Reflections of a Prodigal Election Administrator

prodigal sonAfter nearly two months back in California and back in the society of Election Officials, I have made many observations about the art and profession of administering elections.  Most of these observations are not new but I am seeing them anew and from a slightly different perspective of a scholar and a returning “prodigal”.  I know that after a few more months, I will probably re-assimilate and will lose the perspectives I presently enjoy.

I am always struck and am somewhat in awe of the dedication and hard work of election staffs which are repeatedly demonstrated and which have become central features of a powerful professional culture.  The ability, and even the willingness, to do more of the impossible with even less is the hallmark of dedicated election officials.  Hard work, long hours and working weekends never discourage election officials; in fact, they are a badge of honor of sorts.  As a result of the enormity of the work, the intense public scrutiny and the under-appreciation of their efforts, election officials celebrate their underdog status.  It is understandable if, during this celebration of their resilience and ability to perform the impossible, a sense of fatalism, victimhood and martyrdom creep into the way the business of elections is conceived, planned and conducted.

As an election consultant and itinerant election official, I have spent time with nearly 60 county level election offices and have repeatedly observed that complexity, redundancy, bureaucracy and degrees of difficulty are relished and typify election administration.  Suggestions which reduce the level of difficulty of the work an office performs are often perceived as shortcuts which promote laziness and lack the proper work ethic.  Proposals to simplify and streamline election operations are seen as dangerous and irresponsible. Those who are captured by the predominant professional culture find safety and security in complexity and obfuscation.  Needless to say, those making such suggestions and proposals are sometimes looked upon with suspicion and mistrust for their willingness to deconstruct bureaucratic rules and to interpret statutes permissively.

The danger of the culture of the profession is, if there is any, the propensity to be content with merely working hard at the expense of working smart.  The danger is committing time and resources to activities for which there is no purpose other than to be busy.  The rigid commitment to the “means” without a clear understanding of the ”ends” to be achieved can lead, perversely, to opposite and negative outcomes.  When all rules, processes and operations are granted equal importance and status (i.e. got to do it all, everything is top priority), critical operations and processes are compromised . When everything is “top priority”, everything is also, by definition, the “last priority.”

Sports coaches demand 110% effort of their players and athletes claim to give a 110% level of performance despite the logical fallacy and physical impossibility represented by the expression.  The culture of the election profession seems to cling to similar and equally faulty maxims such as, “If some is good,  then more is better” and “Problems are best solved by throwing resources at them.”   In practice, these maxims (and the 110% effort cliché) are played out by substituting effort, overtime and long hours for planning and effective management.  Besides the added monetary costs this approach represents, it introduces increased human costs: fatigue, exhaustion and reduced alertness and stamina.  These human costs inevitably take a toll on accuracy and efficiency- error rates go up and productivity goes down.  This results, predictably, in more overtime and longer hours…ad infinitum.  While, the toll on physical and mental health is difficult to measure,  election officials incredibly take pride in adapting to and enduring sustained periods of stress.  Bodies and minds succumb eventually which explains why so many election officials routinely become sick and finally need to take time off immediately after an election.

This prodigal thinks that metrics of success and accomplishment in the culture of the elections profession need to change from enduring endless and thankless toil, from successfully coping with mind-numbing complexity (or at least waiting until after the election to breakdown), from  illusion of the effectiveness of multi-tasking while delusional from fatigue, and from juggling as a priority setting strategy.  Success and accomplishments should be measured instead by the absence of crises, the notable reduction of stress and the freedom to enjoy friends, family and college football on Saturday afternoons in October and November.

Stay tuned.