The Commissioner

For Carolyn Krack, safeguarding democracy is all in a day's work.



On the evening of Monday, Nov. 1, Carolyn Krack will set two alarm clocks for well before dawn. The next morning, she'll awaken in her little shotgun cottage in the French Quarter and walk three blocks to arrive at her assigned ward and precinct no later than 5:15 a.m. Election commissioners are required to be at their polling places at 5:30. But Krack always gives herself a few extra minutes to make sure things are in order by the time the polls open at six.

She's learned this from experience. Krack first served as election commissioner half a century ago, working in the same ward (6) and precinct (1) where she'll serve Tuesday. She has served at various Orleans Parish polling locations over the years, including Treme and Parkview. Ward 6, Precinct 1, which currently has 545 registered voters, was once her home precinct; she now votes on the other side of the Quarter.

Krack began as commissioner in 1954, when the polling place was at St. Mary's Catholic Youth Organization on the corner of Governor Nicholls and Chartres streets, a building that has long since been turned into condominiums. Her first presidential election was in 1956, when incumbent Dwight D. Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson.

Krack is one of nearly 2,700 commissioners who oversee elections in Orleans Parish. Commissioners run the polls, check voters in and guard against fraud. Despite the importance of those duties, Board of Election Supervisors executive director Betsy Williams-West says that she always has to scramble to get enough commissioners to cover an election. Four commissioners plus a commissioner-in-charge serve at most of Orleans Parish's 442 precincts, making the list of 2,700 commissioners seem more than adequate. But some commissioners have jobs that conflict with weekday elections. Others have difficulties getting to the neighborhoods where they are needed.

Most of the city's commissioners are elderly, says Williams-West, and four-fifths are women. Most are African-American. Many rely on public transportation to reach locations far from home by 5:30 a.m. and return home the same way, well after dark.

For a 15-hour day of checking voters against precinct registers, signing them in, activating voting machines and sorting through problems, commissioners receive $100, or roughly $6.50 an hour. To serve, they must have attended a training class since the latest election for Clerk of Civil District Court and another class prior to each primary election. Commissioners-in-charge like Krack earn an additional $50 to oversee the daily operations and deliver the voting machine keys and election returns to the Clerk of Court's office in the Criminal District Court building at Tulane Avenue and Broad Street. They also must drive to the post office to mail a packet of returns to the Secretary of State's office on election night.

On Tuesday, Krack will tend her assigned precinct at McDonogh 15 Elementary School on St. Philip Street, just blocks from the place where she first served. "It's a job I like," says Krack, a former secretary who once served on the staffs of former U.S. Rep. F. Edward Hebert and of New Orleans mayors deLesseps Morrison and Victor Schiro. "I thought it was neat because you produce a product in the most exact way you can."

IN A RACE THAT PROMISES MURKINESS, Krack's commitment to exactitude is reassuring. She knows by heart when to use the voter affidavit form (when a registered voter has no form of photo ID) and the address confirmation form (if a voter is identified as inactive on the precinct register or is alleged to have moved). She knows where to file the physicians' certificates presented by voters who need help in voting. She enforces the law by making sure that her polling place does not close until the last voter who was in line at 8 p.m. -- the putative "closing time" for polling places -- has had an opportunity to vote.

On Sept. 18, all of the four precincts that use McDonogh 15 as their polling place had their machines when commissioners reported for duty -- in part, Krack says, because the school has a very conscientious custodian. That custodian, Regina Gathright, confirms that she has already been contacted numerous times to arrange for the delivery of Tuesday's voting machines.

In fact, Krack has little patience with shoddy election proceedings. Asked about the 2000 election in Florida with its famous hanging chads, Krack says. "We wouldn't have put up with that. We'd have called the (voting machine) warehouse."

Commissioners bore the brunt of voter frustration on Sept. 18, says Williams-West. On that day, the commissioners had to improvise a response to a situation that wasn't outlined in any of the numerous guides and checklists provided to them.

Not that those guides and checklists are always helpful -- or even consistent. "The people who put the election procedures together are out of their minds," says Krack. She scoffs at the densely worded instruction booklets that commissioners will find inside each voting machine at 5:30 a.m. Krack prefers a simple, handwritten list of steps she's developed over years, checking it against the "new" instructions once she has at least one machine ready to receive her first voter.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time, my list is right," says Krack. If she discovers a discrepancy between her list and the official instructions, she goes back and fixes it.

There are mishaps, for sure. One Election Day afternoon, Krack and her commissioners realized that two more voters signed in than they had votes on the machine. By backtracking through the register, they figured out that two sisters had arrived separately, signed the book, then become engrossed in conversation and left. Krack tracked them down and made them come back to vote.

When someone electioneers within the 600-foot buffer zone around the polling place, Krack tells them they're breaking the law and to stop. "I pace it off," she says. Once, when a group of campaign workers refused to remove their signs from the neutral ground outside a polling place, she waited for them to leave and removed them herself.

Then there are mishaps that she can't address, such as when a toddler pushes the "cast vote" button while their parent is still making choices. "There's nothing you can do there," she says.

THE FRENCH QUARTER WAS A SMALLER PLACE when Krack was first recruited for what, in 1954, was a volunteer civic duty. Mary Morrison, the wife of then-Mayor Morrison's half-brother Jacob "Jake" Morrison, was Krack's back-fence neighbor. Krack had just finished a stint in Rep. Hebert's office when Morrison approached her and suggested that she act as a commissioner in her local precinct. A prominent figure in the "Civic-Minded Sixth Warders," part of the Crescent City Democratic Association, Morrison was a difficult force to resist.

"Once you started with Mary, what earthly reason could you give to get out?" asks Krack, raising an eyebrow.

Krack's procedures have changed a bit over 50 years. No longer does she rely on face recognition to admit voters to the polls; she now checks ID or utility bills, even for those she knows by name. Nor does she serve with neighbors. This Tuesday, two of her three fellow commissioners will come from eastern New Orleans, and the third will come from another precinct. The four women have worked together for two years, and know each other's routines. During the day, all four will have to leave to vote in their home precincts.

Williams-West says Krack is not actually the longest-serving commissioner in Orleans Parish -- although she can't immediately name anyone who has served longer. Many who take the required course to be a commissioner never actually work once they realize the long hours required. But those who serve often serve for decades, and those who work together election after election often become like family. Death and illness are the biggest causes of turnover among commissioners, Williams-West says.

Aside from taking classes, the only requirements for commissioners is that they are registered to vote, are not members of a candidate's immediate family, and have not been convicted of an election offense. Last year, the state Legislature passed a law making it possible for 17-year-old high school seniors to serve as election commissioners, even though they aren't registered voters. The law hasn't yet had any visible impact on increasing the number of young people monitoring elections in Orleans Parish.

Meanwhile, the system relies on its older, seasoned commissioners for their institutional knowledge. On a recent evening, Krack peered through two sets of glasses -- they serve as her bifocals -- at a list of polling-place closing procedures from March. The list didn't even mention the new Federal Provisional Ballots or how to deliver them properly, something that Krack had noted in the margin in red. She also noted that she thought commissioners should have a form for stating the total number of provisional ballots cast during the day in the precinct. Those are her suggestions, but experience has taught her to not expect a call asking for advice. "Either the election is right or wrong when we get through, but nobody ever asks a commissioner what should be changed," says Krack.

For Carolyn Krack, a half-century of serving as election commissioner has taught her to wake up early and not expect calls for advice. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • For Carolyn Krack, a half-century of serving as election commissioner has taught her to wake up early and not expect calls for advice.

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