Johnson County, Kansas gets a fresh perspective on elections through observation abroad

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Encompassing much of the St. Louis metro area, Johnson County, Kansas is the most populous county in Kansas. It has 370,000 registered voters, 250 polling places, and more than 2,500 election workers. The office is led by Brian Newby, Johnson County Election Commissioner since 2005. Brian is author of the popular blog of, by, and for election administrators, Election Diary.

Heading 2Brian recently traveled to Georgia -- the Eurasian nation, not the Peach State -- where he observed the presidential election on October 27, 2013. While on his international mission, he focused on the election administration process, specifically polling place operations in rural areas.

Observers: guests, not pests

Election observers or poll agents have the potential to be a real headache. Without proper training, they can wreak havoc in a polling place, from spreading misinformation to intimidating voters. However, when they function as intended, election observers can add transparency and credibility to the voting process.

With his visit to Georgia, Brian a quite distinctive experience as an election observer. He was kind enough to share with us his biggest challenges and takeaways, and we supplement them by providing tips to election administrators who are curious about observing elections abroad.

Midnight train to Georgia

Georgia has 3.5 million registered voters -- nearly as many as Wisconsin. The country covers 27,000 square miles, edging out West Virginia in size. But despite the contrasts in culture and politics between Georgia and the U.S., similarities in election administration do shine through.

In Georgia, registration books split so that voters form lines based on the their last names. Photo by Brian Newby.

In Georgia, registration books split so that voters form lines based on the their last names. Photo by Brian Newby.

For example, Brian observed the poll workers hustling on Election Morning so they could enjoy coffee together before the polls opened at 8:00 a.m. And, to avoid bottlenecking at the registration table, two separate lines were created based on the first letter of a voter’s last name.

Georgians vote entirely on paper. Voters are personally invited to participate in the election. And voting booths are allocated based on the number of registered voters: 1 booth per 500 registered voters, or 1 to 2 booths per polling place.

Georgian voting booth. Photo by Brian Newby. 

Georgian voting booth. Photo by Brian Newby. 

A good kind of tired

Brian and his observer colleagues viewed the official training video for the Georgian poll workers. This behind-the-scenes peek prepared them for what actions to look for when they were observing in the polling place.

Brian’s other key takeaways include:

  • A training video makes a good orientation guide for domestic poll agents/observers. Publicly sharing video training materials would make the overall election process more transparent.
  • Accommodations for people with disabilities can still be improved in the United States, but there was much less support for accessible voting in Georgia. Polling places were expected to have ramps over stairs but none were observed.
  • Observers are deployed in two-person teams from different genders and countries. All observers must speak English and first-time observers are paired with veterans.
  • Backgrounds of observers are extremely impressive -- usually academics, researchers, or persons who have extensive international humanitarian aid experience. Few observers have direct election administration experience, however.

This clearly wasn’t a European vacation for Brian. The trip included its challenges, especially of the circadian nature:

  • Brian endured 24 hours of travel time, each way, and stayed in 5 hotels/homes over 10 nights. Indoor plumbing and heat were hit or miss.
  • He arrived in Georgia at 3:00 a.m. the first day of meetings, and the departure time was 2:30 a.m. on the last day.
  • Overall, the trip was a whirlwind of meetings, preparation, and an election. The logistics were incredibly well planned, though the experience was exhausting. But, as Brian said, it was "a good kind of tired."

Before you pack your bags

If you find yourself inspired to explore election administration beyond your borders, there are several organizations that sponsor international election observation programs.

Brian was assigned through Pacific Architects and Engineers-Rapid Expert Assistance and Cooperation Teams (PAE-REACT), and their assignments are very competitive.

PAE-React is specifically seeking international observers who are election administrators in the following states: Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, North and South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming. If you work in one of these states, you should totally apply.

There are other organizations, including the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI). PAE-React, which coordinated with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), provides opportunities for short-term assignments (less than two weeks), which are more conducive to those working full-time.

All assignments are volunteer roles, with most expenses paid. Funding for the OSCE comes from the United States Department of State, so assignment opportunities vary based on scheduling and budget conditions.

The most important step, Brian says, is to move from thinking about being an observer to applying to be an observer. Lay the groundwork so you can act when an opportunity arises.

Why not apply?

The application process involves acquiring references (usually a small, diverse group of local and national persons who have been involved in international assignments), a customization of your resume highlighting election and international experience, and a passport that doesn’t expire for at least 12 months from when you hope to be assigned.

Once you have applied, you’ll want to refresh your application periodically and request specific missions. If you are considered for a mission, you will need to:

  • Perform a phone interview
  • Pass online tests covering international events and geography
  • Complete paperwork and assigned readings

A good way to prepare, as well, is to host observers from other countries. Some states may need legislation to allow international observers at polling locations, but other organizations than these may occasionally have international guests who are interested in election worker training or other aspects of election administration. Brian suggests hosting these individuals as helpful preparation for international assignments.

Thanks, Brian, for sharing your international observation experience and for all you do for the folks in Johnson County!


What methods have you used to gain a fresh perspective on election administration? What have you learned from observing how elections are run in other areas? Drop us a line at hello@techandciviclife.org so that we can tell your story.