A Flathead Valley, Montana, based independent journal of observation, analysis, and opinion.

29 November 2006

Republicans will control state house of representatives

Which means Scott Sales, whose spots weren’t changed by his party’s finding itself in the majority, will be the speaker of the house instead of the minority leader. What happened to bring this about? The Democrat in HD-58 lost a hand recount by three votes.


28 November 2006

A partisan hack on steroids

A loyal opposition differs from an obtuse opposition. We need the former, but in the Montana legislature, we appear to be condemned to suffering the latter. After being chosen leader of the Republicans in the state house of representatives, Bozeman based Rep. Scott Sales said, “My job is to show no quarter to the Democrats as they try to push their liberal agenda.”

Enough already!

Sales, and every other member of the legislature, was sent there by voters who expect their representatives to work together to solve the problems that bedevil Montana. Neither Sales nor any other legislator was elected to be a Pavlovian obstructionist or a partisan bully boy who subordinates good government to jockeying for partisan advantage for the election of 2008.

It's time for Sales to stop behaving like a political hack on steroids, and to start behaving like a responsible legislator who works for the best interests of the people of his district and the State of Montana — even if that means working with Democrats every now and then.

Website changes

I’m making some changes in the design and coding of the website, so for a few days some pages will differ slightly from others, and some links might not work, while I make the transition to the improved format. Please bear with me, but please also continue to let me know if a link is broken.


25 November 2006

Flathead County elections problems letter

The following is my letter-to-the editor on elections in Flathead County that the Kalispell Daily InterLake published in its Friday, 24 November 2006, issue.

Although I share some of the InterLake’s concerns over the conduct of the last election, both statewide and in Flathead County, I’m not troubled by Flathead County’s choice of voting technology.

After the election of 2000, the Cal Tech-MIT study group concluded that the best voting system was a plain text paper ballot, counted by machine, with optical scanners in each precinct. That’s the technology that Flathead County purchased to replace the punch card equipment.

The problems with the last elections lie not in the county’s choice of voting technology — Flathead County’s choice of technology was the right choice — but in its implementation of it. The county’s elections department relies too heavily on the vendor for technical expertise, including, it appears, programming the counting machines. I believe that Clerk and Recorder Robinson is working to correct these problems, and to develop the requisite technical skills in-house, but it will take time and money.

In the meantime, delays in counting, while exasperating, are inevitable. The county could help itself by abandoning the goal of completing the count before midnight — the goal is not attainable, and setting it only creates false expectations. We need to cut the counters some slack. It’s more important that the ballots are counted accurately than quickly.

Where both the county and the state, especially the state, need to improve is in the reporting of the returns on their websites. As of 15 November, the county’s elections department still had not posted precinct-by-precinct preliminary results on its website, let alone in a database compatible format. The secretary of state’s website has results by legislative district, but not in a database friendly format. This is inexcusable — but it is what will continue to happen as long as we insist on filling these offices with elected politicians instead of with qualified data management professionals whom we hire on the basis of professional qualifications. Under the present system, competence is the result of accident, not design.

Finally, there are some small things could be fixed easily and at little cost. One is making sure that all polling booths are well lighted. At my precinct, 30-star, I needed a flashlight to see my ballot easily. And, Kalispell not being Baghdad, I see no need to have the door to the polling place manned by a uniformed, pistol packing sheriff’s deputy.


15 November 2006

We’re taking a post-election break. Journal entries will resume on a mostly regular Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule on the Monday following Thanksgiving.

8 November 2006

Vote counting foul-ups should be investigated

After the official canvass of votes is completed, an independent commission of experts should examine the vote counting problems that occurred in Flathead County and other counties last night. Initial reports indicate programming errors rather than electro-mechanical failures, but there may have been electro-mechanical failures as well.

The programming of the counting machines is the weak link in the optical scanning systems used in the Flathead and elsewhere in Montana. It is easy enough to test whether the sensors in the counting machines are functioning properly, but much more difficult to test and validate the programming, much or all of which appears to be handled by the vendors of the machines. In fact, the elections department may have entered into non-disclosure agreements with the vendors that prevent the department from programming the machines.

It seems to me that as long as we continue to elect clerks and recorders, local elections departments most often will be run by people who lack the expertise to work with modern counting technology. Clerk and recorder is a skills position — there's no policy making function in the office's powers or duties — but it is being filled by people, almost always women, who started in entry level positions and eventually won an election for the office when the incumbent retired (in the Flathead, the current clerk and recorder gave her predecessor a push). But the job requires professional level data management skills, and the people filling it should be hired on the basis of their professional qualifications, not their ability to win an election.

The probability that clerks and recorders will be hired instead of elected is very low. Therefore, to ensure the integrity of elections, it may make sense to return to the tried and true system of hand counting paper ballots. Vote counting machines speed up the counting process, but that's all they do — and if they're too much technology for elections departments to handle, then they need to be retired.