Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Farewell to the voting beat

Today I'm going to purge a bunch of documents from my office. Six and a half years of writing, story-telling, document-digging, watchdogging, and pack-ratting have left me with a room full of paper: banker's boxes and accordion files bulging with old public records and notebooks, the raw materials for narratives and investigative pieces.

One box I'm purging is the elections box. After two years of making the board of elections one of my beats (an unusual beat for a magazine writer, in most times and places), I hope not to write about Cuyahoga County's voting system again.

That's because our once-sad voting agency has gotten its act together. Cleveland and Ohio shed their reputations for election buffoonery this November with a stress-free, snafu-proof Election Day. No more national horror at our lame mistakes. No more conspiracy theories convincing our friends in other states that we're at fault for an election result they didn't like.

What I saw on Election Day -- no lines at once-clogged voting locations, the elections office calling in to check on poll workers instead of leaving them stranded by busy signals -- showed how far Cuyahoga's elections office has come. Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner's decision to release the agency from her supervision this November was the final thumbs-up that confirmed our civic crisis over voting is over.

Credit goes to the leaders who took over our voting agency in 2007, from director Jane Platten to the four elections board members. I made some light fun of them in our September issue pieces on voting -- but I sat through a lot of meetings held by the old board and the new board, and saw old guard offer a perfect example of how a public agency should not act, while the new leaders showed how a troubled office can reform itself. And Brunner, who I was pretty tough on in September, held firm this fall against state Republicans' attempt to throw our system into a new round of chaos.

Yes, the board fought too much and spent too much money, straining the county budget. And a careful post-mortem look at the election results still shows ways voters can lose their vote through their own mistakes. But Platten has set up a system for noting problems and addressing them next time.

Ohio probably benefited from the fact that Obama won here by 4 percentage points. That's a margin too big to contest, so no one bothered to prod our weak spots. Any big city in a swing state or recount state will have its election flaws exposed. But some flaws are worse than others. Minnesota's Senate recount is exposing some mistakes, but way fewer than in Florida eight years ago. How will we hold up if we're the swing town in the swing state again? Much better, I think, with the officials and system we have now.

No comments: