Tuesday, January 28, 2014 0 comments

Chronicles of Yarnia, Part One

It's been a long while since I've posted and today is an election day in parts of the country, so "chop, chop," on with the post!

I've been busy, but I've been actually working on this post for several days.  You'll see that I came to the conclusion to pare it down, which explains some of  the delay.

Also, though, I realized some conclusions I drew related to the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) bothered me.  In fact, at first, I put the post on pause to ponder a different way of speaking to some of the points, thinking I was too harsh.

Then, I realized that this was a case, indeed, of  the proverbial "harsh reality." Reality was being harsh, not me.  I feel like the EAC's future is an even larger elephant in the room than it was a year ago.

Okay, so now (really) on with the post!

With the release of the report by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, I've been following the media coverage, primarily to evaluate the play this report received, which was just as important to me as the evaluation of the findings.

The report was covered as front page news in USA Today, and that's huge.  Thousands of business travelers open their hotel room doors to that paper each day, and even before fumbling for "Sports" or "Life" (I think I'm the only person who reads the "Money" section--I'm a sucker for tech reviews), hotel guests might have caught a glance of the article.

Anything that gets people to think about elections in January, even for a brief second when passing over the headlines, is good.  The President likely will mention the Commission and report tonight during the State of the Union Address, in fact, and that might spur a little more coverage.

For me, the report contained a mild surprise, and I'll speak to that, but there were no disappointments with the findings.  My only disappointment is the one I realized this past July when meeting with the Commissioners and documented in a post then--namely, the persons who control funding for election administration (usually county officials, but also state and federal legislators in some cases) won't realize or care that the Commission is talking to them.

They won't be the only ones.

One of the write-ups in the media, for instance, said that a major finding was that local election officials should do a better job of enforcing federal election laws.  What?!  I missed that I could enforce federal election laws.  I wonder if I can enforce local speed limits and zoning regulations also.

Point is, if the take among some media outlets is any indication, I think it will be very easy for many in government to skim the report and assume it is filled solely with prescriptions for election administrators.

As an election administrator, I'm thrilled with the findings and recommendations, but I've sat in many of the discussions with the Commission and watched the videos of those meetings I missed.  The report often reflects what me and my colleagues have been saying for years, but now those concerns are in a very good, crisp report with recommendations.

How the report gets used, though, remains to be seen.

Here, I've thought about the kind of review I'd give the report, and I think it's most appropriate to stay within the purpose of the blog, which is to write about the "behind the scenes" aspects of election administration. 

What I think would be best is to link the findings with actual experiences and plans here on the ground.  The context of any review, then, will be within the framework of how the recommendations affect our office and our voters in Johnson County.  

There's no short way to do that. 

At first, just like a post last week, I was ready to advise you, dear reader, to amp up the caffeine as I headed for Yarnsville.  (Interesting fact, Yarnsville is, indeed, its own city and is nestled among four other bordering cities: Yarsnberg, Yarn City, Yarntopia, and Yarnia).

Then, I started typing.  It became evident quickly that these yarns would have to be contained in a series of blog posts.  Instead, this post will just be the outline of where I'm headed and my first and only general post about the study.

As I knock the topics off, we will have some other things going on--a spring primary, new building security, and some updates on provisional ballots--so I don't know that the Presidential Commission posts will be uninterrupted, but those posts will be a running series for sure.

As the intro, then, broadly, here were my two surprises: one with the report and one with coverage.
First, I really thought the report would put a stake in the ground on the need for the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to be fully staffed with four Commissioners.  There are no Commissioners right now and the EAC's future seems more uncertain now that we have this report, if that is even possible.

There are many ways to analyze this, but in retrospect this shouldn't have been surprising at all.  If the EAC was a player, the EAC would have been tasked with this election administration study in the first place.  It's a Commission that was created to improve the voter experience, in federal legislation signed by a United States president.

Tonight, for instance, I doubt President Obama will identify some issues that could be delegated to existing agencies and, instead, rattle off the formation of commissions to address the issues.  He likely will announce some studies and commissions of some sort, but the EAC is a narrowly focused agency, with one job, really--to improve the voting experience.  The EAC would have been the obvious "go to" agency for this, and I assumed that the EAC wasn't chosen simply because it lacked Commissioners.

Likely, many more astute individuals better connected the dots a year ago.  I think I was too deep in the weeds, from an election administration perspective, to see the dynamics.  A common topic among administrators has been the filling of Commissioners, a topic that I think blinded me to the big picture even though I thought I was seeing the big picture.

"Now I Am A Was" by Morrissey
has been playing in my head
since the release of the report.
In fact, doing a word search in the report for "Election Assistance Commission" only reveals one mention before the end notes.  "EAC" is used more often, but always in descriptors of what has been done, not what it can do in the future.

I know there are some logical reasons to think differently, but I think it's pretty clear that the EAC is now a "was."

Like many, I've been critical of the EAC's voting system certification process. The Commission report wasn't necessarily critical of this process, but it did explain that others were critical.

That's only one piece of the EAC, though, and by all accounts from vendors, that process has improved.  In fact, there are a lot of good people doing good work at the EAC, particularly in the area of best practices.  I have friends at the EAC, and they are working hard on our behalf.

If this were a business environment, the agency would be ripe for a takeover, where assets could be obtained on the cheap and be reconstituted into a more powerful machine.  As it is, it feels unfair to all involved to neither invest in nor wind down the EAC.

Another surprise, not of the study, but of the coverage, was the constant media message that the report didn't address voter identification at the polls.  I never saw this "in scope," and, in fact, much like the EAC in retrospect, it was almost intentionally out of scope.

In all of the meetings and hearings, I didn't remember voter identification, or even proof of citizenship, as hot-button themes.  They were brought up by some groups, of course, but they weren't a running theme of the hearings.  So, it just seemed odd to me that this was the first place many in the media went to.

In terms of the actual discussion and recommendations, here are the areas for future posts:

  1. Schools as Polling Places and "Election Holiday" (My name is buried in the end notes regarding this item and I'm glad, because it was the issue I was constantly pushing when I was in meetings with the Commission.  The window to push hard for this is open, and I'll blog about this soon).
  2. Resources (Mentioned early in the report, but likely the last of these areas, chronologically, that I'll address).
  3. Technology (Often addressed in this blog and will be linked as we prepare for the capital budget).
  4. Definition of Long Lines (I've been reluctant to answer "what's an acceptable line?" and here, it's been answered.  I have several thoughts about what that might mean for Johnson County).
  5. Enforcement of "Motor Voter" Law (No, I can't enforce this, but this is a huge issue for us--and others--and I'm glad it's in the report.  It's another thing I've mentioned on this site, but this is another opportunity to address it).
  6. Election Workers and Persons With Disabilities (My new cause isn't related to voters with disabilities, but workers with disabilities.  I think we should be actively recruiting persons with disabilities to work at the polls and I'll explain why in a future post).
  7. Election Management Tools (I played with some of those on the Commission's site and they are a good start.  The tools need to be refined when evaluating some real-world data, and I'll trial the tools here.  But, this is the most revolutionary and potentially impactful item in this effort--management tools that help model turnout and resources.  Brilliant!).
  8. Professionalism in Election Administration (The report is spot on here, but not just with the main administrators in communities).
So, there you have it--many upcoming yarns, courtesy of topics raised in this report.  A big theme in the report centered around variations of electronic voter registration, online and otherwise, and that likely will be included among a few of the posts above. 

That's not to say that many of the other topics in the report aren't important or relevant in Johnson County.  It's just that these eight topics will be the ones I plan to paint against the actual work being done here.

For now, I'm exiting Yarnsville, but soon to return.

Saturday, January 18, 2014 0 comments

The Election of Things

As is the case every January, the beginning of the year hits fast.

The Election Center's legislative kick-off in Washington, D.C., pulls in legislative staffers as the session begins so election administrators can focus on bills and other activity impacting elections.  I just came back from that meeting and it was nice, for a change, not to be begging legislators to slow their roll.

The meetings historically have provided economic returns.

In fact, this conference and the related relationships built with other attendees literally saved our county $2 million in 2008.  

Back then, Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trails (VVPATs) were all the rage.  Legislation requiring them was a near certainty.

VVPATs are paper printouts of voters' selections.  The printout stays on a roll with the machine but theoretically is available for post-election audits.  That's if the printer doesn't jam or have any other mechanical issues, and the first generation of these VVPAT devices had issues a'plenty.

Our voting machines were built before VVPATs were invented, and legislation requiring VVPATs, introduced by U.S. Representative Rush Holt, had great steam in Congress back then. To retrofit our machines with this technology, our county would have experienced a cost of about $1,000 per machine.

We had no philosophical issue with VVPATs, other than the mechanical bugs, but this was the proverbial unfunded mandate.  We can't even get $100,000 to replace a 20-year-old election management system, so a mandatory $2-million expense would have put our elections office forever in the budget pokey.

A key player then at NACO and now lighting it up as an election administrator in Maryland, Alysoun McLaughlin, was a big ally then.  She bridged discussions, organized meetings, and worked with me to engage our local Kansas congressional representative, Dennis Moore, at the time.

Frankly, I'm not sure he fully saw the economic hurt that was about to be placed upon us, but one of his staffers, Glen Sears, took this on as a mission.  Glen was the real financial (and unsung) hero to our voters.

In fact, in my Sprint days, we used to say that our lobbyists did more for our profitability than anyone in the company.  And, no one knew! (Well, except those of us that used to say that, of course, which was pretty much me and the occasional person who came into my office).

Similarly, this was one of the greatest budget saving-feats of my election commissioner tenure, well known among my peeps in the industry but not so much outside of that circle.

Such victories won't come out of this year's conference, or even be needed, but it was still good to connect with colleagues on potential issues.  

This year was one of only two I can remember since 2005 where there wasn't a legislative fire.  There are some things brewing, particularly around a bill that more formalizes Department of Justice procedures with military voting.  

Further, we're all lining up to get the report prepared by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, expected before the end of the month.  There's some belief that it may trigger legislative activity, federally and in states, that might raise in urgency by this time next year.

With no Washington crisis,  my mind wandered during my plane trips to where it often goes during the same week each year--Las Vegas.

I'm not much of a Vegas guy, but at Sprint, the first week of January marked the Consumer Electronics Show.  That was the thing for us in those days.  Now, my thing in early January is this legislative conference.

I wondered, though, if more things this year were happening at the show in Las Vegas that will impact elections than activity in Washington.  

(That sentence, by the way, felt very odd to type, more so than it may have been to read.  Elections, by its nature, is a legislative arena.)

I'm convinced that smartphones and tablets will have a role in voting, maybe even as conduits to online voting.  Wearable devices--today's version of what Twitter was a few years ago (laughed at then, now vital at times)--might have a place, too.  

And what of 3D printing?  Could some election supplies actually be manufactured by us?

The Internet of Things--smart devices, connected automobiles, remote control of security, and connected televisions--may seem like it has little to do with elections today, but it might very soon.  Heck, people someday may vote through their television, connected in some secure way to a server (I know that's stinkin' thinkin', but possible).

Beyond the cool factor of these and other products announced last week, my interest is in the risk they might provide to election officials.  In order to look out for the voter, we must take a jaundiced eye at new technologies, reversing the conventional saying to, "You see an opportunity, I see a problem."

For instance, I've spent considerable energy socializing the idea of "Bring Your Own Voting Machine," where users could vote on their own smartphones and other devices at the polls.  Going down such a path could be torpedoed by a new technology.

Such a new technology might be iBeacon, which Apple uses in its stores to track where visitors go, sending them an offer, as an example, when they walk up to the display of phone cases.  Creepy and cool, this technology could be malicious, perhaps, in a polling place.

In fact, I started thinking of all the unfounded objections we've addressed over the years with touch-screen voting machines:  that they are controlled by a manufacturer in Ohio, that they can flip votes, or that they can be hacked wirelessly (when there is no wireless connectivity included).

New technology will invite a new series of objections.  I can already expect that there would be concerns that others can identify how someone voted, if they voted with a smart device, because some rogue signal could capture what was on the phone.

Face it, as Americans, we're not exactly in an environment right now where we're certain of our privacy, so any concerns, even if unfounded, are rational.

Beyond the growth in new products and technologies, the number of companies to watch grows.

Google, Microsoft, and Apple don't even present at this show, anymore, and it's still a huge deal.  Yahoo and Samsung benefited by getting more mindshare, as did cellular companies.  

Voters, as consumers, intersect their relationships with these companies and devices with every other aspect of their lives.  As technology is adopted in their car, at home, or at work, their perception of technology when voting has to be impacted as well.  Our voting machines look like the old Fisher Price toy telephones compared to what voters use in other worlds.

Further, it's not like government is a technology laggard.  In Johnson County, residents can queue up their place in line to get new automobile tags online, getting a text message when it's time to bop down to the office.  Parking meters often don't take money anymore and some use Near Field Communications for payment by cellphone.  Police deliver parking tickets with handheld devices that print the ticket, much like Hertz uses when checking in a rental car.

You don't see that same innovation in election offices.  It's not for trying; it's a budget priority thing.  Election modernization is way behind other parts of government.

This isn't news.  The 2000 presidential election was made famous by punch card ballots.  Was there even another industry or part of government that used punch cards for anything then?  The last time I used a punch card was to pick my selections for the 1972 Major League Baseball All-Star game.

And, with all the talk of next generation voting systems, not one community has made a decision on what that next system will be.  Not one.  

Complexity and uncertainty are two big reasons why, but available funding is another.

There are many communities marching down a process (we're one) with a defined philosophical view of what that next system might be, but I'm struggling more and more to fight off the notion to use our Tinker Toy voting machines until the bitter end.  There are many of them still available to purchase, and they work.

One thing we've learned over the years with our current system is that there's no glory in being the first.  Often, as the first to have touch-screen voting machines at polling places and the first to have new software versions, we ran into issues that were unknown, even to the vendor.  

In 2008, for instance, a new version of the tabulation software required that we manually go through and check the uploading of results, machine-by-machine, after tabulation to ensure that some votes weren't retained in a bucket called "challenged" ballots (the machines are capable of processing provisional ballots, something we do on paper instead).  

Every once in a while, when encoding the ballot card, an election worker accidentally grazes a finger by this new "challenged" box, putting the vote in a different place.  That cross-check process adds about 10 minutes now to our election night tabulation, but the first time we encountered that change, the time seemed like 100 minutes.  I received two calls during the cross-checks from our Board of County Commissioner chair at the time asking if it was soup yet.

Point is, my view when considering threats to voting is that I want to know if there is a vulnerability before some smart professor or group of graduate students find one.  This crazy Internet of Things prism, and all the promise and problems that come with it, likely will eventually lead to new first-mover discoveries.  And they won't all be good.

Some day, I expect that we will see a likely-to-pass bill tee'd up while at the Election Center legislative conference that addresses consumer technology, positively or negatively, upon elections.  It's inevitable, really.

Also inevitable, I think, is some sort of election technology meltdown in the 2020 presidential election.  By then, some communities will be using new technology for the first time in a presidential election.

Others will be trying to crank up the old Chevy for one more election.  The potential for unknown and known problems seems high.  

You may not find odds of this occurring at Vegas, but the products unveiled this year may be involved.
Friday, January 3, 2014 0 comments

Two Lines Are Better Than One

With some degree of irony, at least to election geeks, some academics in late 2012 published a paper analyzing the effect of lines on customer purchases.

It was published November 6, 2012, in fact--the same day as the 2012 presidential election and just hours before Barack Obama's acceptance speech addressed the long lines of people in Florida waiting to vote.

"We have to fix that," he said of the lines.

Very soon, this month, a report will be issued by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration to detail findings and recommendations related to lines at polling places on November 6, 2012.

I'm not sure if the Commission had access to this study.  I just became aware of it when it was referenced in the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review.

The study noted buying behavior related to lines, not voting behavior.  Still, one fair expectation of the Commission report will be a nod to other industries that are impacted with the queueing of people in lines.  One Commission member is, after all, an executive at Disney, and Disney manages lines at its theme parks with precision.

The paper acknowledges the primary issue that longer lines occur when there is higher volume of visitors, such as the deli customers the study measured.  It's also clear when reading the study--as if it weren't already--that there is no magical best practice to eliminate lines.

Well, almost--we can take steps to ensure we are not our own worst enemy.  In Johnson County, on November 6, we had two polling places that had excessive lines during the rush of the morning.

The phrase "excessive lines," or even the term "line" has received considerable scrutiny since the Commission was formed.  As an election administrator, I've sidestepped--copped out, maybe--from defining what I consider "an acceptable line."  I think our goal should be no lines, even if that isn't possible.

Here, though, are photos from the site with the worst line that morning, at about 7:30 a.m.

Could this line have been prevented?  Absolutely.

The root cause?  Our supervising judge was looking for some key opening materials, in her suitcase, but she couldn't find them.

As instructed, she immediately called our office at the first sign of trouble.

The call went unanswered.  All calls, in fact, to our office until 20 minutes after the polls opened, 6:20, that morning went unanswered.

That's because all of the calls to our office had been routed to the Appraiser's Office.

As my 9th-grade English teacher Bill Nickels often said, report card day is the wrong day to worry about your grade.  To that end, after  problems with the county's cutover to a new phone system in previous elections, we thought we had beat this issue to death and had the necessary leaders on notice.

While we started noticing our phones were silent, many of our supervising judges were panicking unnecessarily because they couldn't get through.

These were simple questions usually.  Often, they just wanted to express that they thought we needed more "I Voted" stickers or make sure they had the proper envelopes for provisional ballots.  Had we talked with the supervising judge at this location photographed, we could have quickly prevented the freefall.  Instead, she wasn't ready at 6 a.m. and it wasn't her fault.

In general, if you are making $125 for a 14-hour day, it's just overwhelming when calling in what seems like the middle of the night, over and over and over, not getting a response, and knowing that in about an hour you will begin seeing hundreds of voters.

(How middle of the night?  This other picture shows what I encountered driving to the office on November 6).

As this unfolded, we blitzed text messages to the cellphones we sent to the polls (hoping they were unpacked) to let workers know we weren't able to receive phone calls.  The text instructed workers to call a specific cell phone number that I had set up for phone emergencies.

(And, interesting sidebar, that number is now used for voters to take a picture of their citizenship documentation with their phones if it's easier for them to text that to us).

We also were scrambling to get someone on the case, to fix the phones.  The Appraiser's office employees are dedicated individuals, but they weren't there to answer calls at 5 a.m., and they would have been as baffled as we were why the calls were going there.

Frustrated that we didn't have anyone on call on such an important day (to us, anyway), I emailed the county manager at 5:45 a.m., knowing he had mobile email access, hoping that would result in action.  I'm not sure what was more important in the county that day than the presidential election, but something must have been because I never got an acknowledgment of that note or a reply.  (The manager of our phone system later apologized in such a sincere way that I nearly cried; he was passionately concerned about our voters).

By the time phones were working, well after the polls opened, it didn't take long to get several complaints from voters at this location.  The image, from the photos I took when I arrived, is so unnerving because it could have been staved off.

It doesn't take a presidential commission to determine how this could have been avoided.  In fact, this image was still with me when I met with members of the Commission just before July 4.  At that time I posted here that the recommendations should be directed at those that provided funding rather than the election administrators.

We can have our best practices, our plans B and C (like cell phones sent out and separate phone and data services for just this type of thing), and the best election workers (which we do have), but those whose job it is to support us don't always carry the same urgency.  It makes sense, I guess, but it hurts when it happens.  And, it hurts our voters.

My mistake here?  Being too tolerant of the letdown.  In later discussions with the county manager, it's as though this never happened.  That's my fault, and without pressing on the issue (and many others like this), we're destined to have similar issues again.  I can't be quiet in The Year Of The Voter.

This post is as much as something for reference and discussion as we near heavy election days in The Year Of The Voter as it is about the academic study.

But that study also has a key takeaway for us.  Persons in line look at the length of the line, not how fast it moves.  If the line is too long, in their view, they leave.

Two shorter lines might have more stickiness (fewer people walking away because of the line) than one long line.  If there ever is a point to consider about breaking down the check-in table in half or thirds (with more workers, obviously), this is it.  We've talked about it with our workers often, and this fall, we'll be splitting the books as a matter of course.

It's a pretty nerdy study, but it's timely and an interesting read as we wait for the report from the Commission.  Like this post and the study, the report is certain to generate candid and necessary discussion on behalf of voters.  Voters deserve that.