponder in late 2015, our next chance for a breather, maybe.

Live voting engines start tomorrow.

Photos above and below from the Great Mall.

Saturday, October 18, 2014 0 comments

Game Seven!

I'll have a new post this weekend, but with the Royals going to the World Series, I have some special memories related to Game 7, and the All Star Game, and is the backdrop to similar memories I have with these types of games with my daughter. 

So, reposting.  Back to elections tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

David Newby, 1930-2012

I've tried to have a post each Tuesday in recognition that there is always an election going on somewhere on a Tuesday.

Plus, as those in the election world can attest, the Tuesday election day is often the slowest day in the cycle.  The work is done and we leave the day open for mayhem, and thankfully there usually isn't any.

Today's Tuesday post is brief.

My father died this morning at 1 a.m.  He was 82.

He suffered a stroke last year and his energy level dropped over the fall and winter.  In fact, I planned to take him to a Royals game last September and he didn't have the stamina to go. 

He took me to the All-Star game when it was in Kansas City in 1973.  I still have the ticket stubs.

I knew he couldn't go this year, hosted again in Kansas City, and I probably couldn't have gotten tickets, anyway, so I was planning to be with him on July 10 (also a Tuesday) and watch it on television.

In 1985, he obtained two tickets to game seven of the World Series, Royals-Cardinals, and he gave them to me on the condition that I went with my brother.  It was the biggest moment up until then for the Royals--and it remains their biggest moment--and he passed so his two sons could go.

He was a Rotarian and believed in "service above self."  My brother died years ago (it's a very odd feeling to be the only family member still living from my childhood Christmas photos) and my dad also gave me a defining memory of my brother from sharing that World Series celebratory night, one of the greatest nights ever to be living in Kansas City.

I was with him on March 24 and it was clear he was declining.  I visited him yesterday afternoon after coming back in town from training, and I was not surprised to get the call this morning.

Since I've been at the election office, I've never been quite sure he understood exactly what I did.  With him leaving on a Tuesday, I think he did.
Thursday, October 9, 2014 1 comments

We've Got Ballots!

In the world of baby steps, we started printing ballots last night and are preparing to fulfill the 11,000 or so advance ballots by mail we have in the pipeline thus far.

Ballots are first mailed next Wednesday.

In between now and then, registered voters will receive a postcard in the mail that reminds of the upcoming election and advance voting options.

That postcard will generate about 5,000 applications for ballots by mail over the weekend.  By the time Wednesday rolls around, we likely will have around 20,000 ballots ready to mail.

We'll cut it close with envelopes on hand--intentionally, we order a couple of cycles ahead.

However, our cushion of envelopes arrived yesterday in the wrong color--the printer's mistake, but it's just one more thing that we'll be doing twice in this election.  We hope to get new, correct replacements in 12 days.

We have more than 40,000 outgoing envelopes on hand--the number of ballots by mail issued in November 2010, but we will sleep better once we have a backup sock drawer full of warm envelopes.

Envelopes are unusual in that they take an incredibly long time to print.  I'm not sure why, but they are complex.

In fact, we were the first jurisdiction in the country to design a privacy flap that covers the voter's signature in the mail, and that flap adds extra time and cost.

That was the issue in 2005--identity theft.  I guess it's still THE issue in 2014, but covering the voters' signatures in the mail was one of the first decisions I made when coming to the office.

Anyway, that all takes a backseat to the "whoo-hoo" we exclaimed when our ballots were ready for production.  Once the delay occurred with the US Senate candidate, we fell into the competitive queue with many other jurisdictions using our printer.  That printer's schedule, and probably the ballot delivery of other communities in other states, had ripple effects from this delay.

Even printing our mail-ballots here, we had to have things finalized with the printer first, and we couldn't begin creating voter cards for our 1,400 machines that we will use in this election, either.

Once we got the thumbs up, our crew had to re-proof the ballots.  Stack three large phone books on top of each other and you'll have a sense of how many pages we had to proof, fast.

If you are too young to know what a large phone book looks like, use dictionaries for this visualization.

If you are too young to know what a dictionary is, look at your laptop computer right now and imagine the cresting point at the top of the screen as the top of the stack of ballots to proof in order to visualize.

If you are too young to know what a laptop computer is, stand your iPad on its end and that will sort of give you a visualization of the magnitude.

If you are too cool to check the web with anything but a smartphone, I can't help you.  

In such a case, just know it's a lot of paper, bro.

Anyway, now the office is abuzz.  Advance election workers are brushing up on training, machines are being tested, and we're pondering "what ifs" related to the Royals' World Series run.

For instance, next week's game 5 in the championship series is scheduled during election worker training.   We'll probably have a few workers reschedule their training.

World Series week, if the Royals make it, may impact in-person advance voting.  It may lead to more requests by mail (hello, envelope printer McFly?) or it may have people waiting until election day to vote.  

Then again, if they win, election day may be Parade Day.  That may impact turnout or the time of day people vote.

Election administrators embrace worry like a rescued lost puppy.  For a moment, with our ballots, worries were gone.  That was short-lived.

It's nice, at least, to be worried about events in the future, rather than the impact of things in the past.  It was late in arriving, but we're having an election!
Wednesday, October 1, 2014 0 comments

T Minus 35 Days

Successful companies often talk about compressing the product delivery cycle, shaving off days from concept to market.

Here, on October 1, 35 days from the election and just 14 days from the time our advance ballots by mail go out, we're living the reduced go-to-market life.

It's some sort of crazy complete circle to the info you see on the sidebar here--"Many people think election officials only work a couple days a year—I guess that’s sort of the point of this blog, to explain what we do on the other days." 

This year may make the "what do you do the other 364 days?" a relevant question.

At the very least, I think we should get some sort of Six Sigma award for taking weeks out of the election preparation cycle.

How'd we do it?  We've spend almost a month awaiting a final candidate list following the last-second withdrawal of a candidate, a Kansas Supreme Court case, and district court case that may be resolved today.

It brings up, though, a question we've been asked frequently--how much time do you need to print ballots?

Now, I'm not sure that anyone has actually made decisions that sync with our answer, but it brings up more a need for a brief primer on what "print ballots" means.

First, ballots are customized to a voter's specific candidates and those candidate lists in various races are rotated.  We have nearly 500 precincts in Johnson County and about twice as many ballot styles in this election.

There isn't one ballot for all voters.

That seems like common sense, but with questions last week about why we sent overseas ballots when we did, the answer begins and ends with "time to prepare the ballot," not time to print.

Those ballots, by the way, look like ballots.  They have hashtags on the sides and all, but they can't be scanned.  They will have to be hand-counted.  On the overseas and military side (by the way, military gets the attention but about 90 percent of our overseas ballots are non-military), it's as though we created an entirely separate election, with unique ballots, that coincidentally have the same races as our real election.

Those overseas ballots were four pages long.  Our "real" ballots will be 8 1/2 by 18 inches, front and back.  We broke up the overseas ballots in case they were faxed back.  Our fax machine could handle the longer paper, but we don't know for sure that the overseas voters' can.

Plus, fax machines don't send back ballots in a duplex manner.  If we only got a partial ballot back, it's possible that we'd never be able to contact the voter to let him or her know.

Those ballots, often emailed, included other attachments customized to the voter.  Emailing our ballots was literally a full-day effort and we like to leave ourselves some cushion (at least a day) to ensure we met deadlines in case there were any technical issues.  Murphy's Law has come into play several times on election day, knocking out Internet service, for instance.

Anyway, back to the "real" ballots.

Printing ballots implies that an election has been set up and a ballot is created.  I've explained what it will look like on paper, but it has to have the same programming on our touch-screen voting machines.

We will have 1,400 of those in this election and can't begin to create the cards for each machine until the ballot is finalized.  Then, we have to manually test each machine's logic and accuracy by going through a laborious voting routine and comparing the results against an expected outcome.

The downloading process usually takes at least two days and the testing--with 20 people--about 3 weeks.

This is a bigger deal than printing ballots, although that's no gimmee.  But we begin delivering voting machines and equipment to our advance voting sites next week.

On the paper side, we are frantically entering advance-by-mail applications and likely will be sending out about 20,000 ballots on Oct. 15.

Our ballots are so complex that after a competitive bid process, the only local printer that could meet our requirements (the largest in Kansas City) pulled out after one attempt.  I've never seen a company of that size, in any industry, say business was too hard, but I do respect that they told us before they let us down later.

So, all of our ballots are actually printed out-of-state, and our ballot orders usually are placed in early September.   Earlier this year, we made the decision to print our own advance-by-mail ballots and provisional ballots at our advance voting sites with ballot-on-demand printers.  So, we're only ordering our provisional ballots for the polls out-of-state.

Of course, those haven't been ordered yet and we're competing with many other offices for runtime in a November cycle, so we likely won't get the ballots back until the week before the election.  That leaves no margin for error in proofing or delivery.

In fact, the whole process leaves no margin for error.  Strike that--it invites errors, going over the margins.  The fact that election administrators here are moving along with Plan S at this point is a testament to resolve.

Speaking of errors, we have to proof all of these various ballots and the audio that goes for each with ballots for those who are blind.  We're busily proofing everything, waiting for the final word.

When we do print advance ballots, we'll print the envelopes at the same time, with a different printer.  We'll apply postage at that time--or hopefully, anyway.

Our biggest obstacle right now--as it often is--isn't these formidable outside forces, but the internal processes at our county.  We weren't adequately funded for this election, as evidenced by the fact that our postage needs at the front-end here have already "failed funds," which is our county's way of saying "out of budget."

Maybe someone knew we wouldn't be spending in September. 

In any event, we hope today to get some word on "printing" ballots (as in, starting the entire work of the election), and our attention will quickly turn to mailing them.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014 0 comments

Happy Voter Registration Day!

It's National Voter Registration Day.

The Board of County Commissioners issued a proclamation last Thursday and we had a nice time showcasing the efforts of the League of Women Voters (who pushed for the proclamation).

Beyond that, as an administrator, I'm not sure what the "day" really does except gives us a topic.  Like a sales person with a new product, National Voter Registration Day gives us a new reason to promote voter participation. 

Last night, the Lenexa Masonic Lodge hosted me and 5 of our staff members for dinner.  I spoke briefly about National Voter Registration Day but also used that moment to recruit election workers. 

The Lodge actually is part of our Adopt a Polling Place program, where members work and give their earnings as a fund-raiser to their organization.  They are building college scholarship programs with the earnings.

The program is such a win-win.  We need election workers, and this is a very efficient fund-raising concept.  The Good Shepherd Knights of Columbus has pretty much adopted two places with about a dozen members working.

I'm biased, but I think it sure beats working a concession stand at the Chiefs game, in dollars, patriotism, and workload (I said workload, not stressload).   Plus, there's never Tuesday Night Football, which means election workers don't miss a key game by working.

One of the Best Practice Awards at the recent Election Center conference was a program with the this same theme, focused on getting companies to participate.  The clever twist from that program was that the election office helped companies with an election of some sort (like the mock elections we do for kids, but with adults, asking them, for instance, their preference for a company promotion or advertisement).  This got the adults engaged as potential workers.  It's a concept we plan to---wait for it---adopt ourselves.

It was in Franklin County, Ohio.  Here was their booth that presented the award:

Friday, September 19, 2014 2 comments

The Ballot, the Complete Ballot, and Nothing But the Ballot

While the last post spoke of the elephant in the room, the true elephant in the blog, of course, is the issue surrounding the Democratic candidate for US Senate.

Look elsewhere for any political thoughts, but the aspect of what this does as we prepare to administer the election is something I've been asked frequently over the past week.

We have a candidate who requested to be removed from the ballot in early September and discussion that went all the way to the Kansas Supreme Court to determine what would happen.

From dinner, an hour after the Supreme Court announcement.
If only I had the cookie on Tuesday.
The hearing was about an hour long on Tuesday morning and both sides (for removal, anti-removal) espoused that this was a simple issue.  So, selfishly, I wouldn't have minded getting the Supreme Court decision, say, that day.  Maybe Wednesday.  Instead, it came late yesterday just as we were cresting upon the deadline to send out military ballots.

That deadline to send military ballots has been portrayed in the media as the deadline to begin sending ballots.  It's actually the deadline to have sent all military ballots and new requests can be filled on an on-going basis.

The Department of Justice takes the 45-day deadline very seriously, and so do we.  In fact, that 45-day deadline falls on a Saturday so we've assumed the deadline is the Friday before.

So, you may see why a decision at 4:30 on the Thursday before this Friday is kind of an issue.

Now, thankfully (?), we only have have about 75 voters in this bucket right now.  By comparison, we had 1,500 military and overseas voters in 2008.  Some of the reduction can be attributed to less overseas military involvement and the type of election year (2008 was a presidential, and an historic one at that).

Still, that's a pretty big drop.  A federal law a few years ago required military voters to re-up their registration each year instead of it lasting for two years.

I've always questioned the motive for this.  It reduced the number of ballots that were undeliverable, so that's good.  But by reducing the undeliverable ballots, the overall number issued in any election dropped as well.  Assuming the same number of voters returned the ballots, the return percentage against those issued improved and there are people in jobs where their performance is based upon that return percentage.

In a trade-off for a higher return percentage number (same number returning, just a better percentage), military and overseas voters have to register more frequently, and that's a hassle.  My theory from 30,000 feet is that this law's requirement actually has reduced voter participation by military and overseas citizens.

Nonetheless, we have about 75.   Mind you, that's 75 full ballots with more than just the US Senate race.

That's 75 four-page ballots unique to each voter.  In order to have them optically scanned, we typically send the voters actual ballots, but when our actual ballots aren't ready to print, we have to send homemade unique ballots that later will be hand counted.   With about 20 items for voting per ballot, and 75 ballots, that's a lot of hands across the water.

That doesn't begin to address the fact that soon we will have to mail about 30,000 advance ballots, in less than a month, October 15.  We're usually getting our ballots back from the printer by now, not wondering when we'll send them to the printer.  This October 15 date also is a fixed deadline by statute, not a beginning day, but an actually day.  We will be toddling down to the post office that day with 30,000 envelopes that we hope contain the final ballot.

The good news here is that decision we made to print our own ballots for advance by mail.  Operationally, had we not done that, there would be no blog post today.  I couldn't type.  We'd be totally paralyzed.

There are formulas that can be used to consider the payback of ballot-on-demand printer purchases.  We chose to only go down this path if it made sense operationally, and that's an obvious prove-in now.

Economically, though, they have paid for themselves simply because of the cost we would have had to expedite printing of these ballots.  Go figure.  I just did.

Beyond the obvious issues stated, this is just life in elections.  We sent ballots out by email to meet the Department of Justice deadline with the caveat that that there was litigation afoot and to please not vote the ballots and return them until we checked in again on Monday.  We'll now be checking in today, saying corrected new ballots will be on their way once this issue is completely resolved and to disregard the initial mailing.

We're expecting that resolution to be a week from today.  It often feels like we'll be working on a ballot some day AFTER the election.  I'm hoping that continues to be a ridiculous thought.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014 0 comments

You Get a Car! You Get a Car!

It's been quite a while between posts and that is a fallout from many, many moving pieces we're chasing right now.

The moving pieces bring up a political thought, not in the purest political sense but closer than others this blog has addressed.  I'll explain.

First, it may seem all non-Election Commissionery and all, but I like to watch Family Guy.  Maybe it's because the dog is named Brian. 

In any event, there is an episode where the characters play out the movie Star Wars.

Stewie, as Darth Vader, gets a briefing on security and learns of a tiny vulnerability in the Death Star, where if a missile entered this area at just the right trajectory (a 0.01 chance of happening, he's told), the entire planet-sized ship would explode.

"I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't ask," Stewie says, "but what's the 0.01?  That sounds like a pretty big design flaw.  Can't we board it up or, you know, put some plywood there?"

I don't observe anything as dramatic as destruction of an entire ecosystem, but I do think we are going through something that I feel like I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't raise.

It's not really a problem.  I wouldn't even call it an issue.  For us, it's life, but it is a dynamic that deserves awareness.

The trigger for this is the simple fact that we have seven elections in the next four months.  Six were unscheduled.

We have the big one that everyone knows about on November 4.  Then, five school districts will each have mail-ballot question elections on the same day in January.  This, essentially, will be a full-county election, in five pieces, and is the source of many moving pieces, mostly in my mind.  The elections carry equal parts excitement and panic, but I expect excitement will prevail.

Those elections were prompted by state legislation that allowed the schools to modify their budget formulas, but the elections were required to be mail-ballot elections.  Mail-ballots may have been the best method for the schools, but making them special elections shifts the cost from a pile-on to an existing county election, where there would be no cost, to an expense of nearly a million dollars.

This is the rub (and not yet the "political" part of this post).  Elections cost a lot of money because we have a lot of people in the county.

If Oprah Winfrey drew a winner from her audience and that winner got a new car, that would be expensive--a $25,000 prize.

But when Oprah gives one to everyone--"You get a car, and you get a car, and you get a car," the overall cost balloons.  It's just math.

So, an election that costs about $3 per voter reflects 21st century costs of paper, envelopes, postage, and persons to scan the ballots.  But, if you turn to 375,000 people and say, "You get a ballot, and you get a ballot, and you get a ballot..." the overall cost balloons.

Math, it turns out, works the same in elections as it does with Oprah.

There can be debate whether an election should be a stand-alone, or added to an existing one, and that's really the area of awareness that should be raised.

But the idea that elections are expensive?  Of course they are, because there are a lot of people involved.

(We've been looking at some old budgets and realized that our 2014 county expenses for elections will be the same as 1999's.  Office expenses aren't the driver in election costs--the number of participants are).

It links to my ongoing belief that the cost of elections in Johnson County should be itemized on the property tax bill, as allowed by Kansas law and done in other large counties in the state.  Such itemizing would cause some to be concerned about how little is spent on elections, some will be concerned with how much is spent, and this overall transparency and discussion, in my view, is government goodness.

As we go to the Board of County Commissioners for money related to these elections (with much of the cost later reimbursed by the jurisdictions), I'm sure the overall cost of the elections will surprise some.

Back off the overall cost--a function of the number of voters--and question, more, this:  should something be done to limit special elections?

This isn't a question related to the school districts, except that it might drive more discussion on moving spring elections in odd years to the fall of odd years, obtaining a school holiday to use the schools as polling places, and, perhaps, having a more timely way for jurisdictions to utilize scheduled elections in the future rather than conduct special elections.

But we just found out that we needed to add into the mix of our November, then January (and the March and April) elections a special election in Roeland Park.

Roeland Park has a city council vacancy and is the only city in the county that fills these vacancies with special elections.  This will be the second election of this type in Roeland Park this year and the fifth special election in my 10 years because someone has not fulfilled the full term in office.

We have that election in December now, completing the Election of the Month trajectory.  It gets in the way, operationally, as we prepare for the school district mail-ballots and will cost the city about $5,000.

The alternative--and this finally leads to the political thought--would be the city council or the mayor appointing a replacement until the next election.  Many cities do this.

Personally, I'm not a fan of that, and not because I'm on some business development bender at the election office.  I just think that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people should be selected by, well, the people.

I also left my position early while on Shawnee's City Council when I was appointed election commissioner.  I didn't have to, but I thought it would eliminate any potential conflict of interest.

Point is, I'm not judging anyone for not fulfilling their term.  And, there's a large part of me that thinks that Roeland Park has it right, so there's no judgment there, either.

But, like Stewie, I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't point this out.  When people wonder what election administrators do on the other 364 days when there isn't an election, they are usually surprised to find that we average an election about every two months and that more than half of our elections are unscheduled, special elections.

But the conversation stops there.  The cost of the elections is the elephant in the room.

Better yet, the cost of the elections is the flea in the room, hardly noticeable when there is one but difficult to ignore when there are nearly 400,000 in the room.

The issue here is that there are nearly 400,000 voters in our county, several jurisdictions, and probably a better and more economical way to make the government for the people more affordable to the people.

Not the same elephant/flea
concept in elections that is
discussed in this book, but
you try and find a royalty-free
Star Wars or Family Guy image!
(Besides, this book is a good read).
Maybe we should have quarterly, countywide scheduled elections and if something misses, it must wait.  Or, maybe two of those would be mail-only and the parameters of the state's mail-ballot elections would change (currently, mail-ballots can only be for issues, not people).

It's time for a broad and thoughtful discussion of this, with the overall community, not just among election administrators.

Part of election geekery, in fact, is the discussion of, "Is there a better way?"

Is there a better way, for instance, to present items on the ballot?  Is there a better way to get the word out?  Is there a better way to streamline the voter experience?

These are questions we consider for fun.

This one requires a larger net, partnering with legislators, and engaging cities and voters.

The county clerks in Kansas have created a mail-ballot election task force and I'm co-chairing it, although you wouldn't know it because we haven't met yet.  Why?  Because we have so many elections; we're all too busy.

When we do meet, I plan to expand the scope of our thinking to cover these aspects.

In the meantime, the Election of the Month Club awaits!

Friday, September 5, 2014 0 comments

The Leftovers

It would be nice if our next-generation voting system plans could be bundled into a tidy blog post.

Our system will be at least 15 years old before something new is put to use, and the emphasis is on "at least."

Quotes for replacement fall between $8.5 and $13 million.  That's before a competitive bid process but also assumes today's number of voters, polling locations, and advance voting sites.  We expect a significant cost to dispose of our existing system as well; training, for us and for our workers, will come at an extra price.

There's also the small matter that nothing out there today rocks our world.  Federal and state certification are required for any voting system, although we plan to consider systems that aren't certified, yet potentially capable of being certified.

There--I suppose that what you've just read actually could be the tidy blog post that explains our plans, or at least an assessment of our situation.  What follows is a bit of a free-for-all consciousness stream that begins to address what we're doing.

It's the first of a series.

However, much like the episodes of HBO's "The Leftovers," the author of this episode has put absolutely no thought into what might transpire in the next episode.

Well, that's extreme.  Let's just say that this post will focus on money and the process.  The next post will continue with the process and speak to what we might actually do.  (There may be a post in between that's unrelated because we are in the middle of an election, after all).

Let's start with funding:

My predecessor pushed for the creation of a voting equipment replacement fund.  It was a great idea and one successfully emulated in Douglas County and in a few other communities.

The concept was (expensive but) simple--sock away about $400,000 a year into that fund and 15 years later, we'd be $6 million closer to a new system.  That's real money.

I think we could indeed buy a system for $6 million.

For that matter, I think we could buy a system for any amount we wanted to pay, including nothing.    With no money set aside for purchases, many communities will be looking to lease systems or sign huge term and supply agreements in order to pay for the system.

It will be like walking the beaches of Mexico, hearing from vendors that something is "Nearly Free," but nearly free will be nearly unaffordable on an ongoing basis.

In essence, anything other than paying for the system up-front involves borrowing, whether in the form of the bonds or in the form of debt servicing through a vendor.  Leases and the "fax machine model" I just described (equipment is cheap, toner is not) are nothing more than adding finance charges to a purchase.

Oh.  That introduces a project value.  I'm fond of project values, those things by which we will measure our ultimate success against.  Here is our first project value.

I hate to pay interest in my personal life, so why would I want the county to do so?  At the very least, I think financing through a vendor would be a sneaky way of looking heroic on the front end, not so much later.  Surely, we can plan to avoid such a pricing model.

On the other hand, there is no way the county will be able to purchase equipment without issuing debt or raising taxes (considerably).  Budget cuts theoretically could be made, but the number is really too large to make that feasible.

Even issuing debt, which the county did with the current system, will result in a tax increase or major cuts.  Dividing the cost so that even just a million dollars is added to the annual debt level (by dividing the cost over a period of useful life years) would result in a tax increase.

Doubters need look no further than the county's 2015 budget proceedings to see how steadfast the Board of County Commissioners are against raising the mill levy and how even a half-million dollar expense would cause the mill levy to increase.

No matter you, say, because we have that equipment replacement fund!

That equipment replacement fund?  It's at around $800,000.

We've purchased new voting machines to augment the current fleet with that funding and shelves to store the machines in the warehouse.  Some money was also used to revamp the electrical work in the warehouse to power the machines.

Oh, and the county stopped putting the money aside, stashing that $400,000 for the last time in 2011.  The argument was that the fund wouldn't be enough to fully pay for a new system, anyway.  Besides, we were told, because we definitively couldn't specify in 2011 the system we'd buy years later, what's the point of saving?

That's blog water under the bridge at this point.

During our budget presentation, videotaped for God and the three people who might actually later watch it to see, I pushed for action on the voting system.  The drift had to stop.

The Board of County Commissioners agreed and instructed me to come back with a system selected and they would fund it.

Pick a system, and we'll fund it.  That's actually consistent with the Kansas statutes, so I like that, but I didn't just fall off the Touchscreen Truck yesterday.  Where's that money coming from?

While others ask, "Why," some ask, "Why not?"    In this case, I asked, "How?"

Not to worry, I was told.  The money will be there.

So, I won't worry.

I don't think the money will be there, but I'm not worried about it.

I guess that's a win.

When we have to buy a system, as in "when our touchscreens stop responding to touch" and the reality that we only have four little scanners back at the ranch sinks in, the money will be there.  That's when it would be a crisis, when taxes would have to be raised, and when I will be showing videos of all of the times I raised warning signs to God and those same three people who watched the initial video.

We obviously will have a voting method for as long as the county exists.  The method will be taxpayer funded (or sponsored, I guess, but that would be odd).  So, technically, the money WILL be there.

Will it be in 2017 when I'm proposing we pull off the switcheroo, before machine failure but just as the fleet is undergoing the equivalent of angioplasty?  For now, I'm told yes.

I explained that I would like to fund a process consultant from a portion of the voting equipment replacement fund to begin pushing a roadmap I've developed.  That roadmap (Project Ted) will create requirements against which vendors will propose.  The solutions can be certified, non-certified, and "anything out there" solutions, such as my "Bring Your Own Voting Machine" concept.

We'll build in adequate time for proposals to be developed and to be reviewed.  If we like one that isn't certified, we'll take it at that point to the Secretary of State.  If the Secretary of State would certify such a solution if we purchased it, we'll go down that path.

If not, it's off the list.

In government, this is akin to changing local zoning.  For instance, let's say an area is zoned rural but  a department store applies to locate in that area.  But, it's already zoned rural, you say.

Yes, but that zoning was based on specific factors.  Now, rather than hypothetically wondering if it should be rural, there is a concrete proposal (literally) in hand to evaluate.  The zoning board and city council can reflect on the potential change with a real-life example.

It's not hypothetical at that point, and the ruling may be different based on the application.

That's what we'd do here.  We can talk about conceptual systems and the potential for those systems to be certified.  Instead, here, we'll wait until we have a very specific proposal before evaluating the benefits of certification.

This way, we'll wonder if system ABC should be or could be certified, as opposed to some "Riddle me this..." approach.

All of this process is expected to take nearly two years, or "plenty of time for everyone to forget what we agreed upon."

Thank you, again, hardly watched video of the meeting.

Also, though, such a timeline begs for us to look at the solution in phases, creating bites towards conversion.  That's where our process will go, framing what we plan to do in chunks, with small but relatively expensive milestones that take us to the finished system.

Phase One will be the development of a new election management system and the rollout of electronic poll books.  These items will provide the foundation of interface with Phase Two, the new voting system.

In a perfect world, if we have money, the existing machines will roll out for a countywide election in April 2017 and never return.  The warehouse will be gussied, and a new system will be utilized in the spring of 2018.

There may be no such thing as a perfect election and, thus, a perfect world is equally elusive, but that's the plan, with the process further defined in the next post.

In the meantime, I'm going to a meeting early next week to talk with smart people who are undertaking a similar path, a bit ahead of us (LA County and Travis County) and others, such as PEW Charitable Trusts' Election Initiatives group.

I bring them up, further, because they have a couple of job postings and in those postings I read something I hadn't before.  Maybe they've been staring at me in different documents and I missed them, but they generally reflect some of the discussions election administrators have been discussing.

They reflect the discussions so much, in fact, that I've decided to embrace them (steal them) as my own, adding to my project values for this overall project.  They are simple statements, really, but very profound:

  1. Building an election system that reflects the way people live.
  2. Putting voters in charge of their own voter experience.
By the time we roll out our new system, I will have convinced myself that I came up with these two statements.  

Sadly, that darn permanent record gives and it takes.  These are great values, though, and ones addressed in the next post.