“Job One is to Do the Job”: Newby on Paper Ballots, High Speed Scanners and a Super Bowl Party


[Image courtesy of galleryhip]

Across the nation, election officials are – for the most part – putting the final touches on the 2014 general election and beginning to think about what’s coming their way in 2015. In Johnson County KS, however, Brian Newby is taking a deep breath and getting ready to take the plunge on a big step in a small election. Here’s his latest ElectionDiary (“Paper, Party of 330,000?”):

Somewhere, there will be an election administrator in a jurisdiction using paper ballots who will read this post and consider our plight child’s play.

But, here we are, short-staffed and run down following the November election and in the middle of a much smaller December election in Roeland Park.

Yet, a monster set of elections await us, with ballots going out the first week of January to about 330,000 voters in five of the six school districts in Johnson County.

If half come back, we will be processing 165,000 pieces of paper, plus the envelopes, in roughly 16 days.

That’s more than 10,000 ballots returned daily, and each one of the envelopes has to be checked into our voter registration system and have the returning signature matched against the voter’s record.

That kind of volume, he notes, has the potential to overwhelm his capacity to process ballots:

[After we get them], the ballots have to be scanned and tabulated. Never having paper at the polls, at least in the last 50 years, we operate with a handful of scanners at our office.

At most, these scanners can scan 1,000 ballots an hour, but a likely throughput for the four we have is really about 2,500 an hour.

We’ve never processed this many paper ballots before. Our office used paper ballots for advance voting in the presidential election of 2004, with a two-page ballot, and that resulted in nearly 200,000 pieces of paper.

That was just before I came to this job and I still hear horror tales from that process.

Brian then talks about the two guiding principles he follows in this situations: “Job One is to … get the job done [and] Job Two is to get the job done as economically as possible.” This latter point is especially important since some costs of the election are passed on to the school district while others are covered by the county – neither of which is likely rolling in cash.

One option is the traditional one: staff up. Brian concludes that likely won’t work:

[H]ow many part-time election workers do we appoint to handle the load? Part-time is likely the wrong phrase–temporary, full-time workers. We probably could use at least 75. In November we had 12.

We only have 20 stations for envelope check-in. We’ll pretty much be needing someone sitting at those stations the entire time.

Could we even get 75 people? What if we needed more? Where would they work, securely?

Can we get by with fewer, and how?

That’s where Brian explains that he and his county are about to take a small but significant leap:

If only we had one of those fancy high-speed scanners that’s being touted with some of the next-generation voting systems. Our system isn’t compatible with such a thing but if the system was, we could scan much, much faster–10,000 in just a couple of hours.


Somewhere in the Royals’ World Series euphoria, we decided to take a major leap here, using an entirely new voting system for this election. It’s akin to buying a big-screen television just before the Super Bowl.

This isn’t the major leap it could be, in that we aren’t going to have any election at the polls, but we are going to set up the election and operate it with a new tabulation system. The system will use a high-speed scanner.

There will be challenges, but Brian and his team seem prepared to accept them:

Our equipment vendor, to the redundancy point, is a four-hour drive away. If the system can’t be warrantied to be fail-safe for the first 20 days of its life, there’s an issue there, anyway. If the system explodes, I’m sure we will have another one within a half-day.

The system has been certified federally and in Kansas, so that’s not a risk. It’s just that we’re making this huge transition in December for an election that will be over on Groundhog Day, the day of the elections’ canvasses.

Even better, once the experience is over, Brian and his team will have tested this new system in real time with real ballots (albeit in a smaller election) and will know if it’s ready for bigger things:

Once this election is over, we’ll have a high-speed taste test, an understanding of a new system that we will evaluate for our ultimate equipment replacement, and a very large paperweight until our next large mail-ballot election, likely in late 2015 or later. It’s not quite a throwaway unit, but close.

The big question is the reconciliation between the scanner costs and the savings of people. That’s roughly going to be a wash. Remember, though, Job One is to do the job.

And this job requires that we not bring a rinky-dink scanning system to high-speed scanner fight. [emphasis added]

And then, as the calendar shifts to December and 2015 looms, he uses another sports analogy that seems apt:

It’s funny … in November elections, the media likes to ask us is if this is our big moment, our Super Bowl.

I’m sure, given all we have going on, our staff would much rather not have this behemoth group of elections in January. But, we’ve never done something like this before, and in February, conducting the canvass they day after the NFL’s Big Game, we’re going to feel pretty good about what we accomplished.

That sounds like a Super Bowl party to me.

Not every jurisdiction has the resources to do what Brian is attempting – but many of them will benefit from the experience. The good news is that Brian will be blogging about it regardless … which will make it very easy to … wait for it … stay tuned.

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