Thursday, February 28, 2013

Part One, Walking Dead

In all ways, the election amidst a snowstorm demonstrated the very reason why I created this blog.

Of course, the experience will be detailed here.  The first point, though, is to define what will be detailed.

We didn't just have a snowstorm on election day but a week-long weather event that dropped a Tonya Harding blow to the shins of the entire area.  Then, as the city began to regain footing, a second wallop followed.

The result in Johnson County--and with many of my peers in the area and the state--was something we've never experienced.

As a whole, this week has been almost impossible to sum up adequately.

In fact, I'm more exhausted than I was following a presidential election, despite a turnout of less than five percent.

That turnout, always low in spring primaries, provided the paradox of the week.  As we scrambled to save an election, the saving grace was that we knew few would vote.

If the turnout was 75 percent, we'd still be processing voters from Tuesday.  We knew we needed to make voting accessible for those who would vote, but we were anticipating a 7 or 8 percent turnout at best during perfect conditions, and we knew that was optimistic.

While voting did end on Tuesday at 7, we're still living this election.

We have one race that is tied and one separated by one vote as we head to the canvass on Monday.  Those races have a few provisional ballots, and it is possible that one or both of those races will be decided by a coin toss--literally, that's what we do in cases of ties.

For that reason, I don't have time to devote to a long post that would capture the entire event.  So, I'm going to break it up, with at least two more posts that chronicle things.  I've decided to break it up by days and generally use real names of staff members when appropriate.  I've hesitated to do that in previous posts but I'm not going to use pseudonyms.  At times, I'll only refer to the title of the person.

From my view, I expect the posts to read like a page-turning thriller.  To most, outside of election geekdom, such a thought is probably an over-reach.

As a starting point, though, it's worth noting that some people should not have access to live Doppler power radar.  It can be a paralyzer.  This past Sunday and Monday were the ultimate "Hurry Up and Wait" Days.

I'm strategic.  One of my strengths that when overdone is a weakness is that I spend a lot of time evaluating potential scenarios.  Some of these don't come to pass, but some do.  I'm a huge believer that chance favors the prepared mind.

I once told a friend that I feel like I spend my life identifying things that might go wrong and then being chagrined when they come to pass.  His response: "Think good things."

I did that in this case.

I was convinced that our biggest problem this week would be getting our ballot file ready for the general election, and here we are, awaiting Monday's canvass so we can finalize the candidates and send our ballot file to the printer, at best, 4 days later than we wanted.

The messy middle, between the first item of note and now, was simply that--messy.

It began February 16.

Saturday, February 16
We conducted the second of our two election worker training sessions.  We had 150 workers scheduled for 28 polling places, and split the training into two classes.  The first had been Tuesday, February 12.

At the training, we walked through, among many things, the set-up of our voting machines.  The machines have a battery backup of about 45 minutes, and I always instruct the workers to check that the power indicator remains green and full throughout the day.

The biggest weather-related thing we likely could deal with, I said, at the end of February was rain. We've had that before, but it probably wouldn't be a thunderstorm.  In cases of a loss of power, though, the election would need to continue, and that's why the battery life was important.

As I said "rain," some simultaneously said, "snow."

"No," I said, "that's less likely, but it brings up something that truly frightens me."

A couple of years ago, our county created a notification system to alert employees and the media in cases of emergencies.  I told the workers that my biggest February fear is that we would have a snowstorm and people at home, the night before the election, would see a television screen crawl that said, "Johnson County government employees do not report to work tomorrow."

If that happened, I said, "That's not you!  Sorry.  The show must go on.  We do not cancel an election."

I even went on to explain, as I always do, that if for some reason on election morning they couldn't get into the polling place, they would need to begin the election at 7 a.m. somehow, even if that were from the trunk of their car in the parking lot.

Training ended at 11 a.m. with a beautiful day of temperatures in the 50s.

Monday, February 18
President's Day (ironically, not a holiday for the election office):   after hearing over the weekend forecasts for rain or snow later in the week, a significant weather event was being forecast for Wednesday night and into Thursday.

The Kansas House of Representative's election committee was planning a Wednesday hearing regarding a bill that proposed moving spring elections to the fall.  I wasn't planning to testify, but was hanging loose just in case.  It was starting to look like it would snow Wednesday and without fail snowy days always seem to coincide with me driving to Topeka.

Tuesday, February 19
It was becoming less likely that I would need to go to Topeka.  Wednesday was going to be mostly dry.  Rain, then snow, was expected Thursday.

Wednesday, February 20
The National Weather Service upgraded its forecast to a winter storm warning, with snow beginning in Thursday morning.  Five to 10 inches are expected.

We have a public test of equipment scheduled for the next day, published that it would occur at 2 p.m., and advance voting underway in our office.  The law requires that advance voting begins at least one week before election day at the county election office.

Thursday, February 21
State government offices are closed, as are most businesses and many restaurants.  The governor asks that residents stay home.

At 7 a.m., we still were without snow, but it began snowing as I headed to the office.  By 8 a.m., we were in a full-on blizzard.

Five employees come to the office.  Some tried to come but couldn't make it and others stayed home.

Only one member of our advance voting board arrived, and I tell all but those involved in our public test to go home.  Two hours later, the county suspends operations for the day.  Our office stayed open for advance voting and the public test, but no one visited our office.  No mail was delivered.

An employee, returning home from the office, veered off the road and was helped back by two UPS truck drivers who said they were being called back to their office and that UPS was suspending operations as well.

A friend emailed me to ask what we would have done if this were an election day.  As I looked out the window, I saw the farce in conducting the election, "from the trunk of a car."  This was bad enough, and I was thankful it was not an election day.

Following the public test, at 2:30, I closed the office.  I have an SUV so I didn't have difficulty getting home, but the surroundings looked like a "Walking Dead" episode.  Cars were stranded everywhere, often in the middle of intersections.

At home, my wife and I shoveled the driveway.  She had been shoveling when I got home, for which I was both grateful and ashamed.

We completed a "C effort," and went inside.  I did some work and then we watched a movie.  At 5:30, an employee called me to tell me she just made it home, and she lives just 3 miles from the office.

We realized that equipment deliveries planned for polling places on Friday would not be possible because most locations had already announced that they would be closed.  That meant all of our deliveries would have to be made on Monday.  She called our delivery company and lined up more delivery trucks, as well as temporary employees to assist with set-up on Monday.

Looking at the weather, though, it appeared that we might have more snow Sunday night, and I hoped it would be over by Monday.

Friday, February 22
Coming into work, it was clear that this storm was a 2-day event.  Throughout the county, people spent the day retrieving their vehicles and digging out.  Many main roads still were not plowed by mid-day Friday.

Also, the snow expected Sunday night was now projected for Monday and early forecasts had it bigger than Thursday's snow.  Clearly, our election was going to be impacted, but with the aftermath of Thursday's storm still an issue, projecting this was futile.  Thursday's storm was still, essentially, going on and no one could think about what was next.

Our assistant election commissioner over polling places and election workers, Tom Ray, came into my office to tell me that he had a cancellation for Tuesday, leaving only three workers at a site.  He asked if I was comfortable with that or if he should re-assign someone.

I told him it was up to him.  He could re-assign one today, or wait until he was dealing with 100 cancellations on Monday and cover it then.

"We've never had to re-assign that many workers," he said.

"I know," I told him,  "but that's the paradigm shift we have to have here.  That's the magnitude of what I think is coming."

I went home that night, preparing for supervising judge training the next morning.  I knew we would talk about weather almost exclusively.  I changed my presentation to include a slide from "Survivor," and changed my slide on "The Perfect Election," to "The Perfect Storm Election" for levity.  I felt it would be most important to hit the weather concerns up front and discuss contingencies we were making.

There really isn't a roadmap for what we were facing, but I thought it important to begin thinking in terms of events, or checkpoints:  machine delivery, worker scheduling, polls open, election day, results pick-up, and, finally, our overall communications plan that I expected to form Monday.

It was especially hard because we needed to live in two worlds--one, assuming the storm wouldn't happen, or be rain, and everything would need to occur as planned.  We couldn't afford scaring people into not working.

What if, I thought, we were on the other side of the election listening to reporters ask, "What happened to the snow we were supposed to get?"  It wouldn't be the first time that happened.

The other world was one that would go horribly wrong.  The discussions, what ifs, and stress of the uncertainty needed to be discussed at training so we could move to implementation mode.

I had just drifted to sleep at 10:20 Friday night when Tom called me, asking me if I had watched the 10 o'clock news.  I hadn't.  I knew what we were in for, but the weather forecast reached him then.  We were in crisis mode, and he now knew it, too.

28 more needed to know it Saturday morning, and I went back to sleep, ready to tell them.

I'll pick this up on Saturday, February 23, with Part 2 of this series as soon as possible.