Monday, August 2, 2021 0 comments

Reinventing the Wheel

You may not remember that foreign actor intervention was the primary headline from the 2020 presidential election.

That's because the headlines have been much different.  Suspected foreign intervention was the theme of the 2016 election and I took personal criticism for focusing on what I considered, instead, to be the true election administration issues leading into the 2018 election--the fundamentals, the proverbial blocking and tackling of election administration..

While suspected foreign intervention was a theme in 2016, that didn't even become a "thing" until early August of that year.  Similarly, COVID didn't emerge as a potential backdrop to the last presidential election until March of 2020.

In training election workers, I often noted how we always train on the LAST issue, whether or not it was the most important.  A training issue that emerged from an August election, for instance, usually didn't turn out to be the issue in November.  We made sure of that.

Never worry, that slip that wasn't signed by two election workers, or the proper completion of the provisional envelopes--we nailed that previous problem, only to have a new issue in the next election.

Superstitions exists with elections.  If we slayed a third potential operational dragon, pre-election, in Johnson County, Kansas, we took relief that the third and final issue was solved because, surely, three was the magic number of potential roadblocks in any election.

Operational issues are always the most important election issues.  There may be no such thing as a perfect election, but local election administrators will never accept such talk, always looking to prepare for a string of perfection.

I remember sitting in the office of a local election official on election day in November 2018, where he told me foreign influence was the biggest issue election officials were facing then, that very day, and as we headed into 2020.

"Is it?," I asked.  "Is it more important than making sure people today get to the right polling place, or they receive the proper ballot, or those who voted in advance get their ballots returned, or the college student who didn't get her ballot..."

I maintained, and I think 2020 bore out, that the old and boring election operations issues are always the most important.  In fact, if any of those issues arose, some may wonder if foreign intervention was the behind-the-scenes culprit.  So, in a slight nod to that local administrator's point from 2018, suspected foreign intervention made operational issues even more important than ever.

I'm not discounting the need to address foreign security threats, but if all politics are local, as the cliché goes, all election issues could be considered local as well.

In fact, it's common for a local election official to hear from a voter, "I don't worry about how elections are ran here, but I worry about how they are run elsewhere."

That's good and bad, I suppose, but reflects that local election officials know that the success of an election comes down to handling hundreds of details.  Local election officials handle those details incredibly well.

Now that I've been a state election official for almost two years, and with no offense intended to my new peers because this job has its own balls of stress, all-in-all, local election officials bear much more election-day stress.

(And my time as a federal elections official.....well, that just makes me recall one of my favorite phrases-- "Where the Rubber Meets the Sky").

Local election officials are the true heroes.

I don't use that term lightly.  I just know first-hand the immense pressure upon them, the exhausting hours they put in, and the scrutiny upon them in times of close elections.  Two assistant election commissioners died from cancer and another recovered from major cancer surgery during my time in Johnson County, Kansas.  My Johnson County predecessor is a cancer survivor.  Local election officials literally give their health and years of their lives to serve voters. 

Compared to their peer department heads in county government, for instance, the risk is much greater.  I often said that a bad day for the Public Works director is a pothole and a bad day for me as Election Commissioner would have me on CNN.

Fun Fact #1--I have been on CNN in a good way.  They spent the day with me in November 2014.  This link has the interview summing that up, where I relayed that they were like family during that visit.

It was a fun day.  "Wolf's gonna love that," is the memorable quote from that election.

But, usually, network news is not a place where election administrators want to be.  Close elections become very emotional and if the outcome isn't ideal, it's easy, as in sports, to blame the referee. Election administrators, as a whole, do a great job and are the least political people you will ever meet.

I've tried to capture the different elements local administrators face by creating a wheel of competencies.  The picture here is the third generation, after fiddling with it at the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to have the events follow chronological order of an election, and then modifying when coming to North Dakota because North Dakota, while managing a central voter file, is the only state in the country without voter registration.

Fun Fact #2--When you get down to it, voter registration is an unnecessary burden on voters, another topic I wrote about on this blog.  I'll address this further in a future post.

Back to the putting some activities in purple, to represent ongoing competencies that are year round, the events don't truly go round and round.  We thought about different bands of activities to keep the wheel image, but it got more confusing and looked too much like a dart board, although, in fairness, election officials  might feel like a dart board at times

The whole point of the wheel--this blog, as well--is to raise awareness of the work election officials undertake to make election day--nay, election season (a point discussed much in the coming months)--go well.

"Go well" is subjective, but if you consider that the center of all activities, rather than the nice logo here, is actually the voter, "go well" should mean that voters have the ability to easily vote and have confidence their votes were cast and recorded correctly.

Each one of these Trivial Pursuit-like slivers represents a huge component, and local election officials must be experts in each.  These aren't dimensions listed on a job description but major components that require expertise.

Over the next few months, this blog will discuss many of the themes in the wheel planks.