We continue our "Recount Ready" series today with Lynn Bailey, Executive Director, Board of Elections, Richmond County, Georgia and member of the EAC Standards Board. Below, Lynn reflects on more than three decades in election administration, including her and her office’s experiences with close elections, recounts and election contests.
EAC: What do you wish you had known about recounts and election contests before you experienced one?
Bailey: I probably knew this, but perhaps didn’t execute it as well as I should have my first go around. You must treat every election as if there is going to be a recount or a contest. Be prepared with a solid plan and solid preparation. The days that immediately follow a large election are not the ideal time for creating a process or wishing you had been better prepared.
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?
Bailey: This is one of the most important aspects of dealing with disputes of this nature. I’ve learned to try to get out ahead of the media by sending information to them before they have to ask for it. Getting information out early before minds are made up based on third-hand information or misinformation is always a good idea.
We learned this lesson first hand when we discovered during a tabulation verification performed the Friday following the election that 27 votes cast during early voting had been inadvertently categorized as challenged ballots (due to poll worker error), which had the effect of our tabulation system ignoring those ballots and not tabulating them on election night… and the vote difference as reported election night was a mere 11 votes. So, worst case scenario possible. We immediately ordered our own recount for the following Monday to add those 27 ballots into the election night mix. I then had the pleasure of speaking with the winning candidate on Saturday morning (whilst at their victory breakfast) to inform him that we had discovered 27 ballots and intended to add them to the results from election night (can you imagine!).
During the buildup to the recount, things were hectic and we did not send out regular press releases. We were bombarded with inquires and it was a huge distraction to deal with that piecemeal. Thankfully, the recount had no effect on the outcome, but we most certainly would have benefited from getting information out in front of the wave of skepticism and doubt that followed. It was a learning moment and one that has stuck all these years later!
EAC: What resources were available to you when interpreting relevant laws and regulations on recounts?
Bailey: Our county attorney is our primary resource for laws and regulations, however, our Secretary of State’s Office is pretty terrific too. One of the most valuable tools though is simply communicating with other locals who have been through it to see what worked and what didn’t.
My first year in office was 1993. That year was also the first time that I was sued in federal court. The time leading up to the hearing was difficult, to say the least. It was a very controversial and divisive issue. I was very fortunate though to have had a good friend and mentor to call upon who was more than willing to share that institutional knowledge and who had war stories of their own that gave me the confidence that I needed to push through. Having someone to listen who understood, knew the law, and had been through it before is just invaluable.
EAC: How did post-election litigation or the threat of litigation affect your work?
Bailey: It’s a huge and time consuming distraction at one of the worst possible times. These matters are highly visible, usually controversial, and litigation is always a very real possibility.
EAC: What advice would you give your fellow election officials about preparing for recounts and election contests?
Bailey: Prepare for all elections as if there will be a recount or a contest. Take nothing for granted. Keep good records/logs and be intimately familiar with your voting system.
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?
Bailey: Know the law and document, document, document. Be consistent when determining the outcome of the provisional ballots. Train your poll workers well on this matter – even though it may not often be used in your jurisdiction. It plays a vital role in elections these days. All parties involved benefit from consistency and proper execution of the process. Every experience provides a new opportunity for improvement. My career in local election administration spans 30 years and covers nine presidential elections, and I am constantly refining processes (sometimes to the chagrin of my employees). I believe that it is crucial that we do not become complacent and recognize that there is always room for improvement.
EAC: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Bailey: We work in a profession that is interesting, volatile, demanding, stressful, and yet, somehow very satisfying on a personal level. The transparency required and the level of public scrutiny can be intense. Long gone are the days when citizens took the process on faith. Election law is complicated. Added to that complexity is the completely unpredictable human factor. At the risk of sounding dramatic, I believe that we should always prepare for the worst, and, of course, hope for the best.
A big thank you to Lynn for sharing her insights! Keep coming back to our blog this month to hear more from election officials about their experiences with close elections, recounts and election contests.