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  We accommodated all the variables and constraints of outdated and meaningless formatting, mandatory language, and font size and face requirements in the Election Code and were satisfied that we had everything covered.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.

 

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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.

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.

“Managership” or Leadership– The State of Election Administration

Public property keep outA review of the literature on public administration from any university textbook, academic anthology or assigned reading list does not reveal a treatment of leadership in a practical or theoretical context.  Organizational theory and decision-making models and management approaches are the bread and butter of the study of public administration.  Ironically, leadership texts are not found in public administration or political science literature; rather, they are found on business reading lists and in business publications. 

When leadership is addressed in the literature, it is treated as a heroic, charismatic personal attribute – a noun.  A person has it or does not, which largely explains why study and research in leadership has been ignored.  I have a different understanding of leadership- as a verb.  Leadership acts on “what might be” instead of limiting itself to “what was.”  Leadership is forward looking- it seeks solutions to tomorrow’s challenges instead of solving yesterday’s problems.  Leadership maximizes and optimizes its existing resources instead of seeking more.  Leadership sees constraints and setbacks as temporary and transient and seeks success in spite of them.  Leadership does not seek silver-bullet solutions nor does it place all its hopes in technology at the expense of processes.  Leadership looks outward and seeks answers from the knowledge and experience of others.  Leadership lifts, values and develops the people surrounding the leader.  Leadership recognizes its stewardship as a system instead of a collection of singular components and, as a result, can see the relationships contained within the whole.   Leadership calculates both long-term and short-term risk and return and has the courage to act decisively.  Leadership seeks excellence and rejects that which is merely adequate.

“Managership” is inward-looking, centered on the present moment and is satisfied with doing what has already been safely and successfully done by themselves or others.  “Managership” muddles through projects and operations seeking outcomes that suffice, or in other words, that which is “good enough for government work.”   “Managership” seeks solutions in increased or new resources- more people, more money and more technology.  “Managership” deals with issues and makes decisions as they occur- chronology is its prioritizing and organizing principle.  “Managership” analyzes and deliberates on single issues as discrete decisions.  “Managership” sees people as tools and expendable commodities to be consumed in the course of business.  “Managership” settles for local efficiencies at the expense of the efficiency and effectiveness of the whole system.  “Managership” celebrates and adopts “best practices” because someone else has already taken the risk of innovating.

The decentralized and sometimes politicized nature of election administration in the US make it difficult to recruit and prepare administrators who are more than bureaucrats, caretakers and guardians of the status quo.  To be sure, the field would be much improved with a more universal application of the principles of “managership” which comprise the core of the best training currently available to election administrators.   While an improvement, “managership” promises only limited benefits.

Leadership, as I am defining it, , is manifest by those fortunate enough to have been mentored and developed by those who are leaders and also by those who bring experience outside of public administration to election administration.  Leadership calls for a more consistent and proactive development of the next generation of leaders.  As a profession, it is incumbent on those who claim leadership to combine their collective knowledge and wisdom to move away from “managership” and to train and prepare tomorrow’s (and today’s) leaders in election administration. 

Who is in?

 

Hiding Behind the Words

Zebra_in_black_and_white There is comfort in seeing the world as black and white.  When the duties of election administrators require decisions, solutions which are black or white are highly preferred.  Shades of gray, interpretation of rules and codes, and the use of discretion are fatuously avoided.  No administrator wants to take unnecessary risk or to explain and justify a decision.  Bureaucrats and administrators carefully seek out simplistic and unambiguous responses from statutes, procedures, precedents, and even the practices of others.

A fundamental premise of this decision making style is that the right answer can be found in rules and statutes and, further, when an answer is found in the rules (or in past practices or best practices), it is, by definition, the right answer.   The right answer is the answer that stands on its own without the decision maker having to accept any responsibility for the answer, i.e. the codes says…”, past practice is…”, other jurisdictions do…”, etc..  The ability to insulate oneself from the consequences or criticism of a decision is not the sole advantage, however, in the minds of those who employ this approach.

There is a normative mindset inherent in those who demand black and white and eschew shades of grey which condemns the interpretation and application of rules and laws.  This approach condemns permissive interpretations and liberal construction of the election code, even when the code provides a range of solutions or directs the application of judgment based upon facts for specific cases.  In this framework, there is no discretion and interpretation is always wrong.  Those who maintain this approach see not only the decisions based upon interpretation and discretion as wrong but also see those who would interpret and use discretion as being corrupt and unethical.

The presumed moral superiority of those who read rules and laws restrictively and who assume to correctness and rightness of pat answers is based upon a false sense of neutrality that such an approach provides.  This view is steeped in the tradition of the politics-administration dichotomy which dominated late 19th and early 20th century public administration theory.  Political leaders made the rules and laws based upon a mandate received by the electorate and the role of the virtuous administrator was to faithfully, and with neutrality, implement the will of legislators.  This theory assumes that all situations can be/should be/are addressed in legislation and that the legislators have the expertise to provide technical solutions to complex questions.  Scholars, ethicists, legislators and administrators have all recognized practical and theoretical limitations of governing in this manner but the mindset persists in many current administrators.  It is these administrators who I refer to as bureaucrats.

Bureaucrats do not seem to realize that, in an attempt to avoid errors of discretion and interpretation, they themselves make their own interpretations and use their own discretion.  They use to use choose restrictive and literal interpretations regs, rules and laws even when these decisions are not consistent with facts or with other sections of code. 

There are two important points I am trying to make in this post.  First, a literal, restrictive, black and white reading of governing documents for decision and policy making is equally, although unconsciously, interpretive and discretionary as the approaches of deliberate interpretation and the conscious use of administrative discretion.  There is no legal, ethical or moral high ground to be gained by appeals to literal readings when there is space for interpretation.  In fact, the opposite may be true. 

Let me refer to a recent discussion regarding the mailing of information to voters pertaining to a specific election.  The Election code directs administrators to mail the material to voters as early as 40 days prior to the election.  At the time the code was written, the deadline for registering was 29 days prior to the election and there is a provision in the code that indicates that voter information should be sent to everyone registered 29 days prior to the election.  Since that time, the registration deadline has been moved to 15 days prior to the election but the practice of cutting off mailing voter information at 29 days continues in many places.  When I asked why people who register between the 15th and 29th day dont get voter information, I was told that the 29 day cut-off was interpreted to prohibit sending voter information even when new voters were legitimately registered and there were adequate time and resources to do the mailing.  The suggestion of mailing to these voters was perceived to be provocative and subversive, not to mention reckless.

To be clear on the matter, the code did not direct nor did it prohibit mailing information after 29 days.  It was simply interpreted to mean that registrants after 29 days would not be mailed the same information that other voters received.  At some point in time the 29 day cut off made sense but over time, as other laws changed and printing and mailing technologies evolved, the interpretation somehow evolved to a prohibition on mailing to these voters.  When I challenged this interpretation by asking why it was good service and good policy to withhold the mailing, the answer was predictable– “the code says…”  When I pointed out that it was actually cheaper to do the mailing after 15 days, it reduced returned mail, and it was a greater service to voters; I received a slightly different yet obstinate response-“the code doesn’t say we can….”

My second point is that hiding behind a literal or black and white interpretation sets up intransigent and counter-intuitive policy positions that serve no public interest and often result in high visibility lawsuits which are costly and undermine confidence in our institutions.  There are many notable examples: the 2004 San Diego County case in which clearly legible write-in votes were not counted, reversing the apparent outcome of the election, because the write-in votes were not machine readable (the bubble was not filled in) but were clearly human readable;  the 2009 Hamilton County, Ohio case in which provisional ballots were not counted because the ballot was cast at the right polling place but the wrong precinct ballot was used (even though the ballot contents were identical); and the 2012 Allegheny County, PA case in which reporters were banned from entering a polling place and reporting on voting on Election Day.  The list could go on and on.

Good elections are based upon good decisions- not bureaucratic decisions.  Good decisions are based upon an ethic that seeks the protection of constitutional principles, individual rights, and the respect for the rule of law. 

Stay tuned.

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.