Thursday, October 23, 2014 1 comments

The Image of The Year of the Voter

Blog posts shouldn't be painful to write, but this one is.

I've often said that we are one poorly timed illness from a crisis because we are desperately understaffed and our employees each have monster jobs with many responsibilities.

Depending on where we are in the election cycle, from mapping to training to voting machine delivery, the entire election can grind down if we lose a player in the chain.

We lost a player in the chain today, someone who values family so much that a "player in the chain" is how I think he would want to be remembered.

Our assistant election commissioner over polling places and election workers, Tom Ray, was surprisingly diagnosed with lung cancer in May.  He left us just five months later.

This is a post that deserves to be incredibly long, filled with nearly daily anecdotes I could share with how much he meant to me, our office, our election workers, and our voters.

Yet, it's been so sudden, and there are so many people working here, and they all need to know.  The election can't stop, and that's the backdrop behind Tom's passing.  As we're internalizing the news, candidates are calling, voters are here, we continue to take request for advance ballots, and we listen to complaints.

I just took a call from a voter who thought that giving the address to our advance site at 9800 Metcalf was too vague, that no one could find it.  She felt this was voter suppression, as if seeking out a facility for advance voting, signing the lease, equipping it, and staffing it was a total ruse to keep people from voting.

It's also ironic that I took that call while typing this because Tom was a champion for advance voting, and he negotiated the lease for this location.  We wrapped up the lease just days before he found out his condition was incredibly serious.

If you found that you had a terminal disease and would die within a year, you might quit your job, pull out your savings, and live on an island.  Yet, that island might not be paradise, but rather a daily reminder of the forthcoming end. 

For Tom, making sure he left us as prepared as possible for November was his outlet.  He came in every day until his treatment amped up.  His hours here were dropping to just a couple a day.

We've been scrambling to move ahead with scheduling and assigning workers, and without question, some workers have fallen through the cracks.  We've been pushing workers into training without yet finalizing their assignment so we don't lose them, yet having 200 floaters to get to the right location sets us for a crazy week next week.

There's so much Tom knows. 

Sadly, I just left that sentence as I typed it so you see where my head is.  There's so much Tom knew, actuallyWe will have a pretty good idea of those things we didn't know by the day after election day.

It's a huge hole and a flag I've raised for many years as we've asked for more headcount through the budget process.  We are about to finally have a person start in a position next month that took a year to fill (not our choice), and a headcount we fought to get in the 2015 budget, hopefully, will be filled in early 2015 before our school mail-ballot elections.

Keen observers of the blog are probably now putting together why I was so impassioned about our 2015 headcount need during the June budget hearings.

It's hard having an obvious operational box of thumbtacks thrown in front of us on our road to the election.  Yet, I wanted to recognize Tom for his dedication to our voters before he stopped working.

Secretary of State Kris Kobach agreed, and he came to election worker training last Wednesday, at my request, and presented Tom with a National Association of Secretaries of State Medallion Award for his service.

We worked to schedule the award around Tom's work schedule and treatment, as well as the Secretary's own busy schedule.

This is an exclusive, national award.  As a point of reference, only four others have been awarded the Medallion in the last four years in Kansas and the only two people from Johnson County to have received the award were my predecessor, Connie Schmidt, and our deputy election commissioner Karen Browning, who retired after more than 40 years of service to the county. 

Tom thanked Kris in front of 250 election workers.  Ever-proud, Tom had still not made his condition known to them.  His voice was raspy as he thanked the Secretary and said that he had laryngitis, so he wouldn't be able to give a speech.

In the days ahead, he indeed lost his voice.  However, he never lost the will to be the voice of the voter, and that dedication will be his legacy.

Tom was in the office Sunday and as I left, with a bottle of water in my right hand, he came up to me and took the bottle so he could shake my hand and thank me for the award presentation. 

Clearly, that was goodbye.  I didn't see it then, and this post is the beginning of me saying goodbye to him as well.

This was just last Wednesday, 8 days ago.

Sunday, October 19, 2014 0 comments

Advance Voting is Underway!

Advance voting in person begins tomorrow and if that has come up on you, dear reader, fast, it has on us, too.

We literally have been too busy to type, mostly because we've been having election worker training each day while pumping through thousands of advance voting applications and ballots.

This time is also the period for the latest installment of "People Move."

Our ballots went out Wednesday, with a couple thousand going out each day since.  Before that, however, we sent a teaser postcard to all voters to remind them of the upcoming election and their advance voting options.

This mailing list for the postcard was created in September, about a month after all changes from the August election were finalized.  Any postcard that came back undeliverable in July resulted in an updated voter record.  Provisional ballots that required address changes were updated.  New registrations were processed.

Yet, in that time, we have this, in terms of undelivered postcards:

The pictures show the same number, with the second picture just now sorted so we can begin working these.  Funny, those outside of elections have no sense of the number of transactions we process and what list maintenance means.

Further, the linkage to election offices and the mail service is incredible.  Postage is such a huge expense.  Mailing the postcard, which allows us to be compliant with the National Voter Registration Act, costs about $130,000.

Yes, that flimsy little drab postcard costs that much just to mail.  It makes you wonder how much all of the candidate campaign and Johnson County government mailings to households cost (well, it makes me wonder, but it also makes me wonder--how again is it that the post office is struggling)?

Our first day ballots are photographed in little cages.  They look tidy.

Ballots mailed Wednesday night, some
voted and returned by mail Saturday.
And, on Saturday, we already had some back in the mail!  Note, however, the small number of white envelopes.  We'll get more.  Those are ballots that were undeliverable.  We'll likely mail out about 40,000 ballots in this election and somewhere between 500 and 1,000 will come back undeliverable, which usually means that people moved between the time they requested the ballots in the last couple of weeks and the time we mailed them.

In-person advance voting will be at our office, 9800 Metcalf, the Great Mall of the Great Plains, and the Johnson County Northeast offices starting tomorrow morning.

Below are a couple of photos from this summer that I thought were worth a giggle from the Great Mall.

The first just looks funny to me because of the "Quite Please" that displays so prominently with no voters yet, as though it's an election museum.

The other is from advertisement inside the mall.  Apparently, mall management anticipates a stressful election season.

We have much going on with more updates soon.  Tomorrow night, we have election worker training for high-school students.  Tuesday and Wednesday, we have the all-important opening games of the World Series.

The last time a World Series came into play during a November election cycle in Kansas City, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter were running.  There was no advance voting.

I do wonder how the Series could impact voting patterns.  Maybe there will not be an impact, but that seems unlikely.

My early thought is that advance voting may trend slower than it did in, comparably, 2010, with a possible pick-up late next week.  However, Halloween is on a Friday (a great late-afternoon, early evening to vote, by the way--NO lines at our office), so that will get in the way of voting.

Intuitively, I think some advancers will just wait until election day, but election day is unpredictable (and what if it's the day of the victory parade?).

Of course, our election planning is pretty baked at this point.  Polling places were secured a year ago, advance sites buttoned down in January, and all new election worker training will be over tomorrow.  We have to finish new training before the onslaught of voters to our parking lot--we don't have enough parking for new worker training AND voters.

We conduct refresher training now offsite, in classes of 250+ at a time, at the University of Kansas Edwards campus.  Moving new worker training is much more problematic because we have smaller classes and an entire "Perfect Polling Place" for skits to help the workers connect the dots.

Something's got to give on that, though, space-wise.  That's a problem to ponder in late 2015, our next chance for a breather, maybe.

Live voting engines start tomorrow.

Photos above and below from the Great Mall.

Saturday, October 18, 2014 0 comments

Game Seven!

I'll have a new post this weekend, but with the Royals going to the World Series, I have some special memories related to Game 7, and the All Star Game, and is the backdrop to similar memories I have with these types of games with my daughter. 

So, reposting.  Back to elections tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

David Newby, 1930-2012

I've tried to have a post each Tuesday in recognition that there is always an election going on somewhere on a Tuesday.

Plus, as those in the election world can attest, the Tuesday election day is often the slowest day in the cycle.  The work is done and we leave the day open for mayhem, and thankfully there usually isn't any.

Today's Tuesday post is brief.

My father died this morning at 1 a.m.  He was 82.

He suffered a stroke last year and his energy level dropped over the fall and winter.  In fact, I planned to take him to a Royals game last September and he didn't have the stamina to go. 

He took me to the All-Star game when it was in Kansas City in 1973.  I still have the ticket stubs.

I knew he couldn't go this year, hosted again in Kansas City, and I probably couldn't have gotten tickets, anyway, so I was planning to be with him on July 10 (also a Tuesday) and watch it on television.

In 1985, he obtained two tickets to game seven of the World Series, Royals-Cardinals, and he gave them to me on the condition that I went with my brother.  It was the biggest moment up until then for the Royals--and it remains their biggest moment--and he passed so his two sons could go.

He was a Rotarian and believed in "service above self."  My brother died years ago (it's a very odd feeling to be the only family member still living from my childhood Christmas photos) and my dad also gave me a defining memory of my brother from sharing that World Series celebratory night, one of the greatest nights ever to be living in Kansas City.

I was with him on March 24 and it was clear he was declining.  I visited him yesterday afternoon after coming back in town from training, and I was not surprised to get the call this morning.

Since I've been at the election office, I've never been quite sure he understood exactly what I did.  With him leaving on a Tuesday, I think he did.
Thursday, October 9, 2014 1 comments

We've Got Ballots!

In the world of baby steps, we started printing ballots last night and are preparing to fulfill the 11,000 or so advance ballots by mail we have in the pipeline thus far.

Ballots are first mailed next Wednesday.

In between now and then, registered voters will receive a postcard in the mail that reminds of the upcoming election and advance voting options.

That postcard will generate about 5,000 applications for ballots by mail over the weekend.  By the time Wednesday rolls around, we likely will have around 20,000 ballots ready to mail.

We'll cut it close with envelopes on hand--intentionally, we order a couple of cycles ahead.

However, our cushion of envelopes arrived yesterday in the wrong color--the printer's mistake, but it's just one more thing that we'll be doing twice in this election.  We hope to get new, correct replacements in 12 days.

We have more than 40,000 outgoing envelopes on hand--the number of ballots by mail issued in November 2010, but we will sleep better once we have a backup sock drawer full of warm envelopes.

Envelopes are unusual in that they take an incredibly long time to print.  I'm not sure why, but they are complex.

In fact, we were the first jurisdiction in the country to design a privacy flap that covers the voter's signature in the mail, and that flap adds extra time and cost.

That was the issue in 2005--identity theft.  I guess it's still THE issue in 2014, but covering the voters' signatures in the mail was one of the first decisions I made when coming to the office.

Anyway, that all takes a backseat to the "whoo-hoo" we exclaimed when our ballots were ready for production.  Once the delay occurred with the US Senate candidate, we fell into the competitive queue with many other jurisdictions using our printer.  That printer's schedule, and probably the ballot delivery of other communities in other states, had ripple effects from this delay.

Even printing our mail-ballots here, we had to have things finalized with the printer first, and we couldn't begin creating voter cards for our 1,400 machines that we will use in this election, either.

Once we got the thumbs up, our crew had to re-proof the ballots.  Stack three large phone books on top of each other and you'll have a sense of how many pages we had to proof, fast.

If you are too young to know what a large phone book looks like, use dictionaries for this visualization.

If you are too young to know what a dictionary is, look at your laptop computer right now and imagine the cresting point at the top of the screen as the top of the stack of ballots to proof in order to visualize.

If you are too young to know what a laptop computer is, stand your iPad on its end and that will sort of give you a visualization of the magnitude.

If you are too cool to check the web with anything but a smartphone, I can't help you.  

In such a case, just know it's a lot of paper, bro.

Anyway, now the office is abuzz.  Advance election workers are brushing up on training, machines are being tested, and we're pondering "what ifs" related to the Royals' World Series run.

For instance, next week's game 5 in the championship series is scheduled during election worker training.   We'll probably have a few workers reschedule their training.

World Series week, if the Royals make it, may impact in-person advance voting.  It may lead to more requests by mail (hello, envelope printer McFly?) or it may have people waiting until election day to vote.  

Then again, if they win, election day may be Parade Day.  That may impact turnout or the time of day people vote.

Election administrators embrace worry like a rescued lost puppy.  For a moment, with our ballots, worries were gone.  That was short-lived.

It's nice, at least, to be worried about events in the future, rather than the impact of things in the past.  It was late in arriving, but we're having an election!
Wednesday, October 1, 2014 0 comments

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.