March 25, 2013

Peering into the Back-End of Voting in the “Show Me” State

If you are looking to tackle an information management and system dynamics challenge, become an elections administrator.

As we discovered last week in Boone County, Missouri, these individuals manage a series of paper and digital processes that track who is voting, where they vote, what ballots they need, whether their districts have changed, whether elections regulations have been updated, and hundreds of other pieces of information – sensitive and not – about our voting population.  They also schedule elections, recruit and train poll workers, establish polling locations, and update districting lines.  They do this at least once a year, and often multiple times per year.

Elections officials like Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren, are beholden to a variety of actors – voters, of course, but also Secretaries of State, and federal and state legislators.  Voters demand their services, Secretaries of State provide policy guidance on elections regulation, and legislators change elections laws that often mandate a rejiggering of process and procedure. Often elected officials themselves, our implementers of democracy, also engage with good governance groups, campaigns, student associations, journalists, vendors, and communities of peer clerks across the nation.

Last week, we had in-depth conversations with about ten of the individuals who work at the Boone County Clerk’s office, and a host of other civically engaged individuals who took us into the inner workings of elections management.

Alongside our friends from TurboVote, we watched them register new voters and process absentee ballots.  We scrolled through the iPad software they use as “ePollbooks” and sat in on the trainings they conduct for the poll workers who will use this technology to ensure voter compliance at the polls – even though many of them were born several years before the advent of computers.  We received a guided tour of the database the County Clerk has personally modified and expanded from a core first built in the 1980s to maintain the highest degree of accuracy possible over the voter roll in Boone County.  We examined the box of pagers that were repeatedly proclaimed “the best investment we ever made,” and witnessed their retiring, as the office moves to mobile devices.

Over coffee at local establishments, we heard campaign war stories from political hacks, and built an understanding of what elections regulations are likely to move forward in the Missouri legislature this year.  In the evenings, we spent hours synthesizing what we learned and mapping the processes, step-by-step, that allow residents of the county to vote.

These conversations represent only the beginning of our investigation into the human and technical processes that animate the voter experience in the United States, but they were rich.  Up next: Louisville, Kentucky!

Field Note: Shakespeare’s Pizza, in Columbia, Missouri, makes a mean veggie and anchovy pie.  The researchers appreciated the sustenance!

 

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