The Nov. 4 election will answer two questions. One is obvious: Which candidates won?
The other question has become just as obvious: How did Hawaii’s State Office of Elections (OE) screw up this time?
Even if you take the OE’s Puna hurricane polling decision out of the equation because the office at least gave a reasoned, legally upheld if controversial defense, OE has a recent history of making very public and critical errors.
Two outrageous ones in particular. In 2012 OE didn’t furnish enough ballots at some of the state’s voting sites. In the recent primary OE chose not to report 800 votes until well after they had been counted.
For an election nothing could be more basic and essential than having enough ballots and reporting votes on time.
But the Office of Elections does more than run elections, so to be fair let’s consider their howlers in a broader context of that agency’s work.
This fuller picture shows that OE does some things quite well but overall it comes out looking awful.
Those two gigantic election night mistakes, they’re like … Well, let’s begin with a story that a police official once told me about a fire department in a Chicago suburb.
That town had only one high rise building. The fire department had a hook-and-ladder truck with an aerial ladder that the department needed solely to fight a fire in that building. No other reason for the truck’s existence.
Having that piece of apparatus was a conscientious and prudent move that certainly kept the town in good stead with the insurance underwriters.
In fact, overall the department was very conscientious. The firefighters met training and response-time standards, their equipment was in good shape, and the department did the required outreach, inspection, and fire prevention.
Except for one problem: the day the department got a 911 call for a fire at that high rise, they forgot to send that hook-and-ladder truck.
So how do you judge that fire department? On the basis of its everyday soup-to-nuts activities that it did quite well, or on the basis of its singular and flawed response to that high-rise fire call?
The election itself is the OE’s equivalent of that high-rise fire call, and like that fire department OE also carries out a lot of commonplace but important activities.
Some recent research makes it possible to assess those low-visibility, everyday activities.
That work, reported in Barry C. Burden’s and Charles Stewart III’s “The Measure of American Elections,” breaks new ground in election research by doing a gigantic, soup-to-nuts election administration study on the basis of an enormous amount of information.
The researchers developed a number of election administration performance indicators. We can use these indicators to see how well Hawaii’s overall election administration stands up to the rest of the country.
Actually Hawaii’s OE does OK — pretty good in some things, less so in others. That’s the typical pattern for most states.
Good: Compared to other states, the length of time a Hawaii voter has to wait in line is on the low side, generally around seven minutes though slightly higher in 2012. Hawaii has a very low rate of contested ballots.
Only 6 percent of Hawaii’s voters said they had polling place problems in 2012. That’s up a bit from earlier elections but still far lower than the worse states.
Also Good: Ninety percent of Hawaii’s voters in the 2012 election said they were confident that their votes were counted as cast. That’s a drop from previous elections but still close to the national average and nowhere near the worst states, where one-third of the voters lacked this confidence.
Not Good: The state does not do as well on registration and turnout performance indicators. Hawaii has the lowest percentage of eligible voters registered to vote, but as Burden and Stewart indicate, many factors related to low voter turnout — maybe most — are beyond the election office’s control.
Also Not Good: The state’s voter information websites are comparatively inaccessible and puny.
Overall, if you use this study to paint a picture of OE, two highlights emerge. The first is that Hawaii looks OK. If you were doing one of those HR performance evaluations of OE, you would list some “goods” and some “needs improvement” — not too bad for government work or for any work for that matter.
The Office of Elections deserves an overall F because it has made those gross election night mistakes and, equally important, because OE lacks transparency and accountability in its feeble attempts to rectify them.
The second highlight is that according to this study the OE does relatively well regarding polling place problems, wait time and voter confidence — the very things that have gotten OE into so much trouble during the past few elections.
But that is only one way to paint the picture, and it’s misleading. The national study’s goal was to make some kind of comprehensive sense out of a subject that has depended so much on anecdotes and singular cases — a hanging chad here, an accusation of voter suppression there.
Good plan but with serious limits. The strength of this work is that it strives for broad statistical analysis, and the weakness of the work is the same — that it strives for broad statistical analysis.
Shooting for the statistical stars is valuable but limited because the research excessively dampens the significance of singular visible events.
Voter waiting lines up the wazoo in Cleveland may not make a statistical dent, but that does not diminish their importance.
And that brings us back to the Hawaii State Office of Elections, a B- drama student overall getting a big fat F on stage in the most important public performances of her life.
This means that decisions need to be made about how much to weigh the commonplace along with the more exceptional but most important activities.
And for three reasons it makes sense to weigh the importance of election night activities very very heavily.
First, election night administration is the heart of what an election office does, just as fighting fires is a visible, singular action that no other organization except the fire department can carry out.
Second, anecdotal or not, stories about failures have a political resonance that cannot be erased by a list of good things an organization does.
Recently the head of the U.S. Secret Service tried to diminish the importance of the Secret Service’s extraordinarily serious failures when, according to the New York Times, she told a congressional committee that it should evaluate that agency’s work by considering the “totality of circumstances.”
Let’s see now: that totality in light of the Secret Service’s failure to protect the President and his family in ways that make the Keystone Kops look like 007, then covering that up. She was rightfully drummed out of her job.
Third, deciding how much weight to give to such stories is a key part of bureaucratic life. Any competent people-oriented bureaucrat spends much time considering how to respond to a passionate but far from general complaint.
Ultimately, whatever else it does, the Office of Elections deserves an overall F because it has made those gross election night mistakes and, equally important, because OE lacks transparency and accountability in its feeble attempts to rectify them.
Transparency: the head of OE responded to election night complaints to those two errors as he does in most of his public appearances — with all the confidence of a prairie dog peering out of his hole looking for coyotes. Flop sweat is not conducive to full explanations.
You need to be confident and candid if you want people to trust your work overall even if they are unhappy about parts of it. Non-political does not mean non-responsive.
The lack of accountability — or more accurately a deceptive false accountability — is even a more serious problem.
Here in essence was the director of the Office of Election’s response to its 2012 ballot gaffe:
“I made a mistake: I promise I won’t happen again.”
Geez, that’s what your kids tell you, and how is that working out for you?
You need to be confident and candid if you want people to trust your work overall even if they are unhappy about parts of it.
Yet this “sorry, Mom” defense was good enough for the state’s Election Commission, which doled out no sanctions.
Since that defense worked so well once, why not try it again? Yup, regarding its 2014 primary vote-reporting failure, the head of the office once again said — you guessed it — we made a mistake. It won’t happen again.
Once again the commission rewarded him for this lame we-can-do-better argument.
So here is an overall assessment of the OE: The importance of its mistakes on the few big things far outweighs the good things it does.
OE deserves some credit for those everyday, necessary, sometimes legally mandated nitty-gritty things that get little attention. But the huge mistakes involving the most basic and simplistic rules of election administration rightly overwhelm everything else OE does. The way that agency responds to these mistakes makes matters even worse.
If that suburban fire chief had responded that way, he’d be working at Walmart by now.