What are the structural and process problems our County Council is facing?
- Our county government lacks the basic structures and procedures common to any local government or mid-size business. Brian Zidek and Kevin Madden could see the problems from their seats on County Council. But they were in the minority for two years; they could not enact the changes needed.
- There is no established reporting structure for the various departments and divisions within county government. For example, we have a volunteer, appointed Election Board that meets 3-4 times a year to set election policy. We have an Election Bureau tasked full-time with carrying out all steps requisite to holding an election. But to whom does the Election Bureau report? To the Election Board? To the County Council members? Nothing is written in the county charter or in any body of procedures.
- Delco has no clear, logical procurement procedure for, say, acquiring new printers in the Election Bureau. The result: waste, inefficiency, and favoritism in allocations.
- Delco has long had weak and inefficient hiring procedures. In particular, there has been poor communication between the County Council and the departments about staffing issues. This is another result of not having a clear reporting structure. The Election Bureau staff was not operating at 50% capacity by choice but thanks to stingy, poor oversight by County Council.
- In the 10 weeks our Democratic County Council members had to dig into these problems before COVID and the mail-in ballot avalanche hit Delco, they came to realize that the problems with county government lay not with the workers. They lay with the leadership.
- Reform takes time, even when you control the government. Dedication to doing things right means you don’t write up hiring procedures over drinks on a Friday afternoon. Staffs in every department and division must be consulted, ideas must be vetted, proposals floated.
Delays in settling legal challenges = less time to print mail-in ballots
There are always some legal challenges to candidates’ petition signatures before the primary. Candidate One brings a legal challenge against Candidate Two if there is reason to believe that a significant number of the signatures on Candidate Two’s petitions are invalid for various reasons.
It’s great that more people are running for office in the primaries, but more candidates means more petition challenges. Both Republican and Democratic candidates brought substantive challenges this year, and most of those challenges were successful in court.
Typically, two or three judges on the Republican-dominated Court of Common Pleas set aside a week shortly after petition challenges are due to hear the challenges in a timely fashion. That did not happen this year, for unknown reasons. In addition, one challenge in a federal race had to go up to a higher court. The overall result was that hearings had to be squeezed into the regular schedule, the process was protracted, and the judgements were delayed.
The physical printing of ballots.
Here we go, deep in the granular weeds. But as owners of our government, we need to know what happens when equipment is sacrificed on the alter of low taxes. We lose capacity and agility. The delay in printing put those losses on full display.
- As noted in the newsletter itself, the printers in the Bureau of Elections were just not up to the task of printing 80,000 mail-in ballots in five weeks’ time.
- It wasn’t just one continuous run of the same ballot. Every township has a different primary ballot, depending on the state assembly/senate candidates in that township (Haverford has two different ballots; we have wards in state assembly districts 163 & 166). Democratic primary ballots are a different color from Republican ballots – in every township. Both sides had to be printed to include the candidates seeking delegate positions at their party’s presidential nominating convention
- Mail-in ballots require the additional printing of address labels.
- Plus “regular” ballots also had to be printed for physical voting AND “provisional ballots” had to be printed. All township-specific, color-coded, and double-sided.
Tasked with that volume in such a condensed window of time, the printers simply broke down. County Council members quickly authorized outsourcing any printing that could be outsourced while Election Bureau staff hustled for replacement printers from other county offices and beyond. Working together, County Council and the Election Bureau made it happen, but it was neither pretty nor perfect.
What happened with notification about changes in polling locations?
- COVID required consolidation of polling locations for reasons covered in the last two newsletters: reductions in poll workers and surge in mail-in ballots. In our May newsletter, Haverford Dems supplied a link to our website’s chart of new polling locations.
- Primary elections are the responsibility of the political parties; decisions about something like polling consolidation are handled at the township level by one or both leaders of the local Democratic and Republican organizations. In Haverford, the Democrats sought partnership but wound up serving alone.
- Though primaries are not official township business, Haverford’s leadership agreed to make a “reverse 911” robocall to every resident enrolled in the township’s “911” notification service to alert them to check their updated polling location online.
- The township’s robocall did not happen until 10:30 a.m. on the day of the primary election. Nothing nefarious here, but it was not optimal.
- Both Democrats and Republicans will make sure in the fall that the township makes robocalls as soon as the polling location question is settled and will make sure that the township makes those calls more than once before November 3.
- Democrats typically provide you with information about any polling location changes right at your doorstep. We do that with the pre-election post card we “drop” at Dem voters’ homes to get out the vote and provide a sample ballot. This year, no postcard was dropped for the same reason there were township-wide changes in polling locations: we are in a historic pandemic.
What challenges did Delco’s under-resourced Election Bureau staff face and surmount before and during the run up to the primary election?
- Laureen Hagan, Chief Clerk of the Election Bureau, has been so long associated with Republicans’ control of the county that when Democrats gained control, she assumed her job was on the line.
- Still, she stepped up and told the new County Council that without more resources to meet the demands of Act 77, Delco would not be able to stage an election. In response, the County Council gave her a bonus to, please, stay in her position through December, 2020.
- Hagan knew her Bureau was under-staffed, lacked adequate equipment, and had too few SURE terminals. But without a formal reporting structure or rational hiring and procurement procedures, her options in the past have been limited.
- Delco’s Biggest Operational Challenge: no established culture of communication between County Council and county staff. Successful leaders know they must establish an open dialogue with those doing the actual work. Staff members cannot fear their departments will suffer if they speak up about problems.
- In the crucible of the 2020 primary election, the Election Bureau staff and members of County Council became a team that can communicate about real, practical issues like printer exhaustion and SURE terminals. They can, by working together in the trenches, invent solutions for both the short term and long term.