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Inside or Outside the Box?

Several times during the election conference I am attending, I have heard the expression “outside the box.” To no one’s surprise, many (but not all) of these comments were directed at me and many of the ideas I have expressed in this blog. Like much jargon, overuse has changed the original meaning of the term. Originally, the term was positive and conveyed innovation. The tone and meaning of this week ‘s comments ranged from “I never thought of it that way before” and “Dude, you are waaay out there.” The latter implying that being “outside the box” is a negative and unsafe place to be. These polar opposite normative takes on the expression appear to echo the attitudes the speakers hold on change (see my previous post “Faster Horses and Election Administration“.)

It occurs to me that those who see being outside the box as dangerous may be drawing the box too small. There is a perception that external constraints, i.e. legislation, regulations, traditions, past practices and fear, compress the size of the “box.” The smaller box is drawn by segments of a wide and varied cast- administrators, legislators, vendors, academics, advocacy groups, and of the political class.

Yesterday a direct question about these kinds of constraints was posed to me and here is my response:

“Election Administration is always performed in the context of statutory and regulatory constraints. Effective administration is able to manage and succeed within any framework. In CA at the moment the statutory and regulatory framework is difficult and arguably overly complicates administration generally and HAVA implementation specifically. Having said that, my position is that these constraints should not be used as an excuse. My past and present experience confirms generous areas in which administrators can and should be using their knowledge, expertise, judgement and discretion to reform or create more effective practices to manage within safely within existing laws and limits. Certainly, administrators acting collectively and collaboratively can influence the changes and reforms to these constraints more effectively than actions by single counties/voices. Unfortunately, administrators tend to be focused on preserving the status quo rather than creating and embracing a vision of what could/should be in a set of future laws and regulations.”

As I penned this response it occurred to me that there is often more room in the “box” than what we see and use. In fact, thinking is seldom truly “outside the box.” The “boxes” we operate in as we administer elections is really a very large “box.” When we realize this and draw the “box” larger, it is much safer to consider new, unconventional and innovative ideas.

To improve the practices and administration of elections, to find solutions to complex issues, to successfully collaborate, share and innovate, we should recognize that our “box” is large and that the constraints of a “box” are largely self-imposed.

faster horses

Faster Horses and Election Administration

I haven’t posted for a while even though I have written at least a half dozen drafts on different topics but could never complete and post them.  I have been trying to figure out why I couldn’t wrap up my thoughts in any of the draft posts.  I seem to have been of two minds as I wrote each of them.

The title of this blog is “theory and praxis” which were intentionally used to illustrate the exclusive tendencies of each.  During the last few months of settling back into the rhythm and routine of an election administrator, theories and thoughts of how elections should be conducted and the reality of implementing those ideas have repeatedly collided in a type of public administration dialectic.

Scholars espouse and promote theories and studies of how elections could and should be conducted with the underlying assumption that election administration needs to improve.  Election administrators, on the other hand, protect the status quo as sufficient and count on a hardy dose of hard work and self-sacrifice to make up for any shortfall between good and good enough.

With a foot in each camp, I often become conflicted.

Improving election administration requires changes in an entrenched profession—changes in assumptions, changes in values, changes in expectations, changes in practices, changes in policies and changes in procedures.  The psychological, intellectual and physical effort that it takes to change the elections culture and practices, even in small organizations, is tremendous as I know first-hand.  I always expect those most directly involved in change- the staff- to be the most resistant to new ways of seeing things.  Interestingly I have noted that colleagues from other jurisdictions get may wind of changes and, when they do, they can react with the same visceral responses as staff- sometimes even more dramatically as they don’t need to maintain the same working relationships.  Similarly, those who have left the profession often find it hard to accept that change is occurring in their absence and find it hard to resist stirring the pot or criticizing.

folding_plow_truck_dmc5Another observation has been that change implies to some that current practices are wrong or broken.  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a mantra that is overused and has become a defense and risk aversion strategy.  While there is some merit to the wisdom of not tinkering with something that is already working, a literal belief in the maxim means that change only happens when something fails.  Change then becomes a condemnation of the previous practice.  Such a view devalues growth and learning and is antithetical to practices that promote continuous improvement.  It fails to recognize the value of going from good to better while preserving a “good enough” culture.

I vacillate between defending the practices and attitudes of election administrators on one hand and rigorously criticizing the bureaucratic and status quo culture of the profession on the other hand.  I have great respect and sympathy for election administrators and endlessly admire their earnestness and hard work, after all I have been one myself for nearly twenty years.  But, I also believe that improvements must be made to the way elections are administered if confidence in the system is to be retained—and improvements mean changes are required.

I alternate, even as I write this, between being too soft and too harsh in my analysis and critique of the profession of election administration and its resistance to new assumptions, new values, new expectations, new practices, new policies new procedures and new metrics.  Henry Ford is reported to have remarked on the earthshaking change his innovative assembly line manufacturing introduced to the world by noting “If I had asked them what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”  Sometimes the election profession cannot envision what could be as it is so content with and protective of the familiar and only aspires to faster horses instead of race car.

Now my two minds are revealed.  I haven’t yet worked out how to reconcile the minds yet but I at least have more insight into why the last months have been so conflicted and exhausting.

Stay tuned.

Thinking Like Its 1999

imageEach January election officials from across the country as well as many others from government and industry gather in what is called the “Joint Election Official Legislative Committee.” As the name implies, the focus is legislation and developments at the federal level that impact election practices at the local level. Of all the professional meetings held throughout the year by the election profession, this is the most substantive and useful. The networking which occurs among officials from across the country and with others with election related interests is one of the great benefits of the meetings. Despite differing structures, laws, terminologies and sensitivities, the issues and challenges faced by election officials are very similar if not identical.

Typically the topics discussed are voting systems, money and resources, technology, postal regulations, civil rights enforcement, census as well as any proposed legislation. During the first session, attendees are asked what issues are of particular interests for discussion during the multi-day conference. In this morning’s meeting, the issues were not solely the typical reiteration of the usual topics but no clear theme emerged until, Alysoun McLaughlin, the Deputy Director of Elections in Montgomery County, MD, articulated one.
She proposed that we discuss internal processes for effectively managing technology and election processes instead of merely its acquisition. That theme was picked up and added to as others cited her recent piece which was reposted by Doug Chapin and spoke to the need of using language and terminology that is meaningful for those observing the elections process.

This theme echoes much of what I have been proposing in this blog- there is a need for the profession to focus on management skills and professional practices -themes which appeal to some but not to many in the profession. Technical subjects- voting machines, pollworkers, lawsuits, budgets, registration- dominate our discussions while “soft” subjects- leadership, management, performance management, staff development, etc are seldom addressed.

What is the discussion to address the issues Alysoun has raised? Individual voices calling for the introduction of “soft” practices such as Lean quality management practices and administrative reforms are like voices in the wilderness. How can the profession embrace a culture of continuous improvement? How can we leave behind the critical issues of 1999 and more effectively address the issues of 2013?

I am increasingly beginning to believe that those of us who have been in the profession for years and the institutions we have created (and lead) are not best situated or equipped to address 21st century election administration issues. It is promising to see the post-boomer generation move into leadership roles, create new institutions and ask the questions that haven’t been asked nearly enough.

Stay tuned.

The ElectionGuru Reviews 2013

Guru?  Really?

Guru? Really?

This is the time of the year that many look back over the past year and assess the significance of recent history.  These retrospectives can be helpful in situating ourselves as we enter a new year and can serve as a basis of future improvement.  I thought I would offer my own review of the last year in the field of elections.

Beginning on personal notes—it was nearly a year ago that I launched this blog.  My posts have been read by thousands of people around the world (nearly 20% are readers outside the US) and have occasionally triggered interesting conversations about the administration of elections.  Through this blog I have met many new colleagues and have renewed relationships with others.  My posts have been personally cathartic and have hopefully added to the knowledge base and conversations about election administration in both “theory and praxis.”

Further the year has brought a personal “return to the trenches” of election administration from the halls and towers of academia.  Ironically this change has confirmed to me the uneasy (maybe even incompatible) relationship between administration and academia on practical, cultural and professional levels.   Practitioners seem to lose standing with academic colleagues while fellow election officials grant little credibility to theoretical and scientific approaches to public/election administration.  Nonetheless, I and this blog, have a firmly planted foot in each camp and will continue to attempt to frame issues and topics in a way to foster common understanding and collaboration.

I hoped to trigger many conversations with this blog.  While the exchanges and discussions we have had have been thoughtful and interesting, I hope for more meaningful discussions in 2014.  Please share your ideas and responses to the ideas in this blog with all the readers.  Many readers have shared or retweeted this blog.  Please pass on the ideas, posts and links to those who study, administer, report on or have an interest in elections.

We lost a giant in the field of elections administration with the passing of Dick Smolka in 2013.  Dick and his ”Election Administration Report” were not only icons, Dick was a friend, mentor and role model for generations of us in the field of elections.

2013 saw the end of more than a decade of Doug Chapin’s Electionline and ElectionWeekly which has left a huge void in the daily routine, socialization and education election geeks around the country.  Doug’s Election Academy Blog, Brian Newby’s Election Diary, Rick Hasen’s Election Law Blog, NCSL’s Canvass newsletter and this Election Guru blog are the new on-line gathering places.

The President appointed another commission to examine the administration of elections and make recommendations.  The Commission has completed its hearings and information collection and we are awaiting its report.  The Election Assistance Commission’s future is uncertain and the organization is still rudderless without Commissioners or an Executive Director.

There has been no significant change in federally certified voting technologies or products.  Aging HAVA era voting systems remain the most viable systems going into the 2016 Presidential election cycle.  California passed SB 360 which changes the requirement for federal certification, streamlines the state process for certifying voting systems and offers the possibility of new development and business models to get system to the market and in use.  Time will tell.

The SCOTUS gave us two major election related decisions in 2013, both of which leave doors open for new issues and legal challenges.  In Shelby County v. Holder, the Court struck down Section V of the Voting Rights Act but left Section IV intact.  The decision did not remove the authority of the DOJ to enforce provisions of the VRA but merely removed the requirement for pre-clearance.  In Arizona et al. v. Intertribal Council of Arizona, the decision to strike down the Arizona requirement for proof of citizenship at the time of registration was less a decision than a punt.  The Court found that as the proof of citizenship provisions were not on the prescribed federal registration form, the state could not require the information if the registration was to be used for the voter rolls in a federal election.  The decision offered no opinion on the constitutionality of the proof of citizenship requirement and opened the door to dual (federal and state) registration rolls.

Several states, Florida, North Carolina and Kansas and others, continued to pass restrictive election laws on the pretext of preventing fraud even though there is no evidence of the type of fraud the measures could detect and prevent.

Internet voting in the US is still stuck in 1999 (and is likely to stay there for another generation) despite the efforts of FVAP to facilitate electronic delivery (and return) of ballots and election information to service members deployed abroad.

On a positive note- a generation of young, smart and action-oriented election officials is entering the field.  This generation is well exemplified by Kammi Foote, the Clerk, Recorder, Registrar of Inyo County, CA, who recently organized an international panel of scholars, administrators, technologist, vendors and activists to discuss the future of voting technologies.  It will take a generational change led by people like Kammi to find solutions for today’s most insoluble issues in the field of elections.

While much has happened in 2013, in the end, little if anything has really changed.  That shouldn’t be hard to improve upon.

Stay tuned

Election Costs, Used Cars, and Blue Books

kelly_blue“The bill is just a made-up number.  The true problem in health care is we don’t understand our costs. If you don’t know your costs, you can’t drive down health spending in this country.” ~ University of Utah Health Sciences Senior Vice President Vivian Lee (Salt Lake Tribune, December 16, 2013)

This quote might have easily been made about election costs.  Last week at the California Election Officials’ New Law Conference in Sacramento, it was announced that the Future of California Elections (FOCE) and the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials (CACEO) received a generous grant from the Irving Foundation to study the cost of elections in California.  There were few details offered about the scope, purpose and objectives of the study and no details on either the FOCE website or the Irvine Foundation site which is probably because the grant was recently announced.

The cost of elections has long been an interest of mine.  I chaired the Washington State Auditors Association Task Force on Election Costs from 1999-2002.  I have defended billing practices from challenges by Elected Officials, Fiscal Officers and Financial Auditors.  I have developed, documented and implemented county election cost calculators and billing protocols for a half dozen jurisdictions.    I have written legislative proposals, academic papers and even recently blogged on the question of election costs- The Mystery of Election Costs.

It is this long-term interest in election costs that has triggered a myriad of questions about what is(are) the question(s) the research is intended to answer; from which point of view will the issue be considered; about whether policy proposals are intended to be a work product of the study.

How much does that election cost?  Sounds like a simple and straight forward question, right? Maybe if you are a member of the public, activist or a scholar. 

If you are a county legislator, administrator or budget person you are probably asking questions like:  How much was actually expended for the election?  How much in addition to previously appropriated funds were expended?  How much were local funds?  How much was offset by revenue?  What is the difference between current expenditures and expected reimbursement?

If you are the entity for whom the election was conducted you are asking:  How much are you charging me for this election?  What are the indirect costs you are charging me?  What is my cost per voter compared to the cost per voter of others or the past?  Why is it so much?

If you are someone concerned about the cost of elections with dreadfully low participation rates or someone seeking to sensationalize low turnout you would be asking:  What was the cost of each vote cast in the election?

This type of thing should not be very surprising to anyone who has asked, “What does that car cost?”  Everyone has heard of the “Kelly Blue Book”, the authoritative guide to pricing a car, but few know that there are different versions with different values depending on who you are and your reason for asking the question.  The consumer has one version for private sales which contains high and low values depending on the condition of the car.  Most consumers think this is the only book and everyone is working with the same information.  Not so.  Different versions of the Blue Book are closely held and contain different values based upon whether you are a dealer and reselling a car, a dealer taking a car in trade or an insurance agent calculating salvage or replacement value.  The cost of the exact same car, like an election, is calculated based upon the assumptions you make, your reason for asking and the capacity in which you ask the question.  The answer is never the same.

Any study of election costs which does not acknowledge these realities can save a lot of time and money and conclude right up front, like health care in the quote above, “The [cost] is just a made up number.”

Stay tuned.

Management by the Lowest Common Denominator

lcdManagement by the Lowest Common Denominator (LCD) is a prevalent although inefficient management style in the public sector and one which characterizes the field of election administration. This style of leadership is based on a negative view of people and human nature and is intended to hedge against this nature.  In the field of elections, this is idea is expressed in such terms as:  voters are dumb, poll workers always screw up, temp workers are lazy, observers always cause problems and so on.

Management by LCD explicitly recognizes that mistakes will be made and some individuals can’t be counted on to do what they are asked.  It is true in most organizations that errors are made, misunderstandings occur, some things which should happen don’t get done, and some things that shouldn’t happen occur anyway.  Because these types of things could occur, management by LCD acts as if they must happen.  Because some people will make mistakes or not understand simple instructions, everyone is treated as if they are screw ups and dummies.  This is the idea of the Lowest Common Denominator in action.

In response, rules, policies, decisions, and procedures are developed in anticipation of the actions of the LCD.  This response inevitably leads to repetitive, overly prescriptive and micro-management tactics.  Management by LCD attempts to anticipate every situation and contingency and to prescribe, in advance, a standard solution since others cannot be trusted to problem solve or use their own judgment to handle situations.  Because someone might do it wrong (or differently than the manager), no one is permitted to anything other than follow instructions.  Management by LCD spends endless amounts of time contemplating unlikely “what ifs…” and exceptions at the expense of formulating efficient procedures to handle routine situations.  Ironically, despite all the time and effort to anticipate mistakes and prevent exceptions, mistakes and exceptions are never eliminated.

Management by LCD does not focus on how to best serve the 99% of the customer base efficiently and effectively; rather, it dedicates the majority of its energy and resources to anticipating and resolving potential problems of the 1%.  Of course not all possibilities can be predicted and anticipated in advance since humans are so adept at creatively making errors and misunderstandings.  The fact that exceptions are never eliminated reinforces the need for practitioners of management by LCD to manage in this fashion.  In a viciously circular logic, the inability to prevent exceptions drives management by LCD to expend increasing resources to resolve potential, future problems of a tiny minority at the expense of serving the vast majority.

Not only is management by LCD highly inefficient in delivering services and costly in fiscal terms, it is expensive in human terms as it is demoralizing and punitive to those who work in organizations who practice management by LCD.  Management by LCD prevents capitalizing on the strengths, knowledge and initiative of team members, further contributing to the ineffectiveness of the organization.

Those who have a tendency to manage by the lowest common denominator should take a step back and question their assumptions and ask themselves “Do I give a lot of thought about what people might do wrong or do I do I count on people doing what’s right?”; “Do I try to compensate for possible failures or do I try to facilitate successes?”; “Do I think people are dumb or do I think I need to do a better job communicating expectations?”  “Do I plan for failure or do I plan for success?”  If the responses to these questions point to a style of management by LCD, there are tremendous operational efficiencies, fiscal savings and human successes to be claimed by abandoning “lowest common denominator” thinking.

Stay tuned.

Courtesy of the Johnson City Press

The Mystery of Election Costs

Courtesy of the Johnson City Press

Courtesy of the Johnson City Press

Seldom does a week goes by that I am not asked by a jurisdiction to provide estimates of election costs for a series of hypothetical scenarios under consideration.  In the US there is a wide range of costs for an election depending upon the county, the date, the number of participants and the accounting and billing methods used by a county.  Providing an estimate is not a science- it is an art form.  An estimate must not understate the actual costs that will be billed nor should it greatly overstate the costs.  Estimates which are not in-line with the actual costs undermine the credibility of election officials and invites accountants and financial managers to scrutinize the way election costs are calculated, often opening up a window into the bizarre and byzantine

Typical consumer cost models

We live in a society where the price of almost everything we purchase is pre-determined and not subject to negotiation- with the notable exceptions of real estate and autos.  The price of a gallon of milk is clearly marked, doesn’t change from one customer to another and does not change between the trek from refrigerator case to the checkstand.  The price doesn’t vary by the number other people buying milk from the same store on the same day.  The price per ounce is based upon the contents and not by the portion consumed. 

When we take our car to a car wash we pay a fixed price to have it cleaned.  We are not charged by the wheel, the number of doors or the number of windows.  We are paying for a service- to have our car cleaned and these variables and others such as the amount of water used, the number of rags soiled or the number of people working on the car do not change the price or the value of the service.

Free riders are not welcome in our normal world of business transactions.  If a pizza is shared four ways we recognize the inherent unfairness in splitting the cost among only three of the four parties.  Similarly, if a person asks to tag along on a road trip and offers only to pay the incremental increase in fuel consumption because, after all everyone else was already will to pay the cost of the fuel for the trip, the request would be difficult to seriously consider.  

Typical election cost models.

In contrast, the cost of elections for most jurisdictions is characterized by some or all of the scenarios above.  Jurisdictions commit to conducting elections with no idea what the final cost will be and with no ability to control the variables which influence the cost.  Elections are seldom viewed as a service with a single price.  Rather elections are considered a set of commodities or parts with each charged separately.  Some jurisdictions (federal and state, courts) never pay their share of an election and shift the costs to others.  Some only pay the direct incremental cost of adding their issue to the ballot; in fact, a recent bill passed by the California legislature (SB 279) specifically prohibits counties from charging the proportional cost a specific district seeking to place a measure on the ballot in 9 counties in 2014.

More complicating factors.

Newspaper headlines often declare extravagant costs for each ballot cast in an election causing outrage and pandemonium.  Election costs are incurred based upon the number of voters who might show up and not the number of voters who actually do vote.  Elections are like catered parties and their cost is based upon the number of guests.  If you invite 100 guests, set 100 places, order 100 meals based  upon a cost of $10 per guest, the total cost will be $1,000.  If only 13 guests show up the cost to the host is still $1,000 even though the $10 cost per anticipated guest changes to $76.92 for each actual guest.  Election costs must always be considered on a potential voter basis and not an actual cost per ballot cast.

Cost comparisons between counties are inevitable as we comparison shop for almost everything in our society nowadays.  There is no common regulation or agreement regarding which expenses are billable and how they are calculated.  There is no agreed upon formula for how costs are allocated.  These realities make comparisons an apples-to-oranges exercise and not an apples-to-apples exercise.  Furthermore, even with an apples-to-apples comparison, elections are a monopoly in most places and jurisdictions cannot choose to do business with a cheaper county. 

In an effort to shop for better election prices, many local jurisdictions have shifted their elections from odd years, in which there are fewer jurisdictions with which to share the cost, to even years where they hope for a lower cost per voter.  The initial result was a savings for some while costs for odd year elections were shifted to those not making the change.  The predictable result has been that nearly all jurisdictions in some counties hold their elections in an even year.  The result is an obscenely long, cumbersome and costly ballot in even years and no election at all in odd years.

Claims for reimbursement for state mandates, exemptions from certain charges, indirect cost calculations and other local peculiarities further add complexity to the already complex and non-standard practice of estimating and billing election costs.

Some considerations for election cost reform.

The first consideration is broadening the measure of election costs from solely quantifiable fiscal metrics to include some qualitative metrics based upon the founding principles of our nation.  The even-year crowding of the ballot obscures candidates in contests further down the ballot.  Opportunities to address local issues are drowned out in the in the media blitzes and information overload of federal and state contests.  While fiscal costs may be lower, the costs of an uniformed electorate should be considered and weighted more heavily.  The cost to the integrity of the election of local officers of voters skipping or abstaining from voting local offices as a result of ballot-fatigue and a lack of information about the candidates should also be a non-fiscal cost consideration.

Some might say that it is naive to propose these qualitative measures since the status quo operates to the advantage of the incumbents who prefer to sneak under the electoral radar either unopposed or by relying in their name recognition advantage.  When election glitches occur, it is often these same local officials who pontificate against election administrators from the dais about the “sanctity of the franchise” and invoke the “blood and sacrifice” of those who have fought to protect our form of government.  If these are more than opportunistic platitudes, it seems that they should be included in any calculation of the cost of elections.

Second, the election community should consider a fee for service model for estimating and allocating the fiscal cost of elections.  When I recently took my car to have the water pump replaced, the service person looked up the year and make of my car and the service to be performed in a database, established by the automotive industry, and told me what they would charge as the labor for the service.  The guidelines in the database said that it would take an average of 3.5 units of labor to perform the requested service.  The number of units was multiplied by the billable labor rate of the type of person who would do the work.  The price would not change whether the mechanic was extremely experience and efficient and replaced the water pump in 1.5 hours or if the mechanic was a rookie and it took six hours.

An election is a service just like replacing a water pump.  The service is placing an issue or issues on a ballot which is made available to all eligible voters and the results of the voting are tabulated and reported in an accurate and timely manner.  That service is the same in a special election, an even year election, a primary election or an odd year election.  In a fee for service model, the cost for the exact same service would not vary because of unrelated and unpredictable reasons. 

Just like the mechanic used the variables of year, make and model, and the service to be performed, why can’t the service cost of an election be based upon the number of voters, the number of contests and the type of election (poll or by mail) regardless of the actual expenditure of time and resources?

Such a change would require changing the current, byzantine election cost paradigm and aligning it with the pricing and cost estimating paradigm we operate in on a daily basis.  Free-riders would be eliminated.  Prices would be predictable.  All would pay a rate proportional to size and scope of services.  To affect such a change, the cost of elections would have to be standardized across jurisdictional lines. 

Is it possible?