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.