10th District Republican Committee Chairman John Whitbeck offers the following detailed recounting of the processes and events that constituted the 10th District’s very successful April 26 party canvass to select a nominee to succeed retiring Rep. Frank Wolf.
Amidst the intra-Party strife going on around the Commonwealth, something incredible happened in the 10th Congressional District on Saturday April 26. With six candidates running for the nomination to replace Congressman Frank Wolf, the 10th District Committee had to choose the process to nominate our candidate in what is going to be one of the most watched 2014 races. Without an adequate venue to hold a convention, but a desire to hold a party-run process among the voting members, we selected a party canvass or “firehouse primary.” As far as we knew, this had never been done before in Virginia for a Congressional race, and there were many people around the Commonwealth and the 10th District who either believed we would fail or actually wanted us to fail. Those people turned out to be very wrong, as the Canvass was a huge success and we successfully achieved the largest party canvass in Virginia history.
1. The Canvass Planning Process was Extensive.
When we originally selected the Canvass, we understood that the planning would entail more than that of a convention and actually less when compared to a state-run primary. The 10th District Committee charged Chairman Whitbeck and Secretary Gerry Gunn to formulate the committees necessary to plan and execute the Canvass. The Committees were as follows:
• Credentials Committee: Creates the procedures for checking in voters and confirming eligibility and produces the Canvass Official Call. This Committee consists of a Chair and every Balloting Station Chief;
• Rules Committee: Writes the Rules of the Canvass and assists in adjudicating how to enforce the Rules during the Canvass;
• Logistics Committee: Executes the procedures created by the Official Call and the Rules and ensures that the Balloting Stations have everything they need on the day of the Canvass;
• Security Committee: Formulates security procedures for the Canvass and executes them;
• Teller’s Committee: Handles ballot security procedures during the Canvass and counts the votes.
Next we selected our core team of volunteers to run the Canvass which consisted of the 10th District Chairman, our Credentials Committee Chair, Rules Committee Chair, Logistics Committee Chair, Security Committee Chair and Teller’s Committee Chair. We then selected members for each committee (to include representatives from each of the District’s geographic areas) and a Chief and Deputy Chief for each Balloting Station. The Balloting Stations were:
• Clarke – Carol Westervelt
• Frederick – Jill Colf
• Fairfax-Centreville – Dottie O-Rourke
• Fairfax-Langley – Caroline Lane
• Loudoun-Freedom – Mackie Christianson
• Loudoun-Harmony – Eve Gleason
• Loudoun-Stone Bridge – Stacy Carey
• Manassas/Manassas Park – Russ Harrison
• Prince William – Heidi Stirrup
• Winchester – Hal Miller
We started our meetings about two months prior to the actual date of the Canvass so we could share ideas, get feedback on our proposed procedures and get everyone comfortable with the proposed Rules. Transparency, impartiality and fairness were foremost in our planning.
Each of the Chiefs was responsible for recruiting sufficient numbers of volunteers (with the help of their local Units) for their individual stations and they did a phenomenal job. At the Centreville location for example, we had close to 70 volunteers working on the day of the Canvass. Stone Bridge in Loudoun had 40 volunteers. Recruiting was complicated by the six campaigns that were also recruiting their own volunteers to work for their candidates.
I have to say, the Station Chiefs were key to the success of the day. Their experience and leadership at each Station was astounding and this process would have failed miserably without them. To demonstrate how effective they were, they would regularly email their volunteers with updates, held training sessions for volunteers and on the day of the Canvass showed leadership. Leadership is something sometimes lacking in our Party but not in our Canvass.
The Committee Chairs were the lifeblood of the Canvass. We had a very productive Rules Committee led by attorney Kristin Kalina and they came up with a very thorough and complete set of Rules. We had them reviewed by a very prominent election law attorney who said he would not change a thing! Kristin’s leadership in putting together the Rules was one of the chief reasons the process functioned so smoothly. By anticipating problems, the Rules were written essentially ready to deal with every situation that arose. I cannot recall a single situation where the Rules did not play at least some part in us making a decision. They were perfectly detailed without being overreaching to account for strange occurrences.
We also recruited a professional security contractor, Greg Stone, to Chair our Security Committee. Greg set up an extensive security volunteer network. Each Balloting Station had a security volunteer who was trained for crowd control, to enforce rules and to handle problems that arose with unruly voters or media. Most of the security volunteers had experience in federal or local law enforcement or private security. Greg spent countless hours on not only the security apparatus but also helping out everywhere else where he could. Greg trained his people to deal with most every situation, including incursions by Democrat trackers, media, etc. This enabled Station Chiefs to focus on their responsibilities, and took one element off their plates.
Our Credentials Committee Chair, attorney and military veteran Gerry Gunn, also put together an extremely comprehensive Station Chief Manual which had everything the Chiefs needed to know for the Canvass. Gerry also put together a very large number of “official” forms for use during the Canvass and after for memorializing information. The Chief’s Manual and the forms will be a great resource for future party-nominating processes. Gerry’s contribution to this process cannot be underestimated. She put together all of our many procedures and then put them all down in one easy to understand set of procedures and forms with the manual. To top it off, Gerry was all set to run a convention and we threw her a curve ball asking her to run a canvass.
We also had a very active Logistics Committee led by Cathy McNickle. Gerry Gunn came up with the idea for this Committee because there were so many details that had to be worked out. Logistics interfaced with all the Station Chiefs both before and during the Canvass, made sure they had all their supplies they needed, worked out a budget with the 10th District Treasurer and worked directly with the 10th District Chairman and Credentials Chairman to make decisions. We could not have had a more engaged and outstanding Logistics Chair than Cathy. Her outstanding communication and support to the Station Chiefs assured that each location was more than prepared for the Canvass. Cathy became the most important person in running the Canvass when all was said and done.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in the planning process was selecting the actual locations of the Balloting Stations (you can imagine the politics surrounding this issue). The RPV Party Plan requires that each locality have its own balloting station in a party canvass unless the District Committee unanimously agrees otherwise. This Rule was inserted to discourage the use of canvasses in favor of state-run primaries and it is particularly onerous to the planning process. However, we were able to get unanimous agreement to limit the balloting stations to 10 and collapse very small Manassas Park into the Manassas location. Otherwise, we were looking at reducing the number of stations in Loudoun or Fairfax which would have been a huge problem. Note that every additional station creates additional work for the planners of the Canvass. Each additional station needs a Station Chief, a Deputy Chief, many additional volunteers, more ballots, more machines, etc., and adds greatly to the costs of the Canvass.
We also were able to draw on past experiences with party-nominating processes and selected locations that had been used before. No location is perfectly located or perfectly physically constructed for a canvass so it was very difficult to make everyone happy. In the end we deferred to many of the localities as to which locations worked the best since they were going to recruit the folks to man the stations. We also tried to select locations that were located in some of our more Republican-leaning precincts to maximize turnout.
The second biggest challenge is likely the selection of the method to actually count the votes. Machines and printing ballots are expensive, but how many hand-counted processes have created controversy? We were determined to utilize machines so the process would be expedited and we could minimize controversy in the vote count. Machines also were critical to keeping the lines moving and clearing voters out of the voting area when they were finished voting. However, the machines/ballots were by far the biggest expense and were a constant worry as to whether they would break down. They never did.
Now, you might think that dealing with six different candidates and six different campaigns would be difficult. However, we could not have had a better partnership with each of the campaigns. They had an open line to me at all times and I talked to all of the candidates and their staff on a regular basis. I took the time to meet with each one of the candidates or talk to them on the phone about the process. We also shared whatever data with them they asked for along the way. While we didn’t “volunteer” data every time, I can’t recall a time when we refused to provide it. We also made sure the campaigns were involved in the planning process at all times. For example, we had an entire meeting devoted to getting campaign input on the Rules and they were allowed to attend all planning meetings of the Canvass. We also allowed each campaign to have volunteers observe each Balloting Station and the vote counting during the Canvass.
Our volunteers were also extensively trained. The Station Chiefs organized their own individual training and we also had several training sessions on our electronic check-in process as well as online training capability. In other words, volunteers could take the tablets home with them and test them out on a demonstrative basis before the actual Canvass. It should be noted that the training required for electronic check-in was minimal at best due to the ease and functionality of the Red Turf interface. If an individual could type a name into the search field they were able to immediately begin to check-in voters. Several Chiefs also hosted “dress-rehearsals” before the Canvass and many folks toured their Stations multiple times to get a feel for what they would be doing on the day of the Canvass.
Another “innovation” we put together was the concept of a central headquarters located in the heart of the District to function as the “war room” on the day of the Canvass. The concept was to have each of the Committee Chairs located in one place on the day of the Canvass along with the Canvass attorney and have all voting materials brought back to the headquarters at the end to produce the official results. At the headquarters we adjudicated voter eligibility, concentrated all media inquiries and trouble-shot problems as they arose. The concept worked very well and kept the lines moving at each Station by taking much of the responsibilities off the Chiefs that they otherwise would have had to deal with.
It is important to emphasize that our Rules and procedures were crafted specifically to move the registration lines as fast as possible. How many party-run nominating process have we seen with ridiculously long lines and even longer wait times? Those types of failed processes discourage participation by voters in future elections and can even lead to loss of voters in the general election. We were not going to let that happen at our Canvass and the process would have been seen as a failure if we did. We literally had people in and out if the voting area in a matter of minutes in part because 1) our Chiefs and our volunteers were extensively trained and were tough but fair, 2) our electronic check-in was so advanced and quick, 3) we had more check-in tellers in some places than were needed, 4) our Rules were concise and adequately enforced and 5) we used electronic voting machines.
2. Determining Voter Eligibility was a Big Challenge.
We were certainly trying to be inclusive by holding the Canvass and we also have a duty to enforce the RPV Party Plan rules. We also were duty-bound to address the concerns of several folks in the Party who were concerned about people voting in our process who really shouldn’t have. Examples of this are Democrats (obviously), Republicans who didn’t support the nominee in past elections, Republicans who ran as Independents, etc. A lot of time was spent on this issue to assuage people’s concerns and make sure the Party Plan was followed.
To ensure we were on solid legal footing, we sought a very thorough opinion from the RPV counsel. We posed as many hypothetical situations we could think of where a voter’s eligibility could be challenged for political reasons (i.e. voting in a Democrat process recently). RPV counsel then replied with a very thorough analysis. We distributed this opinion to all the Balloting Station Chiefs and campaigns so they were ready for any challenges that came in. It turned out not to be a big issue at all really as challenges were few and far between.
Moreover, to protect the integrity of the process, we purchased voter data on past Democrat primaries so we could identify voters who were either actual Democrats or had merely voted in a Democrat nominating process, but were still eligible to vote in our process if they signed the required Statement of Renunciation.
We also wanted to make sure nobody was turned away as best we could, even if they had registered to vote a few days before the Canvass. As a result, we had volunteers monitoring phones at headquarters who could check the State Board of Elections website to see if someone was eligible to vote even if we didn’t have them in our system. However, we did not waiver on the requirement for a government-issued photo ID to vote and miraculously (sarcasm) we had very few problems.
3. The Canvass was a Tremendous Party Building and Data Gathering Opportunity.
Without getting too far into the nominating process debate, a party canvass is the undisputed champion of data gathering. A convention simply has too few participants and a state-run primary does not allow you to get email address and phone numbers. A party canvass is also the best way to engage in party-building for the same reason.
The Canvass presented a huge opportunity to gather data on hardcore Republican voters in a District that is starting to trend away from us. We engaged in a very aggressive data gathering operation and spent a lot of time and resources to get as much data as possible. To do otherwise would have been a total waste of an opportunity. How many times have you wondered what ever happened to the data for a particular nominating process? Who keeps it? Who decides who gets it? We are having a lot of problems with people hoarding these lists or losing them all together. That needs to end and now it has in the 10th District.
First, we set up our website to give voters the opportunity to “check in” with the 10th District. This four step process allowed us to gather data on who a voter was, explain the process to them, have them electronically fill out their mandatory Statement of Intent, and help them find where to vote. The hundreds of voters who took advantage of this, gave us their contact information including telephone and email. Second, we revamped our website to be a virtual “Canvass headquarters” and did Facebook and Google ads to drive potential voters to our website to have them take advantage of the early check-in process. Third, we took advantage of the huge data gathering opportunity presented with the Statement of Intent requirement. Statements of intent should be mandatory if for no other reason than to gather the data they yield! Voters could not get a ballot unless they signed the Statement anyway, so why not request an email address at the same time? We gave voters a chance to fill in their Statement of Intent electronically before the Canvass on our website and of course they could also show up and fill one out on the day of the Canvass. This has resulted in us obtaining over 13,000 email addresses in one day! While some of them may be folks we already know, the result has been the addition of literally thousands of new Republican voters we can now communicate with.
Even more awesome was our electronic check-in process. Our outstanding contractor, Red Turf Data, literally built the system from scratch. Using tablets and laptops, tellers at the polls logged into our system and checked voters in using our system while simultaneously sending the information into the central database we are using. At the same time at headquarters we had a central “dashboard” where we could see turnout numbers update every 15 seconds. There are many examples of how useful this is. For one, we had only distributed about 30,000 ballots and Statements of Intent around the District. If we ran out at Stations we would have had to literally make copies and get them to the Station. Being able to see turnout numbers updated every 15 seconds made it more likely we could efficiently distribute these materials if they ran out (which they didn’t). Another example of the usefulness is we could see turnout in some Stations was high and at some it was very low. The result was we could move around volunteers from the lower turnout stations to the higher turnout ones to help. The system was internet based and totally secure. All the while the 10th District was building a database as voters checked in. Imagine the possibilities if we used this during the general election?
We were also building a feature on the database to record a list of our volunteers. Does anyone know where the 2012 Romney Victory Office lists are? How about the 2013 lists? I sure as heck don’t. That is a problem and we ended that problem with our new database. We are going to end the list hoarding and loss of data that has plagued our District and our Party for too long now.
The electronic check-in system also helped us identify voters who had voted in another Party’s nominating process. We loaded SBE data into the system and a donkey icon would pop up when the voter checked in if they had voted in a prior Democrat primary. We could then direct them over to a separate check-in to sign the RPV Renunciation Statement required by the Party Plan and keep the lines moving.
Now in fairness, we had learned from the ORCA debacle that you can’t rely on an electronic process solely so we had several back-ups, and we only tried it at five Balloting Stations to ensure any problems would be contained in certain areas. The first back-up was paper poll books which were located in each Station (SBE data is expensive by the way). We then had people at headquarters logged on to the State Board of Elections website as the final back-up where we could check in real time whether someone was registered. The SBE data was current up to a few days before the Canvass so it was very effective at checking voter registration when someone didn’t appear in our system. It worked very well and enabled us to save a lot of voters who otherwise would not have been able to vote.
The bottom line is this. Nobody anywhere should ever use paper poll books as the primary method for checking in voters again. Red Turf’s system is interchangeable with conventions, canvasses, mass meetings and state-run primaries. These guys ought to be the primary contract for all nominating processes in Virginia from now on and I intend to get the word out on that. We are missing a huge data mining opportunity every day that goes by not using them. It’s time to move the Party into the 21st century and the 10th District is leading the way on this.
Finally, while the lines were long at times at the beginning of the day, this gave us a tremendous opportunity to engage in party-building. Unit Chairs and volunteers were going up and down the lines signing people up to join our local units. The folks we were signing up in some cases were new Republicans who had never been active in the Party. Next time we can make this a focus and make sure that we are engaging our recruitment efforts to their maximum level.
4. The Canvass was an Incredible Volunteer Operation.
We had close to 400 volunteers working on the day of the Canvass. When is the last time the Party had that many Republicans working together that wasn’t a “Super Saturday?” These people were engaged, energetic and had a great time. The feedback has been amazing from the volunteers on their experience and we heard great feedback about the volunteers themselves from voters.
We also targeted volunteers who had electoral experience working in state-run elections. We were able to find a lot of these experienced volunteers and it was a huge help to the Station Chiefs formulating their procedures and functioning well during the Canvass.
Also, think of it this way. Barbara Comstock now has almost 400 people around the District ready to help her hold the seat in November. This is not counting all her existing campaign volunteers, those of the other campaigns who will support the nominee and those who were not available to help on April 26 but will be there for us from now on.
5. Of Course Nothing is Perfect.
It would not be fair for me to ignore the things that went wrong. First, we should have done a better job explaining the process on our website and set up the hotline for voters to call earlier. There were a very small number of people that called us not knowing where they should go to vote. We also didn’t do a great job explaining what the Statement of Intent was all about and a small number of voters were put off by having to sign it.
Second, it is a shame we could not offer an absentee balloting option. It would have been a logistical nightmare but there is an opportunity cost for us not having that option available. Many people were upset they could not vote absentee and I heard from many folks, particularly in the Shenandoah Valley parts of the District how upset they were about this. This was unfortunate but the 10th District was really powerless in this. I think the Party Plan should be changed to allow for it.
Third, the Party Plan is really ineffective in allowing people to challenge Democrats who want to vote in the process. Basically most people can vote if they sign a Renunciation Statement even if they are known to be Democrats. In addition, you can’t really deny someone voting privileges even if they recently went against the Party. For example, we knew of specific voters who, after Delegate Dave LaRock’s primary defeat of Joe May, actively supported LaRock’s Democrat opponent including campaigning for her openly. While we didn’t believe that type of person should be allowed to vote in our process, the Party Plan does not allow us to keep those people from voting. Now, there is an inclusion argument some may assert and I understand that, but the point is if we are going to have a provision in the Party Plan about eligibility in a party-run process then we should have something effective. Otherwise, the Statement of Intent really means nothing at the end of the day other than a data-gathering tool.
Fourth, it was very difficult to get the results out as quick as we would have liked. We knew the results soon after the Balloting Stations closed because we used electronic machines but in order to ensure the integrity of the process we had to wait until all the ballots and voting materials were at our headquarters before we could go public. We then had to make sure the number of used and unused ballots reconciled with the machine numbers which had already been done at each Balloting Station anyway. This was redundant and made the results be reported later than they could have been because we had to wait for the materials to be transported in some cases over long distances. Next time we should just have all the Stations count their own ballots and report the results to headquarters rather than wait for all the materials to come to the headquarters. Turns out that our outstanding Teller’s Committee Chair, Andy Robbins (also Frederick GOP Chair) did an extremely professional job protecting the integrity of the count and reconciling the results at headquarters.
Finally, we were sort of forced into doing our Canvass by our circumstances. Until Virginia enacts Party registration, our options for Republican-controlled processes are limited. Holding a convention was not an option because of the logistics and considering all the ridiculous slating and other antics going on all over Virginia, we would have a had a much more contentious situation in the 10th District had we had candidates slating delegates. Moreover, state-law made it untenable to have a state-run primary. What I mean is there is a little-known and ridiculous “incumbent protection” law that says once you hold a state-run primary in a Congressional race you are locked in to that process until the incumbent consents otherwise or leaves office. Now, if we are going to stay true to the Party, we are going to have to continue to hold party-run nominating processes or the Party loses all control over how we nominate our candidates. Those are the kind of laws that infuriate the Grassroots and create the Establishment versus Grassroots division in the Party. I believe that it is best to look at the particular election at hand and select the nominating process that is best for the Party at that particular time. However, when state law takes away our choices we are locked into party-nominating processes at all times if you want to protect the Party’s right to decide its own processes. The Virginia legislature should repeal this statute immediately and all those folks slating conventions to get pro-primary Party leaders in other parts of Virginia should be focusing on that rather than slating antics.
This process works. It cannot be argued otherwise. With a great team it can be an excellent tool to nominate a candidate and get great data to help the Party and the eventual nominee. It also is a great opportunity for Republicans to have control over a process and cost the taxpayers nothing.
Think about this fact. The SBE data we got on the 2013 Democrat primary showed that 10,860 people voted in the state-run primary for Lt. Governor and Attorney General. In that process, every voting precinct (almost 200) were open making it much easier for Democrats to turn out voters. In our Canvass, we had 10 polling locations and we turned out 13,609 voters. That is astounding when you consider what that means in terms of the level of enthusiasm. In other words, I think we proved turnout is more about voter enthusiasm not the process. I am not sure anyone can argue in the 10th District any more that a state-run primary is the only inclusive process we can hold. It may be more convenient but I am not sure it is any more inclusive considering what the Democrats experienced in 2013 versus our experience with the Canvass. It also costs the taxpayers absolutely nothing. In this era of out-of-control debt and spending, this is a strong statement to voters that we are the Party of fiscal responsibility.
Also think about this. We have taken a lot of heat from Democrats and the media over our nominating process. Isn’t it ironic that the Democrats chose a convention to nominate their candidate and their process would have restricted the number of delegates deciding their nominee to 300 people? When you consider that along with their ridiculously low state-run primary turnout…who’s the Party of inclusion now?
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not thank the following people: Mahe Rangarareddy, Nagoor Inaganthi and their team at Red Turf, Mary Gail Swenson our Treasurer, Greg Stone, Kristin Kalina, Julie and Spike Williams, Jeanine Martin, Charlie King, The Honorable Frank Wolf, all our Station Chiefs, our volunteers and everyone who helped along the way. Most of all I want to thank Gerry Gunn and Cathy McNickle. These two women did the lion’s share of the work and without them this would have never happened. They are wonderful people and great Republicans. Thank you ladies, from the bottom of my heart.
On to victory in November, folks.