Monday, August 2, 2021 0 comments

Reinventing the Wheel

You may not remember that foreign actor intervention was the primary headline from the 2020 presidential election.

That's because the headlines have been much different.  Suspected foreign intervention was the theme of the 2016 election and I took personal criticism for focusing on what I considered, instead, to be the true election administration issues leading into the 2018 election--the fundamentals, the proverbial blocking and tackling of election administration..

While suspected foreign intervention was a theme in 2016, that didn't even become a "thing" until early August of that year.  Similarly, COVID didn't emerge as a potential backdrop to the last presidential election until March of 2020.

In training election workers, I often noted how we always train on the LAST issue, whether or not it was the most important.  A training issue that emerged from an August election, for instance, usually didn't turn out to be the issue in November.  We made sure of that.

Never worry, that slip that wasn't signed by two election workers, or the proper completion of the provisional envelopes--we nailed that previous problem, only to have a new issue in the next election.

Superstitions exists with elections.  If we slayed a third potential operational dragon, pre-election, in Johnson County, Kansas, we took relief that the third and final issue was solved because, surely, three was the magic number of potential roadblocks in any election.

Operational issues are always the most important election issues.  There may be no such thing as a perfect election, but local election administrators will never accept such talk, always looking to prepare for a string of perfection.

I remember sitting in the office of a local election official on election day in November 2018, where he told me foreign influence was the biggest issue election officials were facing then, that very day, and as we headed into 2020.

"Is it?," I asked.  "Is it more important than making sure people today get to the right polling place, or they receive the proper ballot, or those who voted in advance get their ballots returned, or the college student who didn't get her ballot..."

I maintained, and I think 2020 bore out, that the old and boring election operations issues are always the most important.  In fact, if any of those issues arose, some may wonder if foreign intervention was the behind-the-scenes culprit.  So, in a slight nod to that local administrator's point from 2018, suspected foreign intervention made operational issues even more important than ever.

I'm not discounting the need to address foreign security threats, but if all politics are local, as the cliché goes, all election issues could be considered local as well.

In fact, it's common for a local election official to hear from a voter, "I don't worry about how elections are ran here, but I worry about how they are run elsewhere."

That's good and bad, I suppose, but reflects that local election officials know that the success of an election comes down to handling hundreds of details.  Local election officials handle those details incredibly well.

Now that I've been a state election official for almost two years, and with no offense intended to my new peers because this job has its own balls of stress, all-in-all, local election officials bear much more election-day stress.

(And my time as a federal elections official.....well, that just makes me recall one of my favorite phrases-- "Where the Rubber Meets the Sky").

Local election officials are the true heroes.

I don't use that term lightly.  I just know first-hand the immense pressure upon them, the exhausting hours they put in, and the scrutiny upon them in times of close elections.  Two assistant election commissioners died from cancer and another recovered from major cancer surgery during my time in Johnson County, Kansas.  My Johnson County predecessor is a cancer survivor.  Local election officials literally give their health and years of their lives to serve voters. 

Compared to their peer department heads in county government, for instance, the risk is much greater.  I often said that a bad day for the Public Works director is a pothole and a bad day for me as Election Commissioner would have me on CNN.

Fun Fact #1--I have been on CNN in a good way.  They spent the day with me in November 2014.  This link has the interview summing that up, where I relayed that they were like family during that visit.

It was a fun day.  "Wolf's gonna love that," is the memorable quote from that election.

But, usually, network news is not a place where election administrators want to be.  Close elections become very emotional and if the outcome isn't ideal, it's easy, as in sports, to blame the referee. Election administrators, as a whole, do a great job and are the least political people you will ever meet.

I've tried to capture the different elements local administrators face by creating a wheel of competencies.  The picture here is the third generation, after fiddling with it at the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to have the events follow chronological order of an election, and then modifying when coming to North Dakota because North Dakota, while managing a central voter file, is the only state in the country without voter registration.

Fun Fact #2--When you get down to it, voter registration is an unnecessary burden on voters, another topic I wrote about on this blog.  I'll address this further in a future post.

Back to the wheel...by putting some activities in purple, to represent ongoing competencies that are year round, the events don't truly go round and round.  We thought about different bands of activities to keep the wheel image, but it got more confusing and looked too much like a dart board, although, in fairness, election officials  might feel like a dart board at times

The whole point of the wheel--this blog, as well--is to raise awareness of the work election officials undertake to make election day--nay, election season (a point discussed much in the coming months)--go well.

"Go well" is subjective, but if you consider that the center of all activities, rather than the nice logo here, is actually the voter, "go well" should mean that voters have the ability to easily vote and have confidence their votes were cast and recorded correctly.

Each one of these Trivial Pursuit-like slivers represents a huge component, and local election officials must be experts in each.  These aren't dimensions listed on a job description but major components that require expertise.

Over the next few months, this blog will discuss many of the themes in the wheel planks.


Monday, June 21, 2021 0 comments

Masks and Gloves Off

Eventually, this blog will find its voice again.

This post is the beginning, although it’s a bit more of an opinion piece than a straight-up blog post.

A lot has happened since ElectionDiary went on pause in 2015.  ElectionDiary began nearly 10 years ago, in the beginning of 2012, to document behind-the-scenes operations issues associated with election administration in Johnson County, Kansas.  The blog was well-read, and received the Minuteman Best Practice Award from The Election Center in 2014.  

But as I moved to serve as Executive Director of the United States Election Assistance Commission (EAC) in 2015, I didn’t want the blog to interfere with the messaging coming out of the agency.  I even tried to curate the blog, or give it to someone to keep it going, but, probably, just should have kept typing and posting as ElectionDiary. 

When I applied to the EAC, the big question was, “would the EAC even exist in four years?” as legislation had continually been introduced to eliminate the agency.  You will find blog posts here where I thought the EAC had lost its relevance, and I felt a calling to go and, as we said often during my four years, “Make it real.”

The EAC, indeed, began speaking to election officials. Clearly, I underestimated how much the agency existed just for the sake of Washington politics, but Congressional sentiment towards the EAC appeared to shift through 2016 and 2017.  In my opinion at least, the agency is definitely more relevant than in its darkest days—2012 and 2013—and was more relevant when I left in 2019 than it was when I started in 2015. 

The 2016 budget at the EAC was half what it was in the agency’s early days, and through efforts to raise relevancy and tie activities to election administration processes, our efforts in 2018 and 2019 to lift the budget were successfully greeted with budget increases that the agency enjoys today; the budget levels are back to those of 2010, which, sadly, is a major accomplishment.

But for all the good at the EAC, the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, in retrospect, looks a lot like the 2000 presidential election that led to the agency’s formation through the Help America Vote Act.  “Not my president,” became a phrase often used following 2016, and it is used by others in 2020.  If voter distrust in elections was high in 2000, it would be hard to make a case it is lower in 2020.

It’s hard to know if the country has ever been more divided politically.

It’s hard to know this, at least for me, because I actually have not lived and personally observed the nearly 245 years of our nation’s history.  I'm pretty sure no one has.

I’ve read books, seen the commercials for the Time/Life DVDs, listened to scholars, saw Hamilton, and even sing along to They Might Be Giant’s “James K. Polk,” but, you know….it’s all anecdotal.  I haven’t had a front-row seat to the full history.

Funny thing, the Cybersecurity Infrastructure and Security Agency (CISA) appears to have the ability to assess history differently.  CISA is essentially a unit of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson declared elections as critical infrastructure in January 2017, following the 2016 election and just weeks before he departed with the administration change.

I was personally and extremely involved in standing up the governance for this new critical infrastructure segment, although it technically isn’t a new segment, but rather a sub-segment to the Government Buildings segment.

That distinction is important because election administrators initially wondered about all of their components—buildings, mail, vendors, for instance—and how they would be impacted by the critical infrastructure distinction..  It became clear, as the agency name that makes up CISA suggests, that the focus truly was on cybersecurity.  (The oddities of this will have to wait for further posts.)

For now, though, let’s look back at history, short-term, and long-term.

Just seven months ago, in early November, while votes were still being counted and nine days after election day, CISA, through a small Joint Executive Committee of the two counsels that represent the elections as critical infrastructure governance, declared the November 2020 election as "the most secure in American history."

"In American history," I repeat.

Oh.  Maybe I’ve missed the security scorecard rating for each presidential election.  Maybe there is a letter-grade scorecard, much like the way analysts grade NFL teams after each draft.  If so, I overlooked that.

I’m not sure of the rubric CISA used to grade and make this assessment.   How did the historic 2008 presidential election compare?  For that matter, how was the 1908 election assessed and compared? 

What was the least secure election in American history?  We ought to be on that.  Which election just lost the crown and dropped to number two?  How long can 2020 reign as number one?

And, as most Americans read this statement from CISA, we were unaware of the Solar Winds cyber compromise impacting DHS at that very time.  Another global cyber event was unfolding at that time as well.  Surely, CISA knew of these events and still made this statement? (that question was typed in Hopeful font).  

I’m not convinced that the storyline of the 2020 election cybersecurity success is completely known yet, but the nationwide ironclad security that distinguished this election has been repeated to voters daily since November.

Never mind that CISA, better than anyone, would know that cybersecurity effectiveness is a lagging indicator.  There were no zero-day attacks, or attacks known before election day, but that didn’t mean there weren’t compromises yet to be discovered.

As a reminder, CISA spent all of 2017 and 2018 explaining new and emerging details of potential foreign compromises in 2016.

That’s not really the point here, either, but it gets to the fundamental reason for the blog post:

(um…when you recover your voice for good, could you please get to it a little faster?)

For whatever reason—maybe the COVID pandemic, maybe (and more likely) the politics involved—2020’s election involved a major inflection point that must change.

As a local election administrator, when receiving calls and concerns from voters, I invited them to the office for a tour. I sat down with them. I showed them our procedures.

I often say the three words you never want to hear from an election administrator—“Just trust me.” 

"Just trust me" sounds an awful lot like, "It was the most secure election in American history."

In 2020, voters instead were told the election was secure.  Voters were not shown how the election was secure.

Maybe it was the most secure.  But, let's show voters that.  Let's show what we do as election administrators.  

Let voters see the process and procedures.  Let voters decide if the process and procedures are secure.  If voters contend they are not secure, listen, and either make changes or suggest legislative discussions or changes they may want to pursue.


Many may argue this point, citing recounts and risk-limiting audits, or even verification of signature checks.  For the most part, though, to voters these were explanations of activities.  Voters were told these things occurred.

It’s akin to the person upset at a customer service counter.  It’s common to think, “They aren’t getting this so I must talk more, maybe louder,” rather than determining another way to reach the person. 

We reach voters by being inclusive, not dismissive.

I believe, for instance, in North Dakota, that our elections were secure in 2020.  But, watching activities in other states and nationally, I have to reflect.  What could we have done differently in North Dakota in 2020, or, at least, what can we learn from all of this to change the tenor for 2022 and 2024.

I think the answer is to show.  

The most secure election in history?  Show me and let me decide.

Tupperware-tight chain of custody procedures?  Show me and let me decide.

Security around voting machines?  Show me and let me decide.

Only eligible voters voting, and on time?  Show me and let me decide.

I’m not in any way suggesting our elections were anything but secure.  I haven’t met an election administrator who didn’t take security seriously.  It’s who we are as election administrators. 

We, by our nature, are process control freaks.  And, I submit, that core value was not visible the way it should have been in 2020. 

Maybe this was because of COVID, but now that the masks have come off, so must the gloves.

We must commit to showing what we do, going forward.  Transparency is at the core of election administration, and renewed commitment to transparency has to be the guiding principle leading into 2022's elections.

 

 
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