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.