Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Don't Be Cruel

The first day of the annual convention of the Voter Registrars Association of Virginia (VRAV) ended last night with a performance by an Elvis impersonator -- one of the lamer Elvis impersonators I have ever seen (with a huge universe of lame Elvises to choose among) -- who, inexplicably, roused the crowd out of their chairs and on to their feet. Jean Jensen, secretary of the State Board of Elections, was among those grinding their hips and clapping in delight to the fake Elvis' serenading.

The Elvis performance was preceded by a production of an Anton Chekhov one-act, A Marriage Proposal, directed by Cathy Hendereson of Attic Productions, a community theatre in Botetourt County, Virginia. This is an amusing trifle of a play, and the cast -- Rick High, Joann Hoyt, and Dan Naff -- did some ad-libbing specifically aimed at pleasing the audience of registrars and other election officials. Upon seeing the play, I was struck by how much librettist Joseph Stein aped Chekhov's style in some scenes in Fiddler on the Roof -- indeed, it occurred to me that Chekhov, the Russian playwright and humorist, was as much an influence on Stein as Sholem Aleichem, the Yiddish short-story writer and humorist.

All has not been fun-and-games, however, at the VRAV meeting (which continues through tomorrow). About 200 election officials (mostly registrars, but some Electoral Board members) are gathered here in Roanoke for professional development training and the exchange of ideas.

The group heard a presentation from SBE Secretary Jensen, who described how she was able to audit and clean up the agency since her appointment as Deputy Secretary by Governor Mark Warner in early 2002.

One problem Jensen cited, for instance, was that she discovered early on that the SBE was paying a telephone bill of $38,000 per month. One reason? There were almost a dozen telephone lines the agency was paying for, even though they were not hooked up to any telephones. Another reason? There were several unaccounted-for, state-issued cell phones. The phantom lines and unauthorized cell phones were cancelled, resulting in a savings of over $7,000 per month.

She also found out that SBE personnel had not been subject to performance evaluations in at least five years, although state law requires such evaluations be done on an annual basis. Jensen insisted on a thorough audit, and after three years, instead of running a $900,000 deficit, the SBE is working with a balanced budget and a debt of $0.00.

In another well-received presentation, Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, delivered the keynote address early Monday afternoon. He remarked, as everyone in the room knew, that there are "people who think the [electoral] process is broken," some of whom "distrust us [election officials] under any circumstances." Still, he said, there is less distrust of the process in the general public now than there was in 2004; there was less distrust in 2004 than there was in 2002; and there was less distrust in 2002 than there was immediately after the 2000 elections.

He predicted that, although there have been some bills submitted in Congress to amend the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, "I don't think Congress is going to do anything -- at least until this election cycle [2006] is finished." When Congress passed HAVA, he said, "they wanted 2006 to be the test year" for new equipment and procedures that the 2002 law requires.

He also made some predictions of what sort of recommendations will come out of the Carter-Baker commission on election law reform:

First, he said that "most election officials are not going to agree" with the Carter-Baker recommendations. He predicted the commission will endorse VVPT (a voter-verified paper trail), it will recommend that voters be allowed to change their address or other information on the voter registration rolls up to 15 days before the election, it will endorse the idea of a "national voter ID" card, and it will call for election day registration everywhere in the country (something available in only a few states now, like Wisconsin and Minnesota).

One of the most important issues Lewis talked about in his keynote address was the problems we might face nationwide if, as is likely to happen, a large number of voting jurisdictions decide to buy new optical-scan voting machines as a result of pressure for a VVPT or because state legislation mandates that specific kind of equipment.

He said that the vendors who supply that equipment may, when faced with an unprecedented upsurge in demand over the next 12 to 18 months, have fewer technicians available to advise localities -- in other words, reduced availablity of technical support. While the companies will be able to find factories to produce the machines themselves, and will be able to make deliveries of the equipment to buyers, there will still be a "strain on the vendors" in such a sellers' market. (This may also include, although Lewis did not mention it specifically, a price rise for such equipment.)

On the technical-support side, Lewis suggested that vendors may end up hiring recent graduates of ITT- and DeVry-type programs to assist customers -- customers who actually will know more about the product than the newbie tech-support staff does. (Considering that opti-scan technology is highly favored by the self-described computer "experts" who oppose DREs, this is an ironic potential outcome -- that's my comment, not Doug Lewis'.)

And here's an issue that most people don't think about: The type of paper used in optical-scan machines must be of a particular quality, called "ballot stock." The type of printing must also be highly specialized and refined -- you can't just take a copy of the ballot to the local Kinko's and have them run off 1,000 ballots. Consequently, with a sharp rise in the number of jurisdictions using optical-scan machines, there will be a shortage of qualified printers (not printing machines, but printing shops) who can produce enough ballots to meet the sudden demand. The ballot-stock paper may itself be in short supply.

Because of these strains on the market, we are likely to see more "hiccups" in the 2006 elections, because election officials, technicians, and even voters are not going to have enough time to test out the equipment through mock elections or just normal practice (dry runs). Lewis pointed to the experience in Florida in 2002, when the vast majority of voting districts there adopted new equipment in the wake of the 2000 election debacle there: "Jurisdictions that got their equipment early," Lewis said, "did fine" in the November 2002 elections. "Those with later deliveries had problems" because they had not been able to learn the new equipment and practice on it and educate the voters about how to use it properly.

Lewis said that, given the combined pressures of HAVA and anti-DRE activism, "the process is going to be strained at every level."

Lewis made some common-sense recommendations, most of which we already follow in Charlottesville, to reassure voters, elected officials, candidates, and the media about the integrity of the electoral process:

For example, logic and accuracy tests (L&A tests), in which voting machines are tested before each election to show that they do what they are designed to do (count votes accurately), "have to be more public than they have ever been." (In Charlottesville we always invite candidates, representatives of the political parties, the news media, and the general public to attend L&A testing and the lockdown of voting machines that follows.)

He said that "careful preparation will take care of most issues" and that election officials should not "deviate from written procedures." This includes having a written record of every time the voting equipment is accessed, and by whom, and providing proof that unauthorized individuals do not and have not had access to the equipment.

There may be more to report from the VRAV convention tomorrow. At least there won't be a repeat of the fake Elvis performance tonight.

No comments: