The Best Laid Ballot Plans Go Awry…

m650_1The California Presidential Primary Election is the most complicated election in a four year cycle and has to be among the most complicated in the nation. The ballot for this election features presidential candidates for six political parties.  Each party establishes their own rules and formats for their candidates.  This year, three of the parties have closed their primary which means that only voters already registered with the respective party may vote their candidates.  Three other parties have opened their presidential preference ballot to unaffiliated voters but have closed the election of their party officers.  The result is seven flavors of party ballots for each precinct in the county.

Because the regular Voter Nominated Primary (Top Two) is also on the same ballot for federal, state and county offices, there is also a non-partisan ballot. All voters, affiliated with a party or not, get to vote this portion of the ballot which gives us a total of eight flavors of ballot per precinct with a convoluted decision tree to decide who gets which ballot.  Typically the Top Two primary is straightforward to design and administer, unless there are 34 candidates and a write in for US Senator.  More about that later.

Because a presidential primary is always the most complicated election and the hardest to explain to voters, we spent months developing a plan for both the official ballot and the voter guide to facilitate voter education. Weeks before the candidate filing period ended we had developed and tested mock ups of the ballots and our voter guide.  We accommodated all the variables and constraints of outdated and meaningless formatting, mandatory language, and font size and face requirements in the Election Code and were satisfied that we had everything covered.

We have actively followed and engaged with the President’s Commission for Election Administration (PCEA), and the Center for Design and we tried to adopt their recommendations. We have embraced plain language practices and have considered and adopted many suggestions from language minority groups, from accessibility advocates and from election reform do-gooder organizations of all stripes.

Our designs were the easiest to read and understand, our instructions were as simple and clear as possible, each voter’s ballot was to have offices appear in the same location, and the risk of voter confusion and error would be minimized. As a bonus, our design would save printing and postage costs (for us and the voter) while also reducing the time required to tabulate the voted ballots.

At the last minute, all our work was blown to hell. We now are reduced to a ballot design which is hardly adequate for our needs and the needs of our voters.  The inferior design is driven by a sequence of events entirely outside our control.  The 34 candidates for US Senate triggered a domino effect.  Inflexible, mandated and redundant primary instructions constituted the second domino.  Top down, arbitrary and micromanaging office sequences were the third domino.  The next domino was the 1960s voting system software and hardware which is limited to logic and processing speed only slightly more capable and sophisticated than an abacus.  The next largest domino is the federal and state voting system certification regime that prohibits even the most rudimentary and common sense solutions to programming and database problems which could be fixed by today’s average middle schooler or a free mobile database app.  The final and fatal domino is the reality that there are no better solutions for inadequate voting systems for California for 3-6 years at a minimum.  And then the choices will probably be between various versions of 1990 technology.

The field does not to appear to have learned much since the 200 Presidential election. Despite the recurring cries from commissions, foundations, attorneys, advocates, scholars, think tanks and the public for fixing the things that are wrong with our elections, for making things simpler and less complex, for increasing engagement and participation, for removing barriers and for creating more confidence in our elections; election administration is being smothered by the status quo.

The accretion of outdated and conflicting laws, rules and regulations usually devised by legislators for their own political gain has stressed the system to a near breaking point.  The energetic and blind administration and selective enforcement of purposeless, contradictory laws and regulations actively undermines the integrity of elections.  The inertia of “the way we have always done it” or to choose the most onerous of conflicting statutes is thwarting meaningful reform. The absence of courage to do “what is right” when “what is right” is unpopular or new guarantees election administration to perpetual stasis in an unhealthy state.  In short, election administration is suffering from self-interest, abuse and neglect.

Generally I have been optimistic and have embraced progressive election reforms but I am increasingly concerned that, in the current state of affairs, talk of reform and improvement is only happy talk and wishful thinking. The mass of the whole system may be so weighty as to make it impervious to a paradigm change even by the most intelligent, committed and determined reformers.

But that won’t prevent me, and others, from continuing to tilt at windmills.

Carry on.

 

The Opposite of Courage is Conformity

“The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity.” ~Rollo May

Almost every definition of courage recognizes that courage is not the absence of fear.  Without over-emphasizing or being over-dramatic, we all have fears.  Some of them are deeply personal and private- self doubt, failure, change, acceptance, self worth, control, etc.  These private fears derive from our own experiences and insecurities and we inevitably take them to work with us.  These fears might be either exacerbated or soothed by our workplace environment and interactions.  t, in any case, they are always present and we act in response to them in one way or another.

Rather than responding to fears, the challenge as a leader is to act courageously and to foster courage in others.

               Act.  Courage is action in spite of fear.   Fear paralyzes.  Fear prevents thinking and reasoning.  Fear stifles our voice.  Fear is embodied in the silent, empty-eyed and frozen appearance of the proverbial “deer in the headlights.”  Just as fear and inaction seal the fate of the deer as a car barrels towards its unwitting target; fear, inaction, and conformity seal the fate of individuals and organizations (although not as suddenly or dramatically.)

               Risk making a mistake.  Inaction because of the fear of making a mistake is the greatest single cause of mediocrity in the work place.  The drive for perfection, when it delays or prevents action out of fear of erring or misjudging, robs a person or team of success rather than ensuring it.  When we fail to act in order to avoid embarrassment and the judgment of others if we make a mistake, we reveal fear and weakness.  We are saying that we prefer to be passive and mediocre rather than risk success.

Courage recognizes that mistakes and mis-steps are not failures; they represent the opportunity to learn and grow for ourselves and others. Michael Eisner, Disney CEO, is reported to have said “To punish failure is yet another way to encourage mediocrity.”  When we recognize that mistakes are an essential part of achieving success and withhold harsh judgments, we empower ourselves and others.

Privilege Principle over Expediency. In the public sector administrators and managers operate by a different set of incentives and motivations than our counterparts in the private sector.  Rather than being motivated and incentivized by profits, losses and bonuses, public administrators and elected officials are often motivated by pleasing others and by not causing any waves.  Elected officials place great value on the views and desires of their constituents which they weigh heavily when setting policy and making decisions.  Administrators tend to be risk averse and generally seek to please as many people as possible- the public, peers, and subordinates.

Perhaps more often than we think, pleasing others and doing the right thing come in conflict, creating a situation in which a choice must be made between expediency (pleasing others) and principle (doing the right thing). Expediency considers each decision in a vacuum with the criterion being the optimal outcome for that specific situation. The criteria for decisions based on expediency are expressed in terms of “Who will benefit?”; “Who will get hurt?”; “Who will be angry?”; “Who will know?”; “How will this affect me?”, etc.  The aggregation of decisions based upon expediency result in inequities, inconsistencies, inefficiency, unpredictability, and chaos while maximizing the benefit to the decision maker personally.

On the other hand, decisions based upon principle place self interest in a subordinate position to “doing the right thing.” “Doing the right thing” is another way of describing decisions that treat everyone equally; that enforce or apply rules, policies, ordinances, and laws rather than ignore them. Doing the right thing is consistent over time and across similar cases.  Doing the right thing does not always win friends or bring personal rewards.  It takes courage to make decisions on principle over expediency when the two are in conflict.  It takes a certain courage to even acknowledge that the two are often in conflict.

Have the Courage to Let Go. There is a paradox that the more an administrator wants to touch everything, the more limited and less effective the administrator becomes.  There are things that are so important to us, things that are so threatening, and things that are such a source of insecurity that we will not yield control even over them even when clinging to them is counter-productive.  For example, when we are jealous of our power and authority we insist on being the final word on everything under our control in order to protect our egos and reputations.  We fail to see that this insistence on control actually limits us and increases the probability of some kind of damage to our reputation and standing.

How is that the case? First, it is an inefficient use of an administrator’s time.  The administrator can easily become overwhelmed by minutiae and delay important actions and decisions.  Insisting on having everything one’s way cuts off the introduction of new ideas and approaches from subordinates.  Such control communicates a lack of trust in the judgment and abilities of others and leads to discouragement and the stifling of initiative in the organization.  At best, this level of control maintains the status quo.  At worst it produces untimely and less than optimal decisions.  It leads to staff morale issues and turnover.

Expressing this paradox in terms of its positive rather than negative outcomes, consider the results of giving up some of the things we cling to:

  • More authority and control given to subordinates increases the span of control of the administrator.
  • More trust in the judgment of subordinates increases the timeliness, quality and quantity of decisions.
  • More credit for success given to others reflects more credibility upon the administrator.
  • Fewer secrets and proactive, top-down sharing of information results in more timely, accurate and complete information being reported to the administrator.
  • Greater transparency in decision making leads to greater confidence and trust in the administrator.
  • More kindness and consideration expressed and demonstrated for others leads to more respect being shown to the administrator.

Reward Courage in Others. Our society is quick and willing to recognize and reward heroism but workplace courage is personal and exhibited without fanfare.  It is seldom heroic and it is often non-conforming in character.  Our culture and bureaucratic environment values and rewards conformity and it is uncomfortable with and often punishes non-conformity.  As administrators, one of our obligations as courageous leaders is to foster an environment where the exercise of personal courage by members of our organization is positively recognized and rewarded.  This might mean having the courage oneself to intervene and re-characterize the organization’s view of the behavior from disruptive and “boat rocking” to admirable and positive.

The value and need for courageous words, ideas, and actions in the workplace has been unrecognized and undervalued. It appears certain to me than courage begets courage.  As leaders, we can foster courage in our organizations by developing and exhibiting greater personal courage to act, to risk, to be principled, to “let go” and to reward courage in others.  We can encourage and inspire others to be courageous.  We can choose courage to be great or we can choose mediocrity, conformity and expediency.

Stay Tuned

(Author’s Note: A version of this article was written and published to an audience of public administrators almost exactly four years ago while ramping up for the 2012 Presidential Election. The observations that triggered the article were drawn primarily from the field of election administration but are also representative of conditions in the public sector generally. As election administrators gear up for another, and potentially raucous, presidential election, the moral and practical value of courageous leadership is even more important.)

The Voter Engagement “Two-Step”

texas-two-step-dance

Voter turnout has been on the decline in many jurisdictions for years. California’s turnout in the Gubernatorial election of 2014 was a measly 42%. In the Los Angeles City election held in spring 2015, the turnout was a paltry 11%. Pundits, interest groups and elected officials perceive this decline as a crisis- a problem to be solved immediately. Whether a crisis or not, the trend is disturbing and dispiriting for those who administer elections.

Shaming the populace for its lack of participation is often a thread in media coverage, blogs and social media. The implication is that those who don’t vote lack some moral or ethical quality that should be inherent in all good Americans. Interest groups blame barriers, real or imagined, for the lack of participation of their constituencies. Those who appear on the ballots blame the system as they can’t imagine that voters could really be that apathetic about their ideas or them personally. Some of these propose structural changes which will place contests that generate little interest in their own right onto ballots which attract a higher rate of participation. Such solutions are like rearranging the chairs on the deck of a sinking ship– it looks good but doesn’t solve the problem. And candidly, there are many who are just fine with low participation rates as any increase would be, by definition, by uninformed or ill-informed voters.

While there may be a grain of truth in each of these points of view, none of them frame the issue in a manner which reveals an effective solution. The solutions proposed by each are different versions of doing more of the same thing that is already being done—that is– registering voters. Automatic registration, aggressive enforcement of mandated agency based registrations, registration drives, multi-lingual forms, and on-line voter registration applications are great solutions to the issue of getting voters registered. Unfortunately, these activities which suck up almost all the attention and resources directed at improving turnout do not directly engage voters in participating in the act of voting on Election Day.

Participation and engagement in elections in the US is a two-step process: registration then voting. While we measure the rates for each activity, we ultimately judge ourselves by voter turnout. In California, there is not much more to be done in facilitating voter registration other than sustaining the current efforts.

So what about getting voters to the polls to vote? Surveys continually ask voters why they didn’t vote and common answers include- “it was too hard or inconvenient”, or “I didn’t know where to go”, or some other excuse involving something outside of their own control. With no-excuse vote-by-mail, and in some areas, early voting, “hard and inconvenient” is not a credible response. In a land where not voting is considered by some to be a moral defect, it’s reasonable that many would make this kind of excuse. Mailed notifications of assigned polling locations and the internet with its widespread polling place look up tools make ignorance of where to vote another suspect response to the question.

Responses like: “my vote won’t matter anyway” or “they are all lying/they are all the same” or “none of them represent my views” or “the campaigns were too negative” or “it’s all about money” are closer to the real reasons people don’t vote. Rather than being victims, as suggested by the previous responses, these responses indicate that voters who don’t vote may be doing so out of some type of rational decision making process. These reasons for not voting are out of the direct control of election administrators and point to the need for political solutions and reforms rather than administrative fixes.

Serious efforts to improve voter turnout and engagement must also focus and dedicate resources to the second part of the two-step dance- turning out the voter to the polls. The administrative actions of election officials can directly enhance or suppress the effectiveness of voter registration activities but there are no administrative actions which can address the rational reasons voters stay away from the polls.

Doubling down on registration activities, to include registering younger and younger voters, is not the solution. Changing election dates to game the numbers is form without substance. Making voting more convenient is hardly possible if voters choose not to vote. To those proposing solutions: any real solution to the problem of voter turnout needs to take on the thorny political issues underlying the “my vote won’t matter anyway” or “they are all lying/they are all the same” or “none of them represent my views” or “the campaigns were too negative” or “it’s all about money” responses. The right solutions will give voters reasons to vote– by their own choice.

Stay tuned.

Revisiting Election Costs, Used Cars, and Blue Books

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[Note: A year and a half after I posted some thoughts on election costs to this blog, I participated in a meeting of election officials as part of this project.  The experience harkens visions of the process of calculating election costs as a Rube Goldberg contraption.For those unfamiliar with the expression, Merriam Webster, In 1931, adopted the phrase “Rube Goldberg” as an adjective defined as accomplishing something simple through complicated means.

In the spirit of that image, I thought I would re-post my observations regarding election costs.]

 

“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.

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 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.