Wednesday, October 1, 2014

T Minus 35 Days

Successful companies often talk about compressing the product delivery cycle, shaving off days from concept to market.

Here, on October 1, 35 days from the election and just 14 days from the time our advance ballots by mail go out, we're living the reduced go-to-market life.

It's some sort of crazy complete circle to the info you see on the sidebar here--"Many people think election officials only work a couple days a year—I guess that’s sort of the point of this blog, to explain what we do on the other days." 

This year may make the "what do you do the other 364 days?" a relevant question.

At the very least, I think we should get some sort of Six Sigma award for taking weeks out of the election preparation cycle.

How'd we do it?  We've spend almost a month awaiting a final candidate list following the last-second withdrawal of a candidate, a Kansas Supreme Court case, and district court case that may be resolved today.

It brings up, though, a question we've been asked frequently--how much time do you need to print ballots?

Now, I'm not sure that anyone has actually made decisions that sync with our answer, but it brings up more a need for a brief primer on what "print ballots" means.

First, ballots are customized to a voter's specific candidates and those candidate lists in various races are rotated.  We have nearly 500 precincts in Johnson County and about twice as many ballot styles in this election.

There isn't one ballot for all voters.

That seems like common sense, but with questions last week about why we sent overseas ballots when we did, the answer begins and ends with "time to prepare the ballot," not time to print.

Those ballots, by the way, look like ballots.  They have hashtags on the sides and all, but they can't be scanned.  They will have to be hand-counted.  On the overseas and military side (by the way, military gets the attention but about 90 percent of our overseas ballots are non-military), it's as though we created an entirely separate election, with unique ballots, that coincidentally have the same races as our real election.

Those overseas ballots were four pages long.  Our "real" ballots will be 8 1/2 by 18 inches, front and back.  We broke up the overseas ballots in case they were faxed back.  Our fax machine could handle the longer paper, but we don't know for sure that the overseas voters' can.

Plus, fax machines don't send back ballots in a duplex manner.  If we only got a partial ballot back, it's possible that we'd never be able to contact the voter to let him or her know.

Those ballots, often emailed, included other attachments customized to the voter.  Emailing our ballots was literally a full-day effort and we like to leave ourselves some cushion (at least a day) to ensure we met deadlines in case there were any technical issues.  Murphy's Law has come into play several times on election day, knocking out Internet service, for instance.

Anyway, back to the "real" ballots.

Printing ballots implies that an election has been set up and a ballot is created.  I've explained what it will look like on paper, but it has to have the same programming on our touch-screen voting machines.

We will have 1,400 of those in this election and can't begin to create the cards for each machine until the ballot is finalized.  Then, we have to manually test each machine's logic and accuracy by going through a laborious voting routine and comparing the results against an expected outcome.

The downloading process usually takes at least two days and the testing--with 20 people--about 3 weeks.

This is a bigger deal than printing ballots, although that's no gimmee.  But we begin delivering voting machines and equipment to our advance voting sites next week.

On the paper side, we are frantically entering advance-by-mail applications and likely will be sending out about 20,000 ballots on Oct. 15.

Our ballots are so complex that after a competitive bid process, the only local printer that could meet our requirements (the largest in Kansas City) pulled out after one attempt.  I've never seen a company of that size, in any industry, say business was too hard, but I do respect that they told us before they let us down later.

So, all of our ballots are actually printed out-of-state, and our ballot orders usually are placed in early September.   Earlier this year, we made the decision to print our own advance-by-mail ballots and provisional ballots at our advance voting sites with ballot-on-demand printers.  So, we're only ordering our provisional ballots for the polls out-of-state.

Of course, those haven't been ordered yet and we're competing with many other offices for runtime in a November cycle, so we likely won't get the ballots back until the week before the election.  That leaves no margin for error in proofing or delivery.

In fact, the whole process leaves no margin for error.  Strike that--it invites errors, going over the margins.  The fact that election administrators here are moving along with Plan S at this point is a testament to resolve.

Speaking of errors, we have to proof all of these various ballots and the audio that goes for each with ballots for those who are blind.  We're busily proofing everything, waiting for the final word.

When we do print advance ballots, we'll print the envelopes at the same time, with a different printer.  We'll apply postage at that time--or hopefully, anyway.

Our biggest obstacle right now--as it often is--isn't these formidable outside forces, but the internal processes at our county.  We weren't adequately funded for this election, as evidenced by the fact that our postage needs at the front-end here have already "failed funds," which is our county's way of saying "out of budget."

Maybe someone knew we wouldn't be spending in September. 

In any event, we hope today to get some word on "printing" ballots (as in, starting the entire work of the election), and our attention will quickly turn to mailing them.