The closer we get to November, the more amazing it seems that Sherrie Swensen actually campaigned for her job. She wasn't sentenced to it.
Swensen is the Salt Lake County clerk. Normally, that is one of the more low-key political offices. But on the morning of Nov. 4 she will preside over the mother of all logistical nightmares.
Remember all those incessant stories about low voter turnout in an apathetic America the ones that led to gimmicks such as having people register to vote at the DMV? Forget about it. We could be about to discover what happens when most people actually do show up to vote.
Election officials from coast to coast are buying or leasing extra voting machines, trying to guard against long, slow-moving lines. There are complications. In Florida, voters will be on their third voting system in eight years. In Ohio, they will be on their fourth. During that time, at least nine states have swung from punch-card ballots to electronic voting machines and back, way back, to paper ballots.
In the trees above all this, perched menacingly and ready to swoop at a moment's notice, are armies of attorneys. The Associated Press reports the Democrats have 7,000 of them at the ready. The Republicans won't divulge how many they have, which means it probably isn't much less.
Swensen is aware of all this. Remarkably she sounds calm. When I spoke to her last week, she said even in Utah, where voter turnout typically is high, this year could set records.
"This will be the largest number of voters we've seen," she said. In 1992, 84.5 percent of the county's registered voters showed up. This November could top that. It certainly will in real numbers, considering how many more people live here now.
Back then, Swensen had to beg to get 5,000 punch-card machines. This time, she said, the county has managed through various means to acquire about 3,500 video voting machines. And people take their time on those. You can go back and change your mind and scroll through the various races again and again.
What is worse, she is still about 1,000 people short of the number of poll workers she needs to man the polling stations, and those places have grown to 437, up from 373 in 2006. Each polling place has to conform to the Americans With Disabilities Act, which makes finding suitable locations nearly impossible. Churches may not be the ideal polling stations, but in many cases they will have to do this November.
And attorneys? Yeah, we have those here, too. Swensen said they showed up in '06 to watch workers count the absentee and provisional ballots in the tight re-election race for House Speaker Greg Curtis. But that's something Swensen said she doesn't mind. "Transparency and integrity are important."
To all of this, add recent admissions by Premier Election Solutions, formerly Diebold, that its software sometimes causes memory cards to drop votes. Swensen said she's ready for that one, too. During the day, poll workers have to reconcile the actual number of people who voted with the ballot totals on the cards. The cards don't lose votes, she said. They just sometimes have to be reloaded to provide correct totals. And anyway, Utah's machines print paper receipts that could be counted by hand if all else fails.
It all adds up to a crazy way to run a democracy something the director of Electionline.org told the Wall Street Journal is "like a live-fire exercise." But it's the best system we've got.
Swensen is encouraging people to vote absentee something you can do even if you're not absent. You can even show up on Election Day and drop your absentee ballot off at the polls without waiting in line. Or you can vote early at one of 16 different locations for 10 days beginning Oct. 21. Go to www.clerk.slco.org for more information.
The only time she sounds a little stressed is when I suggest some people may decide not to vote because of long lines."That would be tragic. When I hear of people standing in line elsewhere for up to six hours, I'm appalled," she said, adding emphatically, "That can't happen here."