Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Image of The Year of the Voter

Blog posts shouldn't be painful to write, but this one is.

I've often said that we are one poorly timed illness from a crisis because we are desperately understaffed and our employees each have monster jobs with many responsibilities.

Depending on where we are in the election cycle, from mapping to training to voting machine delivery, the entire election can grind down if we lose a player in the chain.

We lost a player in the chain today, someone who values family so much that a "player in the chain" is how I think he would want to be remembered.

Our assistant election commissioner over polling places and election workers, Tom Ray, was surprisingly diagnosed with lung cancer in May.  He left us just five months later.

This is a post that deserves to be incredibly long, filled with nearly daily anecdotes I could share with how much he meant to me, our office, our election workers, and our voters.

Yet, it's been so sudden, and there are so many people working here, and they all need to know.  The election can't stop, and that's the backdrop behind Tom's passing.  As we're internalizing the news, candidates are calling, voters are here, we continue to take request for advance ballots, and we listen to complaints.

I just took a call from a voter who thought that giving the address to our advance site at 9800 Metcalf was too vague, that no one could find it.  She felt this was voter suppression, as if seeking out a facility for advance voting, signing the lease, equipping it, and staffing it was a total ruse to keep people from voting.

It's also ironic that I took that call while typing this because Tom was a champion for advance voting, and he negotiated the lease for this location.  We wrapped up the lease just days before he found out his condition was incredibly serious.

If you found that you had a terminal disease and would die within a year, you might quit your job, pull out your savings, and live on an island.  Yet, that island might not be paradise, but rather a daily reminder of the forthcoming end. 

For Tom, making sure he left us as prepared as possible for November was his outlet.  He came in every day until his treatment amped up.  His hours here were dropping to just a couple a day.

We've been scrambling to move ahead with scheduling and assigning workers, and without question, some workers have fallen through the cracks.  We've been pushing workers into training without yet finalizing their assignment so we don't lose them, yet having 200 floaters to get to the right location sets us for a crazy week next week.

There's so much Tom knows. 

Sadly, I just left that sentence as I typed it so you see where my head is.  There's so much Tom knew, actuallyWe will have a pretty good idea of those things we didn't know by the day after election day.

It's a huge hole and a flag I've raised for many years as we've asked for more headcount through the budget process.  We are about to finally have a person start in a position next month that took a year to fill (not our choice), and a headcount we fought to get in the 2015 budget, hopefully, will be filled in early 2015 before our school mail-ballot elections.

Keen observers of the blog are probably now putting together why I was so impassioned about our 2015 headcount need during the June budget hearings.

It's hard having an obvious operational box of thumbtacks thrown in front of us on our road to the election.  Yet, I wanted to recognize Tom for his dedication to our voters before he stopped working.

Secretary of State Kris Kobach agreed, and he came to election worker training last Wednesday, at my request, and presented Tom with a National Association of Secretaries of State Medallion Award for his service.

We worked to schedule the award around Tom's work schedule and treatment, as well as the Secretary's own busy schedule.

This is an exclusive, national award.  As a point of reference, only four others have been awarded the Medallion in the last four years in Kansas and the only two people from Johnson County to have received the award were my predecessor, Connie Schmidt, and our deputy election commissioner Karen Browning, who retired after more than 40 years of service to the county. 

Tom thanked Kris in front of 250 election workers.  Ever-proud, Tom had still not made his condition known to them.  His voice was raspy as he thanked the Secretary and said that he had laryngitis, so he wouldn't be able to give a speech.

In the days ahead, he indeed lost his voice.  However, he never lost the will to be the voice of the voter, and that dedication will be his legacy.

Tom was in the office Sunday and as I left, with a bottle of water in my right hand, he came up to me and took the bottle so he could shake my hand and thank me for the award presentation. 

Clearly, that was goodbye.  I didn't see it then, and this post is the beginning of me saying goodbye to him as well.

This was just last Wednesday, 8 days ago.


Connie Schmidt said...

Tom - I always remember you thanking me for saving you from the County's Motor Vehicle Department, which at that time was not a sought after job to hold. You embraced the energy of the election office team. You could multi-task polling places, poll workers, numerous training sessions, and along the way, you were able to remember almost all of the names of the poll workers - if not all of them. Tom was a strong member of what I began to call the DREAM TEAM of ELECTIONS! Many of those members are now managing elections in their own way in Heaven - Tom was so special to me - there was this funny bond - and he had that with so many other staff members. He now joins others that I had the privilege of working with at the Election Office during my tenure: Richard Venturella, Marilyn Free, and Gloria Barnhart, my former Asst. Election Commissioner. This team survived implementation of NVRA and Advance Voting, a new internal voter registration/election management software and the deployment of two different types of voting equipment countywide. What a team! I was honored to work beside them - and Tom - I will always remember when I "helped" you too much with poll worker payroll and managed to delete the entire file and you had to re-input the data. The silly bobble head "Connie" doll that was used for entertainment during peak, stressful moments was placed in Tom's cubicle and he put me face first into the corner to stay there until he decided to let me out! We had such good times and worked so very, very hard. I can't believe you are gone, Tom. Hoping you can find my Angie along the road to Heaven! Always, Connie Schmidt