Saturday, June 28, 2014 1 comments

I've Seen the Future and It's Slightly Smaller Than the Past

We may have some positive movement in the budget process, but positive movement may simply be an interesting discussion with the same results.

We'll know in a couple of days and I'll update that specific item in about a week when the dust appears settled.  The budget process now leads to a "revisit list" that is both good and bad for the election office items.

In the meantime, looking back at previous posts, I'm pasting in one from more than a year ago as we headed into the 2013 budget process.

I could have typed the exact same thing today.  The only good thing, I guess, is that it ended with an explanation that the budget would be a theme in coming months, so I feel a little better in burying you, dear reader, with this item.

Still relevant, a year later:
Monday, May 13, 2013 

Future = Present

I'm so mad at my mother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Future Is Now!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another favorite quote of mine is from Stephen Covey:  "Nothing fails like success."  The key to the future is accepting that we face a crisis in election administration unless a myriad of things are addressed.  This will become a major theme of this blog over the next few months as our staff begins to tactically address the future, er, the present of elections.
Wednesday, June 25, 2014 0 comments

Lather, Select Vendor, Budget That In, Rinse, Repeat

Tomorrow is our budget presentation day, and I'll be reacting live to the county manager statement in the budget kick-off meeting three weeks ago in regard to our voting machine replacement request not being mentioned (let alone being included) in the 2015 budget book.

We have long submitted a narrative and even vendor quotes.  The machines were once in the budget years ago but not included in the Capital Improvement Process (CIP) budget since 2011.

I'm no county budget Einstein but I'm pretty sure in going through the CIP schedules and the debt service schedules of today and past years, any purchase of $12 million in voting machines will cause a tax increase unless there are corresponding cuts.  The county can't absorb a $12 million hit and, I don't think, even a $2 or $3 million annual increase in debt service without a revenue increase.

The specific comment, though, was this, "We're still waiting with great anticipation about what the next generation is going to be advocated for by the Election Commissioner and then we will be able to go ahead and budget that in."

So, apparently, the CIP approach was never the path for us to take.  We simply need to select a system (using a process for which we've outlined) and the funds will be there.

The plan I will explain tomorrow will be to begin pursuing a consultant to manage the proposal process, with the objective of issuing a request for proposal in 2015 for a new system implemented in 2017.

I'm not sure how "budget that in," is going to happen.  It seems easier, to me anyway, to plan for a $12 million expense than to immediately figure out how to pay for it.

I would think vendors, also, would like to know we actually have money budgeted before investing in the time to prepare a proposal.  We now have a five-year-old quote that got the machines in the budget for two years before the county manager took them out.

Earlier this week, I was at an MIT/CalTech Future of the Polling Process conference with many of the industry's brightest minds.  Johnson County was fortunate to have a seat at the table among such prestigious practitioners, academics, and industry thought-leaders.  There are a handful of communities going through the process of determining a next-generation system, and much work needs to be done before such a system is live.

My objectives from the constant pounding of the budget issues right now are simple:
  1. Ensure our voters' needs are protected and future-proofed.
  2. Provide more than adequate planning time for the Board of County Commissioners to prepare to pay for this system.
  3. Keep Johnson County at the innovative forefront that our voters, taxpayers, and community leaders expect and deserve when it comes to elections.
I kind of think I'm just doing my job here.  If I don't fight for these things, who will?

I know, to a degree, I've become a bit of a one-trick pony on the blog right now regarding the budget and voting machines, but this is a major part of our annual fight for resources and a very time-consuming process at that.  The purpose of the blog is to highlight things behind the scenes and this is one scene, if shortened or put to bed, would by itself free up resources at our office.

Here's hoping tomorrow goes well.


It's Just Like Deja Vu! It's Just Like Deja Vu!

Below is a submission from my predecessor, Connie Schmidt.

As I've typed, much of what I have experienced over the last 9 1/2 years felt like a redux of Connie's experiences.  She says as much below.

In fact, in reading her accounts, I never realized how good I have it today!

When I went to my first election industry meeting after becoming Election Commissioner, in 2005, I noticed the significant number of retirements taking place nationwide.  The fallout of the 2000 presidential election, new legislation, and a growing group of election activists who climbed over the backs and good names of some election integrity advocates forced many changes that for many industry veterans simply wasn't worth the stress.

Here is the Johnson County view from then, in Connie's words:


I read Brian Newby’s blog on a regular basis, and grin from time to time because he is actually putting down in writing some of the inside stories that have never been told (because I was afraid to tell them). 
Lately his blog posts have focused on the particular issue of budget needs for his office (and I might add for election offices nationwide).  That said, it is a known problem, one that has plagued the Johnson County election office for many, many years. 
I asked Brian if I could join the conversation on his blog, to share some war stories that have never been told, and to reinforce that some things never change – the budget process for the election office!  Brian and those staff members that remain from my tenure know that during my 9+ years as Election Commissioner, there are so many war stories that were never told….many led to my early retirement from a job that I loved and a team of staff that were, and still are, the best in the nation.
One budget war story began in spring 1998, during the preparation of the 1999 budget.  I want to step back for a moment to provide a brief history of where we were at in 1998.  In September 1995, I inherited what we referred to as the” Model A” first generation DRE machines (that is truly what they was called).  We were the first county nationwide to use them.  We had 700 Model A machines, and 160 of the newer model, which were added after the 1992 election because our County had very, very long lines in polling places. 

The actual voting machine, along with the tabulation software (from what I was told) was basically designed in our office.  There were no federal voting certification processes in place during the mid 1980’s.  So the system was what it was.  We had no choice but to use it and make it work – no matter how outdated and utterly ridiculous it was to prepare for each election. 

For example, we had to data enter by hand all election information into an old DOS system, type the same data separately in Word Perfect to print long ballot strips that were hung with tape between the buttons on the face of equipment (Hats off to former Asst. Election Commissioner Karen Browning who was the house expert at this job and she did it perfectly every time).  Imagine the wrong strips with candidates and/or issues being placed on machines on Election Day.   

This was not a system that was connected in any way.  Obviously, this required lots of duplicate proofing.  Then along came the need to develop a paper ballot system that would integrate with the DRE tabulation software.  I am told this happened in 1994.  

To tabulate the paper ballots, a new software was developed and something referred to as a “bridge” brought the paper ballots votes into the DOS tabulation software where all votes were tabulated – paper and DRE.   I might add that the actual paper ballots were developed using a different system, making a total of three separate systems created with the same information that must tabulate into one place on election night.  We held our breath every election night – no one knew anything about this process except the staff of the election office.

Back to the budget process in 1998.  We worked very hard to convince the BOCC of the need to replace this voting system, which was archaic, inefficient and over 12 years old.  With much delight we made it through that process, and money was allocated in the Capital Improvement Fund to purchase new equipment in 1999, in time to implement prior to the Presidential 2000.  Thank goodness! 
However, shortly before the final budget was adopted, our funding for new equipment was pulled!  Now, we knew that we would have to conduct the 2000 Presidential election using this same archaic equipment.  In Kansas, no excuse early voting was implemented for the first time in the 1996 Presidential election, followed by a new state law that approved the use of satellite early voting locations for the 2000 Presidential.  In our county that required the use of over 1,000 unique paper ballots distributed to 3 early voting locations – voters could choose any of these locations to vote – we never knew how many of which ballots to distribute to each location.  Just remembering this caused me to take a deep breath.
The 2000 Presidential was a near disaster in Johnson County!  Funny, we had no idea what was happening in Florida…..we were handling our own “mess”.  Again, no one knew about this horror story, except those internal staff who experienced extreme stress. 

In fact, even writing this down makes me nervous and it’s been over 13 years.  First of all, we issued the largest number of paper early voting ballots to date in Johnson County.  We were using outdated school-type test scoring scanners that were set up to store paper ballot votes on cassette tapes. 

I can’t remember the exact number of tapes that we ended up with, but I do remember that it took us over 8 hours to load these cassette tapes individually into the old DOS tabulation software during the afternoon of Election Day, November 2000.  Beginning in 1996, we started the policy of releasing the early votes as soon as possible after the polls closed at 7:00 p.m. 

Obviously, the media and the candidates expected that to happen in November 2000.  Internally, the DOS software first had to sort all of the paper ballots by precinct before it could tabulate the vote totals per candidate.  When we did the command to sort the ballot images by precinct for tabulation, the DOS based computer software crashed back to the DOS prompt.  Nothing happened – the tabulation software crashed! 

We got the vendor on the phone, but there was no solution provided.  After a huge panic attack, we released this statement to the public…..funny that I can still remember the exact words today.  “Due to the large number of paper ballots cast it is taking us longer than normal to tabulate them so we will be releasing the voting machine votes first, followed by the early voting totals, accumulated into the final unofficial results.”  No one asked why – the explanation was the truth, which was my mantra, but it truly was not the entire story.  That statement bought us some time to try to get this old software to work.

Finally with no other choice available, using a totally different software outside of the tabulation computer software, we were able to finally sort the paper ballot images in precinct order.  Those votes were then returned to the tabulation DOS software and all votes – DRE equipment and paper ballots were reported to the public.  No one ever knew about this almost catastrophic situation except the staff and me, who suffered from the unbelievable stress of that moment in time.
Fortunately, our funding for new equipment was once again approved and remained in the 2001 budget.  That funding, however, was only for the equipment – only for the exact number that we already had - 860 (the same number of machines since 1994, by the way).  No funding for tabulation computers, training, disposal of the old machines, reconfiguration of the warehouse, or any PR efforts to educate the voters on how to use the new equipment.  

The staff worked miracles on several of these issues and we managed to request an old Med-Act van that was on the County’s disposal list, items that are first offered to county departments prior to auction.  We got the van for about $1.00 and we had it painted in a VOTE design with our web address on each side.   That was part of our PR solution.  ((((Editor's note--we STILL use that van, which does not run, as our JO-CO-PO-LO Billboard outside of our office.))))
Another moment frozen in my memory was a discussion with the then County Manager to request more funding for the Election Office.  The staff and I were working 7 days a week for months on end, sometimes 10-12 hour days.  We were managing 3 early voting locations, using paper ballots – totaling over 1,000 unique ballot styles in an August election; plus recruiting and training poll workers and preparing to open polling places on Election Day (all with the same number of full time staff and voting machines that were in place prior to early voting).  
That discussion with the County Manager ended with him telling me, “Connie, you do such a good job, it won’t be possible to convince the BOCC that you need additional funding.”  I got up and left realizing that to get our needed funding would require failing at our job of conducting elections – that was NOT an option, so we continued down our path of working non-stop….me and the dream team of election staff.

I think my final straw relating to budget stories was in late 2004 – we were denied our request for additional funding to conduct the 2004 Presidential election.  Once again, we received the largest number of early voting paper ballots (and this time it was a 2 page ballot) – it was non-stop early voters to the extreme that it was impossible for staff to leave our building due to traffic congestion. 

One day in the middle of October and in the midst of that onslaught of early voters, I received a phone call asking me to prepare a report and come to the Board of County Commissioners meeting to explain why our office had depleted it’s funding already.  I do believe that moment was the defining moment for me. 
My perfect number of years of service and age for early retirement occurred in early December 2004.  I took it – I realize now that I was exhausted, burned out, and tired of the stress of making everything perfect with few resources – and with the same number of full time staff and voting machines that were there when I started.  
That is the ending of a collection of budget horror stories - there were many others!  I have noticed nationally that when there is a huge election failure, it is a huge media event, the person in charge loses their job, and the election office finally receives the necessary funding to correct the problems and make the improvements that had been needed and requested for a very long time. 
This indeed is a very bad way to manage any business.  Johnson County voters deserve better!
Saturday, June 21, 2014 0 comments

Business of Elections

My friend David Kimball (@kimballdc) had a tweet recently speaking to a response by the Republican National Lawyers Association to the Report and Recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA).


I think David was actually reacting to the content of the response and, forgive me, but that's not the important thing here.

An organization outside of election administrators read the report!?  And, had a point of view!

I don't think the point of view really matters at this stage.  The fact that they had one is great news.

I feel like the model Hansel in "Zoolander":
Sting. Sting would be another person who's a hero. The music he's created over the years, I don't really listen to it, but the fact that he's making it, I respect that. 
That's how I feel about this report.  I haven't really read it, but the fact that they are making it, I respect that.

Actually, I have read through it and, true to the mission of the blog, I'm not going to address anything that could be considered political.  Many others will, I suppose, but geez-o-pete, the headline truly is that the report was created in the first place.

And, politics aside, as one might expect if something is produced by lawyers, it is well-written.  I've embedded it at the bottom of this post.

Anyway, the other obvious point about it all is that this organization really doesn't have any control over election administration.  So, as cool as it is to see a report, it provides for interesting reading but isn't very actionable.

The action, I submit, is the report itself.  Where's the report from the National Association of Counties that suggests an action plan to ensure these recommendations are funded?

How about the National League of Cities, the National Association of School Superintendents (the other NASS), or even legislative associations?

To be fair, as critical as I've been of the organizations who haven't given this report the proper register on their Give-A-Darn Meter, we election administrators haven't created a blow-by-blow plan related to the report, either.

Never missing a chance to link things back to our budget woes (I'll stop soon, I promise, because our budget will be set), creating such a plan of action is harder for election administrators with the limited resources we all have.  Few offices have a strategic planning resource, although most of us would benefit from such a resource full-time.

I still maintain that the items in the report are what we've been advocating for years, but we can't simply on the members of the PCEA to socialize the findings.  We need to be pushing an analysis locally to give our policy funders better context to the findings.

I'll be seeing some of the members of the PCEA tomorrow.  I'm excited to be traveling to participate in a conference in Cambridge, the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology "Polling Processes of the Future:  What is/What Could Be" conference.

I'll be part of a panel discussing tools local administrators use in planning and operating elections.  We need more tools, though.

I'm of a growing point of view that there is a huge window for a group providing strategic planning assistance for local election administrators, and this group could develop and provide more decision-oriented tools.

This huge window has been open for years but the draft is becoming noticeable.  It's be an unserved space because, well, consultants gotta eat, too.

I learned quickly when coming to elections from Sprint that the vendor community was much smaller in elections because, simply, there isn't much money to be made in the elections space.  There aren't any large consulting practices focused on the election administration space because we couldn't pay them enough to do so.  (That's not such a bad paragraph to read, by the way, from a taxpayer perspective).

Still, there are thought leaders in the election space--much more organized and effective than when I came to this world nearly 10 years ago--but there is a vacuum of, errrrr, "thought-doers."

I have some thoughts around this that I will raise among many people smarter than me in the coming days, but I think there is money to fund such a thing if packaged properly.  I'm not thinking of election process consultants, but really a "business of elections practice" along the lines of Boston Consulting Group or McKinsey.

None of us could afford such a thing, but maybe there are kickstarter ways to fund this at an early stage for some communities and then others could leverage the tools created.

I think I'm headed to discuss this idea with just the right group, so it should be an invigorating escape, and, perhaps, a source for a fresh perspective leading into our budget discussions later in the week.

Friday, June 20, 2014 0 comments

Introducing, Soon, a Special Guest

Before coming to the Johnson County Election Office, I pondered greatly about what it would be like to replace someone I often now refer to as Miss Election USA.

Connie Schmidt, my predecessor, was recognized nationally as a leader in the election administration community.  There are plenty of books about leading a turnaround but few analyze taking the baton from someone well-regarded and keeping the momentum, particularly if you didn't know the person handing you the baton.

As an elected city council member in Shawnee in April 2002, I didn't know anything about Connie's national reputation.  But, I knew about her locally and saw her operation first-hand when running for office.

I toured the election office shortly after filing for office.   I met her two assistant election commissioners--both very impressive.  I handed them my candidate web bio and it was live on the jocoelection site before my brief tour was over.

Part of the tour included an introduction to a little runt of a computer that was proudly introduced to me as our soon-to-come "new" voting machines. 

Wow.  This was 2001, but these looked like the 286 computer issued to me in 1990 at Sprint. 

Moreover, there was genuine giddiness in the office about these devices.

I learned these machines were state-of-the-art in the voting machine world, but they were essentially large Palm Pilots.  Our diagnostics today include using a stylus to touch the center of the screen and all four corners, for instance--when's the last time you did that setting up an iPhone?

Still, I saw the footprint of the old machines and how much more economical these were from a space perspective, and I saw why the staff was pleased to make the change.

On election night, I was happy to find I was victorious but later that week became aware of a need for a recount after tabulation concerns once results were modemed back on election night.  (This, by the way, is why results to this day are hand-delivered back to the election office and why this practice is emulated by others nationwide.  You're welcome.)

Anyway, I came in on a Saturday to watch the recount, and it was absolutely the most boring, yet extremely professional, thing I've ever observed.  The outcomes didn't change, but little did I know I'd be working here years later, and I learned so much about being an election commissioner just from watching that office during that week.

In fact, my path to the election office started in 2004, when I was checking the election office website a couple of days after the presidential election.  I was surprised to see an announcement on the site that Connie was retiring.

I applied for the position and eventually was offered the appointment by the Kansas Secretary of State.

Soon after being appointed as election commissioner and after meeting with Connie, I saw a pattern that I hoped would change.  Many of the administrative and budget issues I have documented here over the last few weeks are long-term things, part of the culture really, and things Connie fought for nine years as well.

It was almost on schedule--my year two-issues tended to be her year-two issues, for instance.  Now, I've been here longer than Connie and have lost that historical touchpoint.

Acknowledging these struggles, it's worth pointing out that I'm also not into being a victim. 

I'm a believer that in any large organization, many can make a case that they are the overlooked or under-appreciated department or individual.  I've been in departments at Sprint where we felt oppressed, only to hear others tell us how lucky we were.  Often, it's all about perspective.

But the lack of investment in the election office and our voters is pretty evident, right down to the team photos we've taken annually over the last 20 years, showing the same number of individuals in the same non-ADA accessible building, and standing or sitting in the same room with the same carpet.

On a personal level, though, it can't be denied that the election commissioner compensation has lagged department heads in the county's administration building.  While there are around 30 departments and agencies at the county, the election commissioner isn't among the top 100 paid county employees, perhaps a good point for tax hawks but bad for those in this position or election administration overall.  The commissioner position, in fact, isn't rated at the same level as most department heads.

By statute, the election commissioner is to have a monthly car allowance, and during my initial meeting with Connie she told me the fight she had to have to it raised from $125 to $300, where it has been for more than 10 years.  No department head eligible for a car allowance has one that low, but a few managers do, including a manger in the transit department. (So, yes, the car allowance is the same as it is for someone whose job it is to get persons to ride the bus.)

The compensation issues carry downstream where our staff positions have traditionally been rated lower than I believe they should be.  We've made a bit of progress on that this year, but we use part-time $8.75-an-hour employees throughout our operation regularly.  If you've called or visited our office, odds are one of these outstanding individuals has helped you.

Generally, Connie and I both have had great support from the Board of County Commissioners but out of respect for the process, we rarely have gone to them directly (this position is appointed by the Secretary of State but funded by the Board). 

Fair to say, though, that while we both respected the process, we each have felt that the process didn't always respect us.

Budget issues aside, there are many cool things about this position--it's the closest thing to running a small business I think one can get in government.  We get tremendous support from the community (likely, dear reader, you are such a supporter, so thank you).

Last night for instance, I spoke to the Gardner-Edgerton Republican Group, and it is very personally gratifying to hear influentials in our community speak well of our office.
Last night's speaking
tour stop was the new
Perkins in Gardner. 

I have learned a lot from my predecessors, even those I never met.  I've read their notes, listened to those who worked with them, and drew conclusions about what worked and didn't work well.

Much of what we do in our office started under Connie's leadership.  The biggest thing I learned in what it takes to replace a Star is that the Star carried values that must remain.

Connie left, but I truly think that the concept that the office and the voting process must be protected over individual interests is as strong or stronger now than it was in 2004.

Maybe, those values are what lead to our budget woes, actually.  If so, we have no choice but to live in the budget environment we have because the values can't change.

I have my own views of what led to Connie retiring from a job she loved and was very good at, but I think it's best if you read it from her.

Next week, I'll be posting the first-ever guest post on ElectionDiary, from Connie, to give a different perspective of the budget issues especially.  It's budget time, our meeting with the Board is next week, and we're making a push at trying to move the budgetary needle in favor of our voters.

In the meantime, posted below is a book Connie and her staff developed more than 10 years ago.  It's the roadmap we will leverage again if and when we get budgetary approval to replace those Palm Pilotish machines.

Friday, June 13, 2014 0 comments

Boring Is What We're After

A significant paradox of this site comes as we near a busy election time.

This blog was created to provide you, dear reader, with some of the geeky and boring aspects of administering elections.

The more boring the better, I say! (To which, you likely would say, "no kidding.")

There is comfort in boring.  Boring is the opposite of not boring, or any other word or phrase you can identify that effectively means crazy, haywire, or nutty.

Boring's true nemesis is darkness.  That's the point of the blog, to be transparent, so when a week goes by without a post, I have itchy typing fingers.

Darkness here, though, always means we're swamped--not bad swamped, just swamped.

Then, in the rush to create a meaningful post, so many things are happening it's hard to hit them all.

Geese were lining up outside this week while we
were getting our ducks in a row inside.
So, here's what's happening right now--we are setting up the election, and that means trial and error in many ways and a lot of reading and proofing.

We have an election management system that was built in the mid-1990s.  We call it ESM, which I never understood, other than that as a county government, we already have an EMS.

Anyway, this system is where we set up our election--candidates, races, jurisdictions, supplies, election workers, and polling places, for starters.

This isn't Microsoft Project with many tabs.  In fact, we use an extract of the election to feed into our tabulation system to set up the ballots and candidate rotation on the ballots.

We have about 1,500 different ballot types for this election and hundreds of races.  This setup takes days to manually enter.

I've pasted at the bottom of this post some examples of the output we get from this system.  The samples here are about 10 pages from 50 pages of reports that, literally, took four hours to print.

I wanted the forms as examples when we went into our county's capital budget process to again ask for funding to replace this 20-year-old system that isn't supported and, if it crashed today, we'd have no sure way of rebuilding.  In Johnson County, not investing in elections for years and years will eventually come to roost, and we stress each election as we set this up.

There was a hot minute where the statewide voter registration system, known as ELVIS after a semi-forced acronym to make it sound cool, was going to be an evolution of our ESM.  At the time, it was provided by Accenture and the state of Kansas selected Accenture for ELVIS.

My second day on the Election Commissioner job, I was greeted with the news that things were back to the drawing board for the statewide voter registration system.  I don't know what occurred, other than that the state and Accenture came to an "understanding."

But, this meant, in order to have a system up and going and in compliance with the Help America Vote Act, this new procurement had great urgency.  As such, when implemented, some of the initially envisioned features (those in our ESM) were not part of the project.  Some have come since, but this is why we run with two systems--ELVIS and our, um, ELVIS impersonator.

Our Deputy Election Commissioner and a very weary employee have been proofing printouts from an equally weary employee who set up the election and comparing that output with two other employees--rapidly approach weary--in the tabulation room.

From there, we create an audio ballot for each of the 1,500 we have (for those who are blind and cast a ballot on their own) and we will have a group of part-time employees listen to each of the ballot to proof the accuracy.

We have to get this proofing done so we can send our ballot order for the paper ballots to be printed.  We can print military and overseas ballots at our office to get them out on time, but the big load of ballots are printed out of state.

Machines in a row here, no ducks.
We're also gearing up to try printing all advance-by-mail ballots at our office.  That will be about 10,000 ballots and require that we purchase a solution we've been eyeballing for quite a while and many others--particularly those in Florida--have utilized successfully.  The benefit is that we print only the ballots we use (rather than large overages as we estimate demand) and the net cost, because we don't pay for unused ballots we destroy, should be less.

Meanwhile, another group of part-timers have invaded the warehouse, beginning manual diagnostics on each voting machine.  The typical  automated machine diagnostics are comparable to what your computer goes through when it boots up.  We don't think that's good enough.

Doing the diagnostics manually, instead, is laborious, but it ensures that nothing nefarious has sneaked into our machines.  It's a best practice created by Johnson County and emulated nationwide, in fact.

There you go--boring.  Boring, Busy, Ballot work--the Three B's.

We're entering that "no time for laundry" period, in fact, and soon will be ready for Bleach, Borax, and Brightener, and not just for our clothes.

Thursday, June 5, 2014 0 comments

Moment of Clarity

Sometimes "behind the scenes," is on video, and for that I'm grateful.

Today, during the county's initial budget presentation, the capital overview included a list of large items not included in the budget.  Fair enough, but there was no mention of voting machines, a submission I've been making now, literally, for five years.

That's okay, too, if the decision is transparent that the machines aren't being funded.  But such a list on a slide could lead passersby to believe that the machines somehow were in the five-year forecast.

The request for nearly $13 million, but was the only project requested above $3 million listed on the "large items not funded" list.

I sent an email to the Board of County Commissioners to alert them to this.  My intention simply was to have a trail if, say, in 2017 our current old machines were quickly failing, we were in a crisis mode and I was asked in a public meeting why I'd never requested voting machine funding before.

I was surprised today when the county manager spoke to the email, announcing he was in great anticipation of the Election Commissioner advocating a system, at which time he would "be able to budget that in."

Below is the submission I made this year, very similar to previous submissions over the years.

I've taken out the vendor quotes that were stamped confidential by the vendor, but these were the same quotes used by an earlier Board to place funds in the 5-year forecast in 2010.  Still, the submission is several pages long and details the scope of the project.

Reducing the budgeted amount in 2011 and removing it altogether in 2012, and then pinning the absence of voting machines in the budget today on a lack of clarity from the election commissioner conjures the need here for several adjectives.  For now, "unfair" will do.

A major impediment to serving our voters has been the current county manager.  A blog that demonstrates what we go through in preparing for elections that doesn't bring this to light would be equally unfair to voters.

If machines were put into next year's five-year forecast, we'd be looking at new voting machines in 2021, 18 years after the current machines were put into service.  Previous replacements (twice) have come at 15-year intervals.

Of course, it's no gimmee that anything will be put into the next year's five-year forecast.  It's probably evident by now, though, to you, dear reader, that I consider this year's budget process to be a crucible for our voters.   My commitment to the Year of the Voter requires such a thing.

In today's world of baseball's instant replay, we see fewer arguments by managers after umpire calls.  Those arguments are really for the "next call;" this call is over.  I see that for 2015, but we need the machines in next year's five-year forecast.

We can't wait any longer.  We have to move to a plan that prepares for the replacement of these machines. 

They will be replaced of course.  We can't have 400,000 voters raising their hands to vote.  This forced conversation is simply to ensure that there isn't a tax increase at the time to pay for them, blamed on the Election Commissioner.

There will be more budget posts--our presentation and discussion with the Board is at the end of this month.

Here is what was submitted in March during the county manager's CIP process.  (It's probably worth, also, pointing out that I volunteered to serve on the prioritization committee after a vacancy on his committee occurred last year, but I never got a response on that, either).

Monday, June 2, 2014 0 comments

No Yarns, No Kidding

Sometimes, the past is hard to shake, let alone embrace.

Working for Sprint for nearly 20 years, I felt my identity and Sprint's identity were blurred.

My favorite colors are black and red, the colors of the uniforms for my kids' athletic teams I coached when we had the most success.

At one point, I felt like every piece of clothing I owned, somewhere, included a Sprint logo.

In the 1990s, those reading this who worked for Sprint then know very well that it felt as though we were integral components of the building of a company, one that as a customers once said, "considered service an art."

I left in the early 2000s because the company didn't seem to have a rudder.  Over strategic planning for the business side, I was frustrated that our most senior leaders weren't addressing the strategic choices that could lead to future prosperity.

The fact that the strike price for my unvested stock options still was underwater when they expired ten years later sadly validated my decision.

For a while, feeling free, I moved from cellphone provider to cellphone provider to somehow demonstrate to myself that my identity was not synonymous with Sprint.  I long ago came back home in that regard.

I was proud of what we did there and I still have many friends who work at Sprint.  And nothing was more a part of our culture than the Sprint Quality Handbook, created in the heyday of the Six Sigma quality movement.

The book was created internally, nearly 170 pages of decision-making tools.  We loathed being forced to use them, but on our own, not so much.  I use many of those tools in our planning efforts and have decided to incorporate the way we conducted meetings into the election office's culture.

(Former Sprinters already know that meant that every meeting had to have a PAL--purpose, agenda, and limit.  "Do you have a PAL for this meeting?" was the snarky phrase used to kick off a meeting no one was excited to join).

Looking for my last copy of the handbook, I thought I'd lost it.  I contacted the "quality guy," from that era and he offered to let me borrow his last copy to scan and turn into an everlasting PDF.

Moments later, I found my copy and still plan to turn this jewel of a document into an electronic file.  It will be big, but I will figure out a way to get it to anyone who wants it.

Drivers/Restrainers, Fishbone diagrams, Workbenches, Paretos--they are all here, representing to me a past I am incredibly ready to embrace and emulate.  I've often fought the urge to Sprintify things here and now that urge is unbridled.

Election administration can benefit from the use of these tools.  There are new, cooler tools that I will be analyzing soon, from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration.  But, these are classic.

So "Go Big Red!" (Yes, Sprint's change to yellow was, well, yellow, and went in line with other poor strategic choices of that time).

This focus on decision-making tools comes at a time where it's now crunch time--filing deadline for the fall elections was today at noon.

And, further, you have just read an anecdote--a yarn--and such things are now officially outlawed here until the end of November.

We are entering a "No Yarn Zone," where interesting anecdotes have no place as our hair is on fire.  I have nothing to catch on fire, which is maybe why I like yarns.

Yarns provide context but can also be time-wasters.  And we don't have any time, for a long time.

Instead, as Larry King would say (oops, that's a yarn), "Get to the point, sir!"

The point is, project management skills are paramount now.  Military and overseas ballots go out in just 3 weeks.  Advance voting locations must be equipped.

All of our preparations are underway, and I'll hope to capture the highlights in the weeks ahead--sans yarns.