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Larry Lomax on Elections: "Is That a Full-Time Job?"

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[Image courtesy of lasvegassun]

This week, electionlineWeekly continued its First Person Singular series yesterday with an insightful (and occasionally laugh-out-loud-funny) piece from outgoing Clark County, NV Registrar Harvard "Larry" Lomax. Mr. Lomax is retiring from Clark County but not - yet - from elections; he's a member of the recently-announced Presidential Commission on Election Administration.

1997: "All you have to do is put on two elections a year. How hard can that be?" As a 30-year retiring Air Force colonel, I am joking with some fellow instructors at the Air War College as I prepare to leave for my new "civilian" job as the assistant registrar in Clark County, Nevada. I am headed to Las Vegas, cocky, confident and totally unprepared.

Over the next 15 years, I'll eat those words many times.

1998: My first day at work, I am told I am in charge of voter registration and training poll-workers. I have never been to a polling place in my life. In the military, I always voted absentee.

1998: I am still the Assistant and it is my first election. I am in charge of the "hot line" room. There are six of us and the individuals in charge of each polling place (team leaders) are supposed to call us if they have questions or problems. They all have a problem. The envelope in which the voting receipts are supposed to be retained has been left out of their supplies. This should be a minor issue, but the phones are jammed until 10:00 as 250 polling places try to reach the six of us. We tell those that get through to find something else to put the receipts in. Few of the team leaders seem to figure this out for themselves. Others with serious problems cannot get through.

1999: I am now the Registrar and we are conducting the municipal primary elections for the five cities in Clark County. These are the first elections for which I am responsible. By now I have learned the value of my military experience. In the military you recruit, you plan, you train and you prepare to go to war. In this job you recruit, you plan, you train and you prepare for Election Day. "War" and "Election Day" are interchangeable.    

2000: A customer calls and wants to know where the voter files he paid for are. We have no record of his order. We investigate and discover the employee responsible for filling requests for voter data has set up a sham company called Clark County Elections. He has told customers to deal directly with him for "faster service." They write their checks to his company and mail the checks to his post office box. The customers think they are dealing with us. He is arrested. We put our voter data base online so future customers can download it at no cost.

2001: I am in a county commissioner's office being pressured to help a friend of the commissioner get elected. The request is clearly unethical. I do not agree to comply and the commissioner responds with threats and profanity. My boss backs me up and also receives a verbal whipping. We stand our ground. Surprisingly, contrary to the commissioner's promise, we keep our jobs.

2002: In the November general election, every jurisdiction has at least 53 contests and 15 questions on the ballot. Some have more. We test voters before the election and no one finishes voting in less than 8 minutes. Most take 10-12 minutes. Voters who have not read the questions take much longer. We launch a campaign to encourage voters to show up prepared. TV stations work with us and film their reporters voting test ballots while we time them. They encourage voters to study and mark their sample ballots ahead of time to speed things up. It works. During early voting and on Election Day, voters brag to us about how fast they can vote. We have lines, but they are not unreasonable and voters understand why we have them.    

2003: I am repeatedly getting hammered by people who don't trust electronic voting machines without a paper trail. These folks repeatedly begin their arguments with the words "Nothing is more important than my right to vote..." and believe they can follow that lead-in with whatever asinine comments they have to offer and everyone is supposed to accept them because nothing is more important than their right to vote. I am spending way too much of my time defending our voting equipment.

2004: Nevada is the first state to use a paper trail printer with electronic voting machines. Nevada is also a "battle ground" or "swing" state and this is a presidential election. Since Clark County has 72 percent of the state's population and our office is in Las Vegas, we are the center of attention. Observers and media flock to Las Vegas. I am a tour guide. Throughout 14 days of early voting and on Election Day, I give tours, demonstrations and interviews. I am very fortunate to have a competent staff to put on the election.

2005: Since we use electronic voting machines, we station emergency generators at various locations in the county. The generators are pre-loaded into the back of a county vehicle and ready to deploy. A school experiences a power failure and we direct the "rover" in that area to go to the designated location and to bring the generator to the school. I pick up a couple of individuals and head to the school to assist the rover when he arrives with the generator. The rover arrives and we unload the generator. Then we discover no one has the key to start it.    

2006: During the early voting period, at malls, libraries and community centers, we hire security guards to watch our voting machines throughout the night. Each early voting team must remain at its site until a guard has arrived and is in place. The County has awarded the contract to the lowest bidder. The first night of the early voting period, the Assistant Registrar receives calls from teams complaining no guards have arrived. She calls the security firm and no one answers. She drives to the firm's office. The door is locked but through the glass door she sees the manager. She beats on the door and yells at the manager who sees her but cowers behind his desk. She doesn't give up and at last he opens the door. The lowest bidder has been unable to hire guards at the wages he is offering.  

2007: Four of the seven commissioners who were in office when I was hired are now serving terms in federal prisons.  

2008: Once more, Nevada is a "battle ground" or "swing" state. About 2,000 poll-watchers, primarily attorneys from California, have shown up to observe the election. This influx of poll-watchers has not happened before. Most are complementary of our process, but some are very rude and noncompliant. On Election Day, several of our team leaders are reduced to tears as they attempt to maintain control. All the voting machines and printers work as they should. For the first time since I became Registrar I do not hear from the critics of electronic voting. It appears the paper trail printers silenced them.

2009: A car takes out a transformer and we lose power at another school. Keys now hang on every deployed generator. We send a rover to the County vehicle yard where the nearest emergency generator is located. He gets in the van and drives it to the school where we have gone to meet him. We open the back of the van to unload the generator and it is empty. He brought the wrong van.  

2010: Out-of-state poll-watchers are back. Our election is receiving national attention because the U.S. Senate majority leader is on the ballot. During early voting, a lady calls a TV station and claims her voting machine preselected the Senate majority leader before she began voting. She states the same thing happened to her husband and then to everyone else in the polling place. The TV station runs with the story. We check with the poll workers and observers who were at the polling place throughout the day and everyone reports there were no voting issues that day. Nevertheless, the seed has been planted. Throughout the rest of early voting and on Election Day, eight more people call and claim it happened to them. Although the Senate majority leader wins the county by more than 60,000 votes, the losing candidate claims the election was stolen from her.

2011: We have a tie in the primary election. Neither candidate asks for a recount, so the winner is decided by cutting cards. In the general election, a city councilmember contest is decided by one vote. When we audit the election, we find one voter who did not live in the district was improperly allowed to vote. We tell the mayor what we found and the city council decides to revote the one precinct where the mistake was made. The winner doesn't like that, goes to court and a judge says no revote. The judge mentions the possibility of asking the individual how he voted. Nobody likes that idea. The winner is eventually seated.

2012: Considering it was a presidential election, it went really well. Good one to retire after. Over 436,000 people voted at our early voting sites. That is almost ten times the 46,000 that voted early in the 1996 presidential election. We've come a long way.

2013: Today, as I write this, nothing is the same as it was when I arrived 15 years ago. That is a good thing. We have different voting equipment, a different election management system and we are housed in a different facility which was specifically designed for the Election Department. The number of registered voters has more than doubled to over one million. Everyone in the department is 15 years older. Everything I mentioned above really happened...and a whole lot more!

Throughout the last 15 years, our philosophy has always been to focus on one question, "How can we make things better?" This has been the key to whatever success we have had and a question we repeatedly ask each other throughout the year.

Every election we ask each team leader to critique and comment on how we could improve all aspects of the election (polling locations, voting equipment, supplies, workers, training, support, etc). The critiques and comments are consolidated and reviewed with each of the divisions in the department.

We cover what went well, what didn't, how problems could have been avoided, and most importantly, we discuss how we could make things better. Every issue is addressed. When anyone submits an idea we decide to implement, we notify and give credit to the individual so everyone will know we listen to what they say.

We have done this for 15 years and every year we have come up with new and better ways to get the job done. While there is no such thing as election perfection, our constant focus on improving what we do and how we do it has unquestionably moved us closer to the target.

Best of luck to all who read this and here are two things to remember:

1. Never accept the status quo. Things can always be made better. Your job is to figure out how.

2. It doesn't matter who wins. It matters that they win by a lot.

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