Friday, January 16, 2015 1 comments

School Mail-Ballot Update

Many learnings, very busy as we're working on the 5 mail-ballot elections that culminate on January 27.

Our entire building is abuzz with people working on this election.  We've hired about 50 part-timers, nestled throughout the office.  Every room is an election room.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, in this busy time, what's a thousand pictures worth?

Or, at least a few, below.

More, for reals, soon.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015 0 comments

Now With Photos

Ballots are hitting the mail in our mega-mail ballot election.

Here are various photos from the mail processing site, a pit stop between the printer and the post office. 

We had them late last week, did some spot checking (just to make sure the right school's ballot is in the right, different-colored envelope), and got a sense of what 330,000 ballots looks like.

We had some issues with envelopes sticking together, but that seems to be worked out.

Outgoing postage was a little less than $100,000.

In the meantime, we're ramping up, converting meeting rooms into mail-processing rooms, making sure all of computers and hand-scanners work, and are ready--as much as possible--for the storm ahead.

Thinking of storm ahead, while it's cold in Kansas City today, in the "didn't come up with that worry until we got here" world, our whole concern with weather leading up to today was if a snowstorm would impact delivery of the ballots from Alabama to us.

Yesterday, and why it didn't cross my mind until yesterday I don't know, I realized a new crippling situation would be a massive snowstorm that keeps our special board from the office for a day or two.  That would put us 30,000 ballots behind faster than you could catch a snowflake on your tongue.

It's always something.

Here are the photos, below.  We'll have photos of our first batch of incoming, as well as, I expect, about 10,000 undeliverables, address changes, even though we just had a mass mailing to all voters in October.

Thursday, January 1, 2015 0 comments

Dropping Out of Society

I'm 10 days from being Johnson County Election Commissioner for 10 years, and in less than 7 days, we begin the most monumental thing our office has experienced in that time.

On Wednesday, we will mail out more than 330,000 ballots to voters in five of the county's six school districts.

The significance is not just the amount of paper and volume we're facing, but also that this is a steep mountain of paperwork, hitting us at a 90 degree angle and an equally fast drop-off after February.

That's an unusual way of saying, "We'll never see another like this."

So, what does that mean?  It means that if this were the new normal, where we moved to all mail elections for instance, we'd scale our operations in a way to permanently handle the volume.  This wouldn't be an egg going through a snake's body, but bunnies, constantly nibbling and sweetly multiplying.

I would have never considered our current stressed-out environment conjured up images of bunnies (or unicorns or rainbows), but fact is, we've historically proven we can handle a certain volume of transactions, and the number of registrations and voters reasonably increases over time. 

We would have time to request and budget additional resources.

If we moved to all-mail ballots, we'd have this big ramp up, but then, with each election, we'd only be dealing with the incremental changes.  January would be tough, but in a short-term-pain, long-term gain kind of way.  By the time we carried this new normal into 2016, if that's where we were headed, we'd have manageable routines.

Here, we've taken on this big meal and are trying to process it through our existing structure.  We have to do it this way because after the election, we're back to the processes we already have, with a spring primary already ensured for early March and then a countywide election at the polls in April.

The fact that we're having these elections in between November and April is news enough--we've never had this, this fast, this large.  In fact, election day is also the filing deadline--when we know how large the March primary is.  Talk about transitions:

Election ends at noon.  Filing deadline is at noon.  The finish line for one and starting line for another is the same line.

So, how to deal:  first off, we're on lock-down. 

I've already informed our staff that days out of the office require two levels of approval a week in advance and my administrative assistant has shut down all meeting scheduling until April 15.

I'm dropping out of society, much the way new parents do when having a newborn (and, I've often here compared elections to babies--babies are cuter, but bunnies are cute, too).

We are utilizing an ES&S high-speed scanner for ballot scanning--the first in Kansas and one of the first times in the country--and we're being trained on next week.  By the time we are experts with, we will flex back to normal size, essentially putting the scanner on the shelf until another large mail-ballot election.

It's not uncommon for us to have mail-ballot elections for 80 or 90,000 voters--just never for 330,000.

We're bringing in a special board of about 40 employees, who will work 6-day weeks.  We're not sure if that is enough, and we'll assess that a week into this.

We're expecting an average of 10,000 ballots returned per day, but that's an average, and there is a postal holiday involved, too.  We could very well find ourselves trying to swallow an influx of 30,000 ballots on a particular day.

That's a lot of scanning, but that's even more blocking and tackling--opening envelopes, checking EVERY signature, entering the voter into our registration system.

For that, we're using every computer and every work station in every crevice of the building.

That may not be enough.

We may have to hire temporary agency employees and work two shifts, but we'll see.

In the end, we're taking a structure that is used to handling 50,000 pieces of returned mail, tops, and flexing it 6 times.  I'm not even sure Stretch Armstrong flexes that far.

There is a fair likelihood we may not have final results on election day (the election ends at noon).  If we have a big mail push that day and our special board is weary heading into the evening, they'll come back and finish the next day.

We might even assess providing results district-by-district, where only one or two might be waiting a day for unofficial results, but that may not be possible with the scanner.  For instance, in running Gardner's results, we might get exposure to interim results for another district, and that would be unacceptable.

Blogging will be impacted.  Everything will be impacted.  If nothing else, I'll be posting photos.

Tomorrow, a group of employees are going to the Pitney Bowes facility to watch them load up the envelopes.  We'll have photos from that.
Sunday, December 21, 2014 0 comments

Two Words, Many Views

King Louie.

Few short phrases conjure quick thoughts in Johnson County like King Louie, particularly these days.

In Kansas City in 1980s and 1990s, King Louie Lanes were all over town, and one very large megacenter, with an ice rink and billiards, was in the heart of Johnson County.

To many long-time Johnson Countians, "King Louie" is a phrase that immediately recalls an image of this center.  ABC's Wide World of Sports, when that was a thing, broadcast national bowling tournaments--when those were things--from King Louie's Metcalf location, when that was a thing.

Yet, King Louie isn't much of a thing these days to most Johnson Countians.

Among those most wired with Johnson County politics, that phrase creates an instant reaction. The county purchased this site a few years ago on about as much of a lark as a $3 million investment can be.

Take away the few dozen most wired with Johnson County politics, that phrase, though, likely just brings up some sentiment of moment spent there, often from a high-school party.

I see that phrase and I always think, "The Jungle Book."  Then, again, that's what I thought any time I passed a King Louie facility in the 1980s and 1990s.

Point is, the King Louie property is hyperly tuned into some because of the recent purchase, but the average Johnson Countian internalizes "King Louie" more than considers what the county is doing with this facility.

Yet, this property, since its purchase, has sat in limbo--the initial vision wasn't grounded enough to allow it come to fruition and yet repurposing the building requires investment that, to some, seems like throwing good money after bad.

The Election Office has been marginally conjoined with this property.  Possibly, this facility may be able to be used as one of the county's advance voting locations, but I first became aware that this was a reason for the purchase of the property about two hours before the concept was presented to the Board of County Commissioners a few years ago.

This past Thursday, the Board reviewed a very impressive, well-coordinated pitch on a new view of the center's future.    The total cost of plan, counting the earlier investment, is about $22 million.

Personally, if the County feels this facility meets needs and it has the money, I am extremely neutral to the whole idea.  I'm never jealous for others achieving their dreams; I just want to achieve mine, too.

My dreams are pretty basic and linked to 2016, mostly.

Speaking of 2016--looking at the turnout from the 2008 presidential election (79 percent) and the number of polling places (284 compared to 182 this past November), and considering the potential for historical firsts if candidates in both parties become the eventual presidential nominees, our cost for the presidential election will be at least $2 million more than the 2014 election.

This isn't from discretionary spending.  It's akin to "keeping the lights on," a phrase often used by our budget office and the county manager.

We will need at least 100 more polling places, and there's nothing to suggest we can find that many.

We will then need more advance voting sites, and there's nothing to suggest that's possible.  At the very least, we will be paying much more rent for advance sites than we did in 2008.  Our election workers will need to have their training costs at least adjusted for minimum wage and they really could use a raise--they haven't had one since 2006.  Postage is likely to increase.

The Non-Jungle Book Version of King Louie
Still, the hard-wired, non-negotiable cost increase will be at least $2 million.  Other operational needs--headcount to avoid the kind of crisis we experienced with a death in the office right at a critical time--are more negotiable.  They're real, but more discretionary.

Those $2 million costs don't seem to be on anyone's radar so I'm telling everyone I can at every chance I can.  (Yes, Dear Reader, you are inside the Looking Glass at this very moment).

As long as this property doesn't get in the way of elections, such a basic--the basic--piece of government, who am I to complain?

Still, of the $2 million "keep the lights on," amount, King Louie has the chance to mitigate just $25,000 IF we can use the facility for the August and November elections.

We use the same locations for both elections, so King Louie is of no use to us in November 2016 if it isn't available until July for us to set up for August.  Otherwise, our first time there will be August 2018.

This represents my rub with this issue.  A savings of $25,000 every other year, in today's dollars, as providing one advance voting location--not all advance voting, but one of at least 4 sites--is relatively small in terms of the total project costs.  Yet, advance voting is listed as a primary reason for investing in the facility.

It's not lost on me that while there was an orchestrated presentation to the Board, I wasn't asked to be part of this pitch.  Hopefully, others noticed that as well.

The need, though, to have it sooner so we can use the facility in 2016 was well-represented by the county's Bureau Chief.  Two of the Commissioners did bring up my concern in the meeting, and I talked with another before the meeting.

I think that everyone involved is on board with my 2016 concerns.  And, full circle, if we get the advance voting facility, that will be a nice thing.  It's not an advance voting panacea.  But, one less thing, that's for sure.

We spend a lot of cycles trying to negotiate advance voting sites.

We may be at place very soon where we have 10 advance voting locations because we we are losing polling place locations faster than we are getting new one.  Having one good-sized advance voting site in the can will never be bad.

In that regard, as my version of King Louie would say, "I'm tired of monkeying around." There will be less of that if we have this facility.

(Click here to the link to the meeting--in that link is a link for the presentation, worth downloading and reviewing).

Monday, December 15, 2014 0 comments

Anytime But April

Sometimes, it takes a small election for a large a-ha moment.

Such was the case Tuesday, where Roeland Park picked a new city council member after a resignation.

Roeland Park is the only Johnson County jurisdiction that doesn't appoint replacements on its council.  This was the second special election in Roeland Park in 2014.

Like the previous special elections, it was a one-ward, one polling place election.

The election also wrapped by my first 10 years of elections as election commissioner.  We've had 60 elections, but only 20 of them were planned.

Averaging 6 a year, we already have 5 special elections planned for January 27--five different school districts will be having mail-ballot elections on the same day.

This election came during a busy week, as I also needed to prepare for a presentation to a Kansas House and Senate Committee on Friday.  This committee is looking at data related to the potential of moving spring elections to the fall, either in even or odd years.

I've been advocating moving the elections to the fall of odd years.  I've discussed the reasons before, but, summed up, I believe turnout may increase and I also think it could be done in conjunction with requiring schools to have a student-holiday on election days to allow consistent use of schools as polling places.

So, the preparation of that presentation was on my mind on Tuesday as we waited to see the turnout--more than 20 percent, as it, well, turned out.

Hmmm.  That's a higher turnout than spring elections (that include Roeland Park).

We got to thinking.  The turnouts for special elections usually are higher than we expect, at least at the polls.  Mail-ballot election turnout has been dropping over time, but the turnout still is very good.

We put it all on a slide, below, and note with the red arrows the lowest turnout of any special elections.  The green arrow shows the highest turnout of the last four April elections.

The lowest turnout of a special election is still higher than the best turnout in April.

We've read criticisms of the idea of moving spring elections that there is no data to suggest turnout might increase if elections were moved from April to November.

That's true.  But this data supports that elections held any time BUT April have a higher turnout.

It's fascinating, really, because the quick follow-up question is why?

It could be that these elections stand on their own, and get individual attention, even individual outreach attention on the mail-ballot side.  The why is worth exploring, but the data is fairly conclusive that April turnouts are the low achievers in the crowd.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014 0 comments

New Normal, With a Short Fuse

I haven't really intended to take the month of December off so far, but such is the paradox of this blog.

It's intended to give a behind-the-scenes view of our elections, yet, as elections heat up, it's harder and harder to update.

There's much to update but this will just stick with what's continuing to be the greatest election story ever told her--the school district's mail-ballot elections scheduled for January 27.

What's important here, and we're learning this more and more each day, is the scale ahead of us.

Checking in an average of 10,000 envelopes a day requires a lot of computers, hand-held scanners, and authentication tokens into our statewide voter registration system for signature verification.  The scope of that is becoming more real to us as we devilishly hop into the details.

We processed about the same the number of returned paper ballots in 2004's presidential election that we will handled this year, but most of those ballots were in-person ballots, not requiring signature verification.

We've been so focused on the scanning of 165,000 returned ballots, we realized we haven't spent enough time on the "checking in" consideration, and even simple things like, "Do we have enough tables and chairs?" and "Are our envelope openers up to the task?" need to be explored.

There's some sort of business correlation here in that we are addressing the need to scale fast.  If this was the new normal, we'd make decisions to plan for that--automated signature verification systems, for instance.

But this isn't the new normal.  It's a spontaneous breakout--like the first time you see "Rocky Horror Picture Show" in a theater and people run out to the aisles to do the Time Warp, only to come back and sit next to you.

Before we can pick up our jaws from January and ask, "What just happened?" we'll be back in the typical world of our polls elections.

Everything we know is wrong, but just for about 60 days.  That's our new normal. 

It's the Temporary New Normal.

As Roeland Park's election concluded yesterday, the reality is, the Temporary New Normal is full-on.

Sunday, November 30, 2014 0 comments

Paper, Party of 330,000?

Somewhere, there will be an election administrator in a jurisdiction using paper ballots who will read this post and consider our plight child's play.

But, here we are, short-staffed and run down following the November election and in the middle of a much smaller December election in Roeland Park.

Yet, a monster set of elections await us, with ballots going out the first week of January to about 330,000 voters in five of the six school districts in Johnson County.

If half come back, we will be processing 165,000 pieces of paper, plus the envelopes, in roughly 16 days.

That's more than 10,000 ballots returned daily, and each one of the envelopes has to be checked into our voter registration system and have the returning signature matched against the voter's record.

Then, the ballots have to be scanned and tabulated.  Never having paper at the polls, at least in the last 50 years, we operate with a handful of scanners at our office.

At most, these scanners can scan 1,000 ballots an hour, but a likely throughput for the four we have is really about 2,500 an hour.

We've never processed this many paper ballots before.  Our office used paper ballots for advance voting in the presidential election of 2004, with a two-page ballot, and that resulted in nearly 200,000 pieces of paper.

That was just before I came to this job and I still hear horror tales from that process.

Job One here is to, well, get the job done.  We've never pulled something like this off before, and the fact that it falls right between two countywide elections (spring is comin') makes this even rougher.

In fact, the election itself ends the day after the spring election filing deadline.

Job Two is to get the job done as economically as possible.  Incremental costs are passed on to the school districts, while fixed costs--such as staffing and equipment purchases--are borne by the county.

So, that creates two problems for us--at least two phases of one problem and another problem, actually.

The first problem is, how many part-time election workers do we appoint to handle the load?  Part-time is likely the wrong phrase--temporary, full-time workers. We probably could use at least 75.  In November we had 12.

We only have 20 stations for envelope check-in.  We'll pretty much be needing someone sitting at those stations the entire time.

Each signature on the return envelopes must be verified.
Could we even get 75 people?  What if we needed more?  Where would they work, securely?

Can we get by with fewer, and how?

If only we had one of those fancy high-speed scanners that's being touted with some of the next-generation voting systems.  Our system isn't compatible with such a thing but if the system was, we could scan much, much faster--10,000 in just a couple of hours.


Somewhere in the Royals' World Series euphoria, we decided to take a major leap here, using an entirely new voting system for this election.  It's akin to buying a big-screen television just before the Super Bowl. 

This isn't the major leap it could be, in that we aren't going to have any election at the polls, but we are going to set up the election and operate it with a new tabulation system. The system will use a high-speed scanner.

Election administrators don't roll like this.  Where's the mock election?  What are we doing for redundancy?  These are typical, internal questions.

Our equipment vendor, to the redundancy point, is a four-hour drive away.  If the system can't be warrantied to be fail-safe for the first 20 days of its life, there's an issue there, anyway. If the system explodes, I'm sure we will have another one within a half-day.

The system has been certified federally and in Kansas, so that's not a risk.  It's just that we're making this huge transition in December for an election that will be over on Groundhog Day, the day of the elections' canvasses.

Unlike the movie, the day after Groundhog Day, and every day after, will not be the same.

Once this election is over, we'll have a high-speed taste test, an understanding of a new system that we will evaluate for our ultimate equipment replacement, and a very large paperweight until our next large mail-ballot election, likely in late 2015 or later.  It's not quite a throwaway unit, but close.

The big question is the reconciliation between the scanner costs and the savings of people.  That's roughly going to be a wash.  Remember, though, Job One is to do the job.

And this job requires that we not bring a rinky-dink scanning system to high-speed scanner fight.

So, the battle begins.  We hope to have the unit on-site this week to begin preparations.

It's funny--that Super Bowl comparison:  in November elections, the media likes to ask us is if this is our big moment, our Super Bowl.

I'm sure, given all we have going on, our staff would much rather not have this behemoth group of elections in January.  But, we've never done something like this before, and in February, conducting the canvass they day after the NFL's Big Game, we're going to feel pretty good about what we accomplished.

That sounds like a Super Bowl party to me.