Jun 14 2012

A Little Resolution, A Lot of Cold Comfort – #voteshelby

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County

You'll see fewer of these signs this August

As I’ve noted in my last two posts, the business of the Shelby County Election Commission has been about as easy to pick through as high density, double reinforced concrete. There’s so little information available, and the information that is available is plain useless. So I decided to spend 3 hours of my day sitting through a public meeting at the election operations center near the Penal Farm.

What an eye opener. Not because so many questions were answered, but because I got to really see the problem…which is multi-fasceted.

A Little Resolution

Precincts Impacted by Consolidation or Voting Location Changes

The actual business of the Election Commission was fairly dry, except for one issue that may be of interest to about 77,500 voters.

A resolution, which saw no disclosure prior to the meeting, and was not publicly available for comment, was passed that consolidates precincts, and portions of precincts for the August election. A rough map of the impacted precincts is included to the right. I’ve scanned the resolution and made it available here (PDF).

The rationale for these consolidations and voting location changes was to comply with ADA standards and address closed voting locations.

These things happen, and I’m sympathetic with the Commission’s efforts to ensure people have access to the voting location. However, it was mentioned that the resolution was drafted just hours before the committee meetings began, which leaves effectively zero time for the Commissioners themselves, much less the public, to inspect the proposed changes.

With just 51 days to election day, and no prior public disclosure, as many as 77,500 voters will have a new voting location in August. Based on the number of active voters the Election Commission reports, that means about 18% of all voters in the County will have to be notified of changes (numbers based on those reported in the resolution).

That’s an awful lot of people impacted even though the total number or precincts only changed from 236 to 219.

Ed. Note: I am told that the Election Commission is required to give prior notice of resolutions that impact precincts and/or voting locations. Failing to do so may be a violation of open meetings/open records laws. I’ll be checking into this over the coming days and report my findings in a future post.

Cold Comfort

There was a discussion at the meeting about public access to information and the business of the Commission. Below are some of the issues discussed. Nothing, by the way was resolved.

1. The public disclosure of what is to be discussed at the actual meeting has been lackluster for some time. Before the January 27, 2011 meeting, bullet points of discussion were included in the agenda. After that time, those discussion points became fewer and fewer. This is further hampered by the fact that the committees meet earlier in the day, on the same day as the Commission, and that the Commission only meets once a month. So items for discussion that come up in committee either have to be dealt with on that evening’s agenda, or put off for a month. I want to thank Commissioner Lester for bringing this issue up, and hope that the Commission endeavors to increase advance disclosure of the topics for discussion in their July meeting.

2. The one month lag between the meeting and the publishing of minutes, as I have noted before, is somewhat understandable. Minutes must be approved before they can be published…I get that. But in observing the meeting, I saw that it was being recorded…albiet on a less than ideal device. The presence of that recording makes me wonder why they haven’t been publishing the audio…even in its raw form, until the minutes are approved. When I asked members of the commission (from both sides of the aisle), I was told that they didn’t know enough about it to know what was possible. The solution is not just shrugging your shoulders…its asking if its possible, and if not…why. It would resolve a truism of life: If you don’t tell your story, someone else will, and you might not like the story they tell.

3. There’s a lot of tension in the room. Some of the questions asked got answered with a terseness that I felt was unnecessarily defensive, dismissive, and disrespectful. I observed this on several occasions. The message in the answers and the delivery of those answers is effectively that the questions themselves have no merit. This is compounded by what seemed to be softness in the lingo (names of reports, functions, and job descriptions) that can create unnecessary confusion. I’ve experienced this myself when asking for specific reports from the Commission, often with mixed results.

No Comfort At All

After the meeting, I and a few other interested individuals at the meeting spoke with several of the Commissioners about the problems relating to gaining information about the upcoming election in August…particularly as it relates to the Unified School Board.

Some of this discussion was broached in the meeting…particularly the precinct locator function that Administrator Holden reports is the single most popular feature of the website.

Its wrong, and there’s no ETA for it being right.

So, considering the changes made to nearly every district up for a vote this August, and the addition of a whole new class of districts (the Unified School Board), the Election Commission has no way of informing voters about what districts they will be voting in this August.

Even the most recent Ward and Precinct Stat File is incorrect. It not only doesn’t list the new Congressional, State House and Senate seats…it doesn’t even have a field for Unified School Board.

I was told there is no way to find this information out, even though the new districts we will be voting on in 51 days have been known since January 23.

The rationale for the delay is still the lack of a County Commission district plan. Considering the County Commission isn’t up for election for another two years, this excuse is bunk.

That there is no way to gain this information is simply negligent. While I understand that the workers at the Election Commission are working as hard as they can, it seems evident that they have been directed to wait for the elusive decision by the County Commission.

That’s just a poor administrative decision that will negatively impact the outcome of the August election.

I guess what surprised me most was that there was no outrage or even surprise at this revelation, which, more than anything else describes the problem.

Inconclusive Conclusion

The paternalistic nature of the entire meeting, the tension, the willingness to shrug and move on, all point to a culture of acquiescence from the Commissioners themselves. I understand that serving on the Commission is a huge time commitment, and that everyone has busy lives, but the issue at hand here is the security (both real and perceived) of the voting franchise.

Some of the muted, but present defensiveness from staff members and Commissioners leads one to believe there is more interest in protecting the honor of the Election Commission itself rather than performing the necessary due diligence to inform the public, and thereby, protect both the voting franchise and the Commission. This is the kind of perspective that results from a bunker mentality that is all too pervasive in Boards and Commissions throughout Shelby County.

Transparency isn’t difficult. It just has to be intentional. It doesn’t happen by accident or happenstance. It has to be in the forefront of the minds of those who are making the and enacting decisions. While there were assurances that the upcoming precinct consolidations (which will likely be taken up later this year) will be transparent, based on what I observed, this would constitute a massive change in philosophy that is little more than an afterthought in the grand scheme of things.

I’ve heard, and been told directly in other public meetings that “the process will be transparent” before. In almost every instance these assurances have been fool’s gold. You’ll excuse me if I’m more than a little skeptical about his one.

I said earlier, and it bears repeating: If you don’t tell your story, someone else will and you may not like the story they tell.

I’m pretty sure that none of the Commissioners (on either side of the aisle) will like what I’ve said. They probably think I’m being too hard on them or inflexible.

This isn’t personal.

If the Commissioners/Commission want less grief, they have the power to reduce it by looking for solutions and working to be more open. Back in 2009 I wrote a very positive post about changes and greater openness at the Commission. I would prefer to be able to do so again rather than point out the failings of the body.

Commissioners, the power is in your hands, but you have to make it a priority rather than an afterthought. You don’t have to have the know how yourselves…that’s what staff is for. You do have to have the will to start and continue the discussion.

Further, I and other interested individuals are always available for suggestions. But at the end of the day, its on the Commissioners and administrative staff to enact the changes.

No one else can do it but you. I hope you will resolve to restore the trust of the people rather than hunker down and ultimately, make the problem worse.

Jun 12 2012

More on the Election Commission’s Inaction

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County

How Big Will Your Precinct Get?

Yesterday I detailed some of the changes coming down the pike at the Election Commission, as well as the barriers to getting information regarding new Congressional, State House, Senate and School Board districts to voters.

With 52 days until the election, there are…or at least should be, concerns about voters ability to navigate these new districts since the Election Commission has not yet updated its voter database, nor mailed out new voter cards reflecting the new information.

As I noted yesterday, the Election Commission blames the County Commission…and they have a point…to a point.

But as I also noted, the Election Commission is considering a plan that would consolidate precincts…which would change voting locations for people residing in those consolidated precincts.

The plan, which is loosely detailed in this document found on the Shelby county Website (pdf), seeks to consolidate between 56 and 86 precincts a reduction of 24% to 36%.

As of this writing, no public disclosure of any kind regarding proposals to consolidate precincts has come from the Election Commission.

An Emergency Without Urgency

Yesterday’s emergency alert hasn’t come with any emergency response in the wake of the County Commission’s deferral of its redistricting ordinance. In fact, as of this writing the Election Commission has issued no statement whatsoever regarding anything.

Now, with a minimum of two weeks before the County Commission takes the issue up again, its starting to look like the Election Commission is more interested in having someone else to blame than informing the public about an election that will be just 38 days away when the County Commission takes the issue back up. Apparently, the Election Commission is banking on the 9 votes required by County Charter. We’ve seen just how certain those 9 votes can be (two weeks ago it received only 8).

What’s most ridiculous about the Election Commission’s claim is that County Commission elections aren’t until 2014. The election this year for County Commission is to fill out the term of Mike Carpenter…meaning the old lines still apply. They don’t need these new districts for this election…they just want them.

Its time for the Election Commission to stop redirecting blame and either start acting, or be willing to take the heat for their inaction. It is patently irresponsible for a body tasked with administering elections to not have basic information available to the public less than 60 days out from an election.

The public’s right to know about the races before them right now trumps any work efficiencies that they would like to take advantage of.

They could fix this right now if they wanted to. Apparently, they don’t want to.

Jun 11 2012

Redistricting, Precinct Consolidation, and All Before August?

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County

I think its well past emergency time, but thanks for noticing.

Earlier today, the Shelby County Commission voted to delay a vote on a redistricting proposal that was up for 3rd and final consideration.

In my last post, I detailed some of the problems the Shelby County Election Commission is experiencing regarding new US House, State Senate and House, and Unified School Board districts. This morning they released an advisory about the issue.

Now that the County Commission, which the Election Commission blames for the delay, has decided to delay a vote, one has to wonder what will happen and how the voting public will navigate the mangled mess the State House and Senate left in their wake when they decided to redistrict based on Census blocks rather than existing precincts.

With just 53 days to the August election, there are several important issues on the ballot, including the candidates for the new Unified School Board. Time is short to get this information out to the public.

Precinct Consolidation

But there are other things on the Election Commission’s agenda that are likely to also play a role in voter confusion…precinct consolidation.

Currently, there are 236 precincts in Shelby County. That’s down from a high of 272 in 2006. There is a draft plan before the Commission to combine as many as 56 precincts, leaving just 180 precincts in the County. Under the plan, the average area covered by a precinct would go from 3.3 sq/mi to 4.4 sq/mi.

However, the plan has not been publicly released. I only know about it because I happened to see a map generated by the Election Commission.

As I noted in my last post, the minutes of the April meeting have still not been released (apparently they weren’t approved in May). What’s more, the agenda of the meeting to take place on Wednesday mentions nothing about precinct changes or any other alterations that would impact the August election.

Because of the lack of information, rumors have started to spread that the Election Commission intends to make these changes before the August election. That means 56 precincts of people could be voting in a new location, with little time for notification before election day.

Stop the Blame Storming

I’ll give the Election Commission one thing: Yes, the County Commission should have approved new districts for itself before now.

That fact is not and never has been in question.

However, the silence from the body regarding informing the public about the problems, and their lack of overall willingness to really talk about anything has shifted the focus from the failings of the County Commission, to the the Election Commission.

Add to that, the lack of disclosure, or even recent minutes of meetings, and you’ve got the recipe for rumblings about the bumblings of an appointed body that, for whatever reason, just can’t seem to get it together for the public good.

That doesn’t bode well for an institution charged with protecting the most important trust of our Republic…the voting franchise.

The Election Commission meets Wednesday. A quick search of local media outlets nets nothing of substance regarding the lack of minutes, or the bulk of the business of the Commission since April with the exception of the coverage of the ongoing voter purge and the reports of the lost history fiasco.

Wednesday could be a critical day for voting in Shelby Co. It’ll be interesting if anyone pays it any notice.

Jun 05 2012

Not Really Transparent

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County

The Election Commission has a big job on its hands, but claims of transparency are overstated

The Machines Aren't the Only Things in Question

You can usually tell something about an organization by the way it deals with crisis. Organizations that are truly open will do everything in their power to show just how open they are by inviting stakeholders, the media, and others to see for themselves. Organizations that aren’t really open will make claims, dispute the story, and ultimately, do little to actually prove anything one way or the other. Sometimes they’ll even say the claims are moot because it has no bearing on the really important stuff…whatever that stuff is.

The questions, that began in 2008 after a CNN report about a touchscreen voting machine was hacked have only gotten deeper since the electronic polling book fiasco of August 2010. While no one alleged malicious intent in that particular instance (at least in court filings), the sanctity of the vote, and the voting process was questioned.

What no one seems to acknowledge is that it is the uncertainty of the process…the mystery surrounding the problems, that sustain these fears. Also, because of the highly “virtual” nature of voting in Shelby County…almost everything is electronic rather than a hard copy…there is the belief that these records are less safe than if they were printed.

This is something greater transparency would ultimately solve, but that transparency…true transparency, isn’t on the menu at the Election Commission.

The Mystery of Modern Elections

When you walk into the polling place on election day, a whole lot of work has already happened to make sure your ballot is correct. Think about it. We all live in a precinct. That precinct is represented by someone in the US House, State House, State Senate, County Commission, City Council, City School Board, and now Unified School Board. That’s a lot of different elections in one single precinct, not counting the countrywide and other assorted elections that occur every two or four years.

Every precinct (just about) is different than the one next to it, some more, some less. But as long as precincts aren’t split, things are as simple as they can be…x 236 precincts.

But that’s not how it worked out. The State Legislature chose to redistrict based on Census blocks rather than precincts. That means people living across the street from each other and many living in the same precinct have different representatives in one of those bodies I mentioned before.

Its challenging enough to ensure correct ballots when nearly every precinct is a little different, but when two people, voting at the same location, have the possibility of completely different ballots due to the district they reside in, it becomes even harder.

Electronic voting procedures have actually made this easier. Before, every one of these iterations of a ballot would have to be printed in some manner, meaning there was a real possibility of either a great deal of waste in areas that had few contested elections, or the converse, running out of ballots.

Supply shortages just aren’t a problem in the digital age. But we are trained, from an early age, to demand a record of things that are important in our lives. Voting is one of those. So when you don’t get even so much as a receipt when you vote, people get naturally suspicious. From there, any problem big or small will lead those affected by that problem to suspect foul play, even when it might not exist.

This is a challenge for the Election Commission, and its one of the reasons they must not only be more open than other civic institutions, but work harder to educate the public about its actions to ensure they retain the public trust.

Eroding Trust

That public trust is even more fragile than it was before. People have more access to information. They expect to have more information available. The Election Commission in Shelby County has taken some strides to be more open, but honestly, it hasn’t kept up with expectations.

The allegations made late last month that the voting histories of nearly 500 voters had been erased was met with little more than a “it doesn’t matter”. Here’s the actual quote as reported in the Commercial Appeal:

“All these people can vote, and they are still in the database,” Holden said by telephone Monday. “That proves they are still in the system and can still vote.”

This circular argument would be entertaining if it wasn’t so important. The issue isn’t whether or not they can vote, but what their lack of voting history means considering the very same Election Commission has placed 180,000 voters on inactive status due to non-participation.

In fact, looking at the May 1st Ward and Precinct report those voters have been on the inactive list since May 1, 2012. We’re just hearing about it one month later.

Why the delay? Why wasn’t this publicized in some way before the change was made? How hard is it to put out a press release?

See, if those 180,000 people were put on inactive status on or before May 1, and the Black Box voting post alleging history deletion came out on May 12, doesn’t it seem that those individuals might be classified as inactive, even if they’re not?

Its amazing that no one at the Election Commission seems to understand that because few truly understand the process, and there was no advance warning about potential change in classification, it opens them up to not only scrutiny, but suspicion.

Hard to See Through a Brick Wall

What’s more, the Election Commission hasn’t been particularly diligent about publishing their minutes. The last meeting to have minutes is from March.

Now, I know the Commission only meets about once a month, so a one month lag is somewhat understandable. But where’s April?

To add insult to injury, the agendas from each meeting basically tell you nothing. There’s no specific information at all. So if you’re not in the know, you’re out of luck.

This is no way to run an organization that is responsible for elections. Both the agendas, which are incomplete and less than informative and the lack of minutes…even proposed minutes, make it impossible for anyone who can’t make it to the meeting on the third Wednesday of every month at 4:30 to know anything about anything.

Add to that, the dearth of media coverage on the Commission…unless something has gone wrong, and public trust is further damaged.

It’s a Tough Job…

Sure, the folks at the Election Commission are usually very informative and helpful. I appreciate that.

It is rare that an email to administrator Holden goes unanswered. That’s a plus.

But a lot of these questions shouldn’t even have to be asked if the Election Commission were being open and up front about things.

The Precinct Locator for instance.

This is a nifty little tool that will tell you, not only what precinct you’re in, but also what districts you’re in and where to vote.

For whatever reason, it hasn’t been updated to reflect the new US House, State Senate and State House districts, which have been in place since January. Nor has it been updated to include the Unified School Board Districts, which is pretty important considering people are going to be voting for something for the very first time in an election this August.

While I’ll admit that finding anything about the configuration of the districts is darn near impossible, it was passed in January around the same time the state redistricting plans were passed. All that information should be available at the election commission website by now. For whatever reason, it isn’t.

As someone who has to shuffle and organize a lot of data, I get the scale of this task. I understand that a whole lot of man-hours are involved in doing this, and that unless the database is already set up for Census blocks, which it may not be, there’s no real way to automate the system. Then theres’ checking and double checking…maybe even triple checking to make sure everything is correct.

But its been four months. There’s been no public notice that there’s an issue. So that leaves people’s minds to wander and wonder.

And there’s an election in 60 days.

See, I’m not so upset that the work might not be done. I am concerned that the public doesn’t know. I am concerned that not only does the public not know about the delay in information, and that delay may make it harder for people to find out what they need to know about the upcoming election.

I’m concerned that the delay may make people even more suspicious of the process, whether that suspicion is justified or not.

I’m concerned because just being honest and up front is the surest way to ensure people understand and retain their trust, even though that may not be the first instinct of people who don’t want to be seen as failures or whatever. Again, it was a tough job that just got tougher due to a lot of issues.

Real Transparency, Now

But just because its a tough job, that doesn’t mean siloing yourself will make anything any better. If anything, it makes it worse.

See, even though Election Commissioners aren’t elected officials, ensuring the public trust is part of their job. In a County that is chock full of byzantine Commissions and Boards that act with only the bare minimum of public notice…often at places and times that are inaccessible to interested parties, and with little public disclosure after the fact, the soil is quite fertile for suspicion.

When you add moves by the State Legislature that many view as pure voter suppression and a great deal of suspicion, perhaps unfairly, gets heaped on the Commission tasked with executing that law.

With the technology available, much of it very inexpensive, its kind of unbelievable that the Election Commission and other Boards and Commissions don’t voluntarily archive their proceedings online. Even the Metro Charter Commission made recordings of their proceedings. The failure of the Election Commission to do so leads one to conclude that public disclosure just isn’t all that high on their list of things to do. That only fuels the suspicion.

While I understand that resources at the Election Commission are limited, that doesn’t mean that access to information has to be. Taking a little more time to be more diligent to build and restore public trust is something that all the City and County’s Boards and Commissions should take time to do, starting with the Election Commission and all the way down to the Beer Board (which is not as exciting as it sounds). Breaking down the silos of those in and out of the know should be at the top of the list for all of our public institutions. That it doesn’t seem to be just fuels the suspicion that much more.

I’m not going to go out on a limb and say that anything nefarious is going on at the Election Commission. 431K active voters is probably about right for a County that only has 682,902 people over the age of 18 (63% voter registration). Nationally, voter registration rates are around 70% so 611K (89.4%) was high to be sure. But the lack of advance disclosure regarding the voting rolls is unsettling.

What this requires is a proactive rather than reactive posture from the Election Commission, including the Commissioners themselves and the Commission’s staff in terms of public disclosure. That means future plans to administer the voting rolls, alter precinct lines, reduce the number of precincts, change voting location (early or precinct level) or anything else by the Commission should be disclosed well in advance of the meetings and in a way that the public can react accordingly.

That’s just not happening.

The hard truth for Administrator Holden and the Commissioners who oversee the Elections Commission is that just saying you’re transparent isn’t good enough. It doesn’t matter if other Counties in Tennessee are less transparent than we are…they’re also a lot smaller. The simple truth is, until proactive transparency becomes the norm questions will persist, and faith and trust in one of the most important institutions…voting, will continue to erode.