Sunday, March 31, 2013 0 comments

We're Number 13!

Last year I posted the possibility of Johnson County elections being among the top 10 attractions in the Kansas City area, based on attendance.

Of course, and especially with this being Easter Sunday, I would argue that church is the number one attraction when adding up those attending masses and services throughout the year.  (It's interesting, in that context, that worship is also distributed a la polling places--although maybe not that interesting because churches often are polling places).

But with some looking at Tuesday's projected turnout of around 10 percent and wishing it were higher, I do think it's worth looking back at the total number of Johnson County voters in 2012.

388,283 voters cast ballots in 2012.  Many more cast provisional ballots that by law could not be counted.

The Kansas City Business Journal's Friday edition lists the top 25 attractions, based on attendance, in the area last year and Johnson County elections placed 13th.

Still, the amount of voters topped visitors to Union Station (364,074), the American Royal (270,000), the T-Bones minor league baseball (260,620) and Starlight Theater (230,474).

I still maintain that the Election Office was the largest attraction that didn't charge admission or a fee to participate.  So, that's something.

It's also interesting that Union Station is now home to our friends at the Kansas City Election Board.  If Missouri gets advance voting, we might just have ourselves an attendance contest in 2016!

(I typed that with a cowboy drawl.  It just seemed appropriate).


Monday, March 25, 2013 0 comments

Let's Put on a Show!

As a kid, I watched my share of The Little Rascals.

I watched your share, too.  And then some.

Somewhere along the way, the gang usually ran into problems that could be solved by the phrase, "Let's Put on a Show!"

These shows would raise a few pennies and save the day.  There never was much money involved with those kids.

I've often written here how elections are pieced together with very little money.  Sure, it's taxpayer money, so prudence is good, but election workers are paid near minimum wage, polling places are usually secured for free, and often we barely have two coins to scrape together before tossing them to decide winners in tied races.

So, at times, I feel like we're working a script from Our Gang.

This past week of election worker training definitely felt like that.

We utilize a church for what we call refresher training--training for those who have worked an election.  Usually, this training brings in about 300 workers, auditorium style, and we cover key things related to the election and brush up on procedures.

The church is a polling place and has been an outstanding partner.  The people there are terrific.

But, the venue can be hit or miss, and it missed twice last week.

Our training a week ago Saturday came a day after the nicest day of the year--an 80 degree Friday.  Saturday, it was back to reality, with a high of about 45 degrees, with a wind chill much colder.

Halfway through the training, though, I'd clearly lost the audience.

Usually, it takes a little longer for me to bore everyone, but in this case, I was losing them because the temperature felt like it was 45 degrees inside as well.

People started covering themselves with coats blanket-style.  Husbands and wives began cuddling.

It was cold.

The only thing on their minds concerning training was the thought that it might possibly end, allowing them to go outside and warm up.

This has happened at the church before, actually, so it was very frustrating to experience it again.

That wasn't nearly as frustrating as last Thursday's training, where no microphone could produce sufficient volume.  They were all charged, but after moving from a lavaliere to a handheld microphone, I had to press my lips and teeth against the metal with my hand cupped, hoping for a small echo that would allow people to hear me.

I felt like an election rapper.  Training was compromised again.  With the microphone in one hand and the PowerPoint remote in the other, it was nearly impossible to hold up different envelope and form examples.  I had to hold the microphone upside down, at a 45-degree angle, looking like a very confused gerbil.  I also pity the clergy member who used the microphone next.

As I did my best Slim Shady, all I could think about was the disaster this would have been if the echo went away and we had gathered 300 workers for training, yet we were unable to get them to hear us.  I'm still not sure those in the back did hear me, actually.

We need contingency plans for so many things in elections, but we shouldn't have to have contingency plans for something WE plan.  Yet, we can't go through this again.

Our county needs a training facility, something I've been advocating for years.  We would be a primary user of this facility, but with so many financial needs, it is unlikely to be built.

But we have to punt this Little Rascal routine.  There's a level of professionalism that we're missing with this set-up.  Plus, our success is reliant on our election workers.  The training is vital.

Today we looked into pricing for a place called The Ritz Charles, an odd place in Johnson County that can best be described as a hotel without any hotel rooms.  It's as though the ballroom was built securely but Dorothy and all of the other guests in the Tower blew away.

The Ritz Charles is a meeting and banquet facility.  That's all they do.  We looked into it today and I was surprised that the pricing for a full day is only a couple of thousand dollars more than what we pay the church.  The cost of the church has risen steadily over the last few years.

We're not sure we will use the facility for all of our 2014 training needs, but we reserved a couple of days for next October.

Hopefully, that means my rapping days are over.  That's a show even the Little Rascals wouldn't have have put on with pride.
Sunday, March 17, 2013 0 comments

No White Smoke, Film at 11

Not photoshopped, but, actually, not really our office.
There is a street between our sign and that building.
Still, a fun image given the events last week.
With the white papal smoke billowing the end of an election, I've thought a lot about election offices reporting results.

Can you imagine waiting days for election results to be tallied?

Technically, that is what happens in Johnson County because the canvass occurs the Monday after the election.  Just a couple of weeks ago, in the February election, we had a tie heading into the canvass that was decided after provisional ballots were added.

Another race was separated by one vote that was tied after the provisional ballots.  That race was decided by a coin toss.

Overall, though, there is a yearning for fast results on election night.  Heck, we yearn for that.  After getting up at 5 a.m. or sooner, nobody wants to wrap up the day more than we do.

Voting integrity activists and paper-ballot enthusiasts suggest a "So what?" approach if counting paper ballots meant results came after the 10 o'clock news ended.

Reality is, candidates have gatherings on election night.  They want news.  Well, they want good news, at least.  No news is always perceived as bad news.

There is a belief that votes are accumulating at each voting machine, plugged into some elaborate network, and each machine is rolling along adding numbers the way your gas pump rolls gallons and dollars.  Then, at 7, we push a button, and at 7:01 the results are posted.

Not so, of course.  In fact, we bring results physically back from each polling location, so the uploading doesn't even begin until about 7:45.

Eleven years ago, April 2002, Johnson County used touch-screen voting machines for the first time and modemed results back to the office.  That transmission capability was one of the benefits of the new technology.

I wasn't working at the office then, but actually was a city council candidate that year.

I saw online that I was the victor, whoo-hoo'd it, and then woke up the next day hearing about an anomaly.  The results didn't transmit correctly.   Ugh.

(Being a candidate is stressful.  I have great empathy for all candidates, in part because I know first-hand this feeling of "It's over," "No, it's not," "I won," followed by "Did I?"   Candidates put so much of themselves out in front of the public, and as I've often said, I wish there was a place at the table for everyone who had the guts to run for office).

In my election, the election commissioner ordered a recount and I came to observe it.

I observed about the first five minutes before realizing that watching people count ballots was about as exciting as, well, watching people count anything.  I left, got the final results later, and still won but by a slightly different margin.

It was a great experience, in retrospect.  I had no idea I'd ever be working at the election office at the time, so having seen that recount was helpful in conducting the recounts we have had since.

I also know the "story," then, first-hand, of why results are physically transported back.  This practice became the standard in Kansas and in many communities in the country.  In King County Washington, there apparently is one polling place that has results brought back by law enforcement because of the distance.  The squad car comes with sirens and lights flashing.

Like a little kid, I asked our sheriff's office if they could do that when they brought results back during our February blizzard.  They politely said, "No way."  They didn't even offer to turn on the siren in our parking lot.

To complete the tabulating thought, though, results are uploaded directly to a server that sits in its own cement-walled cell.  We burn a CD of the results and take that to another computer to upload the results to the web.

All of this is done as assurance that no outside forces can impact the results.  We have internal security procedures, requiring two-people in the tabulation room with separate passwords, and as a double-dog precaution, this is the one techie area where I'm intentionally incapable.

I don't know the password to the computer, to the election, or how to run the software.

My big role in the tabulation room is to pull the results off the printer in the room.  Goofy, but tradition.

The tabulation team and I do cross-checks to make sure all results have been uploaded before they burn the CD.

One other goofy tradition is a word game we play.  With three people in the tabulation room and three major events (public test rehearsal, public test, and election night results), we alternate picking a word from "TOUCHSCREEN."  We take turns alphabetically, so my time is always the public test.

I can't really explain why, or what will happen when one of us is finally stumped.  But, there you go--that's what "behind the scenes," means in our office.

I'm sorry "behind the scenes" isn't more colorful, or even lacking color--it's not quite white smoke, but we can't all work at the Vatican.





Sunday, March 10, 2013 0 comments

This is Me, at 50

Amidst an election in a blizzard and a foot and half of snow last week came confirmation that we have another election, a June 11 mail-ballot election for the Olathe School District.

It's the 50th election I will have administered since coming in January 2005.  50 elections, yet only 26 were scheduled.

In fact, we've had an active election in the works my entire time here.  While three of my seven election commissioner predecessors have had longer tenures, I've administered more elections than any of them.

That's not really a point of pride because some of our staff members have been here under a couple regimes and have administered more than 100 elections.  They are the heroes.

It harkens, though, to the final habit in Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:  Sharpening the Saw.

In the book, he illustrates the person needing to cut a tree with an old saw.  When told the work may go better if the saw was sharper, the person explains that he doesn't have time to sharpen the saw.  He is too busy sawing.

Covey's point is that we must take time to sharpen the saw, actively setting aside time for renewal, preserving, enhancing, and such.  In the business world, our organizations and plans need that same reflection.

In our case, we have much sharpening to do.  There's the war on polling places, Saturday postal delivery issues (by the way, should I be comforted or terrified that the post office isn't concerned about the impact of losing Saturday delivery on elections?), aging equipment that will cost millions to replace, new technology, new potential of technology, more voters, more precincts, more unplanned elections, and more of everything, in fact, except for staff members.

We have the same number of staff we had more than 20 years ago.

We need time away from operations to strategically plan, to make sense of all of this, and set a long-term course for Johnson County's voters.  In our case, the tree we're cutting was starting to fall and we're holding it up with our left hand while sawing with our right hand.

Our county has embarked upon characteristics of a High Performance Organization, which essentially empowers employees to be leaders at all levels.  It was a popular government initiative in the late 1990s but it's being resurrected (a la sharpening the saw in art-imitating-life fashion) after several senior county leaders embarked on a similar program about 10 years ago.

Our staff is miles ahead in this regard though, as evidenced by the leadership our staff members took during our snowstorm election.  They will be pushed, however, in the second half of 2013 to take on more as we aggressively evaluate all of these drivers of our business.

That is, assuming we have a few months without an election.  That's a huge assumption.

In Covey's example, he's a bit like the YouTube video-recording bystander watching a disaster.  If he were waxing about sharpening the saw while I was cutting, I think I'd have asked him if he could stop yapping and go get me another saw.

Similarly, we're likely reaching a point where merely fine-tuning won't work.  We need a moment just to get a better saw.  At some point, and soon, we're going to need to grow our staff, not by one but by a few.  The 2012 presidential election showed us that.

Selfishly, we're hoping election 51 doesn't come until it's expected, in 2014, leaving us time to sharpen. It's probably overly dramatic to say the tree will fall otherwise, but I hope not to find out.



Monday, March 4, 2013 3 comments

Snow Diaries

This is the combination of three previous posts, placed in chronological order:

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.

Part One, Walking Dead

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 instead form as 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.

Part Two, No Calm Before the Storm

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 "The 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.

Part Three, From Snowstorm to Coin Toss

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.

One of the "sleeping
rooms"
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!


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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!



Saturday, March 2, 2013 1 comments

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.
 
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