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L.A. County Registrar Ready for Her Biggest Challenge

Elections chief Conny McCormack is respected as a tireless worker and an expert in her field. She braces for bedlam in today's balloting.

October 07, 2003|Sue Fox | Times Staff Writer

The day the ice storm hit Dallas, glazing the roads and sending government workers home early, Austin McCormack had a hunch where to find the young woman named Conny whom he'd been wanting to ask out.

He carefully threaded his way across town, down to the county government building and through darkened halls to the county clerk's office. The light was on. He popped his head in and there she was, the 32-year-old chief of elections, plugging away at her desk.

"I knew you'd still be here," he said. "Want to get a cup of coffee?"

Twenty-two years later, Los Angeles County's Registrar-Recorder Conny McCormack is still obsessed with elections and still, in her words, "a total workaholic." (Coffee with Austin went well -- they will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary this month.)

But California's gubernatorial recall campaign is enough to strain even the most hard-core elections wonk.

McCormack will be in the thick of the action today, putting out last-minute fires and juggling interviews as the state's 58 counties stage a special election just 75 days after it was called.

Nowhere is the election day challenge as great as in Los Angeles County, a massive region of 4 million registered voters. It is by far the largest electoral district in the nation, and one of the few in California that still uses punch-card ballots, those much-maligned devices that gave Florida voters so much grief during the 2000 presidential contest.

When punch cards were challenged in California, McCormack filed a brief urging a federal court to let the Oct. 7 recall proceed. The court agreed, and McCormack, an elections expert frequently called upon to advise Congress, quickly plunged back into the complex logistics of pulling off the election.

At the center of the storm -- the registrar's office in Norwalk -- chaos and order battle for the upper hand. In the days leading up to the election, it was sometimes tough to tell which was winning.

By Friday, all 1,786 precinct inspectors had received their 50-pound boxes of supplies. More than 2,000 county workers had volunteered to help run the election, and McCormack's staff was corralling a few more to handle "line management" and other duties at the polls.

But chaos occasionally crept in. Take Thursday, when a computer virus crippled the county's network and software technicians swarmed the building to install 900 security "patches." Meanwhile, the registrar's e-mail system was so clogged with messages from voters, candidates and reporters that it had to be taken out of service for five hours.

McCormack scurried back into her office to return phone calls, many of them from reporters. In the last few weeks, she has given more than 10 interviews a day. A pack of journalists from 25 countries, including China, India and Brazil, was due to arrive in her office Monday.

Today, McCormack planned to get up for a 3:45 a.m. interview with Katie Couric, co-anchor of NBC's "Today" show.

McCormack said she has never seen such intense media interest in an election. "If the media just vote in this election," she said dryly, "there will be a record turnout."

Even as bedlam swirls around her, McCormack remains cool. She is always smartly dressed, a silk scarf often draped around her neck. Her nails glisten with a French manicure. Her voice is gravelly and her words direct.

"She's a perfectionist," said Steve Logan, who oversees the county's absentee voting. "She'll stand up for you, but you got to do things right."

With a father in the Air Force, McCormack grew up on military bases around the United States and in Europe. By the late 1970s, McCormack was living in Dallas, where she ran the jury services department for the state and county courts.

She was a nonpartisan, and after a particularly nasty election Dallas County created an appointed position of elections administrator. As a young department head with no political baggage, Conny was a natural choice. She supervised elections in Dallas for six years and then served as the San Diego County registrar of voters for seven years.

In a field where many of her colleagues are elected as Democrats or Republicans, McCormack belongs to no party. "I think the most important thing is absolute fairness," she said.

At 54, she lives with her husband and their dog in Whittier. They never had children because, McCormack said, she was immersed in her work and "never could figure out how you could do both well."

In Los Angeles County, registrars are appointed by the Board of Supervisors. McCormack has been the county's elections chief since late 1995, following a year working for a nonprofit foundation to reform elections in Russia.

After the debacle in Florida's 2000 presidential balloting cast a harsh light on the nuts and bolts of American elections, McCormack made many trips to Washington to advise Congress.

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