ELECTricity Spotlights Minneapolis’ New Election “Business Plan”

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The Center for Technology and Civic Life‘s latest ELECTricity newsletter has a spotlight on an initiative in Minneapolis that’s helping the city’s election office keep its focus on what’s important in carrying out its mission. Normally, I’d excerpt it and add my two cents throughout (because blogging) but it’s so good (both the subject matter and the writing) that I’m just sharing it below:

Whether you’re taking a vacation, baking a cake, or buying a new car, everybody recognizes the importance of setting goals and making a plan in order to get the outcomes you want. Of course, planning is key for elections, too. 

In Minneapolis, the city’s Elections and Voter Services division is benefitting from a business plan that it’s created to define new goals for running great elections in the city.

It’s called a business plan, but it’s not about dollars and cents. It’s really a plan to enhance civic engagement and better serve the community, emphasizing goals like increasing voter turnout and minimizing waits at the polls.

The heart of one of the Midwest’s biggest metro areas, Minneapolis is home to over 400,000 people, including nearly 246,000 registered voters. For decades, Minnesota has been recognized for its robust civic engagement and voter turnout. In fact, Minneapolis’s voter turnout was about 79% in the 2016 Presidential election, and in 2012 it was nearly 81%. 

It’s fair to say that Minnesota has a culture that encourages voting, and that spirit is evident in the business plan created by Minneapolis’s Elections and Voter Services (EVS) division. 

“Our mission is to be the gold standard in election administration,” says Grace Wachlarowicz, Director of EVS.

Setting goals

Minneapolis’s Office of the City Clerk had been making business plans for years, but they didn’t include specific proposals to better serve voters. But when City Clerk Casey Carl, Grace, and colleagues from divisions within the Clerk’s Office came together in 2014, they decided to make a different kind of plan.

“We determined that the business plan was an opportunity to provide policymakers and the public with a stable, consistent foundation that we could use to measure our performance for each year compared to previous years and similar jurisdictions nationwide,” says Grace. 

Casey and the management team began by creating broad goals for the Clerk’s Office overall. They used GOTA — Goals/Objectives/Tactics/Activities — as a framework to show how long-term goals can be achieved through day-to-day activities. Each goal is broken down into a series of objectives, which in turn are supported by tactics and, ultimately, activities.

For example, here’s a GOTA sequence showing how an activity supports the goal of civic literacy:

Goal: Civic literacy
Objective: Promote public knowledge of core democratic processes
Tactic: Provide residents information about how to shape, influence, and participate in municipal policy and operations
Activity: Identify knowledge gaps and information needs within the community and target populations

With these goals established, EVS staff then took the next step: contributing specific ambitions for election administration.

EVS: Key Performance Indicators

  1. Voters are “election ready”
  2. Voters have equitable, impartial access to the ballot box
  3. Every ballot is accurately and properly counted

These ambitions — called Key Performance Indicators — are where the rubber meets the road, and with the business plan released in March 2016, the indicators had a perfect testing ground: the 2016 General Election.

Measuring progress to goals 

Of course, setting goals is important, but it’s only a first step. To really make progress, you need to assess whether or not you reached your goals. 

Following the election in November, Grace and her staff did just that, reporting their findings in the City Clerk’s 2016 annual report.

The report shows a dedicated team striving to provide outstanding public service, and it references plenty of data to substantiate their efforts.

It’s a big report, so let’s look at just 3 areas where they made progress. 

First, EVS worked to supplant same-day registration with early voting. Although Election Day registration can help voters, the report says that it led to waits in the 2012 Presidential election: “It was the single most significant factor causing long lines and extended wait times at the polls that year.”

To reduce the strain, EVS added 3 new early voting locations in 2016, and the effort worked! The number of ballots cast at early voting increased 300%, while the number of same-day registrations was cut in half. 

Second, the EVS team made an effort to collect data on voter wait times. Participating in the Election Day Line Data Collection Program, EVS collected data from 109 of Minneapolis’s 133 precincts. 

“Election judges from each precinct,” according to the report, “were tasked with recording the length of the queueing line in the poll every hour during Election Day, counting all those who had not yet moved past the roster or registration table.”

The data collected shows that wait times were significant only during the first 2 hours, and waits were down in 2016 compared to 2012, possibly due to the additional early voting centers.

Finally, in a city with a growing, diverse population, EVS has begun a plan to diversify its force of poll workers. “The goal is to ensure those working in the polls reflect the communities and neighborhoods being served,” says EVS. 

In 2016, EVS explored partnerships and recorded judges’ ethnicity as first steps to increase diversity. According to the report, diversity did increase in 2016 and can continue to grow with targeted recruitment.

Seeing an impact

EVS’s business plan and annual report have already had a positive effect in Minneapolis.

By designing a process for setting goals, collecting data, and reporting outcomes, Grace and her staff have established smart habits to help them reach their ultimate goal of being the “gold standard in election administration.”

“We’ve been able to make a sound, comprehensive foundation for performance that we can replicate, with modifications as needed, for every 4-year cycle,” Grace emphasizes.

Contributing to the report also confirmed for Grace the significance of data in election administration. “Data collection,” she observes, “really is key to justifying business decisions and measuring performance.”

If other election offices want to set performance goals like EVS did, Grace says they’re welcome to use her team’s business plan and annual report as models. 

She explains, “They can start with an environmental scan, do web research to identify comparable jurisdictions, and set goals with frameworks such as GOTA (Goals/Objectives/Tactics/Activities) and KPI (Key Performance Indicators). The biggest challenge,” she continues, “is to keep this task as a priority to keep it moving.” 

I really like this initiative for several reasons:

  • most importantly, it’s a great way for an election office to decide what goals are most important and focus its efforts on achieving those goals;
  • it forces the office to confront the inevitable trade-offs it faces (early voting vs. EDR, minimizing turnover by retention of existing judges vs. expanding diversity, etc.);
  • it provides a framework for data collection that helps drive decision-making and analysis; and
  • it’s flexible enough that it doesn’t require every election office to choose the same path – the value is as much in the planning process as it is the eventual plan.

Thanks so much to ELECTricity and CTCL for sharing this story (if you haven’t yet subscribed to the newsletter you can remedy that here) – and kudos to Casey, Grace and everyone in the City of Lakes for their work on this effort!

Stay tuned …

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