Falls Church, VA’s Bjerke: “The Show Must Go On”


[Image of Falls Church Community Center courtesy of fallschurch.patch.com]

This week, electionlineWeekly launched the first of occasional “First Person Singular” articles featuring the perspectives of folks in the elections field. The first installment is from David B. Bjerke, General Registrar for the City of Falls Church, VA. Thanks, as always, to Mindy Moretti for the idea (with some help from the Washington Post) … it’s reprinted below.

In my previous employment I was a drummer. Actually, I was a drummer, manager, booking agent, accountant, web developer, public relations contact, etc; but still only got paid as a drummer. Does this wearing of many hats in an occupation sound familiar?

I call it event management and I see many parallels from my previous employment existing in my current employment as the General Registrar of Voters for the City of Falls Church, Va.

Running elections is event management and a background in performance art, from music to theatre, helps me understand that the show must go on.  Of course, voter registration and election professionals know this all too well.

No matter how much we prepare for an event like an election, we cannot prepare for everything.  

On past Election Days I’ve dealt with an earthquake, fire alarms that were not practice drills, gas leaks in polling places, severe lightning storms, and let us not forget Hurricane Sandy just before this last presidential.

The earthquake, fire alarms and gas leaks cause us to train our election officers on how to evacuate the polling place. We have a priority list in place so that during evacuation, election officers know what they can take if they have the time. Their lives and safety are our number one priority of course so I won’t dwell on the common sense priorities.  

However, if there is any time we want all cast votes to be secured with the election officers. After that we want to be able to run the election in the parking lot.  We provide extension cords, batteries, and plenty of emergency paper back up.

We also work with our local government to have back up generators ready if needed.  In the best-case scenario, our polling places are functioning without issue outside away from the building. In a less than best case scenario, the election officers are able to allow voters to use the provisional ballot process to cast paper ballots in a locked ballot box because there is no power to use electronic equipment.

However, even with this much preparation for an event, we can’t plan for everything.  

I work a mile from where I live so I do not have many excuses not to keep my office open. No matter the weather outside I feel obligated to be in my office running the election that includes the 45 days of in-person absentee voting prior to Election Day.  

As Hurricane Sandy bore down on us on Sunday October 28, 2012, the Electoral Board and I made the decision that we would keep our in-person absentee voting hours normal for Monday even though most businesses and governments had already closed.  We did not want to disenfranchise any voters who were willing to brave the elements to have their chance to vote absentee in case they had to be absent on Election Day.  

We opened the polls that Monday morning without incident at 8 a.m.  At 10 a.m. we noticed a problem: Heavier than normal turnout. Normally this is a good thing, but not during times of inclement weather with public safety being a top priority.

With our office of communications releasing the news of city government closures with the exception of absentee voting, we realized we were actively encouraging voters to come out to vote. With everything else in the area shut down for public safety reasons, we were the one destination still open for people who were seeking something to do.  

Our purpose was to not disenfranchise people but that purpose was contrasting with a need for public safety. Therefore, we announced at 10 a.m. that we were suspending in-person absentee voting at noon and would reopen when city hall reopened. We reopened on Wednesday and extended our hours from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. through Saturday to make up for the hours we were closed.

In cases of inclement weather, evacuating the polling place is not an option.  If an ice storm hits before the polls open on Election Day, we train our election officers that the first person able to open the polling place needs to deputize the first two voters in line and start the voting process concurrent with Virginia law.  However, this won’t always be possible.

On September 11, 2001, New York City was holding primaries for that year’s Mayoral Election.  The atrocities of that day caused the primaries to be postponed until September 25, 2001. Obviously postponements can happen, but they are exceedingly rare. Our job is to operate as if there are no do overs or postponements on Election Day, as our New Jersey and New York peers know all too well in regards to Hurricane Sandy.

On a personal note, my family had some interesting timing plans of our own.  My wife gave birth to our second child, a daughter named Ashley, on November 9, 2012, just three days after the presidential election, and only a day after her expected arrival.  Perfect timing I say, but I’m sure glad I didn’t have to juggle family obligations with work obligations if Ashley had arrived earlier. On the other side of the family and life cycle, I know a few election administrators that also lost family members right around Election Day. I can’t and don’t want to imagine how hard that is for them, but my thoughts and prayers are always with them.

We get the pleasure of this work with a hard deadline and the inability to allow even one mistake all on a shoestring budget and somehow we continue to pull it off successfully.  Staying out of the news is usually our goal on top of successfully run elections, yet the bottom line continues to be that we can’t explain this job to anyone.

Unless you work in this field, it is nearly impossible to explain. Most people seem to think we work one day year, or worse, one day every four years, as if magic fairy dust is responsible for fully staffed and equipped polling places on Election Day.

Thanks, David!

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