Dogcatchers, Russians and Elections

In all the discussion of election hacking, foreign powers, critical infrastructure and the need to more effectively secure elections, there are several facts that need to be considered:
1) The Russians (or the Chinese for that matter) are only interested in affecting the outcomes of federal contests—President, Senator and Congress.
2) Foreign hackers don’t care about dogcatcher, school board member, city clerk, city council or county treasurer.
3) Elections for dogcatcher, et al, and President occur on the same day and on the same ballot using the same rules, laws and technology.
4) Elections for dogcatcher, et al, are conducted using 51+ different sets of rules and laws enacted by states, each of which has its own partisan composition, political history, and traditions.
5) Elections for President, Senators and Representatives are also conducted using 51+ different sets of rules and laws enacted by states, each of which has its own partisan composition, political history, and traditions.
6) Elections for dogcatcher, et al, are not vulnerable or at risk from foreign hackers.
7) Elections for President apparently are vulnerable.
8) Counties pay the cost of elections for President and Dogcatcher and make all the decisions on voting technology and how the election is conducted.
9) The federal government does not pay the cost of elections for President or Dogcatcher but still wants to make the decisions on voting technology and how the election is conducted.

wringinghands2Given these facts, there are several obvious and not so obvious courses of action to secure US elections:

Course of Action A: Wring hands. Americans have a long history of hand-wringing and inaction while contemplating solutions to difficult issues.

Course of Action B: Secure the dogcatcher vote from Russian hacking. If the threat of hacking is eliminated for America’s dogcatchers, we can be assured that the vote for President is just as secure and safe from hacking by Russians. The only trick is to get all 51 states to do everything as mandated by the feds while still picking up the cost of the election and dealing with the political and public blow-back which would result from the changes and the violation of long-standing and closely held history and traditions.

Course of Action C: Bifurcate the election of dogcatchers from the election of Presidents. Let the states and counties elect the dogcatchers, et al, in whatever manner they want since they make the rules and pay the bills. Move the election for President, Senator and Representative to another day to be securely conducted at federal expense under a single uniform set of laws, technology and procedures administered by a federal agency. Maybe the ballots could even be hand-counted on Election Night like our friends in Canada in this scenario.

Of these three options, only one is rational but that assures that it won’t be the one seriously considered and pursued.

The conversation has already focused on strategies for securing the vote of dogcatchers with little recognition of its futility and impracticality. The fiscal, legal, constitutional, technological and logistical challenges of securing our highly decentralized election system are monumental. And we haven’t even mentioned the fact that none of the self-anointed election experts agree on how it could be done., whether they be academic, activist, technologist, journalists, politicians, intelligence and security

The most likely outcome will be continued hand-wringing in the current fear-mongering, doubt-creating, hyper-partisan frenzy.

Plus ça change….

Election Administration_Harris“There is probably no other phase of public administration in the United States which is so badly managed as the conduct of elections.”

What a harsh and critical statement of the state of affairs in election administration.  This bold assertion, however, is not regarding the current state of elections although it may be true enough.  This is the opening  sentence of the 1934 book by Joseph Harris on election administration.  Like many scholars and administrators, I was aware of the book and recall seeing this quote appear occasionally in journal articles but had not taken the time to read the book.  I am guessing that may be the case as well for the readers of this blog so I thought I would share some more nuggets from the book that resound just as sharply in today’s administration and study of elections.  Even though I just picked up and read the book this week as part of the research for my dissertation, many of Harris’ critiques and themes have interestingly appeared in my previous blogs and writings.  I guess this is evidence of the French proverb, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

What is a “good” election?

“The ideal election administration is one which uniformly and regularly produces honest and accurate results.  There should never be the slightest question about the integrity of the ballot box or doubt cast upon the honesty of the elections.” (Harris, p. 1)

On management:

“The conduct of elections is marked throughout by obsolete procedures and methods…The personnel of the election office is usually concerned only with carrying out the provisions of state law, never giving thought to any matter concerned with improving the administration.” (Harris, p. 5)

“The attempt is made now to secure uniform and satisfactory election administration throughout the state by statutes, without any effective administrative supervision, and without using rules, regulations, and instructions issued by an administrative office. In no other phase of public administration do the statutes bulk so large and administrative control and supervision so little.” (Harris, p. 7)

On complexity and efficiency:

“It is very common for useless forms and records to be made out, many signatures required, and other forms of red tape, which are not only unnecessary, but actually defeat their own ends.” (Harris, p. 5)

On discretion and decision making:

“The election statutes are so detailed that the precinct officers cannot know the law.  Often the procedure set forth in state law is so cumbersome and unsound that the election officers make no pretense in complying with it.” (Harris, p. 6)

“The remedy lies not so much in putting pressure upon the precinct officer to comply with the law, but rather in a revision of the election statutes so that the temptation to take short cuts will be largely eliminated. The procedure at the polls should be simplified and regularized. When a sound procedure has been established, the office in charge of elections should take greater pains to instruct the precinct officers and to inspect and supervise their work.” (Harris, pp. 6-7)

With all due respect to my legislator friends and colleagues, you have been and still are (co)responsible for the state of affairs in election administration.  It is clear that the “Shrek Effect” has quite a history when it comes to elections:

“Patchwork upon patchwork will not remedy the situation.  The deluge of election laws, with constant revisions, has produced in many states an election code not only of voluminous size, but also with many conflicting and uncertain provisions.  Wholly aside from fundamental improvements which are necessary, most states are greatly in need of a revision of the election laws in order to clarify and codify the existing statutes.” (Harris, p. 7)

“Election statutes are greatly overworked at the present time. No sound, efficient, economical, and satisfactory administration can be secured so long as it is the practice to prescribe in minute detail every operation in the conduct of elections.” (Harris, p. 7)

“The constant revision of election laws which is taking place in most states is designed in practically every case to rectify some abuse which has sprung up. These alterations deal with minor details of administration and do not involve any fundamental changes. They have led to more and more cumbersome procedures and records. Most of the election records and methods are antiquated, expensive in operation, and require a thorough revision.“ (Harris, p. 20)

“The constant flood of election bills which is introduced in practically every state indicates the present unsatisfactory condition of election administration. Every bill is designed to correct an evil, to prevent a sharp practice which has sprang up. The election laws are being constantly changed, but without any fundamental revision or improvement. Many of the principles which now govern the conduct of elections and guide the framing of election statutes are unwise, and must be discarded before a sound system can be established.” (Harris, p. 7)

There have been radical social, political and technological changes in the 80 years since this book’s publication but the problems and challenges to American election administration are remarkably unchanged.  Are the problems of election administration so intractable?  Are the politics of election administration so strong that the system cannot evolve? Are election administrators too resistant to learning and practicing effective public administration? 

I think it is a little of “all the above.”  Harris proposes a remedy that is still appropriate to us today:

“There is needed for the administration of elections: (1) a revision of the state election laws similar to the revision which has already take place in many states in the administration of the registration of voters, (2) a reorganization of the election machinery, and (3) many improvements in election management. “ (Harris, p. 20)

What do you think?  I am interested in your reaction to the realization that election administrators (and legislators) might be just like gerbils running endlessly inside the wheel–maybe picking up speed but still not making progress.

Stay Tuned.

Work Cited:

Harris, Joseph. Election Administration in the United States. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1934.

Elections as Rocket Science and Brain Surgery

270px-STS120LaunchHiRes-edit1Finally some discomfort with and discussion of the idea of ambiguity and the notion of accuracy vs precision in elections is beginning to surface. As the purpose of this blog is to trigger thinking and reflection on the administration of elections, I hope that readers will feel free to disagree, agree, pose questions, answer questions and generally engage professionally and intellectually in this forum. With that in mind, I want to respond to some of the questions and points raised in the various comments in this blog.

We continue, as election geeks and critics, to struggle with the idea that a “good” election may not be an error free election and that an accurate election may not be a perfect election. Bill Kelleher points out that what is a “good” election for one person may be a “bummer” for another. That point is well taken but goes to the core problem in evaluating the “goodness” of an election. The current partisan political environment, enflamed by the media and political parties, wants to judge the quality of an election by who the winners are. In contrast, as professionals and scholars, we should evaluate an election as a process and by its ability to provide an unambiguous outcome.

In a previous discussion of accuracy vs precision, I used the example of rocket science so let me offer a spacefaring example as an illustration. While NASA suffered two tragedies during the three decade lifespan of the Space Shuttle program, it also had 133 successful missions. Success in this example is defined as launching into space and returning safely to earth which, when one thinks about it, is a remarkable accomplishment. NASA engineers knew that there were problems during several of the missions (O-ring blow-by and heat shield damage and missing tiles for example) but the existence of these issues did not cause the missions to be considered failures. Only when the issues prevented the safe launch and return to earth were the missions considered tragic failures. Using a medical example, a surgery is considered a success when the tumor is safely removed and the patient recovers. Pain during recovery or the presence of an uglier than necessary scar does not render the surgery a failure.

Elections should be similarly evaluated as rocket science (shuttle launches) and brain surgery (tumor removal). Did the election process yield an accurate and unambiguous outcome despite any issues or problems, real or perceived, which may have occurred? If yes, then the election, like 133 shuttle missions and countless surgeries must be considered “good.”

This standard automatically begs the question raised again by Bill Kelleher “What is ambiguity?” We know that during several shuttle missions, NASA knew that the heat shield was damaged and it was uncertain whether or not the shuttle would return safely. The situation was ambiguous until the shuttle safely returned to earth. Once the ambiguity was resolved, the mission(s) were considered successful. Until there was some means of demonstrating that an error or issue would not affect the outcome, the result remained in doubt and ambiguous. Interestingly in elections, even when election administrators successfully “land the shuttle” there are some who cling to and make an issue of any issues or errors that occurred during the “mission.”

Stay tuned for further discussion on ambiguity.

www.qualitypublicperformance.com

[photo courtesy of Wikipedia]