Sunday, July 27, 2014 0 comments

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!"

Wednesday, July 16, 2014 0 comments

The Day of The Voter

This is a bit of a fun photo collage essay post because we're getting ready to send ballots out this morning, first thing, for the August Election:

Our training manual cover.  The theme was more than
a blog gimmick.  It's now an election training gimmick.
Still, in all seriousness, the concept isn't a gimmick.  We are
committed to being defined by how we take care of voters.
Objects are larger than they may
seem--8,500 ballots headed out.
From the Kansas City Star today, some of our
"A" list part-timers running manual tests on each
voting machine.  The tarps, by the way, are just
protection should the warehouse sprinklers go off.

Part of our new ballot printing system.  Isn't that an attractive
cart in blue?  I'll have a post on that soon.

Many, many returned postcards.  Last
postcard mailing--spring 2014.  People move.

Friday, July 11, 2014 0 comments

Provisional Ballots By The Numbers

Last week, I participated in a meeting regarding PEW's Election Performance Index in Chicago.

The Index takes a swing at one of my favorite concepts--post something and measure it, and it will improve.

The Index, then, results in an academic way to look at elections--measuring several outcomes (such as average time waiting to vote) to drive comparisons, conclusions, and discussions.  The Index might, for instance, identify common pain points that many states encounter when administering elections.  The Index also helps begin to answer the question, "How are we doing?"

Kansas falls roughly near the middle in the Index and it's worth considering why.  One reason simply is that the categories themselves are subjective.  They aren't controversial but there may eventually be better categories to measure.  You can isolate some measurements and Kansas either soars or is at the bottom end of the range.

Another reason for the overall score is that turnout dropped, 2012 from 2008.  The major reason for the drop, though, came because it was a rare alignment where a presidential election didn't also feature a United States Senate race for Kansas.  The last time this happened, in 16 B.C. (no not really, but it was a long time ago), the turnout was less than it was in 2012, actually.

"Measure" is the key thing here. 

Without data, a category can't be included.  Much of the data comes from the Election Administration Commission's post-election survey.  That data is self-reported by jurisdictions and states.  Kansas has 105 counties, each reporting and rolled up to the state level, and, while most counties report, some don't report or have incomplete data.  That, also, impacts Kansas' score.

Beyond that, it's worth asking further, why else are we trending lower than the median?

It's not this simple, but one major reason is the policy related to provisional ballots in Kansas and, specifically, Johnson County.

I thought I'd give some insight into the categories of provisional ballots and how they are addressed by walking through the 2012 presidential election provisional ballot summary.

There are many legitimate reasons provisional ballots are cast in Kansas.  Contrary to urban legend, any provisional ballot envelope that can be opened, by law, is opened following approval by the Board of County Canvassers.  Provisional ballots aren't included only if they make a difference in a race--they are added in if the race difference is one or one million.

I've often said that provisional ballots represent one of those phrases that needs context.  Provisional ballots that protect voters' rights--good!  Provisional ballots that cause a race to flip after the canvass sound dirty.

I take that further, in fact.

A provisional ballot that protects voters' rights--good!  A provisional ballot issued because we could have prevented it--bad!

If we can get voters to the correct polling place, or if we make sure our workers fully understand photo identification requirements, or if we can help voters get registered properly in the first place, we can lower the number of unnecessary provisional ballots.

We've done this very thing, and in fact our entire Joco-Polo (think "Marco Polo") effort to get people to the correct polling place was an Election Center Best Practices winner in 2009.

Still, there is a point of view that a provisional ballot wouldn't be issued unless there was a breakdown somewhere. 

I guess that's fair--a provisional ballot is issued when there is a question about a voter's eligibility at a particular moment for a particular election. 

I'm proud to say that in my tenure at the election office, I've never experienced a voter who had an issue at a polling place but was not offered a provisional ballot.  Our election workers excel at being the advocate for the voter (the voter concierge, if you remember, in my earlier post about "The Year of The Voter.")

Our belief is that we never want a voter leaving a polling place, unless going to another polling place, without voting or being offered the chance to cast a provisional ballot.

On the other hand, many ballots become provisional but were never cast as provisional ballots. 

For instance, voters who don't have signature matches on their ballots by mail don't have their ballots rejected.  Rather, we take those into the Board of Canvassers as provisional ballots, recommend they not be counted by law, and the Board approves the recommendation.

Here is the rundown on the key categories from November 2012 (I've pasted the actual sheets at the bottom of this post):

In this election, we recommended 5,878 ballots to be counted.  More to the point, that's 5,878 envelopes to be opened.  Only when opening them, do we know what is inside the envelope.
  1. Of the 5,878, the most common reason for a provisional ballot that can be counted is that the voter moved or changed his/her name and completed the required registration information (the back of the provisional ballot is a registration form).  In this election, nearly half (2,624) of those recommended to count fit in this category.  This number is usually much larger in a presidential election, simply because of the number of voters but also because many infrequent voters don't think about voting until election day.
  2. 917 ballots were in a category that WE made provisional.  The voter returned a ballot by mail and signed the ballot, but didn't complete the address line as required by law.  We worked with Secretary of State Kris Kobach's office to request and obtain a 2012 Attorney General opinion that recommends these be counted.  Previously, these would not have been counted.  We'd advocated this position for years and are pleased that this minor technical error doesn't invalidate the vote.
  3. The next number is a bit frustrating, really--771 voters received an advance ballot but voted at the polls instead.  Now, sometimes, I think, voters worry that the mail return won't be fast enough for the ballots to reach us by 7 p.m. election day (they can be dropped off, 24 hours a day), but often I believe these are voters who simply applied for an advance ballot so they had a sample (or even a souvenir, as I believe the case was in 2008).
  4. 478 voters went to the wrong polling place and cast a ballot that can at least be partially counted (for any races that apply to them, such as president).  This number had dropped by 75 percent since our Joco-Polo voting location campaign and tools were rolled out in 2008.
  5. 412 ballots were "should have been perfect," a kind way of saying, for whatever reason, the voters didn't sign the pollbooks and vote.  Sometimes, names hide, particularly in the cases of apostrophes and such in names.
  6. In 268 cases, we had provisional ballots issued for one of these categories and all was correct, except that the voter's ID had not been marked as verified.  We had these in a separate category because we didn't know the ID had not been verified, only that it had not been recorded as such.  Therefore, we recommended these be counted (we cite the legal reference to any recommendation in the right column of the canvass sheets).
  7. "FWAB" is the Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot.  These essentially are military voters who can fax or email their ballots.  These came in late on election day and have to be hand-counted because the ballots cannot be scanned.  They could have been included in election night totals but the results would have been later in the evening.  We had 214 of these.
  8. In 103 cases, a voter did not submit photo ID but did before the canvass.  Most of these were ballots by mail.
  9. 68 times, we issued a replacement ballot in cases where the original was damaged or lost.
  10. We have a form for those voters whose name on their ID and registration don't match, but they want to keep it that way.  Usually, these are women who have different last names after life changes.  In lieu of ID, they can complete an affidavit that explains the name discrepancy.  19 voters did this.
  11. In presidential elections, because voters who move can sometimes get caught between states' voting requirements, there is a provision where voters can get a "presidential only" ballot.  4 voters fell in this category.
Additionally, on the "count side," we have 174 voters who preferred to vote on paper.  These weren't provisional voters, but we have to verify these voters were eligible to vote (perfect voters at refer to voters where everything went the way it should--recognizing that everyone in Johnson County is perfect in their own way).  We don't bring these envelopes for approval by the Board of Canvassers to open, but we do wait until the canvass to process these ballots.  We could add them in during the week leading to canvass but I prefer to have results updated once only after election night.

On the not valid side, we had 2,136 ballots where we recommended the ballot envelopes not be opened.
  1. Most--1,330--were because the voter wasn't registered.
  2. In 300 cases, the voter had an advance ballot by mail and did not sign and address the envelope or did not complete the registration form on the back of the provisional envelope at the polls.
  3. We check every signature on those voting by mail and 182 did not match their voter record.
  4. 76 voters did not provide a government-issued photo ID.  In all cases in this election, these were ballots by mail.
  5. Sometimes voters use a different envelope when mailing back the ballot or put two ballots in one envelope.  We can't count these, and we had 71 of them.
  6. 25 voters, when casting a provisional ballot, used an invalid address as their registration address.
  7. Remember those voters who get a ballot by mail but vote at the polls?  15 voted both ways, likely because they either forgot (that happens) or they were worried we wouldn't get the ballot in time.  We count the first ballot cast.
  8. There is a Attorney General letter with a ruling that persons who act as Power of Attorney cannot vote on someone's behalf.  We had 14 of those cases.
  9. In 13 situations, a voter had some issue when voting and cast a second ballot provisionally.
  10. Again, remember the voters who requested paper but we have to verify that they were qualified?  In 7 cases, they weren't eligible to cast a vote and should have voted provisionally.
  11. 2 voters voted overseas ballots but didn't meet the eligibility to do so.
The rejected provisional ballots represent about 0.7 percent of those cast.   Provisionals, overall, are about 3 percent of the total, and that's typical.

Here then, dear reader, if you're still there, is the breakdown as presented.

Sunday, July 6, 2014 0 comments

I'll Gladly Trade You Tuesday

We have emerged from the budget process with much news and I will have a post soon on the summary of that.

Dinner at local restaurant, Chen's, and an appropriate
message the night following our budget presentation.
We had tremendous support from the Board of County Commissioners on our path towards a new voting system and also with regards to funding our first new headcount in 20 years.

My primary objective with the budget process was to simply agree upon a plan that would lead us to the funding of a new voting system. 

We did that.  And, we did it at a perfect time, amidst some meetings I've been at with academics and industry supporters who will be able to provide us assistance through the process.

Secondarily, we needed some guidance as to what it would take to add headcount to fulfill our growing needs.  Our last approved headcount goes back to the time Bill Clinton was president.

The election world changed greatly with the George Bush/Al Gore election and the subsequent Help America Vote Act of 2002, let alone state legislation impacting operations in Kansas.  From a headcount perspective, our office has been stuck in the 1990s.

During the first budget cycle after I came to the county, in 2005, we requested three positions--one for registration, one for planning, and one for outreach.  It's hard to argue, in retrospect, that they weren't needed, but we didn't get support from the county manager's office at the time and, in fact, we've never had the county manager, in my time here, support any request for headcount at the election office.

It may not have felt like it then, but, economically, 2005 represented the "good times," and in 2008, all county departments began taking one for the team to deal with the budget crisis.

In fact, we all took another, and another, and another, and all county departments had some pretty lean days during that time.

That process showed me how government budgets are a bit of an economic lagging indicator--because much of government funding is based on tax dollars and because tax dollars generally are a byproduct of income and real estate value, government is often the last to take the hit from a slow economy and the last to see the upswing as the economy improves.

All to say, we hit a period of higher expectations at a time when resources, understandably, were at their scarcest.

Elections, though, are the most basic service of government.  Arguably, elections are the most important thing government does because without elections, there is no government.

And, from a headcount perspective, we have hit a wall.  So, I was gratified that that Board, actually, led the charge to support our request this year.

Locally, the large school districts should benefit from this as well because the timing of this position--if we can get the person on board January 1--allows us to support their needs to have a mail-ballot election in January, rather than June.

The approved position is for a modest level, the most common level at the county, and one that sounds more expensive from a budget perspective than its actual pay because the budget dollars are fully loaded to cover benefits.

The final approval and discussion, however, wasn't without a Scooby Doo "Whaa?" moment or two, particularly when the county manager suggested removing funding for two vacant positions that have taken forever to fill because of the county process and using those two positions to fund the one we were requesting.

That would leave us, of course, down one position and not increase our staff.

I'm still puzzled with that one.  If this blog were a video or if the event were live television, rather than a typed account, you would have seen me turning around to face the camera with a deadpanned blank stare after that recommendation.

A big reason for the delay in filling the open positions is the process we've had to undergo to have the position descriptions evaluated.  There simply hasn't been a shared sense of urgency in filling those with our county's human resource department, which reports to the county manager.

I've posted the video here when this one-for-two idea was proposed.  Go to 2:40 for the "we can eliminate two positions we've slowly taken through the process so they can have this new position" solution.

Thankfully, Commissioner Ed Eilert and other members of the Board saw through the fuzzy math.

Commissioner Eilert's argument was that because we hadn't been able to fill the positions we have open yet--not by our choice, by the way--we will save, in 2014, at least the cost of the position for 2015, making this a 2016 problem.  The budget process doesn't allow for such a clean swap, but the logic was clean and he stuck with it, to the benefit of our voters.

As we try to fill the positions that are currently open, a common piece of frustration is being told that what we need out of positions isn't appropriate, that we don't need the skill sets or levels I think we need to run the election office.  It's a case, really, of the support function in the county--which exists to help those on the front line--overstepping.

Problem is, these organizations aren't accountable to our voters.  We are.

Essentially, this is another example of the county manager attempting to have authority without accountability over us, and with these positions vacant for all of 2014, it's been killing us.  We're virtually assured of not having these positions filled for eight months, until after the August election.

This week, as I had a meeting with our human resources contact (they use the title "partner"), I advocated unsuccessfully why I believe these positions should require a bachelor's degree.  I literally have fought this issue, to no avail, for five years.

In other communities, this baseline education requirement, with experience that can be substituted, is common.  In other parts of the county (such as the county manager's office and human resources), this is a requirement.  When it comes to other parts of the county, though, I was told they were "different kinds of positions" that required more skills.

One of my arguments is that our office deals with a diverse group of voters, party chairs, candidates, and stakeholders who often have college degrees.  They expect to be greeted by those of comparable capabilities.

I was told this was condescending.  Never mind, of course, that it feels condescending to be told by a support organization that they know our business better than I do.

I explained that we are all about building future leaders of our office and that eventually, those we hire, hopefully, will be candidates for our senior positions in our office and that I would not expect someone at that level to not have at least a bachelor's degree.  Why would we hire someone who we didn't foresee could move along that path?

We left it that I would provide contacts for election offices that have position descriptions that required such degrees, so this post is a bit of a siren call asking for colleagues to please send me anything you have (to, please).  I will be contacting some offices as well.

A few hours later, I did see that night, on Craigslist, a post for an entry-level job at the election office in nearby Kansas City, Missouri, for a voter outreach and communications specialist.  The position pays $15,000 less than our positions, but requires a college degree.

More to the point, as I left the meeting and went back to my office, I saw an article in the Kansas City Star related to a post that named Overland Park as one of the smartest cities in the United States.

I guess because our office is in Olathe, that's irrelevant?

More to the point, though, the dumb-down factor is eliminated when driving two miles to the south to the administration building, where a bachelor's degree frequently is a requirement.

This really highlights two key issues:

First, as the election commissioner in the largest county in the state and tenured longer than 80 percent of elections commissioners in the history of the state, as a former director of strategic planning for a $10 billion division of a Fortune 50 company, and as an instructor in the area's largest MBA program and a member of Baker's Faculty Senate, I think I know a smidge about the talent acquisition strategy we need at our office.

To be told otherwise by part of the county manager's staff is incredulous.

Further, blocking my request that the positions require a specific education level is a violation of Kansas law, specifically KSA 19-3434, that takes from county and other local officers "all power and authority now exercised by them in relations to the supervision, conduct and control of elections within each county to which this act applies, and it is hereby made the duty of all public officials to cooperate fully with the election commissioner in response to any written request made to them by said election commissioner..."

Second, more broadly, it points to the perception that many of us in elections have discussed regarding the professionalism and certification needs for all of our employees.  Election Center certification has value, but it's unlikely a new recruit would have such a certification.  There has to be some global way that election positions are valued comparably to other positions in government.

I have some thoughts on that.  After the election, and after some upcoming posts on provisional ballots, the budget summary, polling place tools, I'll get to that.

Coming up next, though, will be a provisional ballot discussion.

That's about as geeky of an election administrator teaser as there is.  It will take some time to construct the post, but hopefully it will be up by mid-week.