Monday, June 18, 2012

Steady as She Goes

In the aftermath of the redistricting pass by the Kansas legislature and the ensuing court decision, I think it's worth opining about how lucky Kansas has been with its Secretaries of State.

I've worked for three of them, initially appointed by Ron Thornburgh.  That vacancy came after the retirement of Connie Schmidt, Johnson County Election Commissioner from 1995 to 2004 and still a great leader in election administration as a consultant on a national level.

The Secretary of State can use whatever process he or she wants to fill vacancies, but Secretary Thornburgh treated an Election Commissioner vacancies as any job that was to be filled.

He created a screening committee and posted the job.  In my case, I was proud that I was selected from among 65 candidates at the time and, so you know there's no cronyism, I had never met Ron Thornburgh until the week of the final interviews.

Working as Election Commissioner is a different kind of job, almost like running a small business.  We have laws and statutes to govern our processes but Election Commissioners make all day-to-day decisions.  There are four Election Commissioners in Kansas, appointed by the Secretary of State.  These four are in Johnson, Shawnee, Wyandotte, and Sedgwick counties.  Elections in the other 101 Kansas counties are administered by the elected county clerk.

Elections is a logistics business and a scale business.  A $10 extension cord becomes $3,000 if it goes to all polling places, for instance.  Election administration varies across the country, but in my case we're left to do much on our own, and more than we'd like at times, from arranging cleaning and security services in our building to identifying and negotiating lease terms at advance voting locations.  When our fire alarm goes off in the middle of the night, for instance, I'm the one who gets the call to meet the police and fire units at midnight.

As the empowered administrator of our office, I try very hard to never take the Secretary a problem.  In fact, I don't think I've ever escalated an issue for resolution, although I've often asked for advice.  I probably talk to someone at the Secretary of State's office three times a week, but discussions with the Secretary are generally strategic, long-term discussions, such as plans for voting systems when the day comes to replace our fleet.

In the Ron Thornburgh era, I saw how well-respected he was within the election industry.  He was extremely involved in the development of the Help America Vote Act, for instance.  He resigned in 2010 to go to the private sector and was replaced by the Governor with Chris Biggs.

I thought Secretary Biggs took office at a tough time.  He was running for Secretary of State (Ron had announced he wasn't running for reelection) and we were knee-deep in preparations for the gubernatorial election.

Much like Ron Thornburgh before him, he attempted to not be the news.  Most Kansans probably couldn't have named their Secretary of State, and that's not such a bad thing, in my opinion.

Chris Biggs had a short tenure, losing to Kris Kobach in the 2010 election, but has been remembered as a steady hand.  He retained the staff at the Secretary of State's office and that staff is nationally admired as well.

I submit that Kris Kobach deserves similar recognition to his predecessors, and the redistricting process we're undertaking underscores why.  The chaos that has come from the court reshuffling all the districts has provided moments of stress to candidates, incumbents, and potential candidates.  The Secretary of State's office has been snowed, to say the least, just like us as we're trying to compress at least four months of work into about four weeks.

But especially through the last few weeks, Secretary Kobach has been that steady hand that Kansans expect of their Secretary of State.  This week, I attended a local session on his outreach tour to explain changes created  by the Secure and Fair Elections Act, passed in 2011.
Life imitating Art--Secretary Kobach speaks
in person during an outreach session in Overland Park.
The Secretary spoke to a Powerpoint, showed Public Service Announcements, handed out highly professional materials from a website built for the law, and answered questions. This, while he and his staff  are busily scurrying to implement the most far-reaching redistricting changes in the history of the state. He answered questions about that process, too.

As election administrators in Kansas, we are required to attend annual training, by law, with the Secretary of State, and we've been impressed with his knowledge of our voter registration system.  He even has led some of the technical training.

He visited our polling places this spring and in two locations there was a large stretch of time without any voters.  During that quiet time, he stayed and spoke with each election worker, thanked them for working, and listened to them when they gave input about their experiences.

We likely will not have such quiet times at the polls in the short term.  This crunch-mode environment isn't a bubble where everything returns to some slower pace in a couple  of weeks.  I'm not sure there ever will be a slower pace, but we will be operating at an escalating intensity for about the next 11 months, though the wrap-up of the April 2013 election.

We have four countywide elections between now and then, including the presidential election, and little preparation time.

Election employees, as I've stated here before, excel at getting things done.  One reason is the ability to methodically break down projects into meaningful milestones and another is the mental approach to keep both hands on the steering wheel.

It's easier to do that when we know the Secretary of State has control of the bigger picture, and I've been fortunate to work in an environment where that's always been the case.  This year will go down as one of the zaniest, but as has been the case before, to the outside world we will look like our boring and steady selves, and that's a tribute to the election administration leadership we have in Topeka.