Revisiting Election Costs, Used Cars, and Blue Books

kelly_blue

[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.

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.

Election Costs, Used Cars, and Blue Books

kelly_blue“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.

The Mystery of Election Costs

Courtesy of the Johnson City Press

Courtesy of the Johnson City Press

Seldom does a week goes by that I am not asked by a jurisdiction to provide estimates of election costs for a series of hypothetical scenarios under consideration.  In the US there is a wide range of costs for an election depending upon the county, the date, the number of participants and the accounting and billing methods used by a county.  Providing an estimate is not a science- it is an art form.  An estimate must not understate the actual costs that will be billed nor should it greatly overstate the costs.  Estimates which are not in-line with the actual costs undermine the credibility of election officials and invites accountants and financial managers to scrutinize the way election costs are calculated, often opening up a window into the bizarre and byzantine

Typical consumer cost models

We live in a society where the price of almost everything we purchase is pre-determined and not subject to negotiation- with the notable exceptions of real estate and autos.  The price of a gallon of milk is clearly marked, doesn’t change from one customer to another and does not change between the trek from refrigerator case to the checkstand.  The price doesn’t vary by the number other people buying milk from the same store on the same day.  The price per ounce is based upon the contents and not by the portion consumed. 

When we take our car to a car wash we pay a fixed price to have it cleaned.  We are not charged by the wheel, the number of doors or the number of windows.  We are paying for a service- to have our car cleaned and these variables and others such as the amount of water used, the number of rags soiled or the number of people working on the car do not change the price or the value of the service.

Free riders are not welcome in our normal world of business transactions.  If a pizza is shared four ways we recognize the inherent unfairness in splitting the cost among only three of the four parties.  Similarly, if a person asks to tag along on a road trip and offers only to pay the incremental increase in fuel consumption because, after all everyone else was already will to pay the cost of the fuel for the trip, the request would be difficult to seriously consider.  

Typical election cost models.

In contrast, the cost of elections for most jurisdictions is characterized by some or all of the scenarios above.  Jurisdictions commit to conducting elections with no idea what the final cost will be and with no ability to control the variables which influence the cost.  Elections are seldom viewed as a service with a single price.  Rather elections are considered a set of commodities or parts with each charged separately.  Some jurisdictions (federal and state, courts) never pay their share of an election and shift the costs to others.  Some only pay the direct incremental cost of adding their issue to the ballot; in fact, a recent bill passed by the California legislature (SB 279) specifically prohibits counties from charging the proportional cost a specific district seeking to place a measure on the ballot in 9 counties in 2014.

More complicating factors.

Newspaper headlines often declare extravagant costs for each ballot cast in an election causing outrage and pandemonium.  Election costs are incurred based upon the number of voters who might show up and not the number of voters who actually do vote.  Elections are like catered parties and their cost is based upon the number of guests.  If you invite 100 guests, set 100 places, order 100 meals based  upon a cost of $10 per guest, the total cost will be $1,000.  If only 13 guests show up the cost to the host is still $1,000 even though the $10 cost per anticipated guest changes to $76.92 for each actual guest.  Election costs must always be considered on a potential voter basis and not an actual cost per ballot cast.

Cost comparisons between counties are inevitable as we comparison shop for almost everything in our society nowadays.  There is no common regulation or agreement regarding which expenses are billable and how they are calculated.  There is no agreed upon formula for how costs are allocated.  These realities make comparisons an apples-to-oranges exercise and not an apples-to-apples exercise.  Furthermore, even with an apples-to-apples comparison, elections are a monopoly in most places and jurisdictions cannot choose to do business with a cheaper county. 

In an effort to shop for better election prices, many local jurisdictions have shifted their elections from odd years, in which there are fewer jurisdictions with which to share the cost, to even years where they hope for a lower cost per voter.  The initial result was a savings for some while costs for odd year elections were shifted to those not making the change.  The predictable result has been that nearly all jurisdictions in some counties hold their elections in an even year.  The result is an obscenely long, cumbersome and costly ballot in even years and no election at all in odd years.

Claims for reimbursement for state mandates, exemptions from certain charges, indirect cost calculations and other local peculiarities further add complexity to the already complex and non-standard practice of estimating and billing election costs.

Some considerations for election cost reform.

The first consideration is broadening the measure of election costs from solely quantifiable fiscal metrics to include some qualitative metrics based upon the founding principles of our nation.  The even-year crowding of the ballot obscures candidates in contests further down the ballot.  Opportunities to address local issues are drowned out in the in the media blitzes and information overload of federal and state contests.  While fiscal costs may be lower, the costs of an uniformed electorate should be considered and weighted more heavily.  The cost to the integrity of the election of local officers of voters skipping or abstaining from voting local offices as a result of ballot-fatigue and a lack of information about the candidates should also be a non-fiscal cost consideration.

Some might say that it is naive to propose these qualitative measures since the status quo operates to the advantage of the incumbents who prefer to sneak under the electoral radar either unopposed or by relying in their name recognition advantage.  When election glitches occur, it is often these same local officials who pontificate against election administrators from the dais about the “sanctity of the franchise” and invoke the “blood and sacrifice” of those who have fought to protect our form of government.  If these are more than opportunistic platitudes, it seems that they should be included in any calculation of the cost of elections.

Second, the election community should consider a fee for service model for estimating and allocating the fiscal cost of elections.  When I recently took my car to have the water pump replaced, the service person looked up the year and make of my car and the service to be performed in a database, established by the automotive industry, and told me what they would charge as the labor for the service.  The guidelines in the database said that it would take an average of 3.5 units of labor to perform the requested service.  The number of units was multiplied by the billable labor rate of the type of person who would do the work.  The price would not change whether the mechanic was extremely experience and efficient and replaced the water pump in 1.5 hours or if the mechanic was a rookie and it took six hours.

An election is a service just like replacing a water pump.  The service is placing an issue or issues on a ballot which is made available to all eligible voters and the results of the voting are tabulated and reported in an accurate and timely manner.  That service is the same in a special election, an even year election, a primary election or an odd year election.  In a fee for service model, the cost for the exact same service would not vary because of unrelated and unpredictable reasons. 

Just like the mechanic used the variables of year, make and model, and the service to be performed, why can’t the service cost of an election be based upon the number of voters, the number of contests and the type of election (poll or by mail) regardless of the actual expenditure of time and resources?

Such a change would require changing the current, byzantine election cost paradigm and aligning it with the pricing and cost estimating paradigm we operate in on a daily basis.  Free-riders would be eliminated.  Prices would be predictable.  All would pay a rate proportional to size and scope of services.  To affect such a change, the cost of elections would have to be standardized across jurisdictional lines. 

Is it possible?

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.

“Measure twice, cut once.” Election Data and Norm Abram

Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement.  If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it.  If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it.  If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it. ~ H.  James Harrington

me and normThe pithy maxim “Measure twice, cut once” is the title of a book by one of my heroes- master woodworker, Norm Abram of PBS series “The New Yankee Workshop.”  Silently repeating this advice to myself as I undertake making the cuts for a new woodworking project has saved me countless hours of labor and untold dollars in materials.   Besides the obvious wisdom of double checking a measurement before committing a board to the teeth of sharp saw, there are other critical aspects of measuring to be considered:

  1. The accuracy of the measuring instrument must precise and consistent.  Poorly designed or hastily constructed measuring tools lead to work products of uncertain quality.
  2. The instrument must be calibrated in the right units of measurement.   To make a measurement in inches and fractions, the rule must be in the right units.  A metric rule or a rule incremented in tenths of an inch may be accurate for its respective purpose but is inaccurate if measuring for fractions of inches.  The impulse to simply convert between units of measure with confidence in its accuracy is a fallacy.  Conversion always introduces error and cannot be consistently replicated.
  3. Identical measuring instruments yield different results.  Slight variations in the scale and condition are introduced through use, wear and tear.  The same instrument should be used throughout a project for accuracy and consistency.  Switching instrumentation in the middle of a project introduces unequal lengths and loose joints (error and uncertainty).
  4.  Two craftsmen using the same instrument will measure differently.  Each has his own technique and method of marking.  One craftsman cannot cut with confidence on the measurement made by another unless he knows the method and assumptions underlying the mark of the other.
  5.  The method of recording the measured mark determines its accuracy.  Felt tip markers, carpenter’s pencils, fine lead pencils, marking knives and scratch awls are all common methods for recording a measurement.  Each recording device has its own pluses and minuses and none are the right tool in all cases.  The material being measured and the level of accuracy required determine the appropriate recording device.
  6. Mid-stream shortcuts always lead to mistakes.  During the course of a project and the repetition of tasks, the creative (and lazy) always learn enough to find a way to make the work go faster.  Improving processes and increasing productivity is a good thing unless introduced in the middle of a project.  Changes in techniques or assumptions during a project add complexity and inevitably introduce errors.  Lessons learned and shortcuts are best left for future projects (rather than the current one).

A lot has been made recently of election metrics and it’s about time the idea got some traction in the US elections community.  Doug Chapin has written several times recently about data and metrics and has noted a movement among election administrators to begin to measure, analyze and use data.  What to measure, how to measure it, how to analyze it for meaning and how to leverage it are all questions that need to be asked by everyone.  Unlike the myriad of terms, definitions and meanings found in the fifty + election codes around the country, the answers to these questions must be consistent among the profession to yield meaningful data, comparisons and insights.

In a gallant first cut at collecting, aggregating and analyzing election data from around the country, the Pew released a compilation of comparative election metrics intended to score performance among the states in February 2013 along the lines of the “Democracy Index” proposed by Hether Gerken.  Like good craftsmen, those working on the project had well-tuned saws and sharp chisels.  What they did not have, however, is valid, reliable measures of comparable material recorded using similar assumptions and techniques in the same unit of accuracy with equal accuracy. 

Even where the data were comparable, meanings of the data were not clearly defined.  For example, the meaning to be assigned to the number of provisional ballots cast is ambiguous and contradictory:

“Unless provisional ballots are being given to voters for other administrative reasons, a large number may indicate problems with voter registration records. The meaning of a small number of provisional ballots, from an election administration standpoint, is more open to question. On the one hand, a small number may indicate that registration records are up to date; on the other hand, small numbers may be the result of poll workers not offering voters with registration problems the provisional ballot option when appropriate.” (Pew Center on the States, “Election Performance Index”, February 2013, p. 38) Emphasis added.

The danger of proceeding further into the data-driven world of empirical analysis without clarifying and standardizing definitions, specifying measuring instruments and units of measurement, and formulating measurement protocols (before the fact) is not merely fuzzy research.  Fuzzy research will tell a story to the public and politicians that is not accurate, that is not credible, and which may not be entirely ethical.  The real danger is that policies and decisions will be made on the basis of fuzzy research and careers and reputations will be made and damaged.  The results will be just like an inferior quality, poorly measured woodshop project regardless of the quality of the tools and the earnestness of the craftsman.

The parallels in the art of measurement between my twin passions of woodworking and elections administration are insightful to the present situation.  My point is not to criticize the Pew’s bold undertaking nor is it to put a damper on the emerging enthusiasm and commitment to gathering and using election data.   By pointing to the wisdom of masters of other crafts, I hope to shape the future of data collection and analysis in our craft of election administration.

 “While ‘measure twice and cut once’ is always pithy advice, it more important to measure accurately and to know that you have.”  ~Aldren Watson “Hand Tools: Their Ways and Workings”

Stay Tuned