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

Moonlighting in California


What would weber do?

The blog has moved to sunny California.  When I started this blog in January 2013 in Salt Lake City, the weather was cold and hazy.  High temperatures were in the teens for 8 weeks which is actually great weather for skiing, the Sundance Film Festival and graduate studies and research.  Temperatures are balmy here in California as I write this post.

With the change of venue and its accompanying shift in perspective, I also have changed from an academic and researcher foremost and administrator/election official second to the opposite relationship.  As a newly appointed California Election Official, I am returning to my bureaucratic roots as my principle endeavor and setting the academy into a secondary role.  Whether I am an academic moonlighting as an administrator or a bureaucrat imitating a scholar will be for the reader to judge.

I have no plans to write about my personal experiences as an administrator in my new capacity.  Brian Newby is already filling that space and journaling insightful perspectives and entertaining experiences. My colleagues, my employees and my employers can rest assured that they will not appear in these musings.  Scholars and other bloggers may not share the same consideration (humor intended).

I will continue to observe the administration of elections from a generalized perspective and attempt to offer observations and analysis of both a theoretical and practical nature which may be meaningful to a wide spectrum of election geeks and enthusiasts.  As a doctoral candidate, I am continuing my studies and research in public administration and political theory.  The subject of my primary research continues to be elections related and my dissertation proposal is an analysis of the effectiveness of federal election reforms (HAVA) specifically, provisional ballots, voter identification and definitions of a valid vote.  By necessity, I am researching and assessing the metrics by which election administration in general and federal reforms can be meaningfully determined.

I welcome questions, insights and critiques on election topics whether or not they are relevant to my posts or my research.     

Stay tuned.

Another Election Blog…

Here we go, another election blog.

So what is the angle this blog will take to set it apart from the other blogs in the space? My friend Brian Newby, the Election Commissioner in Johnson County, KS writes a great blog named “Election Diary” chronicling his experiences and observations as someone who is actually administering elections. How he finds the time to do it, I’ll never know.

Another friend, Doug Chapin, has been in the election blogging business longer than anyone; first with his invaluable and now with his Excellence in Election Administration blog at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Doug’s blogs provide news and commentaries from his self-described “election geek” perspective.

My academic friends; Thad Hall, Mike Alvarez, Paul Gronke, et al., have a scholarly election blog called Election Updates. This is a great blog to see what scholars consider as important election issues and to tune in to their discussion with each other.

Rick Hasen’s Election Law Blog, with the obligatory legal take on election issues rounds outs the suite of terrific election administration related blogs.

So why another election blog?

As a former election administrator, I have a perspective from the practical, front line, rubber-on-the-road point of view without the political limitations that come with being a current administrator. As an aspiring scholar and doctoral candidate in Political Science, I am conversant with the theoretical and research aspects of election and public administration without the research-and-publish culture and ivory tower perspective that sometimes come with life in the academy.

With a foot in both camps, the realm of theory and the world of praxis, it is my ambitious hope that through this blog I may shed light on both perspectives. Maybe I can contribute to bridging the divide and enhancing the dialogue between those who administer elections and those who study elections.

Time will tell and you readers will be the judge.

Scott O. Konopasek