We continue the “Recount Ready” series today with Dana DeBeauvoir, Clerk, Travis County, Texas and a member of the EAC Standards Board. Below, Dana draws on three decades of experience and shares her thoughts on close elections, recounts and election contests.
EAC: What do you wish you had known about recounts and election contests before you experienced one?
DeBeauvoir: I’ve probably done six or seven recounts and two or three district court contests in 30 years. The first lesson of recounts is to get prepared, starting on election night, before you know if you are going to have a recount. You should anticipate the need to pull records and compile documentation from what is brought in on election night. So, be organized with each precinct/vote center set of records, preserve all the documentation for chain of custody and keep handy any affidavits that explain any extenuating circumstances that happened on Election Day. Also remember that you may not have just one recount. You may see your simple recount turn into a series of recounts and court contests. Keep everything in order at every step – you are in this for the long haul. In our Neil/Howard recount for a state representative seat during the 2010 elections, we went through a recount, a district court contest, and another recount before the state legislature in order to make the final decision.
EAC: How did you handle the heightened scrutiny of the media and candidate supporters in the post-election period? What about rumors and false information?
DeBeauvoir: Think before you speak. Carefully craft your message to explain the reason for the recount. You must be equally welcoming to both campaigns. Do your very best to not let your personal feelings show. Ultimately, you may find an error that reverses the first outcome, and you want to be able to honestly celebrate a democracy where recovering from a mistake is part of our great tradition. Have one spokesperson and one clear message. Do not stray from the message. Rumors are more likely to circulate than not. Leave no shot unanswered. Quickly respond to each incident of false information in as many media areas as appropriate, not forgetting social media. Keep it succinct and professional.
In one memorable recount, we had a losing candidate curiously request a recount after losing his race by a wide margin. It was an optical scan election. During the recount, when the results started coming out exactly as they had on election night, the candidate halted the recount. Later, he explained that an attorney/friend of his had told him that if the plug to the scan reader for the ballots was turned upside down, it would switch the columns of vote totals to the opposing candidates. It was a 3-prong plug!!
EAC: What resources were available to you when interpreting relevant laws and regulations on recounts?
DeBeauvoir: You really need good legal counsel. I use our County Attorney. If you don’t have access to representation specific to elections, then you must go get it. Don’t operate a recount without legal advice, and of course, you wouldn’t proceed to a district court contest without an attorney. It is so important to protect the election official and the county from liability for an election worker’s mistake.
EAC: How did post-election litigation or the threat of litigation affect your work?
DeBeauvoir: You learn to live with the idea that every step in your work can be questioned at any time. As Aretha says, R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Be competent, organized, and careful every day.
EAC: What advice would you give your fellow election officials about preparing for recounts and election contests?
DeBeauvoir: Call another election administrator who has been through at least one recount. You’ll get tips for staying organized and anticipating what the campaigns are going to demand. For example, if both campaigns and the recount supervisor all want copies of everything, you may need to set up an additional copier with a staff person to keep up with the workload. Another election administrator will know what you’re going through and can help you stay calm and focused.
EAC: What can election officials do to make sure their provisional and mail balloting processes hold up well under the intense spotlight of a close race and potential recounts or election contests?
DeBeauvoir: Managing provisional and by mail ballots is an exercise in quality control. You will need complete written procedures, liberally reviewed and distributed at each workstation. One best practice is to always use two people for each task. The team approach may sound like just an added expense, but it helps catch mistakes before they proceed down the line. The fewer the mistakes, the faster you’ll finish and the more confidence the parties will have in your result.
EAC: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
DeBeauvoir: It may sound obvious, but in your dealings with the campaigns and the press, be cheerful. Your demeanor should communicate honesty and transparency. Our democracy gives the loser the chance to question the outcome. It isn’t (usually) a personal criticism of you or your office. See a recount as your chance to be unflappable and shine your own light.
A big thank you to Dana for sharing all the great work she and her staff do! Keep coming back to our blog this winter to hear more from election officials about their experiences with close elections, recounts and election contests.