S3E5 - Reimagining Inventory Management with Jamie Shew in Douglas County, Kansas
In this episode, hosts Eric Fey and Brianna Lennon speak with Jamie Shew in Douglas County, Kansas. They spoke about how innovations - like RFID, or Radio Frequency Identification technology, can be used for keeping track of all of the equipment needed to run a good, efficient election.
High Turnout, Wide Margins Credits:
Managing Editor: Rebecca Smith
Managing Producer: Aaron Hay
Transcription of the episode is as follows:
Jamie Shew: If you ever are in like an electronics store and you see the little things as you're walking out that would, you know, beep if you were trying to steal something – that's RFID technology. So, the technology was something that was being used in retail inventory management. It was, how could we adapt it for elections?
[High Turnout Wide Margins Introduction]
Eric Fey: All right, everybody – welcome to another episode of High Turnout Wide Margins. I'm Eric Fey, Director of Elections in St. Louis County, Missouri, along with my co-host –
Brianna Lennon: Brianna Lennon, County Clerk for Boone County, Missouri.
Eric Fey: And our guest today is –
Jamie Shew: Jamie Shew from Douglas County, Kansas. I'm the County Clerk in Douglas County. We're the fifth largest county in Kansas. We're the home for the University of Kansas, but also Haskell Indian Nations University and Baker University. So, we're kind of a college community.
We're right outside of Kansas City. So, in Kansas, there's 105 counties. In the top four counties, right above us, there is an Election Commissioner and a County Clerk. In 101 counties, there's a County Clerk that runs elections, but also does accounts payable, payroll, taxes, so forth, and so I'm the largest county where you still have an elected county clerk that does elections plus all the other duties.
Brianna Lennon : And before we get into more about Douglas County and things that we want to talk about – we want to hear a little bit about you first. So, how did you first start getting involved in elections?
Jamie Shew: Well, from the kind of the election side of it, I started working political campaigns when I was a teenager in North Missouri. My degree is actually in political science from Missouri State University. So, I've always kind of been on the political side of it.
Actually, if you come into my office, there's a little card – my grandfather ran for County Clerk in Mercer County, Missouri in the 80s and lost. I saw devastated because “how could you not vote for my grandfather,” right? I come from a whole line of like teachers and preachers and people that are involved in public service. I always wanted to run for office and be in part of public service.
We moved to Lawrence in 2000, and in 2004, the County Clerk was retiring, and I was making some impassioned pleas on why I thought somebody should run for that office and, evidently, my argument was good enough that they turned it on me for me to run. And, you know, my argument was – I only lived here for four years, we were getting ready to have our first child, our oldest was born three days after I filed for office. I don't know if I recommend that – that's quite a bit to have your first job plus run for office, and, you know, it was a race that I didn't know if I would win, but I felt pretty strongly – especially on the election side of it, you know, this is post-2000 – that kind of some changes need to be made, and so, that's kind of what we ran on and we won in 2004. So, I've been clerk since 2005.
Eric Fey: That's an interesting time to get in elections. Like you said – it was just post 2000, HAVA had just been adopted. So, was the procurement of new voting equipment something you had to undertake pretty soon after you came into office, or that already happened?
Jamie Shew: That was one of the first things we did starting in 2005. So, 2006 was an implementation of an entirely new system. Up to that point – Douglas County has always been paper-based and continues to be paper-based – but up to that point, it was central count. So, everything went into a box, came back and they ran it through the machines. So, because of that I found out that I had won at three o'clock in the morning because we're big enough – we're 84,000 voters, which is a pretty good size and running that on two central count 650 machines takes a while – and so, we went to precinct tabulators plus the ADA equipment in 2006.
And that was a huge change for our poll workers, for our voters, you know, the poll workers were used to just kind of showing up, handing out ballots that went into a can, and then it went, and it was magically tabulated. Now there was all this equipment that they had to get started, make sure it worked and so forth, and so yeah, 2006 was kind of our complete transformation of elections in Douglas County. And then we went into 2008 presidential campaign, which was unlike any campaign most of us had seen for quite a while – especially in a university town. So, you're right – when I first started, it was kind of post-HAVA and that was an interesting time. I don't think that I could imagine that HAVA would probably be one of the least interesting things we've probably done in the past few years.
Brianna Lennon: So, I did have a question – since we were just talking about equipment, and selfishly, I wanted to talk to you about the EAC [Election Assistance Commission] Clearie that you have for RFID and chain of custody management – but I think you touched on a really good point, which is you moved from central counting – when you only needed two pieces of equipment – to precinct scanners, really increased the inventory that you had to have. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of chain of custody and how you arrived at the process that you have now for tracking your voting equipment?
Jamie Shew: Well, yeah, it changes everything because up to that point, you're just figuring out getting the ballots to the polling place, and then securing the voter ballots and bringing them back.
It's not just the equipment on election day, but delivery of the equipment – at that time, I think I had over 60 polling places – and where to store it. At that time, the two central count machines were stored in our courthouse. We had to add a space at our fairgrounds because there was no space in our courthouse, which is downtown. So, you develop a warehouse and how do you secure that warehouse? And then it divides up your staff because they're out there loading machines and running L&A [Logic & Accuracy] test. We, in Kansas, we have to do a public test five days prior to the elections. So, we pull out all the machines and we test them publicly, you know, how does that work? It really did. It was transformative of our entire operation and a huge part of that was chain of custody.
So, you know, we, one of the things we did in the past couple years, we've actually consolidated our operations. We're now in an old grocery store, and we were able to pull our warehouse together with the rest of our offices. We moved out of our courthouse, and part of that was we had outgrown our courthouse as far as places to vote, but also, we needed to get our equipment near our staff. And also, the old grocery store had a loading dock, which if you're a big enough county and you've had to load a whole bunch of machines – a loading dock is a blessing.
We started having a conversation quite a few years ago about how do we show that we're following chain of custody So, it can have had a progression of we started out with just pieces of paper that the poll workers were filling out the seal numbers and then the pieces of paper came back to us, and we kept them. Then we kind of went to barcoded seals, but the thing that really – especially post probably say 2016, where really the awareness of chain of custody just got ramped up, and we were like, well, how do we do this better? – everything we looked at was really time consuming. So, when you're doing delivery, you have this really tight window, and if you've got all these barcodes – and we have these tech teams that follow our delivery people and they set everything up – well, it was taking them forever to log all of those barcodes and all of those seals. It was adding time. So, we started talking about what is a way that we could do this quickly, and that's kind of where that RFID idea came from.
[High Turnout Wide Margins Mid-break]
Eric Fey: So, when you were moving forward with the RFID idea and implementation, did you look to any other jurisdictions that had already done it? Or did you kind of do it from scratch? And if so, were there some, was there some trial and error involved?
Jamie Shew: Well, I think there's two important things. One is, we're not a huge county. Now in Kansas, we're the fifth largest county, but if you look nationwide – 84,000 voters is not what would be considered a large county. So, we don't have an onsite IT team. We don't have where we could have built the system ourselves. So , he first part was finding a third-party partner, which was a vendor we were already working with on our electric management system, and so, we started working with them because they had the IT expertise to kind of work with it.
Yeah, we started doing research, there were two things. One was, I'm a person that really likes to research things. So, I researched a lot of about RFID technology – especially what are the problems with it? What are the concerns? And then has it been done before? We found that some places had tried it. So, Alameda County, California, was kind of the first that I could find that had worked with it, but I couldn't find a lot of counties that had kind of move forward with it. I know that there were a number that had kind of had talked about it. So, we'd started talking about it about 2018, 2019.
It took us a couple years of some beta testing. We did some live testing in the field where we picked one delivery route, we worked with our third party to kind of we, just did some machines, and we not only – it's important, I think, when you're developing a system like that, to not only test it, but try to break it. So, when we went out there – we told our techs, we’re like, “We want you to make mistakes, we want to see what that looks like on the dashboard. We want you to goof up – like try to make this not work,” and then, by that time, our third party had also recruited a couple other local jurisdictions to help us kind of, you know, we're all different, and so, the different kinds of challenges that each one of us use – like so, even though I'm a kind of an urban county outside of Kansas City, I have places in our county that doesn't have great cell service, and we learned that that was a problem with the live tracking of the RFID. We also kind of went and talked to a number of retail stores because they use those – this is what, if you ever are in like an electronics store and you see the little things as you're walking out that would, you know, beep if you were trying to steal something – that's RFID technology. So, the technology was something that was being used in retail inventory management. It was how could we adapt it for elections?
Brianna Lennon: Did it do anything to your election cost? Did you have grant money to cover it, or has it saved you some money because of the cost savings for not having to do all of the barcodes and everything?
Jamie Shew: Well, there's a cost, and I think that's one of the huge things for us to talk about in election administration – there is a huge disparity between counties that have resources and those that don't. I have a County Commission that is very supportive of funding new initiatives to improve elections in our county. They made decisions to help fund stuff like this, which involves, you know, increasing our budget and I know not every county has that, maybe that level of support. So I'm very lucky with that, and, you know, the initial cost – there is the upfront costs for all the equipment, you know, the little, the scanners that we use, run about $1,200 to $1,300. Doesn't sound like much for a large county. [but] for a smaller county that, you know, that can be a problem. The tags are more expensive than, say, just a regular barcode tag, but when you look in the long run, I think it's worth it. And I'll talk about the reason why here in a second.
But the one thing – the third-party vendor, because you know, to be fair, they're helping set this up because they're going to use it basically within their program, they probably – I didn't pay some of the IT costs that maybe, you know, you would use just because they were working with us to kind of develop a program.
But yeah, there's a cost, and then there's a maintenance cost. I mean, anytime you add a software, they're always going to have a yearly maintenance fee that gets added on, and like I said, “I'm lucky I have a commission that really kind of supports us doing these type of things,”
Oh, by the way, the Kansas legislature, a couple years ago, passed where we can't accept any grant money. So, we can't accept any type of outside money. We used to get grant money that helped us with security stuff, but that is no longer allowed under Kansas law. But the legislature last year, there's a thing called legislative post audit in Kansas, and it's a – they asked for them to go look at the procedures in a number of counties and look at like their security chain of custody and so forth procedures, and we got chosen for that, and what made that investment worth it was – we were able to go into that system and run all kinds of reports that showed every moment that machine moved in our warehouse, every time we opened it and did something – we were able to run these reports, and so, in that audit, we were able to show that we were kind of, you know, a step ahead of everybody else on chain of custody,
I think it's worth it. There's a cost. I mean, the return on investment is when I have people who question elections in Douglas County, I bring them back into our warehouse and we talk about it and I show them the system, and I show them what we do, and I don't know if I convince every one of them, but there are some that say, “Oh, wow, I didn't realize you do that.” Because according to the internet, I just throw machines out there, we accept any ballot, you could print it at home and put it in there – but that's not true. So, to me, it was it was worth that investment.
But for efficiency, it was also, it's been great for our warehouse manager because it really allows him a lot more efficiency on – so we rotate machines. So, we have backup machines, but you don't want to use the same ones over and over. So, it really lets him know easily what the rotation should be, if we send one off out for repair, he easily can track that. When we get ready to deliver – the way it works is we just scan the entire truck, and it tells us everything that's on that track. So, to me, it's been worth that investment
Eric Fey: I love this story. I encountered something similar – especially on election night. So, I'm curious, do you use this technology in any way to track things coming back to you on election night?
Jamie Shew: Yeah, our original idea was just to use it on the equipment, to use it on the ADA machine and the tabulators and e-poll books. We've now expanded it to pretty much everything. The joke is I'm just a little short of tagging staff because we now tag everything and part of that is for when stuff leaves and comes back.
So, on Monday before an election, the supervising judges come and pick up kind of the essential supplies that can't be delivered. They sign a form, right? Now, when we load it in their car, we just scan the car, and it logs that it's there. When it comes back on election night, you know, all those polling places are coming in and dropping off their stuff, we can now just basically scan them, and we instantly know that we have everything that they're supposed to have brought into the door at that moment.
And it helps, because we have dashboards, so you can see if maybe we're, what point places were missing, because, you know, we're big enough that what's going on in the warehouse – I don't know what's going on at the front end, but I can look and see who's here? Do we have everything? Is the right equipment coming back? So yes, we're doing that.
We're actually looking at – I guess there's a technology where you, there are there RFID tables that when you set something on the table, it instantly reads it. So, we're actually looking at that because then the supervising judge could just put it on the table, and it will instantly read it. So yeah, we've expanded it to pretty much anything that we're deploying and coming back has been tagged, and we scan it and log it – because you log it as an event, so then we have proof of when it happened.
And Phase two is to put up the, in the warehouse, the things like you see in the electronic stores. So, what we're pricing out is each entrance and exit would be the scanners – those tall scanners that you see in retail stores. So, at any point that a machine left the warehouse, it would be logged, and we would know, and we're working with our vendor that you would set it up that – like during our downtime. when a machine should never be leaving, basically – it would set off and alarm and I get a notice and the deputy would get it notice that a machine left the warehouse when it shouldn't be leaving the warehouse.
Brianna Lennon: How many people do you have working with you? Are there people that are dedicated to the warehouse specifically? Like how do you structure your office to be able to handle this kind of project?
Jamie Shew: Right. I have a deputy of elections, I have three full-time office staff, and then we had a part-time warehouse logistics person that we made full-time just a year ago because of everything that we needed to do with logistics. So, that's now a full-time position, and then we bring in – I'm sure like you do – tons of temporary and part-time people depending upon the size of the election. And doing something like this then makes it very efficient to work with smaller staffs, you know, all of us – even bigger counties struggle with resources, and it just is a way that we can meet that expectation, I mean, the public has a high expectation right now of the things that we're doing, but they don't want more resources to be expended on election. So, you've got to figure out a way to be more efficient.
Eric Fey: So, Jamie, one thing you mentioned before the show here – is that in Kansas, a lot like other states, I think, across the country – there's a pretty significant turnover in election officials, and so, I was hoping you could just give a little lay of the land of what's going on in Kansas, and, you know, what this purports to be for 2024?
Jamie Shew: Well, we've, in the past few years, Kansas has lost probably about 40% of the clerks – some from retirement, and in some from really just the stress of it. And what we're also seeing is our retention of the new clerks is short. We just had a county next to us where the longtime clerk retired in January, the new clerk took office in February – she resigned in May. There's now a third clerk, and we're in the middle of our budgets time, and I talked to her, and she's completely overwhelmed because what's also happening in Kansas is not only is the clerk leaving, but the staff is leaving. So, we have offices where maybe there's only a staff of three and everybody left on the same day, and these are people who are doing payroll, accounts payable, unlocking the doors – not just elections – and partially because where we’re seeing [this] is really out in western Kansas, and when you talk to a lot of those clerks – it's become so personal out there, especially on elections. And they talk a lot about, these are people that they've grown up with, that they go to church with, that suddenly are accusing them of all kinds of things. And after a while, it gets exhausting.
At our clerk’s conference in May, we actually did a panel that I sat on, to talk about, kind of retention, but also mental health. I think that's something that maybe we haven't talked openly about, which is mental health among election officials, and public servants as a whole, and it was interesting because for the first time, probably publicly, I admitted that post 2020, I had kind of started working on my mental health, professionally, and that was a lot for me to see out loud and another clerk on the panel said, “Yeah, I've never said it out loud, but I also did the same.” And afterwards, clerks came up to us and said, “Yeah, we've never said it publicly, but we also are working on our mental health.”
I mean, there's – I don't know if the word crisis is correct, but there really is a struggle out there, and I think by talking openly about what's going on, we're making the public aware of what's going on, but also that we're telling each other, “We're all in this together,” right? Because, you know, some people have asked me like, “Why am I still doing it?” I'm in my fifth term. It'll be 20 years, at the end of this term. I’ll file next year, so we're in the presidential cycle. My response is, you know, LBJ said that, in his speech about voting rights, that the most fundamental rights we had – all other rights were based off of the right choose your own leaders – we’re the frontline of that, and I'm not ready to leave the front line yet because if we all leave, then who's there to kind of protect what we're doing? And I know that sounds kind of maybe hokey, but I think the reason we're all still doing this is for that reason.
Brianna Lennon: This is more, I guess, a regional question. Given that, you know, you have 105 counties and given the fact that there are so many very, very small counties – have you found any ways, in your own state, to kind of support each other? You know, I feel like we're probably in a similar situation. We’re a relatively large county, all the surrounding counties around me are not, and so, we all have very different challenges and ways of doing things. Do you find that to be the case, too? And have you work to address that?
Jamie Shew: That's a really good question. I don't know if we've come up with the magic answer. I used to be president of our organization a few years ago, and there's such a diversity of population, it can be hard whenever you're putting together a training. So like, how I do poll worker training is way different than a whole bunch of the counties and it's way different than Johnson County, which is sitting at 500,000 voters, and so, it's hard to kind of come up with a training that fits all of that. Right now, there's a group of us kind of working with the Secretary of State's office to try to come up with some standardized training, and I can tell you, it's been really difficult when we're sitting in a room because we are all so different. So, how do you create a standardized training that's easily accessible, but also recognize we all have different resources?
I think we've worked a little bit on that, like in our conferences we try to do breakout sessions and – maybe based off of level experience and then also size of county – tried to try to do it that way, but I don't know if we've come up with a magic answer on that.
And that's something we're really talking about because, going back to what Eric said, with so many brand-new clerks that have never run a presidential election, and those of us that are experienced the talk about how do we support all these clerks that are getting ready to go into ’24, which it feels like ’24 is not going to be a cakewalk, how do we get them ready for that, and sometimes, what I've heard from the smaller counties is – when the bigger counties kind of say, “Hey, we're gonna come in and help you,” that's also kind of intimidating because they feel like we're kind of patronizing them by coming in and saying, “You need to get an RFID system and do all this,” and so, I think sometimes when we offer help, it can be seen as maybe, you know, kind of patronizing and so forth.
But, up to now, politics has not really played into our Clerks Association in all of our clerks. What political party we are doesn't really matter, but it has started to have a little bit of, it’s started to have some implications, and so, we've also had been trying to address that.
And, you know, the, what we've also talked about is, and I'm sure you guys are talking about it, too – is if a county ends up failing next year, it looks, it impacts all of us. So, we can't just say, “We're going to let them be because it really impacts all of us” because it'd be national news, no matter how small your county is, and it will be an example of how we're all failing. So, we've got to figure out how to get them through next year.
Brianna Lennon: This was a, this was a great conversation. I really appreciate you doing this.
Eric Fey: Yep.
Jamie Shew: Yeah.
Eric Fey: You've been listening to High Turnout Wide Margins, a podcast that explores local election administration. I'm your host, Eric Fey, alongside Brianna Lennon. A big thanks to KBIA for making this podcast possible. Our Managing Editor is Rebecca Smith. Our Managing Producer is Aaron Hay. This has been High Turnout Wide Margins. Thanks for listening.