Friday, November 15, 2013

Back From Georgia, Part Two

My earlier international election post focused on learnings related to elections, but I'm following that with a bit of a timeline related to the experience itself.

Following this post, it's back to issues specific to Johnson County.  We have a mail-ballot election, in fact, ending this past Tuesday with canvass Monday, another mail-ballot planned for December, and it looks like we are the in process of setting two more up.  2014 is looking like another year where we will have at least 6 elections.

My international election observation journey actually began about two years ago when I began to complete my online application at the PAE-React website.  I completed a bit of the application while on a January business trip to Washington and planned to complete it the next night when I was home.

Instead, an urgent and serious health issue greeted our daughter the next day, and any travel  in 2011 seemed unlikely.  At the encouragement of former Election Assistance Commission chair Paul DeGregorio (one of the most traveled world-travelers I know), I polished off my application recently in order to be considered for a mission this fall.

Tbilisi, Georgia, view from my first hotel room.
The application included a phone interview, submission of references who would be willing to complete a referral package and possession of a passport that had at least six month of valid time left.  Observation slots are extremely limited and very competitive, so I felt fortunate to be tentatively selected for Georgia.  Once tentatively selected, I had to complete a series of online tests related to international events and specific geographic information related to Georgia and the Caucasus Region.

I also had a collection of paperwork to urgently complete and mounds and mounds of information to read. The turnaround from notification to "ready to go" was less than two weeks.  I was notified on October 8, had to complete all requirements by October 11, and would be flying out October 21.

That left little time for planning for business and personal gaps while I was out, and the two weeks leading up to the trip--with no help from my marathon plans--were chaos.  And there was the small matter of living without Diet Dr. Pepper.  I even bought some bottles in the Chicago airport, only to have the sad experience of throwing them out in Munich.

(Actually, the Munich airport security guards kept the bottles to drink, never having heard of this strange Diet Dr. Pepper elixir.  Perhaps word will spread of this great taste and I will have started a movement, making the soda more available next time I'm in this area of the world.)

My final flight arrived in the capitol of Georgia, Tbilisi, at 3 a.m. on October 23, and I arrived at my hotel at 5 a.m.  I had traveled for about 26 hours and was ready for real sleep, but that was going to be short because our bus left for our first observation meeting at 1 p.m.

It was at that first meeting that we were introduced to the overall mission and some of the key OSCE persons who were in charge of the mission.  Steven Martin from OSCE presented on the benefits of observers and I asked him if I could borrow (steal) portions of his presentation to share with our election workers at our own training.  He sent that to me and I'm already planning on how to incorporate the information into our next training.

During our meeting, we were told not to eat food from sidewalk restaurants, which were the only things near our hotel except for a McDonald's.  Famished that night, I ordered enough food at McDonald's for a family--three fish sandwiches, two double cheeseburgers, and a large order of French Fries--ate the food at my hotel, and zonked.

The next day, we went back to our briefing meetings, where, at the end of the day, we met our observation partners (we are dispatched in teams of two, one man/one woman, one veteran/one rookie).  I was paired with a woman from Sweden who, over the next few days, turned out to be the perfect partner.  Erica had been on many missions, for more than 30 years.  She also is a bit of a private person, so her photo has been retouched (hacked) to protect her identity.

Me and my observing partner (who takes pride in not
having an Internet identity--and so it remains).
We also learned where we would be observing--a little village called Chokhatauri.  About 24,000 people live in Chokhatauri, where there are three tiny restaurants and no hotels.  We were scheduled to stay with a family at their home.

For our observation, we are provided a driver and an interpreter, but we were responsible for paying these individuals (reimbursed later).  We also knew we'd need to pay our lodging expenses to the homeowner in cash.  So, Thursday evening, I loaded up on bottled water and snacks in preparation for a long trip, and exchanged dollars for Euros and Georgian currency so I'd be able to pay everyone in cash as needed.  This whole "cash plan," came at the advice of my partner and it eliminated potential stress in Chokhatauri.

The next day, we set off on a four-hour bus ride to Samtredia, where we met with seven other two-member teams and our assigned managers (long-term observers--they were there for several weeks while I was a short-term observer, there for the week).

After a regional debriefing, we met our driver and interpreter and drove to Chokhatauri.  Our house was rugged on the outside (but had palm trees) and very elegant on the inside.  On the downside, it didn't have any heat and we had one bathroom to be shared among the 2 homeowners, our interpreter, Erica, and me.  There was no Internet access or anything electronic for that matter in our rooms. (As an aside, though, apparently no other option had an indoor bathroom--which is code for an outhouse only. In fact, few of the polling places even had an outhouse within walking distance.  Maybe they needed 13 workers just because one or more were always dispatched for restroom breaks).

Our home was elegant...
…but no heat

With the benefit of always being exhausted, I soon went to sleep, awoken a couple of times through the night by roosters.  I wore gloves to bed and layers of clothing, but I slept well in the cool weather.  Forced to drink Coke Zero (mourning the loss of Diet Dr. Pepper), I noticed how the bottle near my bed was cold when I woke up.

Pigs, cows, and goats were common when driving
(and running).
That morning, I got up early for a little three-mile run in the village, often dodging goats and cows in the roads.  I think, seriously, that the phrase "till the cows come home," relates to allowing livestock to roam, knowing it will come back at dusk.  Still, I left the USA wondering about safety and Chokhatauri was anything but dangerous.

Back at the house, we planned to visit a number of polling locations in preparation of our election observation the next day.  We spent Saturday driving among 38 different sites, determining our observation route the next day.

Erica and I created a plan the next day to visit 10 locations, staying at each for at least 30 minutes. We had reports to complete at each location, and we needed to scan and email, or fax, these to the mission's central command.  This was especially hard because there was only one location in town with this capability, an Internet cafe open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.   Polls would be open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and our job included watching a polling place close and then following the chairperson (our equivalent of a supervising judge) to the central tabulation station for Chokhatauri, and then staying that location until all results were tabulated.

We arranged for our driver to pick us up Sunday morning at 6:45 so we would be at our first location, just down the street, before 7.  We arrived at the first site as planned to observe preparations for opening.

After each observation, Erica and I would fill out an assessment of what we saw.  We had to reach consensus on each report, but we rarely were divided and that part worked out very well.  Probably our biggest disagreement of the day came when we thought we might only be able to visit 9 locations and we would have to decide which location to give up.  That issue was conveniently solved as we moved expeditiously enough to hit all 10 sites.

Throughout the day, election workers offered us coffee, tea, mineral water, fruit, cake, and candy.  Most locations were relatively slow, by Johnson County standards, because there were so many polling places (the average number of voters assigned to a location in our area was about 700 and turnout nationwide was around 50 percent).

At one location, they were letting one voter in at a time and, frequently, would have two or three people waiting to come in to vote.

One of the questions on the evaluation form asked if there was a long line at the queue.  At this location, Erica immediately said yes.  "Really?" I asked.  She was steadfast because she saw occasions where three people were waiting to vote.

Wow.  There's a presidential task force formed in the United States because of long lines in the 2012 presidential election and they would meet until the end of time if they tried to figure out how to cut lines from 3 to 2 or 1.

Anyway, "when in Rome," I thought.  For the purpose of that form at that moment, bowing to Erica's experience, I agreed with the idea of the line.  It was, after all, the longest line we saw all day.

We reached our final destination, where we stayed through closing and watched them tabulate the votes.  From there, we followed the chairperson of the polling location to the central tabulation area, where one-by-one, each chairperson came in with his or her materials and final counts.

It was mildly fun to hop in our car and tell our driver, "Follow that car!"  It was less fun to observe the check-in procedures because the room was so cramped and we had very little idea of what was going on.  All tabulating completed, the room emptied around 2 a.m.  At that point, we met briefly with the person in charge of the tabulation to get a better understanding of what we just sat through.

We completed our final report and thanks to wifi Internet at this location, took photos of our forms on my phone, and emailed them to finalize our reporting.  As we drove back to our house, we passed the Internet cafe and noticed that the owner had come back waiting for us.  We didn't need to use him, but we stopped and paid him for what we would have sent, thanked him for being there for us, and we went home for a few hours of sleep.

Early that next morning, I ran again for my last time in Chokhatauri.  It was 8 a.m. and the roads were pretty active with people walking, although there still were plenty of goats and cows to dodge.  I never saw another runner in Georgia, although the climate was perfect for running--no wind and the mountain air felt good.

At 10 we headed to Samtredia for a regional debriefing.  There, we said goodbye to our driver and interpreter, and met up with the others in our region.  We swapped stories, had a good dinner, and then went to a nearby hotel before our bus ride back to Tbilisi in the morning.

That day, we arrived in Tbilisi at 3 p.m., with a bus to take us to a meeting scheduled at 5.  I did a quick treadmill run, showered, and hopped on the bus.

That meeting concluded with a closing reception.  Busses took us back at 9:30 and my bus to take me back to the airport left at 2 a.m.  I set every potential alarm device I could find, and napped for about 2 hours.

Flying back to Kansas City, I arrived after another 26 hours of traveling.  The next day was Halloween and I finally collapsed about 6 p.m., never seeing a Trick or Treater.  My wife handed out candy but I swear I kept hearing people at the door talk in Georgian.  In fact, any time I woke up in the middle of the night for the next few nights, I was disoriented for a few seconds wondering where I was.  I'd like to say I quickly recovered from the 9-hour time difference (and 10 two days later because we moved off daylight savings time), but the adjustment took about a week.

There was a possibility that we'd have to go back for a second observation.  Georgian law provided for a run-off between the top two finishers if the leader didn't receive 50 percent of the vote.  Instead, the winner did receive more than 60 percent and, in retrospect, I think it was good that this was a one and done trip.

I'm left ready to be an observer again, even though I've been digging out at home.  I can only imagine what digging would have been necessary if I missed 20 days instead of 10.  As it is, because of the number in the observer pool, I likely won't be eligible again until late 2014.

Back at home, we've been working on the Olathe mail ballot election and plenty of other things keeping us busy.  More on that in the next post.


Paul DeGregorio said...

Brian--very glad you went. Excellent recap--hope it inspires other U.S. election geeks to do the same.