May 28 2012

Bonus job

For the last few years I have been keenly interested in the mechanisms of democracy. I am also interested in the underpinning philosophy of democracy (and government in general), but I’ve been more focused lately on the particulars. From the electoral systems that are used to the minutia of what happens when a ballot is cast, I want to know what the best practices are and push to get them adopted.

In the vein, last year I hosted a tour of the Multnomah County Elections Office through the City Club of Portland (well, the Director, Tim Scott, was gracious enough to do the hosting but you know what I mean). Due to it being a very small special election (Oregon’s first Congressional District), we were able to see the whole process as it was actually happening. It was really great and I was so into it that I asked if I could volunteer in the future. Tim let me know that the Elections Office doesn’t take volunteers, however he instructed that I check back in March when they’d be hiring for the elections season.

So I watched the Multnomah County website and made sure to apply when the posting came up. I received a callback for an interview and then got the job. Sweet! I had let them know that I was really only able to work evenings and weekends and the election day itself due to my (more than) full time job. They only needed me for the elections day, so I showed up at 8am on Tuesday morning.

I suppose I should back up and provide the groundwork that Oregon has used (an awesome!) vote by mail system since 1998 (history here). So election day is less like what you may be used to with lines of voters and everyone scrambling to have the right ID or be in the right precinct. It’s more like tax day, with everyone having an envelope and frantically trying to get it in before 8pm.

It’s wild how much people procrastinate. 3 weeks before the election a voter pamphlet is mailed to every registered voter in the state (no more than one per household though, so you do have to share with your housemates), then 18 days before the election every registered voter is sent a ballot with a secrecy envelope and a return envelope. You have to pay postage if you mail it, but you can also drop it off at many drop sites in the area. I say all of that to help understand that people have their ballots two and a half weeks before the election, yet about one third of ballots come in on election day (one third the week before election day, and the last third before that). So there are hundreds of thousands of individual pieces of paper that need to be verified, sorted, opened and counted before results can be released all on the night of the election.

The process is awe-inspiring. In my regular job, where I supervise, among other things, our document intake and processing department, I estimate that we lose (which really means, misplace, mis-scan, or attach to the wrong person) probably one document every 3 weeks or so. We process about a hundred thousand documents a year. In contrast, at the elections office, they process several hundred thousand documents in a single night and there’s not one document lost. I won’t get into too much of the paper-management details here, because I doubt other people are as into the process engineering, color coding and task segmentation as I am, but needless to say it’s very streamlined.

So what happens when you cast a ballot in Oregon?

When it’s received the ballot goes to the Blue room (yes all rooms are color coded) to be sorted into precinct.

Blue Room

When it’s run through the big machine it also takes a picture of the signature on the envelope. This signature image is then sent electronically to a group of trained workers who get a headsup display with the ballot signature and the signature from the voter’s registration card. If they don’t match then it’s reviewed a second time and if it’s unacceptable, then the ballot is set aside (voter is contacted to update their signature). The vast majority match and are sent on to “the boards.”

The boards are groups of 4 or 5 people of different political party registration who open the ballots and remove them from the secrecy envelope and review them to establish voter intent. This means they look for things that may confuse the machine such as stray marks, over voting, or marks that may be too light to read. If there are potential problems with the ballot (in that the machine might not read it correctly), then all the members of the boards must agree and then corrective highlighter marks are made on the ballot to instruct the machine which marks to count.

After the boards have reviewed it, the ballot goes to the Red Room where it’s fed through one of several machines that performs the actual count. At each stage the number of ballots is compared to the known total for that batch to make sure that everything is accounted for and counted correctly.

Ballots being loaded (and turned into votes) in the Red Room

Cameras capture everything going on in the Red Room

At the most basic level that’s the flow that a ballot goes through when it’s received. Other than the process itself, another commendable aspect of the whole operation is the complete dedication to transparency. Every stage of the process is open to members of the public to observe.

Which brings me to my assignment for the day. I was working within a team of four as an “observer monitor” meaning that we accompanied any members of the public (or more accurately members of political parties, political campaigns and the media) around each area to answer any questions they had and to make sure that they were following the guidelines. For the most part though, the observers were much more knowledgable about the process than I was (after all many of them do this every time and for me it was my first day).

Also, since it was a somewhat small election, there weren’t too many observers (especially not at 8am when I got there), so I spent a lot of my day in the front office waiting for people to come in. It’s unfortunate that there’s not really much cross-training, so while parts of the office were working furiously, I was standing around and smiling waiting for observers to come. Here was my view:

The Multnomah County Elections Office circa 7:45pm, all the cars are voters who are swinging by to drop off their ballots before the cutoff at 8pm

Overall it was a great day. Long (I worked from 8am to 12:15 am and there were many people who worked longer), but really fulfilling being a part of such a great system. I’m really excited for November!

Update: I found this cool video that shows the whole process (I didn’t even need to type it all up).

Feb 8 2010

I’m such an old man

Since some time in high school I’ve always seemed (to myself) to have interests and characteristics that more closer aligned with people a generation or two ahead of me instead of my peers.

I’m writing recommendation letters right now and found this line ironic:

Although she is very quick, in my experience raw intellect is often squandered by young students without the focus or maturity to appreciate and take advantage of the gifts that they have. XXXX is a shining counter-example…

The students that I’m writing for are not that much younger than I am, but the way I think that sounds (which is how I meant it to sound), is as though I’m looking back on my long years in education and drawing meaningful conclusions from the myriad students I’ve worked with. When I reread the letter and got to that line, I had the sudden image of myself even balder and greyer, in a robe with a pipe or somesuch.

I wonder if my future-focus/middle-aged mentality is static or dynamic. Will I someday reach an age where I suddenly find myself most comfortable with my contemporaries, or will I instead always be drawn to the ways and manners of those many years my elder?

Nov 27 2008

Methods of communication

I try to avoid posting anything about my day job (and if you’ve read my other posts you’ll know I also try to avoid posting things about the personal goings on in my life, which means the available subject matter for this blog is growing more and more limited ;-)), but insomuch as this is of broader interest I thought I’d post some of my thoughts about it here.

{End disclaimer, thoughts to follow}

I recently implemented instant messaging (IM) software in my office (for those who care, we’re using Spark with private/local jabber server) and am trying to figure out what exactly its place is. There are so many technical tools in the modern workplace, I think it’s a little confusing to people about which method they should use for any given situation.

In my office, for inter-office communication, email (including listserve), IM, phone/voicemail, paper note, and in-person discussion are the most used options, but I think that the selection of which one to do is based primarily on the preference of the initiator and not on the strengths of the medium. I think that my coworkers understand some advantages and disadvantages associated with each (like that I will be displeased with them if they email SSNs around, and nuances of when email is more appropriate than verbal agreement), but I don’t think we have a very developed idea as a department of what will work out best.

I have thought a little about the distinctions between different forms of communication, and I guess that some of that has even spilled over into this blog in posts about myspace, facebook, and other social networking sites, but I don’t really have anything developed enough to apply or recommend to my office.

I feel like it’s slowly coming to a head, because the people that use the IM software only get value from it if the people that they want to talk to (or ask questions of) are logged in, so there’s pressure from that contingent to force everyone to login when they’re at their computer. By force, I just mean that it would be office policy, or that I would change the settings to have it automatically login, and not that I would strap their hands down and eyelids open Clockwork Orange style. Of course there’s resistance from another part of the office that it’s just another way for people to disturb them while they’re focusing, or another expectation on their time.

Thus far, I’ve been fairly agnostic about the issue, telling people that it’s another tool they can use if they want to, but I can tell that people are looking for me to weigh in on what the policy should be.

After the obvious temporal guidance (don’t send a paper note for something you need an immediate response on) there are a few other aspects I’ve considered that I am trying to turn into a more prescriptive framework.

Clarity/mutual understanding is important in any of these, since we’re talking about communication after all. In this respect, I don’t think the playing field is exactly level across all mediums. Clarity will only be assisted by feedback from the person you’re communicating with. Communication in person will provide a much richer set (body language, questions, intonation, etc) on which to determine if the understanding is shared by both parties. IM has some merit for clarity in that it’s better built for dialogue than say email is, but like anything digital-text-based it’s stripping out a lot of information which could be easily communicated in person.

Redundancy is pertinent in that for some forms of communication, the messages are stored permanently and even backed up. I like the idea that if one of our computers died, email would be available from any web-capable computer, and I like the idea even more that if somehow all of our computers died (as in, the whole school’s network died) that all the data could be restored within a few days from backups. This redundancy is one edge that technology has, but for instance IM communications are logged locally, so moving to another computer does not afford you that history.

Metadata/Header information relates to legal sufficiency, but matters in other senses too. It’s good to know the year, date, hour, minute and second of both transmission and receipt of some types of messages and to know exactly where it’s coming from.

Security perhaps I should have put earlier on the list, since the government trend is that this should be the first thing on my mind at all time. It’s of significance since we deal with sensitive information that we know where exactly our communication is going before it reaches the recipient. I like my users to understand that there are a lot of people on (and off) campus that could legitimately, or illegitimately intercept or listen in on their phone calls, emails and voicemails. Since IM is encrypted and never leaves our campus, the transmission is pretty secure, but since it logs in plain text files, it’s really only as good as the computer security is. With physical communications it’s at least easier to understand when/where there are privacy and/or security concerns, but technology can remove that intuition since most people don’t know the whole flow.

Ease of dissemination, particularly in my environment, forwarding and the ability to carbon copy someone are huge assets to what we do and need to be considered in any communication tool.

Addressing/Contact lists How easy is it for me to communicate with someone for the first time, or to recommunicate with someone that I reach only infrequently? Since our email is connected to an LDAP, it automatically looks up people’s email addresses as I type them into the “To” line. Also, our default setup adds email addresses to the contact list if I’ve ever received or sent email to a particular address. In general, I find email to be very quick (and predicative!) at helping me communicate with the person I want to.

Multitasking is somewhat contentious as to how effective it actually is. But that debate aside, there are always times where we’ll have several things going on at once. And some types of communication facilitate this better than others. Depending on the severity and content of the correspondence I have found it to be very helpful to have 4 IM windows open at once and the ability to switch between the conversations quickly.

Searchability/Retrieval is becoming more and more important the more inundated with information we become. Digital text based communications are very good at this, and based on the information that’s stored and the user interface, we may be able to search for patterns that we didn’t immediately realize or recall were there. Email tends to have robust tools available for searching by any number of qualifications, but these could be available via other technical tools as well depending on what you’re using.

Richness of information As I was first thinking about this post I knew that I wanted to mention that my officemate and I frequently communicate via IM even though we’re sitting less than 5 feet away from each other. Part of the motivation for this is the ease with which richer information and multimedia can be communicated. I don’t know if you’ve ever had to give someone a url over the phone, but it’s kind of a pain and prone to error the longer the link gets. Hyperlinks, pictures, videos, sounds, can all be a necessary part of the message. Also, things as easy as an ordered list maybe be easier to present in an email using html formatting than they would be to dictate over the phone or put in an IM.

I drew those characteristics up in a few minutes based on thinking about what is done really well by each of the mediums. I’m sure I left some out and would appreciate comments for other things I should be considering as well.

This whole discussion is similar (although maybe of less significance) in my personal life as I am ofter faced with the decision of whether to send email, text messages, phone calls, or snail mail. For some things there inherent recommendations, but not for everything.

Ok, I fear this may have been the most boring post I will ever write on this blog, but it is something I’ve given thought to and wondered if others had as well.