Monday, March 4, 2013

Part Three, From Snowstorm to Coin Toss

This is the third and final installment in a series of posts related to our February snow-storm election event.  If you haven't read the first two installments, click here and here to read the earlier posts, then come back here to read them in chronological order.

Monday, February 25, 8 a.m.
With the starting point of the storm inching forward, I packed enough clothes to last through Wednesday before heading to the office.  I live 8 miles from the office, and expected to come home, but I wanted to be prepared.

Upon arriving at the office, our voting machines and supply suitcases were staged in the warehouse, ready for pickup, and as I passed the coat rack, I saw that it was overloaded with garment backs, clothes, and sleeping bags.

The first person I encountered was Tom Ray, on the phone, visibly concerned.  "We're already getting LOTS of cancellations from polling places and workers."

He was on the phone with the Jewish Community Center and they were telling him that they would be closed tomorrow.  This is the reality of polling places--we called all of them on Friday but we are simply guests there.  What was fine on Friday wasn't going to work on Tuesday.

The biggest issue we began encountering is that the facilities weren't opposed to being open, but the parking lots wouldn't be plowed and no employees would be able to come in.  We weren't being shut out by these places; the snow was shutting them out.

Our equipment was going out, even though it was evident that some deliveries would be rejected and many of the sites wouldn't be open on Tuesday.

Tom began a fallback idea--proactively reducing the polling places based on what he knew of the facilities, which ones he thought would close, where he was losing workers, and which could provide the best coverage with voters.

I put a call into the Secretary of State's office to let them know of this approach.  I then received a call from our legal counsel that said neighboring Wyandotte County was considering going to court to delay the election.  While on the phone, I saw a web announcement that said Shawnee County (Topeka) was consolidating all polling places into one location.

I put another call into the Secretary of State's office.  Similar to my email to the sheriff on Sunday, I needed to know what we were working with.  If there was an initiative to move the election, I needed to know that before going through an unnecessary exercise of recasting the polling places.  Neither me nor the Secretary of State can move an election date, but I wanted to know if the Secretary was going to request that of a judge.

When I called back, I was told by an analyst in the elections office that the Secretary was on the phone with the Shawnee County Election Commissioner and that the answer was still the same as I'd been told.  I explained I hadn't been told anything yet.  This raised my concern because the election commissioner in Wyandotte County is Bruce Newby (no relation) and I was worried that this person had us confused and, indeed, there was discussion of approaching a court to move the election.

We had a staff meeting at 10 and I emailed staff members at the Secretary's office at 9:30, asking for a call.  I got an email back that they were still on the phone with Shawnee County and that I was next on their list.  With 105 counties in Kansas, I knew the office was busy, but I also felt that if the calls were simply to notify counties of something the Secretary was doing, they would not be lasting for more than a half hour with each location.

My hunch was that there was no plan to seek a judge's involvement, so as our meeting started, I asked Tom to bring in the polling place map and his plan.

Monday, February 25, 10 a.m.
Tom presented an approach to have 7 polling places.  We also planned to have our office open as a vote center, where anyone in the election could vote.  All elections were in the northern or central part of the county, and our office is in the southern portion, so it was unlikely our office would be used much.

Our voting machines at the polls only had portions of the elections loaded, for what would have been at that location.  All other voters would need to vote on paper, so our multi-layered paper plan was in full effect.

We found out that the Enterprise SUV rental idea was a straw that failed.  They didn't have any SUVs available.  We had checked the county's surplus list and there were none there.  We eventually got one extra SUV from facilities.

As we planned out the morning, I thought I would drive my SUV to one location, Debbie had access to an SUV and would drive to another, and a third staff member lived nearby a location and would go there, if he could there.  We'd plan the other sites later.

One site, Village Shalom, is an assisted-living facility, so we expected voters to be there regardless.  Our supervising judge there, however, now didn't think he could travel there in the snow.

We followed up with the sheriff and arranged for the sheriff's office to pick up that supervising judge.  Another supervising judge planned to spend the night at his location.  We had two field supervisors (now overkill with 7 sites) and each made plans to sleep either at the facility or at a nearby hotel.

Our meeting broke and I received a call from the Secretary of State's office.  Within minutes, I was on speakerphone with the Secretary and key leaders in his office.

I told him of my plan and was advised that there wasn't a movement to seek involvement from a judge. The Secretary does have statutory authority to employ an emergency method of ballot distribution, and he decided to use this authority to extend advance voting on Monday from noon until 5 (later 7 when the announcement came out).

He asked me how I was getting the word out of the changes and I explained we working with the media and using social media, effective over the weekend.  He asked if we could call the voters.

We had 46,000 voters in the election, so that seemed like crazy talk to me, but he pointed out that Topeka had more voters in the election and they were able to do a robocall to do the same thing.

I told him I would check and later was thrilled to find that we did have this capability in our county.  I recorded a script, we got the voters' numbers from their registrations to the county's emergency management system, and we did, indeed, call every voter Monday afternoon and evening.

This turned out to be a pivotal thing.  Many voters told me they got the call.  Others saw the caller ID on their phones, didn't answer, and then called our office.

I hopped off that call for a call with all of the emergency management stakeholders in Johnson County. The facilities group was working with purchasing to get us snow plowers for the facilities we would use as polling places.  We confirmed on the call the plans for the sheriff's office to pick up our results at each location and we were charging ahead.

We began calling workers who hadn't already cancelled so we could staff up the remaining 7 facilities.  Two of these were schools and we were awaiting confirmation from the Blue Valley School District before announcing our plan to the media.

At 3:15, though, after Tom had been on the phone with the district several times, the school district rejected our plan to use those schools.  We went from 7 to our final 5 polling places and began our external communications.  Again, beyond traditional media, social media was huge.  Most of the cities have their own email distribution to residents, and we linked into that as well.  The county's media relations office aggressively got the word out, too, and put the information on the main county web page.

Monday, February 25, 6 p.m.
We had another county emergency management call, doing the run-down for tomorrow's election before they jumped into other things.  Besides the sheriff, our county's IT, emergency management, facilities, and purchasing groups were extremely helpful, and the county manager's staff was the group that orchestrated the phone calls.

Before closing the call, it was announced that the next call would be at 6.  I explained that I would be at a polling place at 6, but would call in from there.  No, I was told--6 PM was the time of the next call.  As if I needed it, that was a strong reminder of the unusual ground game we were running.  We were going hour-to-hour, not day-to-day.

Monday, February 25, 8 p.m.
Slight rain coming down, still no snow.  I arrived home.  Some employees loaded up our SUV and went to the hotel, while others camped our in our office.  We'd bought cots earlier in the day, all that Walmart had.  Essentially, any employee who would have taken a highway to work on Tuesday stayed at or near our office.

Tuesday, February 26, 12 a.m.
After embarking on "airplane sleep" (that half-sleep you take when you have an early morning flight, worried that you'll oversleep), I look out the window.  Still dry.

I check again at 1:30, still dry.  I turn off my first alarm for 4 a.m. and leave the second for 4:45.

At 3 a.m., there is slight snow on the driveway and our street has had a pass over, for effect more than anything.

At 4 a.m. (didn't need the first alarm after all), everything is blanketed in white and it is snowing hard.  There is some visibility, but not much.  I did the first shovel pass on my driveway at 4:45, moving about 4 inches as it continue to come down hard.

I left for the polling place where I was checking at 5:30 and arrived at 6.  The polling place is about five miles from my house.

Tuesday, February 26, 6 a.m.
As I pulled into the Merriam Christian Church parking lot, I could tell it had been plowed.  There was a curved driveway by the door, not plowed, and there was one car, a Ford Explorer, in the parking lot and it was completely snow covered.  I hoped it was the Supervising Judge's car, but that didn't seem likely given the snow cover.

The front door was cracked open, so someone hopefully was inside.  I went in and around the lobby into the polling location.

There were five election workers!  The place was set up perfectly.

Johnson County 1, Snow 0.

I was scheduled to go on the radio on KMBZ at 6:20.  Scott Parks had me on his show the night before and I was ready to go on the morning show when I got bumped by Kansas City mayor Sly James.  I'd argue that my news was more important than him being asked the status of roads, but no one asked me.

I hung on and went on the air at 6:40 to give the polling locations.  By that time, we had a voter, waiting for 7 a.m.--proof that no matter the election, my advice to the workers to be prepared for a line at 7 a.m. is good advice.

I left to head for the office and thought I'd pass by my house on the way back, maybe even giving the driveway a second shovel.  No chance. 

My street was so bad by then that I couldn't even turn into the driveway and, in my SUV, I got stuck.  I shoveled my car out enough to do a slow-motion 180-degree spin in the street and headed to the office.

By the time I had arrived at the office, I'd heard from all sites and all were up and going, open on time.

Tuesday, February 26, 1 p.m.
We'd had about 250 voters so far, but the snow had stopped.  The big worry around town was the heavy snow and, in fact, the awning above our dock doors fell.

Still, with the weather stabilized, I expected more voters in the hours ahead.  In fact, when the polls closed, we had more than 1,000 on election day--three times the number of voters in the final six hours as we had in the first six hours.

Tuesday, February 26, 6 p.m.
Back on the emergency management update call and the first time I'd sat down all day.  Things seemed to be under control.  The sheriff's office was sending deputies to each polling place for results and also planning to take our supervising judge home from Village Shalom.  The worst of the storm issues was over.

As I sat on the call, the exhaustion of the past week hit me.  The focus of the call moved from election issues and other items of Tuesday to general county discussion regarding a late start on Wednesday.  We were expected to get another dusting of an inch or so of snow overnight.  The decision on the call was to open as usual.  The county manager asked opinions of that decision and I knew I needed to hop of the call and get moving; I wasn't sure I had the energy to even pipe an, "Ok."

I had three employees who still were not comfortable driving home.  They were planning to spend the night again. The roads were much better than that morning, but I wasn't comfortable telling anyone that they had to travel on them.  I don't know that there is a protocol that covers telling employees that they MUST leave.  I thought in this context that if they had an issue on the way home, and I required them to go home, the county might have some liability.

Tuesday, February 26, 7:15 p.m.
With the polls closed, we published advance voting results.  Sheriff deputies are at our office tracking the status of the teams at each polling place.

Tuesday, February 26, 9 p.m.
The last of our supplies arrived at 8:15 and despite all of our scanning, we have final results up.  The difference between the second and third candidates in two races is very close.  One race is tied and the other separated by one vote.  Canvass is scheduled for Monday, and it's possible that one or both of these races will be decided by a coin toss, once provisional ballots are accepted.

With much work ahead--this was only a primary and we have an election scheduled April 2, I dismiss the employees still at our office, telling them to report at 10.  For the three staying the night because of the roads, their biggest concern is going home and being stranded at night.  I tell them they can leave at noon to get reacquainted with their lives.

Monday, March 4, 9 a.m.
After adding in legally valid provisional ballots, the race that was tied is now separated by 2 votes.  However, the race that was separated by one vote is now tied.

The procedures adopted by the Board of Canvassers dictate that the winner will be chosen by coin toss, and the first person on the ballot abstract will make the call.  Commissioner John Toplikar tossed the coin, a silver dollar, after the candidate called heads.  The coin landed on the floor as tails, awarding the nomination to the other candidate.

In an election that had many "biggest" moments, even though the election was small, this was a fitting end. It marked the biggest race we've ever had decided by a coin toss.  Typically, we have this happen in August elections for precinct committee races that have, for instance, 10 voters.  In this case, 88 voters cast their ballot in this race.

It may not seem like it, but these accounts have only covered the highlights of the past week.  It's been a draining experience.  Back to normal, whatever that is!