Felicia Cravens is a front-line election worker with more than 20 years of experience serving voters at the polls in Harris County.
It’s the day after the Texas Primaries, and while we wait for the Harris County results (a long story you can read about elsewhere), I want to put down some of my experiences.
I’ve posted about voters overcoming many personal and technical obstacles. Now some of what we faced.
First, Harris County removed election authority from the elected County Clerk a few years ago, and created an appointed Election Administrator, answerable to Commissioners Court.
As you can guess, a crony payoff position waiting to happen.
I’m not making that accusation, as much as saying it’s a bad idea to make your elections authority an appointed position, no matter who holds the office. There has to be accountability, and I’m more comfortable with that coming directly from voters.
Our Elections Administrator is Isabel Longoria, who I find to be a nice person, skilled in making apologies and excuses, but not able to hold an election without some major flaw being exposed in our processes.
I’d have a burger with her any day, but she is failing. Hard.
And let me briefly post my CV here:
I first worked in elections when Harris County voted on punch cards in the 90s. So, I’ve been around, as a clerk and a judge, for a couple of decades.
I have some pretty serious institutional knowledge, and I’ve had lots of training.
I don’t want the Elections Administrator to fail. I need her, we all need her, to succeed.
But we’ve given it enough time to recognize that this experiment has failed, and it’s costing us.
Trust in our elections is vital, and she and her team cannot maintain it.
It’s also costing us untold millions of dollars.
I did some back-of-the-envelope math to see how much it cost to staff our polling locations per vote last November. You can check out the rough estimates here on my Facebook page.
So, let’s drill down to my location for early voting.
We were given 30 voting machines, ones we switched to last May, and which most voters had never used. We had to take four of these out of service because regular use had deformed the printer mechanism, causing it to eat paper.
Another level of difficulty was that the long primary ballots required two legal-sized pages of thermal paper to print every race. None of us had experience with two-page ballots.
But we got some in a hurry. Machine after machine printed smeared or smudged ballots.
Another twist? Some locations were only given letter-sized ballots.
And judge after judge reported supplies missing from the things they picked up. From ballots to fliers to important documents, supplies were shorted and judges ordered to return to pick them up.
Voters reported to us that the fancy vote-location-finder widget on the county elections website was rarely working, if at all. And folks wanting to print their own sample ballot couldn’t get that working.
But at least the election countdown clock on the front page works!
This one kills me.
Believe it or not, the county hired hundreds of high school students to work elections. Sounds great, right?
Their main function? To update the wait-times at each location so the website stays current on how long voters could be expected to wait.
You know how much they pay these students to do this? $17 an hour.
Some of our student clerks have been hard working and eager and fantastic with voters. I’d give those a reference in a heartbeat.
Other student clerks hang out on their phone all day, because the EA office told them they can update the wait times using their phones, even though voters and clerks are reminded not to use theirs in the polling location. Some students don’t do anything else. Just…hang out.
And those students make what I make when I work as an alternate judge. That’s demoralizing.
I fix cranky machines, fill out provisional ballots, process curbside voters, manage the payroll for the location, soothe angry voters, troubleshoot, and much more.
But the EA feels it’s fair to pay these students the same as me and my clerks, with years—decades—of experience.
That doesn’t work in the private sector, but my skill set is not really transferrable, so my options are to lump it or walk away.
And while it looks like I’m just complaining about my paycheck, it’s more than that.
We need experienced people running elections, more than ever. When you have an unfair pay scale, you drive out people who are hurt that their experience and skill set aren’t recognized.
There was a trial balloon launched under a recent prior County Clerk, before the EA was created. They wanted to replace the staffing system for elections, changing it from one where the parties nominated clerks and judges, to one that was “depoliticized.”
It does sound good, to have a “nonpartisan permanent elections staff” on tap to run all your elections.
But aren’t you, like me, suspicious of anything labeled “nonpartisan” anymore? Can we toss that fiction that anything in the elections arena can truly be ‘nonpartisan’?
What the “nonpartisan permanent elections staff” idea said to me was that it was time to remove the clerks and judges that were 50+ (along with their vast experience) and create a ton more bureaucracy and jobs that were answerable to the elections staff only, not the parties too.
Parties play an important role in elections and election integrity. A good election site will have oversight of each party by the other, and a mechanism through which to submit challenges and complaints with some muscle and heft behind them. And perhaps lawyers, if needed.
I’m a fierce partisan. You want me watching the other side. And you want them watching me.
You want that in the elections office, too, but we don’t have that.
When Democrats took over the county clerk’s office, they fired just about every Republican employed there.
The Elections office now claims they do have Republicans there.
I imagine they’re encased in glass, relics on display to be able to say they’re in there, but who only serve a decorative purpose.
It’s bad management. It’s a dangerous precedent.
Whatever the case, there is no legitimate way for the elections office to say they are nonpartisan, or unbiased.
It’s not just in how they operate internally, either.
During early voting, voting ran 55-45 percent Republican at our location.
Then, we discovered the Election Day voting machine allocation was 20 machines for Democrats and 10 machines for Republicans. And of those 30, we still had four out of service.
There was no way that the EA office couldn’t know how our location was trending. Yet they refused to alter our allocations to reflect the expected traffic.
So, using our discretion, we reallocated the machines ourselves, preferring forgiveness to permission.
That was a bipartisan agreement between the Democrat judge and me. We handled the business we needed to handle the way we thought best, because we were on the ground and had the best, most recent information.
And it worked.
Under a ‘nonpartisan permanent elections staff’ you wouldn’t have anyone empowered to make decisions on the spot. You and I know this. This is how every bureaucracy works.
And that’s what they want to do, if not by firing, then by driving out the older election workers.
Invest in heavy and bulky voting machines that are difficult to assemble and set up correctly.
Divert every task like curbside voting and provisional ballots and tech support and voter registration issues to a judge, so judges can’t properly supervise the polling place.
Keep staffing as small as possible, and berate the judges if they ask a clerk to stay later than their shift because of the high amounts of traffic or the need for someone on staff to speak a different language for translating.
The EA office had the nerve to threaten not to pay two of the clerks on our staff for the extra hours they worked while we were barely keeping our heads above water, clerks that spoke Vietnamese and Cantonese and Mandarin.
I’m pretty sure if the clerks were instructed by the judge that they could stay longer, that the Elections office cannot refuse to pay them.
But this is how they think. This is how they demoralize and frustrate trusted, long-time workers.
I’m fed up with the incompetence, the stupid inflexibility, the ever-changing policies, the inconsistent training, the ridiculous excuse-making, and the utter lack of accountability or interest in learning from the front-line workers.
If you’re in Harris County, and you had a frustrating experience, or are horrified at the thought that the counting might not be completed within the statutory deadlines, do me a favor.
Call your county commissioner. Call the elections office. Tell people your story and ask them about their experience.
We overlooked the learning curve for a couple of elections with the new machines, because the problems could have been normal from implementation.
We can no longer overlook election after election plagued with problems, errors, technical nightmares, missed deadlines, inadequate training, ignorant support staff, understaffed locations, and misplaced priorities.
Harris County voters deserve better.
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