Sunday, July 27, 2014

Printing Money (Savings)

We have mailed out about 13,000 ballots for the August 5 election thus far and there is a major difference between 2014 and previous years.

We printed the ballots ourselves.

That probably brings about a yawn from some in the election administration world but our foray into ballot on demand printing is now real.

Our thought process started as we evaluated, again, the need to take carts and carts of paper ballots to our satellite advance voting sites.  We have to do this to have quantities of the nearly 1,500 ballot types in August in case there is a need to issue a provisional ballot.

We don't even have 1,500 provisional ballots from our four in-person advance locations, let alone from one of them and, of course, we have no idea which ballots would be needed, so each satellite site has a fair quantity of each of these 1,500 types.

Then, most of these ballots go unused and, after election day, are destroyed.  The ballot carts come back to our office and sit, taking up space, until the next election.

We started 2014, then, with the crazy idea that we would not send the carts to two locations--the Northeast Johnson County office and the Great Mall of the Great Plains.  Instead, we would equip ballot-on-demand printers and technology to print necessary ballots there.

Our theory, if this was a major fail, was that voters could drive the five miles or so to the next closest advance site, equipped with the carts, if the printer didn't work.  We knew the technology had been used reliably elsewhere, but power failures before because of August thunderstorms seemed like the biggest risk.

So far, more than so good!  This plan allowed us to send more voting machines to the smaller Northeast facility, kicking out 10 carts and putting in 3 more machines.

Then, armed with the printer order, our overzealous staff decided to jump the shark and print all of our advance by mail ballots on demand.

(Random yarn--"jump the shark" actually is the most searched phrase that leads to this blog.  Who knew?)

We've had a few growing pains.  Some of the pages stuck together in one batch, leading to 4 ballots being sent with no back printed, but those voters have new ballots and our printing team has new proofing procedures.

We used the ballot on demand printers for our public test process so we'd be sure we didn't send out thousands of ballots that wouldn't scan.  We also used the technology as a trial in April and with our recent Roeland Park election.  We printed all the paper ballots for Roeland Park in-house, although that was a very small number.

In the end, the printer project became much bigger than we first envisioned but as a result, there is an overall ball of stress that has traditionally joined us for each election and is noticeably absent.

That's a tribute to the forward-thinking and hard-working individuals who have been part of this project.

By my back of the ballot envelope figuring, we've avoided about $15,000 of unnecessary printing in this election.  These two 2014 elections (August and November) should return at least half of the upfront expense, and we expect the life of the system to extend well beyond "break even."

But when the dust settles, we'll also compare labor costs to 2012's ballot-labor costs.  Intuitively, based on number of individuals in the back this year vs. then (and the ballot distribution has been almost identical), we likely have saved considerable temporary labor expense as well.

In the end, though, there is an efficiency element that is most important.  Never is the cliche, "employees are our greatest assets," more appropriate than during an election.

First, sadly, we feel like we are "assets," owned by the process.  Today is the first day I haven't been to the office since July 4.  Any time any of us can eek out on a weekend by not being in the office feels like a long summer vacation.

Second, as I've reported here often, I've watched how the number of hours during election cycles take their toll physically on our staff.  If we are to be successful, it will be on the backs of our full-time staff.

We've implemented a few new processes that have, in different ways, led to a few extra hours of free time for our ballot team.

The first day of advance voting led
to one staff member bringing
in necessary provisions.  The box
was not consumed in one day, but
few crème pies remain for week 2.
Plus, those who balance our advance voting totals have been been going home by 9 each night rather than midnight as in years past.  That ends up resulting in weeks of 14-hour days rather than 16-hour days, and that difference is huge.

We aren't yet totally sleep-deprived  heading into our final week of advance voting.  Initial election worker training has been completed.  I've survived 3-hour sessions on 6 different days and my voice doesn't yet sound like Barry White's.

There's always this weekend--four supervising judge sessions and a chance to close the final training of this election with a heartfelt, "Beautiful!"