IN MEMORIAM: Richard G. “Dick” Smolka, Pioneering Election Expert

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[Image courtesy of dfmassociates]

I got some sad news via email this evening … Dick Smolka passed away on Tuesday at his home in Mesa, Arizona. His son Bo, who shared the news on behalf of the family, noted that “[c]onsidering he was one of the world’s foremost experts on elections and the electoral process, it was somewhat fitting that he died on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November – i.e. Election Day.”

Dick was an early mentor of mine and I only hope that someday I can achieve even a fraction of what Dick did for the election community in his amazing career.

Here’s an obituary that the family asked us to share:

Richard G. Smolka, a professor emeritus at American University and one of the world’s leading experts on elections, voting and the electoral process, died at his home in Mesa, Arizona, on Nov. 5. He was 81.

A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Smolka taught in the School of Public Affairs at American for 31 years before his retirement. He created Election Administration Reports, a bi-weekly newsletter on election law and administration for election officials, in 1971 and served as its editor for more than 40 years. It became an industry standard and developed a worldwide readership among those in the business of running elections.

For more than 20 years, Smolka served as the expert and in-studio consultant for WRC-TV, the NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C., each Election Night, offering projections and analysis on local and national races.

He was also widely sought after as an expert source throughout the Bush-Gore “hanging chad” controversy, appearing on CNN, NBC Nightly News, 60 Minutes and other national media outlets to discuss the 2000 presidential election.

Smolka served as an elections observer and consultant for voting procedures in developing democracies around the world, including Bulgaria, the Federated States of Micronesia, Russia, Poland, Taiwan and more than 20 other countries. He once served as a poll worker in the Australian outback.

In 2001, Smolka received the Freedom Award from the National Association of Secretaries of State for his lifetime contributions to election administration in the United States and around the world.

At American University, Smolka taught courses related to campaigns and elections. He co-authored, with Harold Gosnell, a textbook on political parties and has written several other books and articles on the election process.

Smolka grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and attended St. Ignatius High School.

Smolka served in the Marine reserves from 1953-54 and was active duty in the U.S. Army from 1954-56.

After his military service, he went on to earn bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from American University.

Smolka is survived by his wife of 55 years, Margaret (Farrell), better known as Peggy, their six children – Daniel M. Smolka, a Foreign Service office stationed in Barbados; Michael T. Smolka of Mesa, Ariz.; Gregory L. Smolka of Groton, Mass.; Stephen. P. “Bo” Smolka of Baltimore, Md; Mary M. Csernica of Lewisburg, Pa.; and David A. “Dewey” Smolka of Chicago — and 15 grandchildren. He is also survived by two sisters.

Smolka was a sports fan throughout his life, with particular interest in baseball and horse racing. As a teen-ager, he served as a vendor at the 1948 World Series in Cleveland. He also created a dice-based horse race game that later received a U.S. patent.

A memorial service to celebrate his life will be held on Monday, Dec. 30, at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Mesa, Arizona. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made in Richard Smolka’s name to the Annual Fund at St. Ignatius High School, 1911 W. 30th St., Cleveland, OH 44113.

My thoughts and prayers are with Dick’s family … he will be missed!

10 Comments on "IN MEMORIAM: Richard G. “Dick” Smolka, Pioneering Election Expert"

  1. Dr Smolka was my personal friend for 40 years of my election career and was also a genius in the testing of punch card software processes and came to San Diego on several occasions to test the ballot software used in San Diego County elections. I was fortunate to join Dick during the failed 2000 elections to teach the attorneys the art of punchcard elections. He was a very special, dear friend and I shall miss him. Elections will not be the same. He was a great man.
    Peggy and family are in our hearts and prayers.

  2. Hugh Gallagher | November 7, 2013 at 9:51 am | Reply

    Dick was one of the most kind and sincere people I have ever met. The consummate gentlemen. I always enjoyed my discussions with him regarding elections and always came away from them more informed and knowledgeable. I will miss his easy going manner and quick smile.

    The Smolka’s are all in our prayers.

  3. R.I.P Dick..Shook hands so many times..we’ll miss you..Condolences for the Family.Sami in DC

  4. Ross Underwood | November 8, 2013 at 6:23 pm | Reply

    I met Dick Smolka in 1979 … I was 24, the Registrar of Voters in Monterey County CA, and profoundly affected by Dick’s contributions to the field of election administration. I could not wait to get the next edition of Election Administration Reports! I learned a lot about elections through Dick’s intellect and inquisitive nature. The last time I saw Dick we were in Maryland working on electronic poll books … Dick stopped by just to see how he could help. He loved to laugh … he loved his family (and Dick considered election officials to be a part of that family) … and Dick loved our country! We miss you Dick Smolka!

  5. Jacqueline Rood Leopold | November 9, 2013 at 10:09 am | Reply

    I was one of Dr. Smolka’s many students at American University in his Political Campaign course, in 1972. Dr. Smolka loved our political system and contributed to it so fully with his knowledge and enthusiasm. His class was one of the, if not the, most fun and enlightening courses I took at AU, and I still treasure that experience: developing an entire campaign from start to finish, on paper, including making up events and details about the opponent and their campaign, hiring and managing campaign workers, maps and demographics of the election district, even the polls taken during the campaign, raising campaign funds, election strategies, rules and results. Dr. Smolka had us fill in all the details. He was encouraging, enlightening and inspiring. My husband Mark Leopold was also his student, and we kept in touch with him over the years at AU until his retirement – he was always delighted and delightful. We send our heartfelt condolences to his family, and know that you are comforted by the memories and celebration of a life truly well-lived.

  6. I’ve known Dick since my becoming embedded in the elections industry in 1975. I’ve had the utmost respect for his knowledge, intelligence, impartiality and integrity. I’m saddened at his passing and know it will be a big loss to the elections industry and all those associated with it. As others have mentioned, the date of his death being election day is appropriate as a memorial to the his life’s dedication.

  7. John T. Willis | November 12, 2013 at 4:17 pm | Reply

    Doug,

    Thank you for posting the information about Dick. Pasted below is an EDITOR’S NOTE that will appear in this week’s issue of Election Administration Reports. We are soliciting comments, tributes, memories and stories for our first issue of 2014 to be published after the memorial service. You and your audience are invited to participate.

    EDITOR’S NOTE

    Last week, on an Election Day November 5, 2013, we lost our founding editor, Dick Smolka. Only six weeks ago, Dick advised me that he didn’t think he was strong enough to do research and writing. For the past five years, we have been mentored and tutored by Dick in the production of Election Administration Reports. His wise counsel and guiding principles will always be followed as we continue to publish Election Administration Reports as a biweekly newsletter. At Dick’s request, John T. Willis, former Secretary of State of Maryland who teaches government and public policy in the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore, has been working as managing editor and editor since 2008. Along with a team of correspondents, the mission that Smolka set out in 1971 to accomplish will continue. Dick thoroughly enjoyed his lifetime of talking with all of us—colleagues, election officials, friends, congressional staffers, association members, organization leaders and, even the media—about the election issues of the day, and election administration in the future. Election Administration Reports is collecting tributes to Richard Smolka that will be printed in our first issue of 2014, after Dick’s memorial service on December 30,2013. Please email any memories or tributes to: nherdson@electionadminreports.com or call 866-888-9170. Comments should be received by December 31, 2013, in order to be included on special tribute pages and they may be edited for length.

  8. Conny McCormack | November 13, 2013 at 7:44 am | Reply

    Dick Smolka was a uniquely gifted, outstanding and joyful human being. His keen intellect, curiosity and depth of knowledge about election administration throughout the country over more than four decades was truly unequaled. Dick’s memory was encyclopedic about specific details and issues that arose in myriad elections in large and small jurisdictions nationwide throughout many years. His re-telling of election stories – whether in front of an audience of hundreds at election conferences, or over dinner with a small group privileged to be in his company – was riveting. I eagerly awaited reading EA Reports every two weeks throughout the 30 years I’ve been working in election administration. The elections community has lost a beloved icon. My husband Mick and I plan to travel to Mesa, AZ for Dick’s memorial service on Dec. 30 and look forward to seeing many election colleagues there to celebrate Dick’s life and legacy.

  9. He taught me an honors course in campaign management during the Fall of 1981. He was kind, smart & engaging. Then, Congressman Carroll Campbell from South Carolina, sat near me in his class and our professor treated us all the same, a class act. He brought in Hank Parkinson, a political consultant to speak with us and I kept in touch with Dr. Smolka when I got my first political campaign job directly after graduating from American University. The world is a fairer, & therefore, a better place to live in because of Richard Smolka so thank you sir & Go AU Eagles FMM SPA class of ’82.

  10. I too was a student in a public opinion and propaganda class packed with political ‘junkies’ and 4 congressmen who were shocked to be assigned Goebbels as a classic text on political propaganda; but it was a seminal course I believe I took in 1967 as part of an MPA. Dr. Smolka was an engaging passionate and brilliant teacher….one of the best classes I took!

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