Saturday, March 11, 2023 0 comments

Strength...the Kryptonite to Cancer, and Everything Else

This a follow-up to the previous post, “Cancer!”
I’m mindful that this blog isn’t a personal column but rather a behind-the-scenes view of election administration, but an update is relevant for a couple of reasons.
First, Dear Reader, never discount the power of love and prayers.
The visible responses on LinkedIn and Facebook are only a small portion of the “Save Ferris” moments me and my family experienced.
I entered this process determined to be as physically strong as possible and of the right attitude for a recovery.  I knew I was on a conveyor belt about to take me through something of which I had no perspective or control.
The outpouring I received was inspiring.
The first jaw-dropping experience came days into my cancer diagnosis, before the blog post.
I signed up to participate in a half-marathon, part of the Bismarck Marathon in September, to get the early-bird best rate just after January 1.  It would be my first half-marathon in 7 years.
When I was met with the cancer diagnosis a few days later, I realized that training for a half-marathon was a longshot at best.  I emailed the event organizer to ask if I could, if necessary, move my registration to a 5k or 10k, and explained why I was making the request.
The answer I quickly received, from Will, one of the managers of the race and the contact for sending me my swag after running the “Santa Run” virtually in December, was, “of course.”

The next day, my wife answered the door and was greeted with flowers and a card from Will, expressing best wishes for the challenge ahead.
Keep in mind this was from someone whom I have never met. 
And that, Dear Reader, is North Dakota!
Coworkers were amazing, both at the Secretary of State’s office and at North Dakota’s IT Department, where my wife works.  My children, their families, and my mother-in-law all provided tremendous support and inspiration.
Then, there are all of you who read the previous post and commented or sent notes.  That all made a huge difference.

So, here’s the rundown and result:

  • Diagnosis, January 5, 
  • Blog post, February 4,
  • Surgery, February 8,
  • Released from the hospital, February 11
  • Surgeon follow-up March 3 and Oncologist follow-up March 5, resulting in an “all clear,” and,
  • March 8, one month from the day of the surgery, I ran a slow 5k on the treadmill.
These two months have just about been the longest year of my life.

The surgery was robotic, but still fairly brutal, resulting in 19 inches, or about 1/3, of my large intestine removed and three nights in the hospital before getting the nod from the on-call surgeon to allow me to go home in time to see the Chiefs win the Super Bowl.
Consistent with the “behind the scenes,” theme, I asked the surgery team as I was wheeled in to the operating room, if they could take photos of the robotic tool that was used for my four-hour surgery.  I have no idea why it is called Marilyn.
I now will have regular CT scans and bloodwork to monitor things, but no chemotherapy!
So, there it is.  Your prayers, gifts, and messages enabled me to push this cancer away!
Still, as I’ve typed here often, cancer, in my view, comes calling for those who work in elections.
As I convalesced, I was presented with a potential career transition, and I made the decision to make myself harder to find for any potential future Cancer visit.
I’m moving out of elections, still in North Dakota state government, next week.
What better time than a moment of upheaval to keep making life decisions…
In addition, I have many plans for either eventual or mythical books to write, and these last few years can be summed up by my working title, “How the Federal Government Destroyed Voter Confidence, and What Can Be Done to Get it Back.”
That’s because everything in election administration eventually is politicized.
I recall going to the Election Center’s Joint Election Official Legislative Conference in 2006, where then Executive Director Doug Lewis held up a USA Today with a front-page article explaining that both major political parties were targeting Secretaries of State races.
Doug lamented what a bad indicator this was for elections.  I was fairly  new to elections and “then me” hadn’t yet seen what “now me” has.  Doug was spot on, and partisanship in election administration has become sequentially worse each year.
Much of the harm, in my view, has come from Washington D.C., Congress and Non-Government Organizations, social media, activists who work under the cover of alternative media, tech companies, and industry consultants and experts who move from organization to organization and require industry angst to appear relevant.
Finally, while on the subject of Secretaries, and me moving on from elections, I’ve had the privilege of working under five of them:

  1. Kansas Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh—there is no greater example of a throwback Secretary in my view then Ron; I never heard him saying anything political. 
  2.  Kansas Secretary of State Chris Biggs—the only Democratic Secretary in this list, and he believed in me, reappointing me just before the August 2010 primary, amidst those in his party suggesting the need to have “their person” in that role.  He saw the partisan aspect and also understood the impact it would have upon the upcoming elections, and, regardless of the fact it involved me, made the right decision, I believe.
  3. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach—few Secretaries have nationwide name recognition, and probably none have the same name recognition as Kris.  I’ve known him personally, seen him with his five daughters, met his wife and mother, and will attest that he is a tremendous father.  I’m not oblivious to his public persona, but even to that I will point out that his biggest failing seems to be that he says what he will do if elected, and when elected he does it, so while many are unhappy with those outcomes, he has fulfilled what he said he would do when running for office.
  4. North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger—Al was in office for 30 years and, much like Ron, is a living example of what a good Secretary is.  Al was incredibly selfless and humble, and he managed this agency to great stability over a long period of time.  In elections, no news is good news, and his goal always was for the election outcomes, not the administration of elections, to be the story after election day.
  5. North Dakota Secretary of State Michael Howe—my decision to move to a new position outside of elections was difficult because of how impressive Michael has been since taking office on January 1.  In my years in elections, I’ve interacted with more than 100 Secretaries, and those who are successful get their fingernails dirty in the details of elections.  He’s done that, and he’s a quick learner, and a strong leader.  North Dakota is lucky to have him in this role.  He also was super supportive of me after I received my cancer diagnosis just 3 business days into his time here.
So, it’s adios.  I’m not sure what will come of this blog.  I have another mythical book title, “Now I’m Allowed to Have an Opinion,” and I have that domain, in fact. 
In the meantime, this post began by praising the power of love and prayers.
For those of you in election administration—and for all human beings, I suppose—I point to Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians (I Thessalonians 5:11):
              “Therefore, encourage one another, and build each other up, as in fact you are doing.”

There isn’t one single restrainer in front of election administrators.
In fact, those restrainers essentially come from a vocal and bullying minority, or partisan-who-pretend-to-not-be-partisan members of the election administration community.
Collectively, though, any restrainer, or group of restrainers, can be overcome.  These last two months are proof of that.
Encourage one another. Build each other up. 
As the lyrics to one of my favorite songs go, “It’s so easy to laugh, so easy to hate.  It takes strength to be gentle and kind.”
Show strength.  Share strength.  Celebrate strength in others.  That’s the way to persevere, and the non-vocal majority of voters deserve and will appreciate that effort.

Saturday, February 4, 2023 0 comments



I have cancer.

That diagnosis came January 5 of this year, and I can’t type it any more plainly.

After a routine process and colonoscopy, a cancerous tumor was discovered in my large intestine.  With surgery planned for this week, indications from other testing is that the cancer hasn’t metastasized into other organs in my body. 

Hopefully, the surgery will result in elimination of the cancer, but that won’t be known until after surgery.

Working 18 years in election administration, I suppose, it was my time.  I’ve written here before and often  of the physical toll elections take on the people who run them.

This blog was created as a behind-the-scenes account of election administration.  I would not be true to the intent of the blog to not discuss this so directly and openly.

My predecessor in Johnson County is a cancer survivor.

Both assistant election commissioners at the Johnson County Election office when I joined, both who had worked at the office for years, had new cancer diagnoses early during my tenure.

One of them eventually died while still serving as assistant election commissioner.  Another employee, promoted to the same position, found he had lung cancer in the spring of 2014 and died days before the November election.  The Sedgwick County Election Commissioner, who served at much of the same time as I was in Johnson County, also had cancer.

Thing is, with the talk of election officials facing abusive threats from election deniers, there is no denying that the real threat to election officials is the constant stress they feel when administering elections.

The personal threats add to that, of course, but that’s been going on since “Black Box Voting,” a book and HBO special that called out specific election administrators when, in my view, they were doing their jobs under the stress that occurs with election administration.  The “naming names” of career election administrators, nearly universally paid much less than their peers and colleagues in local government, was about the lowest blow someone could take.

Election administrators work at the expense of their own health to ensure the election is administered as close to perfectly as humanly possible. There is no “close enough for government work,” in elections.

The Internet and social media have fueled that stress, and long-term election administrators who have fought for resources often hear as a reason they are denied, “You’re doing a great job.”  Resources come after a meltdown or a crisis, and election administrators aren’t going to let that happen, even if the impact is their health.

Politicians, members of Congress, and former presidential candidates have fanned flames that cause more distress.

Recent blog posts here have tried to stay out of politics, but the political environment for election administration is very simply destructive.

Al Gore lost the 2000 presidential election and after what seemed like an excessive protracted contest, he walked away.  I wasn’t in election administration at the time, but I know I felt that he had created division in our country, and I wished he had exited sooner.

Now, after the last two presidential elections, his behavior seems much more admirable, to me at least.  I have no idea what 2024 will bring in terms of the final presidential candidates or the political factors leading to the election, but, Dear Reader, I think we all feel that the outcome will be contested by the losing candidate and party supporters.

That’s the backdrop local election officials will enter.  Many will decide to exit the profession this year because of that.  Turnover always occurs more in an “off” year, with experienced administrators leaving when they are needed most.  They leave because they know what is coming.

Local and state election official turnover nationwide is more than 30 percent annually.  We have some election offices in North Dakota, for instance, where the chief election official changed between the June and November elections in 2022, and even a couple cases where the top post changed twice in that time.

Bench strength in elections was lost long ago.  The need for Quick Start guides at the Election Assistance Commission, as well as training and patience for those new in the profession, has never been greater.

As an aside, I often think of the Maricopa County (Arizona) Recorder Helen Purcell, who lost in her primary in 2016.  Helen had decades of service and was well-respected among her colleagues.  Her term would end at the end of 2016, voters had told her they wanted someone different in the role, and she was left to administer an incredibly stressful 2016 presidential election. 

Imagine losing the primary in the summer, not for a legislative position, but the actual position of administering elections.  Imagine the disappointment, yet also being expected to lead the administration of, up to that point, what was the most stressful presidential election in anyone’s memory.

That’s service right there.

She didn’t quit.  She probably should have.  I’ve never talked with Helen about this, but I have great admiration for her because of what she did in 2016.  And, I’m not attempting to stir anything up at all, but I do wonder if any of the storyline in Arizona, 2020 and beyond, would have been different if voters would have renewed her service in 2016.

Unlike Helen, many election administrators find their body quits on them before they quit the profession.

That, at least, is a piece of counter-point to the thought election administration leads to cancer.  Election administrators have generally been in the profession for a long time, leading to a simple fact that cancer arrives more frequently as people age.

When I started in elections in 2005, I replaced someone many regard as one of the greatest ever in the profession.  At my swearing in, I stated, “I’m coming to a position where the process is the star.”

Long-time election administrators treat the election process as a piece of art, always polishing or refining it.  New election administrators often are thrown into the job now without that existing process structure, or the wisdom to know when to avoid the temptation that they know better than those in the position before.

That’s the new cancer in election administration—the turnover.  There’s a new group of election administrators lining up with 2024 being their first federal election, let alone their first presidential election.  For the profession’s sake, we need a good number of them to still be leading elections heading in 2040, and that can only begin by providing resources, support, and protection to lead today.