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.


5 thoughts on “Thinking Like Its 1999

  1. Scott, thanks again for articulating the basis for the wisdom of my decision to retire this year. I was not looking forward to leading my office through the changes that I foresaw coming and fortunately had a (young) Deputy Director who, I was confident, was prepared for that challenge. Also fortunately the Board of Elections agreed and, as much as I enjoyed my 25 years as an elections director, being retired is the best job I have ever had.


  2. Scott,

    I believe very much that the type of progress, or regression depending on one’s viewpoint, of which you write will require not only a generational turnover of leadership in election administration in those places where such officials have the type of discretionary authority of which you have previously written in earlier posts, but even more crucially will require nearly comprehensive election code statutory rewrites where such discretion is nearly
    zero as is true in the older eastern states. In my region, election administration is wholly ministerial in nature, with no discretion and all questions are answered by black letter law alone, whether of statute or case law basis.

    I am bemused by the volumes of “reform of process” advocacy of many varied types that emanates from our western states. It is abundantly clear to me that the essential nature of this profession is vastly different from state to state, and any practitioner such as you, Scott, acting in accordance with your advocacy in many eastern states would soon be sacked for exceeding their authority.


    1. Kurt– there is no such thing as election law that is always black and white and unambiguous. Such certitude is uncharacteristic of legislation in our republic and in our states. I agree that some functions may be purely ministerial but to presume that discretion is never warranted, expected or required is in itself a form of bureaucratic discretion that cedes facts, rationality and accountability to lifeless written words without context. This kind of bureaucratic discretion is an abdication of responsibility and possibly a violation of one’s oaths. The Dillon Rule has been repudiated in case law on the practical grounds that the world is too complex to be centrally controlled by a state legislative body even if capable of writing statutes that never require interpretation.


      1. The scrap heap of former Pennsylvania election and administrators and officials, who are mere employees who swear NO OATHS OF OFFICE OF THEIR OWN (they are mere employees of county commissioners, who have all statutory election board authority but almost no hands-on participation) is littered with good people who attempted to finesse the no-authority with full-responsibility position in which they find themselves by trying to squeeze something resembling minimal discretionary authority. All get fired, summarily, eventually.

        On a de jure basis, all power is in the hands of the Commissioners. On a de facto basis, it belongs to their appointed solicitors. Neither job attempts to know actual election practice. The professionalization of election administration is actively OPPOSED by such political actors.


  3. Also, participation in interstate forums is usually forbidden. I had to take vacation time and pay my own hotel to attend a Chantilly, VA conference in March 2005 put on by the LWV, who invited me specifically.


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