Brian Newby Warns: The “Big Bang” is Coming

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[Image courtesy of io9]

I saw my friend and colleague Brian Newby of Johnson County, KS last week at a meeting of academics, election officials and legislative staffers hosted by the National Conference of State Legislatures – and he had some interesting thoughts about how the current system of election technology might change.

It’s tucked away at the end of his most recent post at Election Diary, and it suggests that whether or not election officials plan their next move, it’s going to come at them quickly and and all at once:

There isn’t much consensus on the best method [of voting], today or tomorrow. Add in layers of policy makers, who have their own opinions and their own cost and social drivers and restrainers, and the chance of a common approach in the country, or even in a state, seems unlikely.

I’m still a believer that there will be a big bang, a disruptive moment in the industry–perhaps a single state legislature will pass a little bill requiring Internet Voting, or emailing of ballots. All the work of standards, scientists’ theories, and activist interests will go out the window. [emphasis added]

Likewise, the opinions of election administrators will matter little in such a scenario. Somewhere, we have to find a way to make the realities of today merge to lead to a solution.

Brian’s Big Bang is akin to what I’ve called “Lennon’s Law” – life is what happens to you while you were making other plans – but the effect is the same. We currently live in a time of great uncertainty in election administration and the variety of different pressures and influences is staggering. In this environment, election officials and policymakers need to planning ahead both for the problems they can anticipate and those they cannot. Brian’s writes at (deeply pained) length in his most recent post about the new county manager’s withdrawal of funding for a new system:

[O]ur county manager stopped our annual set-aside amount and also pulled funding based on a quote we received, provided several times in the budget process. We had $10 million at one time in the capital budget, but he pulled it …

So, it’s frustrating to say the least when my predecessor had the wisdom to push for and implement a plan to pay for a future system, but we are behind the other large counties in preparation years later.

This will have a major point of reckoning because even when the county issues debt to pay for the new system, it will have either a tax impact or a major cost cutting impact. That cost cutting won’t come in elections, because as we ramp up polling places and staff advance voting to 2016 levels, I estimate those additional costs to be more than $1 million from 2014.

Plus, because we will have to finance our new system, this issue also likely prevents the county from setting aside money for its next, next system. This has created a perpetual election funding crisis.

There are countless things that keep election officials awake at night, but this has to be at or near the top of the list – a looming problem that, despite evidence and entreaties, goes unfunded until a crisis emerges.

To paraphrase General Colin Powell, incoming Big Bangs have the right of way – and county planners and election officials need to think about what will happen when that day arrives. Thanks to Brian for raising the issue; here’s hoping that everyone concerned can think more clearly about what’s necessary before the next big thing arrives.

Stay tuned.

1 Comment on "Brian Newby Warns: The “Big Bang” is Coming"

  1. This is very interesting thought, but w’ont such “big bang” make country unstable? Author writes it, like he was looking forward too it. I understand that such an event is supposed to be unevitable, but shouldn’t we prepare for it, instead just wait?

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