Humphrey Institute employee named elections manager

Rachel Smith will oversee 2010 elections for the governor and the U.S. House.

by Mike Mullen

When Rachel Smith went to work in November 2008, her job had changed dramatically. Smith, then election manager for Anoka County, supervised a recount of the countyâÄôs ballots. Though recounts were routine, this one was unlike any sheâÄôd ever been involved in; a decisive seat in the U.S. Senate was at stake. The public and media, who are allowed to observe recounts in person, along with representatives from incumbent Norm Coleman and candidate Al Franken, were waiting for her. âÄúItâÄôs sort of like doing your job with 150 people watching you at all times,âÄù Smith said. After the recount, Smith took a job with the University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Now, Hennepin County has come calling, and Smith, 32, will leave the Humphrey Institute to become the countyâÄôs election manager. Professor Larry Jacobs, who was involved in hiring Smith to the Humphrey Institute, said when he and Dean Brian Atwood started a program on elections administration, Smith was one of the first candidates considered for program director. âÄúRachelâÄôs name came up as one of the real stars,âÄù Jacobs said. Smith was first brought on as a consultant to the new program, but she had been a full-time employee for roughly the last year. During that time, she and Jacobs worked with county officials and a group of legislators to propose election reforms. Smith said that among the issues discussed âÄî some of which are now in pending legislation âÄî was the way absentee votes are collected, counted and checked. Jacobs said SmithâÄôs experience during the 2008 recount came up often during her time with the institute. âÄúThe 2008 recount is one of those things we call âÄòa teaching opportunity,âÄô âÄúJacobs said. âÄúThe Minnesota Election Administration in general is one of the best in the country, but you donâÄôt really know how things work until you get to these squeakers.âÄù Smith said the recount was her most stressful professional experience. Anoka County brought in 21 city clerks who sat at a dozen tables and conducted a physical recount of each ballot cast in the county while the media and interested public observed. Representatives from the Franken and Coleman campaigns sat at each table, ready to challenge any ballot decision. The countyâÄôs recount lasted five full days. âÄúWe had 185,000 ballots that had to be physically handled and counted, which is a lot,âÄù Smith said. After the initial recount, Smith testified for a day and a half before a three-judge panel that heard a lawsuit from Coleman over the recountâÄôs findings. On election night, Coleman had been declared the winner by a narrow margin. Smith said she knew there would be a recount but had expected that the results would not change. After the recount and a contentious legal battle, Franken was declared the winner by only 225 votes. Because FrankenâÄôs victory would mean a filibuster-proof 60 Democrats in the Senate, the recount drew national attention. âÄúWe were definitely under the microscope with the public,âÄù Smith said. âÄúBut I always felt like it was very transparent, and was actually quite proud of Minnesota and how our system worked out.âÄù Hennepin County Auditor and Treasurer Jill Alverson first contacted Smith in February about the open position. Alverson said the county decided to reassign Elections Manager Michelle DesJardin in January and made a short list of potential replacements. âÄúShe was definitely on the short list, because you can probably count on one hand the number of people who are qualified in the state of Minnesota to do these kinds of jobs,âÄù Alverson said. After an interview process, Smith emerged as the countyâÄôs preferred candidate. Alverson said that March, when Smith will take the job, is a good time to hire a new elections manager. Smith will have a few months to prepare for the coming election season. The Legislature is currently considering an earlier date for primaries to help account for all absentee ballots, in part as a response to complications that occurred during the 2008 recount. This year, SmithâÄôs office will handle elections for governor and the U.S. House of Representatives, among others. Smith said she learned a lot during her time at the Humphrey Institute, but she called her new job a âÄúonce in a lifetime opportunity.âÄù âÄúIâÄôm very excited,âÄù Smith said. âÄúI think this is a great fit for both me and Hennepin County. I truly see this as a long-term commitment there, and plan to be there for a long time.âÄù