Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Elgia Stevenson

I never met Elgia Stevenson, Johnson County's Election Commissioner from 1986 to 1995.

Elgia Stevenson
She had a reputation.  She was opinionated.

Elgia called me in 2010.  I'm not sure why.  But I was excited to get the call.

There was so much I'd like to ask her, I said.  After all, there have only been 8 election commissioners in Johnson County history, so it's a small circle.

"Eight people who have had that job?" she interrupted.  "That doesn't mean anything."

Those who knew Elgia probably just laughed when reading that.  She was direct.

Still, I had many questions and wanted to learn as much as I could from this chance phone call.

I met her predecessor, Lee Alt, a couple of years before she passed away.  I knew Marvin Rainey, the county's second election commissioner, from 1958-1962.  Marvin had also been mayor of Overland Park and was the Shawnee attorney when I was on the city council.  I felt honored to take a position he once held.

I succeeded Miss Election USA, Connie Schmidt, who had been in the job for nine years and was (and is) a walking ball of election charisma.

Consider what it will be like for whomever the Yankees' closer will be this year, succeeding Mariano Rivera, and that was me in 2005, coming in after Connie retired.

In April, I will be the second-longest tenured Johnson County Election Commissioner, only behind C. Willard Cook, who followed Marvin in 1962 and was election commissioner until 1974.

That seems kind of cool to me, but Elgia likely would have told me that it, also, didn't matter.  She might have been right, too.

Elgia retired in 1986.  She died this past weekend, on her 89th birthday.

Her biggest legacy was pushing advance voting, which was passed by the legislature after her retirement and turned into an art by Connie.

It was snowing the morning of the presidential election in 1992.  I remember voting in Fairway, where I lived at the time, and that there was a moderate line.  There were longer lines, elsewhere, as covered in the media, and the push for advance voting was on.

(Click here for a link to a Google copy of the Lawrence Journal World article where Elgia is credited with the introducing the idea of advance voting).

I don't know how advance voting was born, really, in Johnson County.  Even that newspaper article might have a little revisionist history.  It might have been often discussed, often introduced, finally passed.

I do know that the time it takes to vote is top of mind right now because of the report by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration.   The report advocates adoption of advance voting.

I know, by accounts, that when Elgia was in the room, everyone knew it.

I know that only seven other people really know the issues the Johnson County Election Commissioner faces in the job.  There are few footprints to follow when encountering issues.

I know that my job is both harder and easier because of advance voting and that advance voting is in our DNA now in Johnson County.

And I know advance voting moved from a gleam in the eye to a part of our culture after 1992.

Elgia might also have said that didn't mean anything.  But, I think, thousands of voters here would disagree.  For today, she deserves credit for that.


Harry Mullins said...

Great post Brian! I remember Elgia well. She was a remarkable lady & a fine commissioner. I am greatly saddened by her passing.

Many elections have been won (and lost) in Johnson County as a result of effectively targeting advance voters. I can remember one election in 1990 that was decided by 4 votes. I am proud to say we were on the winning side of that one.