SIDNEY — For the first time in his voting history, Christopher Gibbs, of Maplewood, voted Tuesday, April 9, the first day absentee ballots could officially be cast.
“This year, I’ll be actually waiting for election results like any other citizen,” said Gibbs, who recently completed 12 years on the Shelby County Board of Elections. “It was a great to be on the customer side of the counter for once. As I would expect, the BOE staff was helpful. My first experience with early in person voting went off without a hitch.”
Gibbs’ relationship with the board of elections began around 2003 when he started working in the checking room on election night.
“I started as a ‘chad checker’ coordinator in the checking room somewhere around 2003,” said Gibbs. “I served with Steve Weadock. He was the Democrat in the checking room and I was the offsetting Republican. I remember not having a clue what was going on, but over time, listening and learning from Steve, I caught on pretty quickly. He was a good teacher of the foundations of election administration.”
Gibbs was appointed to the board of elections by the Republican Central Committee in 2007 after board member Ralph Bauer was appointed Shelby County prosecutor by the RCC. Bauer replaced James Stevenson who was elected Shelby County Common Pleas Court judge.
Since his appointment to the board, he has seen many changes in the election procedures.
“Changes on a weekly basis are not uncommon in the election administration business,” said Gibbs. “But for big sweeping change there is only one event that meets the test. And that began in Florida during the 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore where some Floridians couldn’t figure out how to read a ballot, let alone follow instructions.
“That debacle resulted in a comprehensive election bill called The Help America Vote Act of 2002. Once the bill was enacted, election administration across the nation was forever changed,” he said. “That one piece of legislation was and is the foundation on which all election policy is built today. It gave us provisional voting, new election equipment, statewide voter registration databases, and voter identification procedures.”
Punch cards and the related “chads” were no longer used by the local board of elections in 2005, he said.
“In 2005, the board at the time made the decision to use the federal dollars available through the Help America Vote Act to purchase and begin using an optical scan system and paper ballots. They decided against touch screen voting,” said Gibbs. “Although I was not on the board at that time, I never miss a chance to tell what a wise decision that was. As our world has become more and more dependent on digital processes, we’ve become exponentially more vulnerable to cyber mischief.
“Paper ballots are largely immune to that. Before I left, our board signed off on all new election equipment which will retain the paper ballots and optical scan equipment well into the next decade,” he said.
In 2010-11, Gibbs became the chairperson of the board of elections.
“There are two ways to handle chairmanships,” said Gibbs. “You can show up once a month, gavel in, call for votes and gavel out; or you can be an active 24/7 partner with the other members and staff. I always chose the latter.
“In recent years, my fellow board members made that an easy choice because of their willingness to be an active ‘hands on’ board. Their focus always kept me hustling,” he said.
Gibbs said there are three things he is most proud of during his term on the board of elections.
“First, the working relationship with our existing board members. I’ve never served on a more focused and professional public board,” said Gibbs. “These gentlemen were tough. They never second guessed a decision once it was made and never shied away from a hard decision just because it was difficult.
“Secondly, our staff,” he said. “Both these individuals (Director Pamela Kerrigan and deputy Director Donnie Chupp) came to the BOE with little election administration knowledge. They were able to pick it up from scratch. And lastly, our precinct election officials (poll workers). These folks take pride in their work to the extent that some have worked for us for decades. They work a 15 hour day for about $8 an hour and never complain.”
Gibbs said he’s also proud of the relationship between the board of elections and Shelby County Commissioners.
“We took great pains to make sure the county commissioners understood every budget item at every budget hearing,” said Gibbs. “I would guess that no other department was that detailed.”
Gibbs said there’s one piece of unfinished business remaining with the board of elections since he has left the board.
“In the 2019 county budget, the commissions made a 5 percent pay adjustments were made available for all office holders and departments,” said Gibbs. “The allocations were to be made at the discretion of the elected official to allocate it the money to their staff.
:Since the board of elections is not an elected office, the board has to make the pay adjustments in a public session. Elected officials don’t have to do that. There’s no vote on how the funds are allocated. This is typical of how commissioners can make available monies for pay adjustments.”
The board of elections approved a 3 percent increase in Kerrigan and Chupp’s salary and a $1 per hour increase for clerk Trina Riethman.
“What we did, as the board of elections, was take a conservative approach and authorized the 3 percent pay adjustment for Donnie and Pam and $1 per hour increase for Trina,” said Gibbs.
“Prior to my leaving, one of my major focuses was to clean up the administrative weaknesses that I had discovered while doing one-on-one meetings during the administrative and human resources training with Pam,” he said. “One of the issues was that compensatory, flex and overtime wasn’t being handled consistent with our policy.”
The board, said Gibbs, worked with the prosecutor’s office to update the board’s policy so it was the same one used by the county commissioners.
“Because employees were not using overtime, but were using ‘off the books’ flex time, it was important to me to get everything above the board and defendable. Why is that important? We have employees who have to work mandatory hours for early voting, absentee voting 30 days prior to the election. The board employees are required to be there after the normal business hours until 7 p.m., on Saturdays and one Sunday prior to the election.
“To be fair to the employees and to be responsible with the taxpayers dollars, the overtime police has to be followed,” he said. “The plan was to allocate 3 percent of the 5 percent made available to the staff in arrears to the last pay period in December. We wanted to go through the May election and see how much overtime usage their was. If the balance of 2 percent was still available, would would have allocated an additional pay adjustment after the May Primary.
“Only a curmudgeon would deny good employees the adjustment when the dollars are available,” said Gibbs.
Every board member, said Gibbs, has a few sleepless nights as they worry about an upcoming election.
“Without question, what keeps election officials up at night is the fear of a close election, let alone a tie vote,” said Gibbs. “Unfortunately, no election goes off without a hitch which can and will move votes to one column or the other prior to the final election certification. It happens every time regardless of the best equipment, training or intentions.
“But in the case of the Sidney School levy in 2009 where, after four levy attempts, a contentious recount, and a re-accounting of the number of ballots cast, the levy finally passed by one vote was a low point for me,” he said. “That misstep by our board exposed a ballot accounting system, or lack thereof, which needed overhauled. This resulted in a new accounting policy which requires voting election managers (presiding judges) to not leave the BOE on election night until all ballots are accounted for and anomalies explained.”
Even thought the next presidential election isn’t until 2020, Gibbs knows the current board of election members are already thinking about the May 2020 primary and November 2020 election.
“Presidential elections are the super bowl for election administrators. All eyes are on every aspect of what BOEs do in a Presidential election,” said Gibbs.”Each major party will begin suing the Secretary of State to gain advantages for their ticket. BOE’s have to be ready for last minute changes to policy and be prepared to explain those changes to their local press and voters.
“Beyond that, during any election, but particularly during a presidential election, administrators need to be prepared for a flood of opinions on how they can do their jobs better. Everybody will have one,” he said.
“While I always welcomed ways to improve the process, it was rare when an individual or a group is really interested in good governance. Ninety-nine percent of the time their clamor for change is rooted in using the BOE to gain an advantage for their candidate, issue, or levy. I realize that’s a bit of a cynical view, but keeping it in mind will keep you out of trouble as a public official,” he said.
Gibbs has a piece of advice for 17-year-olds getting ready to vote in their first election when they turn 18.
“Learn your history, know what was sacrificed so you could vote, do your ‘do diligence’ in candidate and issue research, and embrace your right to vote like it was a gift from God,” said Gibbs.
He also reminds the public that they have the right to interact with the board of elections members and to become involved with Election Day activities.
“As with any public board, the members and staff are available to anyone. The best way to have a direct positive effect on the Shelby County election process is to sign up to be a precinct election official (poll worker),” he said.
The job wasn’t without its frustrations, he said. One of the most frustrating parts includes the use of courts to carry out political agendas.
“Both major parties are guilty of seeking out sympathetic jurists who will enjoin the election process and ball up the works,” he said. A judge can require new voting hours, new election provisions, and more on a whim.”
He’s also frustrated with a small majority of people who believe it’s someone else’s responsibility to make sure they vote in an election.
“While it’s a small percentage, there are plenty of voters out there who believe it is government’s, or more specifically, the BOE’s responsibility, to make sure they get to vote,” said Gibbs. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. The opportunity to vote is a right, and yes, you could even label it an entitlement. But the act of voting is one’s own personal responsibility.
“In my view, it’s on the voter’s shoulders to know the voting day, the voting provisions, the eligibility criteria, the candidates, and the issues. Guess I was never was real big on hand holding and coddling. That’s not how I view good governance,” he said.
Gibbs said he saw the “handwriting on the wall” prior to the appointment of James Kerg Jr. to the board of elections. Kerg replaced Gibbs on the board. Board member Jon Baker resigned in protest and Douglas Pence was appointed to fill Baker’s unexpired term.
“No one responsible for BOE appointments has shared that (why he wasn’t reappointed) with me, nor should they be expected to,” said Gibbs. “I will say this – politics is a live by the sword, die by the sword game. These BOE appointments are, at the end of the day, political in nature. And that is by design.
“By having both major parties represented in election administration, the public is assured that a check and balance system exists so that no one party runs off with the show,” he said.
“As for my own tenure, I knew once the local Tea Party/Liberty Group rose to leadership in the local party in May of 2018, my days were numbered. And that’s OK, it really is,” he said. “I know and respect the process. Elections matter. And frankly, if politics is your focus, I wouldn’t have reappointed me either. I just don’t believe what they believe. I’m a Reagan Republican and not a populist Trumplican. My party died in December and was buried in the casket with George H. W. Bush. To that end I’ll continue to chafe at, and resist the dangers of corrosive populism with all my being. And if that is the measure, there’s no question that the local Central Committee made the right call to appoint someone more in their own image.”
Reach the writer at 937-538-4822.