Saturday, March 2, 2013

Part Two, No Calm Before the Storm

This is the second part in a series of posts related to our February snow-election event.  If you haven't read part one, click here and return to run through this in the order of the events, starting with February 16.

Saturday, February 23
"That was some rainstorm we had, Brian!"

That's how I was greeted at supervising judge training, with a friendly jab at my earlier training comment that rain was more likely at the end of February than snow.

I stressed that the snowstorm was on the 21st and that I considered the end of February to be the 26th through the 28th.  There was still hope I'd be right, I said, but it was looking like I wouldn't be.

Thus, the storm discussion began.

"If you drive a scooter, a moped, or a Fiat, please let us know because I don't think you'll be getting anywhere Tuesday."

Later, I finally said what I wanted to, but was worried that there would be an exile.  "If you don't think you'll be able to work Tuesday, please let us know now."

Only one supervising judge piped up, realistic but still eager, "I'm planning to be there but if my street isn't plowed and I can't get out of my driveway, I won't be there.  I'll try."

We discussed the essentials of opening up the polls.  The Vote Here sign outside, for instance, was vital in a blizzard.  The "No Campaigning" sign, not so much.

I told them my new view of operating an election from the trunk of a car, and said they might want, in such a case, to invite the voter INTO their car.

We had made the decision to print poll books on Friday, instead of Saturday night, so our staff could rest up Saturday night and tend to personal things ahead of a few days when they wouldn't be able to do so.

Normally, the Supervising Judges pick up specific supplies at 3 p.m. on Monday--the election survival kit, I call it:  a black suitcase with the pollbook, machine cards, and other vitals, as well as the red ballot bag, and a file box of paper ballots.

For Monday, I told them to come at noon.  This meant that we would have to follow up with them by phone to give them the names of advance voters on Monday so they could mark in their books, in order to prevent double-voting, and I told them I was planning for a supervising judge conference call at 7 p.m. Monday.

I explained the biggest dilemma I saw at the moment:

Specifically, if they pick up these supplies and can't get to the polls, but other workers make it, we would still be out of business.  Those workers wouldn't have the election survival kit.

We began coming up with other contingencies.  In particular, we knew we'd have to print ballots at our office and expect to operate the entire election on paper if necessary.

This would be a problem because we don't have precinct scanners--scanners at each polling place.  Our county's hardware investment was in voting machines, not machines to scan paper.

We only have four scanners at our office.  I knew that, despite the storm ahead, media and candidate expectations would still be for immediate election results.  Paper would slow down our tabulating, and I told them we might have some plan to switch ballot bags with them at mid-day so we could start scanning.  That is, if we could get there.

Further, we needed to have a way for other workers to have paper ballots and provisional envelopes in case the Supervising Judges didn't show, and we needed paper at our office, as a third backup, that we could take to the polling location if no one showed.  We were also going to need a way to get the ballots from our office to the sites, even though the roads could be impassable.

So, in a county that uses touch-screen voting machines and prints our ballots off-site, we needed to crank up our printer and print the various ballot styles in our office in quantities greater than what we initially ordered from our vendor.  Our printer that prints edge-to-edge failed us the week before, but we had bought a backup last year and put it into service to print.

Candidates in spring elections are rotated, so even though there were few races, there were many ballot styles.  At least we already had sent out advance ballots by mail and with a 10 percent turnout, we'd still need to print about 3,500 ballots.  That seemed reasonable, even though they would be 100 of this, 100 of that, 50 here, 50 there, and so on.

Beyond all of the contingencies, we spent little time actually training for the election during the training session.  This was a huddle.  These 28 workers were dialed in.  There was complete engagement.

We told them we had called all the polling places on Friday to stress that the election would go one regardless of the weather and we wanted them to tell their workers the same thing after getting their names and numbers on Monday.

One supervising judge asked if they could get the names now to make calls over the weekend.  I was reluctant to do that, still afraid of scaring off workers and then seeing, for instance, the storm hit Wednesday.  It was sunny and around 40 degrees at the moment, and I told them I was going to go down fighting with my rain prediction.

At some point after the training, our deputy election commissioner, Debbie Tyrrel questioned one of my contingencies, politely saying it felt like it was "grasping at straws."  I can't even remember the specific contingency--proof in retrospect that she was right.

I told her we were going to be grasping at a lot of straws, hoping that enough of them work.  She agreed.  Whatever straw I was holding at the moment, though, I dropped.

It took a while, by the way, after I came here in 2005 where staff members were comfortable constructively questioning me.  That's vital.  Not immune to idiocy, I need to be saved from myself at times.  Our staff isn't bashful in telling me if I have a bad idea.

This weekend demonstrated the payoff from this culture.  Every member on our staff had to make decisions on their own in the next 72 hours that impacted our success.  Often, that involved them telling me they had a better idea, and they usually did.

In fact, throughout this storm period, I felt like everything I had experienced over my first 8 years provided a payoff, preparing me for this.  I realize that a small election in a snowstorm is a blip on the crisis scale, but there was never a point that anyone in our office worried that we wouldn't pull it off.

Before the training, at 7:45 Saturday morning, I emailed the county's emergency management director, the sheriff, the facilities director, and our director of IT, asking for their potential help in the days ahead. 

By the end of training, I had a thumbs up from the sheriff, and the others responded soon thereafter.   We weren't sure what support we would need, yet, but we were going to get it.

I checked email sent to our website one last time before leaving and replied to a woman who asked the process for voting in the primary, wondering if she voted for one or two candidates.  I told her one and suggested that she consider advance voting because of the weather.

She responded that she would make it to the polls regardless (I checked, she did).  She also sent a copy of a poll tax receipt she got from voting the first time, in January 1964, in Travis County, Texas.  Wrong, but fascinating to see, and she let me include it on the blog.

I went home, and my wife and I went out for dinner and to see the movie, "Lincoln."  It was a good movie to see in this state of resolve I had, and before the movie I bumped into Steve Rose, columnist for the Kansas City Star at the concession stand.

Steve used to publish the Johnson County Sun, a weekly newspaper, and is as wired socially in the county as anybody.  He asked me if there was a primary for Johnson County Community College and I told him no, and thank goodness, because that would have made the primary countywide and a much more difficult thing right now.  I told him I didn't expect much voting to occur Tuesday because of the weather.

He politely agreed ("Oh, yeah, I forgot about that," he said), but I sensed he was unaware of what was ahead, and why not?  Sunday was expected to be pleasant as well.  Tuesday wasn't on the radar, except for those specifically monitoring it for the weather.

Sunday, February 24
We physically bring results back from the polls and use drop-off sites to triage the results to central locations before they come to our office.  With 28 locations, we had 2 drop-off sites, but I knew we would need more.

I sent another note to the sheriff asking to level-set our expectations, knowing he would be busy on Tuesday.  The answers were less important than knowing the answers, I said, but I needed to what I was working with.

Could the sheriff's office bring results back from each of the sites?  Could they provide transportation for the supervising judges if they were stuck in their driveway?

His answer was yes.

Wow.  Double-wow.  That was a huge relief, and I sent him the map of the locations with a note that I'd be back in touch when I had the details of our supervising judge conference call.  Our IT group was working on that.

Still, I thought I needed a backup to the sheriff's commitment, in case a larger crisis impacted his best intentions.  I emailed our office administrator asking her to try to reserve 5 SUVs from Enterprise Rental Car (they deliver, after all, according to their commercial).  I figured we would then have ample ability, if necessary, to drive to the polling places.

I also asked her to line up hotel rooms for Monday and Tuesday.  There weren't any hotels super close to our office, but some within two miles.  Worst case, we could load up the SUVs and send people to stay there if they couldn't get home.  This was another straw I was grasping, for sure, but I knew the hotels would be booked if we waited until Monday night to decide we needed them.

She found a hotel, but they were unwilling to book rooms because they had been burned the week before with businesses booking rooms and then canceling them.  She could book 3 rooms online, so she booked 3 for Monday and 6 (booking twice) for Tuesday.

Throughout the weekend, our staff stayed connected from home, mostly on the iPads our office had provided them.  I took an unfair amount of criticism from the county for equipping employees with iPads, but was more glad than ever they had them, especially as everyone scurried about in the days ahead.

That afternoon, I drove my daughter to the airport for a business trip she was taking ahead of the storm.  The forecast was now predicting the snow to hit Monday at 5 p.m., but throughout Kansas City, snowplows were already patrolling the streets and highways.  I passed 10 plows during this trip, 36 hours before the snow was expected.

The forecast predicted rain before the snow.  With advance voting still open on Monday, 9 until noon, I thought that was the best window for voters.

I sent out Tweets and posted on Facebook, in Ron Burgandy, "News team, unite!" fashion, calling on all media members and influentials who follow me to get the word out concerning Monday.  The response was overwhelming.  In fact, by noon the next day we had more voters come on Monday than we had the entire week before.

Secretary of State Kris Kobach has a Sunday night radio show and I had emailed him information as well.  I was hanging loose when the show started, in case he called, when I got a call from the county emergency management group about a call underway related to the storm.  I wanted to stay on notice for the radio show, but was pleased that storm's impact finally seemed real to everyone.

In full-on manic mode, I went to the local fitness center for my second run of the day.  I knew I wouldn't have time to run Monday until late and, if then, that would count for Tuesday.  (Elections is a profession where Obsessive Compulsive Order tendencies are admired, or so at least I tell myself).

I came home to watch "Walking Dead," and as the opening credits rolled, I again thought of the cars on the road Thursday and Friday.  I watched the 10 o'clock news, gratified that the TV stations were pushing advance voting for Monday.

Just like the Wednesday before last Thursday's storm, many businesses and schools were already announcing closures for Tuesday.  But, with the weather effects now not expected until midnight Monday, heading into Tuesday, Monday was in the clear and our equipment could be delivered to our 28 polling places.

This could turn out to be a non-event, I thought.

I was wrong, of course, and I'll pick this blog up again with Monday's events.


Unknown said...

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