By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 15, 2006
The Montgomery County Board of Elections member stopped by to grab some M&Ms and Whoppers from the jar on Paul Valette's desk.
"No blood?" board Secretary Samuel L. Statland asked with a smile yesterday afternoon.
"Why would there be any blood?" Valette said, chuckling.
And then he sighed. After all, what Valette has faced this week isn't a laughing matter. As the county's manager of election operations, he oversaw the logistics that should have allowed voters to easily cast ballots in Tuesday's primary. Instead, it turned into one of the biggest election fiascos in Maryland history.
Workers on Valette's staff inexplicably forgot to include the plastic cards needed to cast electronic votes when they prepared green canvas bags for election judges. The mistake -- discovered 45 minutes before polling places were to open -- delayed thousands of voters and sparked calls for the top two Elections Board officials to resign or be fired.
No one has asked for Valette's resignation, perhaps because few people know who he is. He could have remained a nameless, behind-the-scenes bureaucrat while his bosses took the public heat. Instead, Valette, 59, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former District tax lawyer, is stepping forward to take responsibility.
He called the voting card mistake "horrifying."
"It's a sick kind of feeling," Valette said in his small office, lined with government manuals, in a former middle school in Rockville. "We know we busted our tails, and we know that of all the things we could have done wrong, this was one of the worst."
Valette rubbed tired-looking eyes behind his glasses. He hasn't slept much since he awoke at 3 a.m. Tuesday, he said. Just over three hours after that, the Board of Elections office phones began ringing nonstop with flustered poll workers complaining that they couldn't find the cards.
"Oh my God," Valette recalls thinking. "This is just absolutely a disaster."
Since then, his agency has been called incompetent, accused of failing its only mission in a county that prides itself on good government. But Valette remains remarkably undefensive, answering every question during a three-hour interview. "It happened in my shop, on my watch," he said. "That's the only way I know how to look at it."
He said he doesn't know how the 13,000 blue-and-white access cards got left out of the voting materials assembled in the Board of Elections warehouse last Friday. The cards should have been in the security bag, which remains zipped and fastened with a red plastic padlock until 6 a.m. on primary election day, he said.
The sealed bag contains passwords and other sensitive material. The list of items sent to poll workers is six pages long. As he scanned it yesterday, Valette was asked to point out where the access cards were listed. For several minutes, he flipped between pages. He didn't find them. "Maybe we've found the answer," he said with a nervous laugh.
Valette spends two years planning for each Election Day. He must find polling places for every one of the county's 238 precincts, hire and train about 3,500 poll workers and make sure they have the materials they need. In addition to getting voting booths delivered, Valette's staff makes sure poll workers receive almost 100 items, from duct tape and pencil sharpeners to temporary signs for disabled parking.
Valette said the mistake that marred Tuesday's primary also might have stemmed from a larger problem. He said his staff had less time than usual to prepare. It spent much of the summer planning for early elections before a court order banned them.
The office also faced a training crunch, he said, because some of the computerized voting equipment arrived several months later than anticipated.
Those calling for firings say that, even with Valette's admissions, they still want others to go.
"It's refreshing to have someone stand up and take responsibility," said David Weaver, spokesman for Montgomery Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D). Still, Weaver said, Nancy H. Dacek, president of the election board, and Margaret Jurgensen, the county's election director, remain ultimately responsible.
"The executive stands by his call for their removal," Weaver said, adding that Duncan was not doing interviews while recovering from hip replacement surgery.
Valette, a registered Democrat who lives in Silver Spring with his wife, Jan, went to work for the Board of Elections in 2001. He had graduated from Georgetown University's law school at age 50 before becoming a tax lawyer for the District corporation council. He retired from the Army in 1994, last working at the Pentagon. He spent most of his 25-year Army career as an intelligence officer, including interrogating prisoners and debriefing informants during the Vietnam War.
"I'm not going to get an ulcer over this," he said yesterday. "If I lose my job, I lose my job. It's not the end of the world. . . . As a soldier, I have the perspective that starts with: 'Is anyone going to die? No? Then, okay, we're automatically down one level.' "
Valette said he is confident that November's general election will go more smoothly. The employee who directly supervised the bag stuffing is "fantastic, meticulous and detail-oriented," he said. Valette declined to give her name but said he joined her yesterday as she gave a pep talk to her staff.
"We've got 56 days to put on another election," Valette said he told the group. "We have to look at where we're going, not where we've been."