E Minus 35: Brian Newby Does the Math on Ballot Printing

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[Image courtesy of keepcalm-o-matic]

As the Kansas Senate ballot case – like the Kansas City Royals’ AL wild-card game – goes into extra innings, Johnson County’s Brian Newby is thinking about how to compress months of work into the 5 weeks before Election Day. That’s the subject of his latest ElectionDiary:

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 …

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 spent 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.

With that rush to election, Brian takes the time to peel back the layers and show us how ballot printing happens. First, there’s preparation:

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.

That process actually takes more time an effort than the actual printing:

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.

But even printing is a big job – so big, in fact, that Johnson County breaks it into in-house and outsourced processes:

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.

The scary part about this year is that the loss of prep time means that ballots will be arriving pretty much just in time to use, with little or no time to review:

[W]e’re competing with many other offices for [printer] 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.

The Kansas controversy has been instructive on several levels – and I appreciate Brian taking the time to sit down and share what it means for election officials on the ground.

As always, stay tuned!

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