an eddy in the bitstream

Page 5 of 76

How I Spent My Fall Vacation

In 2016 I could not have imagined I would come to know my way around the Kansas Statehouse, and yet two years later I was the one guiding my fellow members of the new governor’s transition team through the entry with the metal detectors and into the limestone catacombs. It’s funny how you find yourself places.

I am starting an accounting of what I was up to between Election Day 2016 and Inauguration Day 2019, and what I have learned the last few years as an accidental activist, things that went well and things that did not. A retrospective of one.

Election Day 2016

It would be too simple to say that the results of the 2016 American presidential election pushed me into politics. There were really a lot of factors that got me off the couch. But certainly I was angry and unmoored on Wednesday, November 9. Not because my candidate lost. My candidate wasn’t on the ballot. I gritted my teeth and voted Democratic on Tuesday, like a lot of people. I felt a lot like I did after the 2004 election. I was not enthusiastic about the Democratic candidate, but the Republican candidate was so obviously a poor choice that I just could not understand why so many of my fellow Americans voted for them. In this case, my primary fear was about the critical issue of the climate. We only get one planet, and science shows that the human species is pretty well screwing it up for ourselves and all the other species. The GOP candidate was going to ignore and belittle the science at a critical moment in history when decisive political action is needed by the world’s biggest economy and carbon producer. That was just unconscionable and unacceptable to me.

The Morning After

The first thing I did after Election Day was read a lot of the morning-after analysis and second-guessing. As an engineer, I was most interested in understanding the tactical and logistical reasons the election had ended the way it had, and what could be done to change the outcome next time. Setting aside the whole mess of presidential candidate narratives, and what campaigns and foreign governments did or failed to do, I took away a few things.

  • The maps are skewed. Republicans had systematically targeted state legislatures around the country, won control of many of them, and used the power of district boundary drawing after the 2010 census to gerrymander their way to control of the US House. It was really ingenious. Hats off to them for the strategy and the execution.
  • The state legislature is where the action is. Having wrestled away power at the state level, the Republican party was able to set the policy agenda and define the terms of political debate. Taxes, schools, roads, budgets, redistricting. This was very evident in Kansas where I live. Since the moment we moved here in 2013, my daily newspaper was filled with budget crises, Supreme Court suits over school funding, concealed carry gun rights expansion. All because the legislature and the governor’s office were controlled by conservative Republicans determined to starve the state government till it was small enough to drown in the bathtub.
  • The Democratic party, during the glamour years of the Obama administration, failed to invest in state and local parties, in campaign infrastructure, and in building a bench of local elected officials who could compete in federal races. School boards, county commissions, water boards, city councils: these local elected offices are where people learn the mechanics of campaigning and governing. Any professional sports fan knows most players don’t jump from high school to the pros. The senior teams develop and groom a pipeline of qualified players who can compete, and the best get promoted. The Democratic party had failed to do that.

I learned all that by reading: the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, the great raft of internet pundits, my local public library. We had recently acquired a new chair at my house, and I settled into what became known as my “nest” by our unlit fireplace, books and magazines stacked on the brick hearth.

I spent an unhealthy amount of time on Twitter. I created my first Facebook account so I could start to understand how people could be so affected by that product. I joined every email list for every nascent group committed to resisting the new administration. (I have since unsubscribed from nearly all of them.) And I got ready to get to work.

This is the first in a series of posts. The title of this one comes from one of my favorite songs. I didn’t want to be “just sitting at home, growing tenser with the times.”

I’m Just a Bill, Until I’m More

When Representative Miller introduced me to Governor Colyer at the bill signing ceremony, he made note of the fact that it was unusual for an ordinary citizen to initiate a bill, testify at a committee and see the bill signed into law. The Governor gave me a signing pen and shook my hand.

I think it’s regrettable that more ordinary folks do not get involved in the legislative process, but I certainly had no idea why I would want to or how to go about it, until I did. This is the story of what happened and what I learned.

Election Results Data

In the autumn of 2017, when I was struggling to find good data to make my election results map, I realized that the Kansas Secretary of State’s office had stopped publishing precinct level results on its website after 2012. When I called (multiple times), emailed and finally tweeted at the Secretary’s office to release the data, I received a combination of Excel files and PDFs, for some but not all races. When I suggested via email that it might be easier in the future if the office simply published those files on its website as it used to, I was met with silence.

I talked with several people that autumn about the issue, including a county clerk (the elected official who administers elections in Kansas), and a state representative (not my own but a friend of a friend). Everyone said it was a legitimate thing to require the SoS office to publish those results.

So in January of 2018, just after the start of the legislative session, I emailed my state House representative, Boog Highberger, and pitched him the idea. He responded immediately, and we chatted on the phone. He reached out to Vic Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Elections committee and pitched the idea to him. Miller said he would bring it to the committee chair and try and get it on the agenda at the next meeting.

Here’s where things went quiet from my perspective. A couple of weeks passed. I’d never done this before, so I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that a bill might be drafted, and a committee would discuss and vote on it, and then (hopefully) the whole House would vote on it. I also knew the same process needed to happen on the Senate side. I mean, I watched School House Rock as a kid. I had a general understanding of how this worked.

I had one big fear about turning this idea over to the legislative process, and that was that if the language of any resulting law wasn’t specific enough about how the results were published, then the SoS office could create a bunch of PDF files (maybe even from scans of printed paper) and post those to its website, and thus satisfy the legal requirement without actually being very useful at all to anyone who wanted to handle the raw data electronically. I had seen what the SoS office had sent me already, and I knew that PDFs were a real threat. I also knew they could produce Excel spreadsheets since that had been done in the past. I had specifically mentioned “machine-readable documents” in my proposal, but as anyone who has tried to pull meaningful data out of a PDF knows, just because a document is electronic does not mean it is machine-readable.

So I checked the Elections committee web page every day to find out what was happening. Nothing appeared on the agenda. I could check minutes of each meeting, but those minutes aren’t published until a couple of weeks after each meeting. I wanted some input into the language in the bill, to appease my fear of the PDF Issue. I knew my modest little idea could easily fall through the cracks, since there were a lot more high-stakes election issues being argued over in the legislature, like voter id, proof of citizenship, Crosscheck, campaign finance, etc. I also knew that legislators were very busy people. How was I going to find out if/when my idea became a bill and when it would be discussed in committee? Could I have input into the language? And would it all happen before the end of the five-month-long session?

I admit I struggled to understand the process from the outside. I read the committee web page but I didn’t really know what I was looking for. The committee agenda seemed to appear just before the meeting on the site so it felt like little advanced warning. The site has recorded audio files of each meeting, but I wanted to have input before the meeting where the idea was discussed.


Thankfully, I had a few things going for me.

I had the Legislative Alerts website. I set up a daily alert for “elections AND state:KS” and then tried to be patient. Then one morning in late January I got an alert mentioning a precinct results bill and I knew progress had been made.

I had a partner who knew this process, and our dear friend Annie McKay, who is a registered lobbyist in Topeka. They both patiently explained what I needed to do:

  • Identify others on the Elections committee that might be in favor of the idea.
  • Had I contacted my Senator and started the process on the Senate side? I had not.
  • Write to the legislative assistant for the Elections committee and ask for guidance on how to provide testimony at the committee hearing.

Most importantly, I had the privileges of time and money to do all this research, writing and communication.

So I stayed busy. I wrote to Senator Miller with specific suggestions on changes to the bill language. I had recently heard Representative Brett Parker announce a couple of bills expanding voting rights and saw that he was on the committee. I wrote to him, introduced myself and included the same list of suggestions on the bill text.

I wrote to my Senator, Marci Francisco, pitching the same idea, explaining about the House bill, and asking about the process on the Senate side. She very graciously explained to me that it was too late to introduce new legislation to Senate committees, but that hope was not lost. The “turnaround deadline” of the legislature was February 22, and if the bill passed in the House before then it would be sent to the Senate leadership for consideration.

Another week passed. Then Senator Miller emailed with a date for the committee hearing and asking if I wanted to provide testimony. Boy did I ever. Annie helpfully suggested I remove the snark from my first version. I wrote it up and sent it in, and published it for the world.

Annie also suggested I should present in person to the committee, especially if there were questions. This turned out to be a very good idea. She volunteered to walk me over to the statehouse in Topeka, where I had never been before, and make sure I got to the right place on time.

At the Capitol

I was early. I sat in the back. I was nervous to be sure, mostly that I would make some faux pas in such a public and official space. But I was very confident in what I had to say, because it was directly from two decades of lived experience with technology. That helped a lot.

Bryan Caskey, who is the Kansas Director of Elections in the SoS office, sat down next to me, which turned out to be quite lucky for me. He was the person who had given me the election results months earlier and I had never met him in person. He also testified at the committee hearing, at the request of the committee, since his office would be most directly affected by the bill.

Rep Parker had his phone out and, I found out later, was re-reading the email I had sent him weeks before. During discussion of the bill, he raised one of the issues I was going to make in my testimony, so I made a mental note to skip that part.

When called I got up and read from my prepared testimony, making mention of the fact that Rep Parker had already voiced one point. There were questions about the format of the election results. The Chair, Keith Esau, asked if Open Office format would be acceptable. How lovely to hear an elected official speak about an open source product!

One of the most important points came up during Mr. Caskey’s testimony, when he said that one reason that the SoS office stopped publishing results in 2014 was that the largest 4 counties had gotten new ballot machines that would only output PDF files and so that was the only format available to the SoS office. There was some discussion of whether it was possible that the machines could output some other format, and about the fact that new ballot machines were possibly going to be in play for the 2018 election because of the national attention being paid to election interference.

After the hearing was over, Representative Esau came over to where Mr. Caskey and I were sitting and the three of us had a very lively chat about the mechanics of elections.

The next day I wrote to Reps Esau and Mill and Mr Caskey:

I took to heart Bryan Caskey’s comments about the difficulty his office has getting machine-readable documents from some counties, and the potential resource burden that creates in converting those counties’ data to a spreadsheet. There’s a bigger technical issue at work there with the voting machine apparatus, and as Bryan noted in our conversation after the hearing yesterday, the process is undergoing rapid and as-yet-unknown changes this year.

I recognize that my request for an open data format is an ideal that most states do not yet live up to. I’m not interested in letting the perfect become the enemy of the good.

I still think getting timely publication of the best data the office has available serves Kansans’ interests in open and transparent elections. I’d rather see a mix of PDF and XLS files on the website within 30 days, than the current situation of zero published data. XLS files for 100 counties and PDFs for 5 counties is a decent trade-off, in my opinion.

Not publishing the data, even in its mixed formats, creates a resource drain on Bryan’s office for every KORA request that comes in. In the spirit of the FOIA “release to one, release to all” policy, let’s get them published preemptively and allow the public at large the chance to turn the data into whatever format is most helpful.

The committee schedule called for the bill to be voted on the next week, so I was pleased when it came up for a vote and passed out of the committee unanimously with my suggested amendments.

Then it was on to a full House vote the following week, where again it passed.


Then I had to wait for the bill to make its way to the Senate elections committee for a hearing on that side of the building. I reached out to the election committee administrator, asking to be added to her email list for agenda announcements. She also gave me instructions on submitting testimony to the Senate committee. I submitted written testimony in favor of the bill. It passed out of committee on the Senate side and then was assigned to the conference committee.

This is where things got dicey, because we were running out of time in the session. If it didn’t get a Senate vote, we’d have to start all over again next year. The conference committee is where bills get reconciled between House and Senate versions so that both sides of the building vote on identical language. Six weeks later my bill passed out of conference committee and then a full Senate vote. Along the way it got merged with a bunch of other election-related bills into a single conference committee report for a Senate vote, which is apparently a common practice, especially near the end of the session, because it can save the time and overhead of separate votes. I really appreciated Vicki Schmidt, then a Senator on the committee, who went out of her way to clarify with me in several email exchanges, that the bill had in fact been included, voted on, and passed.

So there I was, four months after I first proposed the idea, with a bill on the Governor’s desk ready to be signed into law. I again reached out to Rep Miller to ask about when it might be signed, and at the urging of my partner, to find out if I could attend. Rep Miller graciously set me up with details and passed on instructions for attending the following week.

In the Governor’s Office

This was my second trip to to the Statehouse but my first to the Governor’s office. There were two other bills being signed into law that day. Mine was last on the agenda. I chatted with both Rep Miller and Rep Esau, who were both gracious and happy I was there. I have to admit, it was pretty cool to be a part of government for-and-by-the-people in a ceremony like that.

The best part of the process? Now you can get precinct-level election data on the SoS site again! Even if it sometimes takes some nudging.

Things I Learned

  • Time is short. There’s only four weeks after the session starts to get new legislation introduced. The “turnaround” deadline is only seven weeks after the session starts. If you want to see things done, you must queue things up before the session starts and get out of the gate immediately.
  • Pick ideas that are easy to sell. Elected folks want to say yes, so find something they can say yes to.
  • Embrace what’s possible, then ask for a little more.
  • Make friends with the committee administrators. They are the church secretaries of the legislative process.
  • Policy is like anything else. There is always more to learn, more work to do, and it’s good to make friends while you do it.

Managing projects

An associate asked me for advice about being a project manager. This is an excerpt of my email response.

Things I find most helpful in managing projects:

* Learn how to run a meeting.

* Be organized. Really. Most of PM work is being the one in the room who is organized. Use a calendar, a ticketing system to manage tasks and who is doing them. Take notes. Be the one other people count on to be organized, because most people aren’t.

* Learn how to manage up. The busiest people are often the ones with the most power, who also happen to be the ones as a PM you need to corral when decisions need to get made.

* Learn to manage your own anxiety. The PM must read the room, herd the cats, finesse the decision-making. The PM cares about the schedule and the resources available. That can make you stressed. Figure out how to let that go, in whatever way works best for you. A kind of involved detachment works for me.

* Learn to recognize who holds the Truth. As the PM, it’s likely you.

Elasticsearch development

Over the last few years I have done a lot of development against Elasticsearch, especially using the Ruby libraries. The Elasticsearch::DSL is very powerful, but anything beyond a simple query can take hours of debugging to get the syntax just right. I always learn the hard way that it is better to handcraft the JSON first to get the logic correct, and then translate it to the Ruby DSL code.

I don’t do it often enough to remember, so after my latest struggle with ES, I thought it useful to document.

The curl command is:

curl -X POST localhost:9200/myindex/_search \
-H 'Content-Type: application/json' -s \
-d '@q-test.json' | json_xs  | jq

where q-test.json is a file with the DSL JSON.

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