What is the deal with Pennington County and their $350 absentee ballot list?

I must have gotten up on the crabby side of the bed this AM after last evening's drive to Brookings. I used the P* word and the A* word in the prior post. My apologies.

Why am I apologizing? This post isn't going to me any good if I'm not trying to sound like "angryman" today. Although this came first, so if you want to blame anything specific for unloading on Jim Hundstad (not that I'd change a word) blame Pennington County. Because they got me going yesterday when I heard about this one.

The story? I had a call from one of my friends a couple of nights ago.

Their lament? “It cost me $350 to get the absentee voter list from the Pennington County Auditor, and when they provided it, it was a .pdf file. I asked about getting it in Excel, ASCII, or another text format, and they said that’s the only way they would do it. I can’t do anything with this list! Do you have any ideas?”

Uh oh. This was not a call for help coming from a novice. This was coming from someone who had used and imported lists for years.

Well, first off, whoever made the call that the list would only be provided in this format should be taken out and slapped. The second thing is that whoever decided an absentee voting list should cost $350 should be taken out and slapped as well. If it’s the same person… well, they deserve the double dose.

Isn't this considered public information? That's a pretty hefty price for it's compilation, especially given the fact that the format they provide it is in nearly un-useable.

Now, keep in mind that the Secretary of State’s office charges $100 for the digital information of a person’s entire legislative district. That captures all information, including much of their voter history. The list Pennington County is producing in this instance is a subset of that information – except it’s three times as expensive - and they are providing it in a format I would term little better than a jumbled mess.

After a bit of effort, it ended up that I was able to extract the text from the files, (along with all the page headers and footers) and I sort of got it cleaned up. Records with extra long addresses had to be discarded, and I didn’t have time to parse the first and last names apart (from “Doe, John I.” to “John” and “Doe” in separate fields.)

Eventually, I got what they were looking for. But most annoyingly, it was after some effort that should not have been necessary. A two minute job took me 20. And for anyone who is less experienced at voter list data conversions? (and that's over a decade for me) They're screwed.

In 1992 when I was Pennington County GOP director, the county sold their electronic lists in an ASCII format (as I’m glad to report that most SD county auditors still do). But fast forward to 2006, and they’ll only generate this $350 absentee list in .pdf, a largely proprietary format that no program will directly import? That’s not progress.

Oddly enough, after I posted the teaser on this article, I had a telephone call not from my side of the aisle, but from a Democrat who is running for office. And amazingly enough, he had a similar tale of woe. In fact, he related that one of their common vendors that his side uses was complaining about the nightmare of getting the same information in a useable format.

Glad to see that they're equal opportunity pains in the rear.

It’s poor customer service like this that provides the spark of an idea for rules and laws in the mind of others. Why? Most people who ask for these lists are also constituents. And this kind of nonsense is poor constituent service.

So I’d lay it out there. If a few people out there who don’t care about customer service are charging exorbitant prices for absentee lists (which ultimately is public information), and then won’t provide it in a format the purchaser can use, what's the solution?

Since I think I know everything, here's my suggestion: I’d encourage the Secretary of State’s office to take steps to mandate the inclusion of absentee information in the state voter file.

Sure, I hope he would charge accordingly. But I would venture a guess they wouldn’t be charging whorehouse prices for a product most people can’t use as Pennington County is.


Anonymous said…
pp - I don't like pdf files either because I copy and paste a lot, and I can't copy anything in that format.
Do you know of anyone who has software that can read hard copy and put the words into another format? I have Text Bridge Pro software that came with my scanner but I've never used it. I don't know how well that would work with names, but it might be worth asking someone in the know about it.
$350 for that list of names is more than outrageous. I think $35 would be too much. It takes very little effort on their part, and since they don't have to print out the list, the cost is minimal.
Someone in the Secretary of State office should know if there is anything that governs how much counties can charge for those lists. Another person who might know something about it is the head of the South Dakota Newspaper Association. I don't know who heads that now, but the information should be on their web site. I would think they would be quite interested in that issue.
There probably isn't anything that regulates how much counties can charge at the present, but this incidence should make someone realize that there should be.
Anonymous said…
One more law. One more restriction in how things are done. Because someone was inconsiderate, unaccomidating, and doesn't inderstand that our government is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. (Someone who has a problem with power I would guess.)
Anonymous said…
If you would talk to all the candidates from Pennington County from a few years back, you would be appalled. The problem is JULIE PEARSON, county auditor. It used to be the price was discretionary, tell you one price, then when you went to pick up the lists, the price had changed. Now they charge you a fee, then tell you to go to western mailers, for the info.
PP said…
11:19 - Actually, I think it could be done by admininstrative rule.

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