Thursday, January 1, 2015

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.