Wednesday, July 11, 2012

An Election By Any Other Name

In an election year like no other, it seems only fitting that we are preparing for an election like no other.

That's not good, actually.

In my view, the pathway to properly managing the operations of a business is knowing the key metrics.  And to evaluate the data and pivot properly, I look for patterns.

There is no pattern for this election.  Guessing turnout for the August 7 election is, well, a guess.

It's taking me back nearly 20 years when my gig was product manager for telecommunications relay service at Sprint.  That service bridged persons who were hearing with those who were deaf, hard of hearing, or speech-disabled.  It was a service opportunity created by the Americans with Disabilities Act, grew from start-up to $65 million a year in revenue before I changed roles, and is the only business of any size where Sprint ever was the market-share leader over AT&T.

That was a call-center business and our primary unknown, after winning a state contract, was the day one call volume.  I created some variation of math soup, blending county and state populations with the population of persons who were deaf, to come up with an estimate and we were usually pretty close.  To underestimate would result in long-answer times and to over-estimate would lead to profitability issues.

Predicting election turnout has the same ramifications--long lines or excessive costs are the two bookends.  The primary cost drivers related to turnout are election workers and paper ballots.

In this election, unaffiliated voters can vote unaffiliated, Democratic, or Republican ballots and we have about 1,500 different ballot styles.  Over-building the election can easily result in more than $50,000 of unneeded paper ballots.  Properly building the election still will result in considerable unused ballots.

That's because we have no idea of the distribution of ballots even if we nail the turnout percentage.

If we predict a turnout of 25 percent, the mix of those three political distinctions can vary, so it's not as simple as expecting a flat 25 percent.  It could be a 10/40/5 percent blend or a 20/30/20 blend or any variation based on the actual races.  The blend possibilities literally are nearly infinite.

So, we look for the pattern.  2010 might feel like 2002, 2008 like 2004, and so on.  This year, though,  the pattern is missing.

This year, we're preparing for an August primary in a presidential year:
  • President on the ballot?  No, that's not part of the Kansas ballot in August.
  • United States Senate race?  Nope.
  • Governor or other statewide races?  Not until 2014.
  • United States Congress?  Yes!  But, the incumbent is running unopposed in the primary.  No candidates are running in the other party.
  • County Commission Primary?  One, affecting 1/6th of the county.
  • District Attorney Primary?  No.
  • Sheriff Primary?  Yes.  In this year, this becomes the only countywide race, and with all deference to the sheriff, how many people really know what a sheriff does in an urban county canvassed by police from several cities?
We have plenty of state House and Senate primaries, and candidates have been working the neighborhoods.  To some degree, those races are similar to city races, where turnout is driven by door-to-door campaigning.  That said, city races generally have turnouts in the 10 percent range.

I've looked at even-year August elections back to the early days of the Internet and our website ("modern" times, anymore) and there has never been an August election without a competitive race for a national or statewide office.

I'm predicting a 20 percent turnout simply because that's what it feels like.  I can't scientifically define the "20-percent feeling," and that bothers me.  We always build the election for slightly more than my prediction, so we're preparing for 25 percent, or about 75,000 voters.

Our mailroom is starting to get loaded with advance
voting applications.  This is just a smattering.
Ten temporary employees are entering in applications
in another room to get ready for our first mailing
next Wednesday.
Right now, we are entering applications for advance ballots my mail.  I expect we will send out about 8,000 next Wednesday, the first day allowed.  If that represents 5/13 of the advance voting number (the metric from 2008), that would give us about 21,000 advance voters.  

If those voters represent a third of the total, we'd have 63,000 voters.  If half, we'd have 42,000.

That's a turnout range between 11 and 17 percent.  Those are downright spring-like numbers, not August numbers.  

Of course, who knows...I remind everyone that I'm particularly good at predicting turnout the day after the election.

Right now, though, it sure feels like a low turnout and, as a result, many close races.  They number to watch in the next few days will be the number of advance ballots we send out the first day.  If that number jumps to 10,000 or 12,000, all those extractions balloon and we'll be into numbers that look more like August.