Keeping tabs on voting process an exhilarating experience

Presidential campaigns deploy small groups of attorneys to battleground states to implement poll observation programs and monitor the voting process. Commonly called Election Day Operations (EDO for short), these teams fulfill a vital role for national campaigns.

During the final weeks of the campaign, I served as one of six, core-deployed attorneys for Mitt Romney’s campaign in Ohio.

EDO attorneys do far more than process reports of voting irregularities. We are tasked with organizing thousands of volunteer poll observers to monitor polling locations across the state. It was a massive logistical puzzle, requiring thousands of hours to accomplish.

Election Day proved both exhilarating and disappointing.

Our EDO team had set up a “war room” in an office suite at Romney’s campaign headquarters in Columbus. In the run-up to Nov. 6, dozens of attorneys arrived from the surrounding region to man a massive phone bank. Their job was to field reports of voting irregularities throughout Election Day.

Each issue was addressed according to its level of severity. If it proved sufficiently severe, the Romney campaign had a team of litigators on standby to engage the courts (if necessary). Thankfully, Election Day proved to be free of major problems (except for the result, of course).

The initial wave of calls occurred in the morning, as anxious poll observers reported any issue, regardless of how minor. However, as the day wore on, we encountered our first major problem (which had nothing to do with the actual voting).

Romney’s web-based mobile application, infamously entitled “ORCA,” crashed. It was intended to be real-time voter-reporting mechanism used by poll observers to report who had voted at a given precinct. This, in theory, would allow the campaign to account for voters who had already cast a ballots and focus get-out-the-vote efforts on those who had not yet voted.

Colorado was the catalyst: As soon as its poll observers began inputting their reports, the entire system crashed. The campaign was flying blind for the rest of the day.

After polls closed in the evening, volunteers began reporting the preliminary vote from their assigned locations. A small group of us would input this information into a spreadsheet that was accessible by Romney’s high command. Campaign leaders wanted preliminary vote tallies as quickly as possible to provide a clear picture of the race’s trajectory.

As the numbers trickled in, we would compare the totals to percentages outlined on a color-coded map of Ohio’s 88 counties (red counties were Republican, while blue were Democrat). We wanted to gauge whether the votes were above or below what the percentage lean was for either candidate.

At first, things looked good for Romney. He seemed to outperform many target counties that trended Republican. However, the picture was incomplete: Many major population centers had not reported their initial totals, and the margins in Republican counties were not robust.

Meanwhile, we kept a weathered eye on the news coverage. The target states that many believed would fall safely to Romney were remaining (stubbornly) undecided.

As reports from the mammoth counties of Cuyahoga (home of Cleveland) and Hamilton, it became clear: President Barack Obama was going to win re-election. We knew that the loss of Ohio likely meant the loss of the presidency. At that point, for a few minutes, our little band of campaign volunteers was the first to know that the president had secured re-election.

Regardless of the outcome, working for the Romney campaign was an exhilarating experience. Presidential elections are rough enterprises for Americans, especially those supporting the losing ticket. Political winners and loser tend to misdiagnose election results and assume mandates (or repudiations) where none exist.

Obama should be congratulated for his victory. However, it would be wise to remember the difficulties presidents face with second terms, and that for every Truman, Johnson and Clinton, there’s an Eisenhower, Nixon and Bush waiting in the wings.

Robert P. Dickson of Tacoma is a partner at the Dickson Law Group. He also teaches real estate litigation at Seattle University.