When Emmett Fremaux Jr. arrived here a year ago to become executive director of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, he inherited an agency so plagued by voting day snafus and public ridicule that the board itself tended to generate more attention than the elections it is charged with overseeing.
The main part of Fremaux's mission was to implement a plan the City Council had devised and enacted into law two years ago calling for the elections board to salvage its disastrous voter rolls.
Along the way, Fremaux introduced a number of administrative reforms that have helped streamline day-to-day operations and boost staff morale, leaving a number of observers impressed with how far the board has come in so short a time.
Geoffrey E. Stamm, an ANC commissioner from Foggy Bottom, said he couldn't believe the elections office he visited recently was the same one he dealt with a few years ago. "When I went there to get a petition in 1980, it was a disaster," Stamm said. "The attitude of the staff seemed to be that the fewer people they could get to participate, the less work they had to do.
"This time around there was a 100 percent turnaround in attitude," he said. "They had thought out in advance what I'd need, had it on hand as soon as I asked for it."
Fremaux, working late in the isolated District building on a recent evening, said the true grit of the agency's reform efforts so far will be tested on Election Day next Tuesday: "This is by any account the biggest and most demanding election we will have conducted. We've had to conduct three elections since I've been here, but the planning for this one began the day I arrived."
He likens the elections planning process to a moon shot, consisting of many intricate systems, each with thousands of little pieces that need to come together at the same time to make it work.
Fremaux said the board faces an "administrative nightmare" in preparing for the election. "We're talking about putting 1,800 workers in the polls, 200,000 people will come in to vote, we'll be handling half a million ballots. . . . "
Two "wrinkles" he noted in Tuesday's voting are the anticipated high voter turnout for the presidential election -- expected to be as many as 200,000 -- along with Advisory Neighborhood Commission races, which require the elections staff to handle separate ballots for each of the 323 ANC Single Member Districts.
Pulling off next week's election is a job guaranteed to tax even the smoothest of systems -- and temperaments -- but the 37-year-old native of New Orleans has impressed city officials with his expertise and his unfailing good humor and poise.
"Mr. Fremaux has been exceptional -- a real leader, a planner, with good bureaucratic instincts," said Edward W. Norton, the D.C. Board of Elections chairman who hired him last year.
Norton, a former general counsel to two federal government agencies, said he himself had paused when asked to take over control of the beleaguered agency in the spring of 1983, after half a dozen other people had turned down the mayor's offer. He said he agreed to take the part-time position after he investigated the elections agency and concluded that "the problem was not as great as the press's perception of the problem" -- a perception he said was rooted heavily in the "snapshot" recollection people had of the fall 1982 voter registration foulup.
In that incident, 20,000 qualified voters turned out at the polls only to find that their names had been struck from the rolls during a computer conversion, forcing them to cast special ballots.
The 1982 voter registration fiasco prompted the council's plan ordering the elections office to clean up its records. "So the needed reform was set up against a favorable backdrop," Norton said, and "the critical piece was an effective administrator."
When Fremaux first learned of the D.C. job he was deputy court clerk in New Orleans, with a degree in public administration and nine years of experience in running elections for that city, managing a staff of 90 and supervising systemization of court records.
He said he first learned of the D.C. position from a recruiting ad in a professional elections magazine. He applied for the job, but in May 1982 it went to a man named Teddy Filosofos, an elections administrator from Buffalo.
Four months later Filosofos resigned, citing political interference, incompetent staff and an unwieldy computer system. Fremaux said he got a call in New Orleans inviting him to reapply for the job. He came on the job in September a year ago.
Fremaux said the perceived state of chaos at the elections board in fact provided a tremendous catalyst for much-needed change at the elections office: "Trying to change things organizationally is incredibly hard . . .but it can be done particularly in crisis, disaster, chaos -- under those conditions you get the mandate for change that otherwise may not be available."
In such a situation, he said, "people want you to succeed, they want to be convinced."
After a year of insight, Fremaux attributed the agency's woes largely to the District's relatively brief experience in handling elections.
The city's election laws, for example, are a patchwork of legislation that has built up over the years, leaving areas of authority vague and overlapping. From an administrative standpoint, the electoral machinery had gotten bogged down in the multiple functions the board was required to perform.
"Things just never got set up as a professional office, staffed and organized and funded accordingly," Fremaux said. "Ten or 12 years go by and things acrue. That's what happened with the voter rolls."
But the problem goes beyond merely installing computers and other modern techniques, he said. "Basically, this office had been set up to run the entire election system -- in states, nobody has that kind of centralized authority . . . . It's generally fragmented, with systems divided up between the secretary of state, the clerk of courts, elections commissions and boards of supervisors," he said. But here, "it's all in one place, which is a huge responsibility." FF or Fremaux, working to bring the elections office into step F has exacted a heavy personal price: "Oh, God, this year has been -- how can I say it? Just ask my wife."
"Basically, the price is being paid this year. There's five years of work to do in one year, it's that kind of thing. And it's gone since before I got here. This staff of 30 has been killing itself to get things done."
Regular 12-hour days leave little time for the youthful director to spend time with his wife and 3 1/2-year-old daughter enjoying Washington, a city he calls "like the Paris of the U.S." in terms of its "consciousness," its intellectual and cultural vitality, its sheer beauty. He said after growing up in the South, moving to D.C. was like "coming up from underwater."
Fremaux also taught high school English for a year, and the teacher instincts come to the fore in the special interest he has taken in personally conducting training sessions for the city's poll workers. Last week he spent every day at Logan School in Northeast Washington taking precinct volunteers through a step-by-step simulation of the voting poll process. All poll workers are required to attend from two to six hours of such training before each election to become informed as much as possible to answer voters' questions.
Fremaux demands feedback from his volunteers -- and gets it, then reports back to them in a regular newsletter he writes. "Plastic garbage bags used to hold the ballots are not big enough," was a recent complaint.
The Phi Beta Kappa in English also has been praised by D.C. officials for rewriting the city's worker training manuals and voter information in "plain English."
Betty B. Lee, a "special ballot" clerk for precinct 135 with 30 years of experience in working at the polls here and in her native New York, said during a break in last week's training session: "They've had these sessions in the past, but they've never been so comprehensive. They're explaining things better . . . it's easier now to know what we're supposed to do and when we're supposed to be doing it."
Fremaux said he sees four areas the board will have to think about addressing after it winds down from next week's election:
*Creating a more sound statutory framework -- clarifying a lot of areas that are cloudy and as yet untested in the city's short election history.
*Modifying the board's regulations to flesh out that statutory authority and clear up lines of responsibility.
*Further refinement of registration rolls.
*Building up the "depth" of staff to begin moving out of a crisis mode and into normal functioning as an agency.
Will Fremaux be around to monitor the longer term results of an exhausting year? "I serve purely at the pleasure of the board," he answered automatically.
For now, he said, "I just want to think about wrapping up this election and maybe finishing up in time to get home for Christmas."