Oakland County’s Oops: Paper Polls Interrupt Michigan’s Primary Elections

Voters in Oakland County, MI stepped up to the ballot in unprecedented numbers for the state’s 2018 primary elections. While so many voices symbolized a vote of confidence from the people, their strength in numbers revealed a weakness in the overall voting strategy: paper dependency.

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As Michigan’s second largest county, Oakland County experienced an unforeseen wave of voters across several communities, which caught many precincts off guard. As reported by the Detroit Free Press, many afternoon and evening voters throughout the county were told “Sorry! We’re out of ballots.” Michigan’s Secretary of State, however, was quick to jump in and reassure voters that anyone who was in line by the 8 p.m. closing time would still be able to vote and should stay at the precinct.

“We’ve been in touch with the county, which prints the ballots, and we’re being told that there aren’t going to be any more available,” said Mayor David Coulter of Ferndale. “So we’re making copies of the ballots and also implementing our touch-screen voting machines, which create a paper verification of the vote.”

Ballot Blunder Parallels Common Paper Struggles

While running out of ballots may be a rare occurrence, managing paper is a very common struggle. Similar to Ferndale’s solution, government agencies across the country are consistently printing, copying and mailing millions of papers each day. Not only is this process tedious, time consuming and stressful, it’s expensive. When Washington’s Yakima County District Court went paperless, for example, it saw a cost savings just shy of $15,000. Best yet, much of the recovered costs are often recycled back into the workday. Prior to its digital transformation, the Arlington County Circuit Court was spending an average of 15-20 hours per week just locating files and documents. Now, everything clerks need is just a click away.

While reading about Oakland County’s ballot blunder, it’s obvious to see the parallels between their struggle to replenish ballots and the daily paper fiascos endured by government agencies across the nation. And while the expense of it all is an undeniable setback, there were two additional primary challenges (pun intended) that are often overlooked and accepted as “the way it is”: scrambling to transport paper where it needs to go in a timely manner and providing quality customer service to constituents.

From Driving Directions to Digital Routes

Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown told the Detroit Free Press that “… county officials printed extra ballots and rushed them out to polling sites.” While this might have looked like mayhem to onlookers, it was probably just another day in the life of many clerks and government agency workers.

At prosecutor’s offices, for example, subpoenas, discovery documents, and crime lab reports are often driven around town by sheriffs, clerks, and runners just so that the paperwork can stay in motion. If mailed, someone is accruing postage expenses and the lifecycle of a case stands still while paperwork moves through the postal system.

With digital workflow, documents are electronically routed to the person who needs them with just the click of a button. And with features like TrueSign and TrueCertify, authorizing and authenticating documents takes only a minute, which is also the time it takes to push the documents forward to the next step. This is huge for time-sensitive matters – what would normally take hours of drive time or snail-mailing now takes just a few minutes.

Lifting the Paper Weight on Customer Service

“I think it’s great that we have such extraordinary turnout today, but we’d like to see a voter environment that’s 100 percent customer service oriented,” said Sharon Dolente, voting rights strategist for Michigan’s American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), to the Detroit Free Press.

Like Sharon said, many government agencies struggle to achieve even adequate customer service. And, like Oakland County experienced, it’s largely due to a paper obstruction. Many clerk’s offices are bottlenecked beyond their bandwidth and can’t find relief from continuous demands or legally mandated deadlines. Not only does this stress weigh on clerks and office workers, it diminishes morale across the board. Stressed out clerks can’t keep up with impatient constituents, who decry poor customer service and reinforce the entire agency’s low morale – it’s a vicious cycle. Worse yet, many document-centric offices try to hire more employees to keep up with the workload, but that only brings more people into the paper cycle and creates extra expenses.

By digitizing records management, many clerk’s offices have seen a serious boost in customer satisfaction and, consequently, office morale. By equipping agency workers with keyable searches and electronic workflows, they are able to manage a high-volume workload and then some. Not only does this make constituents happier, but the agency as an entity improves because clerks have time to tend to the tasks that have taken a backseat to locating files. By transforming your agency’s operations, you’ll elevate your agency’s customer satisfaction to a standard where five stars won’t be enough.

A Vote of Confidence for Paperless Processes

While Oakland County’s ballot blunder was exceptional, it’s a good wake-up call to the many paper-dependent processes that can’t keep up with society’s pace. We’re living in a world where time is precious, immediacy is a valued indicator of quality care, and meeting those expectations means empowering your office with the most efficient protocols for success.

For government agencies, prosecutor’s offices, courts, and all public-serving sectors, it’s an inevitable truth that paper has been outmoded for many logical reasons. So if you saw your agency or office in the primary election paper rush, maybe it’s time to start preparing for a paperless future.

Can you identify with wanting to be more efficient or improving your customer satisfaction? Which tactics have you pursued to fix those issues?

Preparing the Way for Acceptance of Electronic Document Certification

74_certifiedHistorically, the need for court-certified documents results from the seemingly contradictory need for the court to maintain possession and control of its official documents on the one hand, with the need for others — guardians, trustees, divorcees, and heirs, for instance — to be able to prove the existence and content of the documents to remote third parties, such as schools, banks, title companies, and so on.

For centuries, in the paper-based world, the “user” of the document obtained a copy from the court, while the court retained the original. To enable the user to convince downstream, remote users of its veracity, the copy was “certified” to be a true copy, usually by signature of a court officer together with some form of seal presumed to be solely within the court officer’s power to affix. The theory was that any remote third party would recognize the court’s seal and the court official’s signature and be assured of the document’s validity.

Leaving aside the flimsiness of this outworn fig leaf of security, for courts the process of providing certified copies in this manner is time-consuming and labor- intensive. However, courts can, and usually do, pass on the expense and perhaps even charge a bit more, because the value (indeed, necessity) to the user more than outweighs the cost.

To recap then, the paper-based system of certification is expensive, labor-intensive, often slow, difficult to verify and extremely vulnerable to subversion.

On the plus side, it is often a revenue maker for courts. Moreover, everyone — courts, users and remote third parties — is used to it.

With the advent of Electronic Content Management (ECM), the time, expense and labor can be slashed and the vulnerability to subversion can be eliminated through the implementation of electronic document certification. With tools such as TrueCertify™[1], certification is provided electronically through a secure Web portal. A certified document can be sent by email as a PDF, printed or both. The third party (bank, school, etc.) can review the original document for visual verification, which is considerably more secure than “trusting” an unknown seal and signature.

One aspect that should not be overlooked, though, is that while it is (relatively) straightforward to identify and train people who are “close in” — court staff, attorneys, prosecutors, regular court users, and so on — the further away from the court, the more difficult it becomes. Therefore, the technology needs to be intuitive, and usable by an untrained user, which TrueCertify™ is.

A somewhat unique challenge with implementing electronic certification is the involvement of remote third parties who are relying on the veracity of the certified documents — the schools, banks, etc. E-certification represents a paradigm shift, not just for the courts and its immediate users, but also for those downstream users. In order to assure the success of this transition, early, proactive outreach and education will pay big dividends down the road in getting all stakeholders, near and far, to understand and embrace the change.


[1]A clerk uses the TrueCertify software to create a special version of the target document that includes a unique certification page, while simultaneously uploading an encrypted copy to the portal. The certification page identifies the document and provides an encryption key and a link to the Web portal from which the original document can be visually verified. (The portal can be set up on the customer’s Web site or at www.truecertify.com.) Visit www.truecertify.com for more information.