Nancy Dacek's 15 Minutes Of Fame, Give or Take
Sunday, September 17, 2006
Overseeing elections these days comes with a special job hazard they don't tell you about in civics class. Ask Nancy Dacek.
Here she is at 72, pursuing a grandmotherly semi-retirement, an autumnal coda of civic service to cap a career of PTA activism and 12 years in politics as a lonely Republican tilting at the Democratic wind in Montgomery County. Being president of the elections board pays $8,500 a year and gives her time to spend with her eight grandchildren, garden in Darnestown, play more tennis than ever and walk nearly every day along the C&O Canal with her beagle Lenny.
Then comes Tuesday morning, her third Election Day as board president, and something goes horribly wrong. Suddenly voters are snarling, sneering. The botched election has brought shame to the county's image of competence. People are calling for Dacek's head . Politicians and editorial writers want her fired . Her former colleagues -- friends! -- on the County Council summon her to be grilled tomorrow morning at a public hearing.
Woe is the beleaguered elections chief -- an ever more frequent stock character in a bitter partisan nation. It seems you can't have an election anymore without an army of bulldog lawyers, imperious judges, inscrutable statisticians and cranky computer scientists massaging the outcome. The closer you look at elections -- the error rates, the overvotes, the computer crashes, the hanging chads -- the less faith you have. You feel like blaming somebody for Democracy Lost.
"We need to clean house here, to reassure people and to try to restore our reputation," says council member Howard Denis, a Republican who served with Dacek and is on the council committee that will question her and Election Director Margaret Jurgensen tomorrow. "I do think they should appear on Monday in sack cloths and ashes and fall on their swords."
County Executive Doug Duncan and council President George Leventhal, both Democrats, want both women fired. Leventhal uses the words "absolutely unacceptable and unconscionable." Is Nancy Dacek, then, Montgomery County's own Theresa LePore? LePore was the infamous elections chief responsible for the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County, Fla., during that unforgettable, interminable presidential election year of 2000.
Dacek considers the question during a break last week in the tally of absentee ballots. She's standing in a corridor of elections board headquarters, a converted middle school in Rockville that retains the old metal lockers and bilious green wall tiles. She has clear, pale blue eyes, behind wireless glasses perched on the end of her nose, and a short, tousled haircut. Her coral-colored sweater came from Chico's, she reveals, when she learns even the Style section is interested in her now.
"Ohhh, I don't think so," she says with a wave of her hand. She sounds amused and fatigued. But not defensive, nor defiant. "It's fine. I'll cut out the articles myself and save them for my grandchildren."
She accommodates a photographer's request to stand outside by a sign for the elections board. It's as if she knows the role she is being assigned by the public and the media: She knows there's no use fighting the spotlight, so she might as well use it to show she has nothing to hide.
Since everybody's asking, No, definitely not, she does not think she should lose her job. A subordinate, operations manager Paul Valette, has claimed responsibility for the actions of unidentified members of his staff who failed to ensure that voter access cards were included in the packages sent to each polling place. Without the ATM-style cards, voters could not use the touch-screen voting machines. The cards eventually arrived, but nearly 12,000 voters had to fill out paper ballots; an uncounted number could not take the extra time and left without voting, effectively disenfranchised. The provisional ballots will be tallied starting tomorrow, right after the council hearing.
At this point, Dacek's position is this: She is eager to get to the bottom of the problem and fix it but refuses to let herself or her staff be scapegoated. "We're not looking at 'the buck stops here,' we're looking at putting out an outstanding election in November . . . The fact is we have another election" in less than eight weeks, she says. "To have all these experienced people let go without due process and at this time would leave the whole department in shambles."