The Election Administrator's Perspective
Wes Wagner, Jefferson county, Mo.
Jacquelyn Callanen, Bexar county, Texas
Maggie Toulouse Oliver, Bernalillo county, N.M.
Jack Arrowsmith, Douglas county, Colo.
Lori Edwards, Polk County, Fla.
Bill Bullard, Jr., Oakland County, Mich.
George Gilbert, Guilford County, N.C.
Steve Rawlings, Davis County, Utah
Candace Grubbs, Butte County, Calif.
Cameron Quinn, Fairfax County, Virginia
Michael Winn, Travis County, Texas
Brian Newby, Johnson County, Kansas
NCSL Elections Resources
Election officials--the people who run elections at the state and local level--have a unique perspective that can be helpful to state legislators as they consider elections policy. NCSL's elections newsletter, The Canvass, brings those voices directly to state capitols. Over time, "The Election Administrator's Perspective" will feature interviews with election officials about their insights that they can offer to legislators. The Canvass will include short versions of those interviews, and the full text of the interviews is available below.
This will be a two-way street; any administrators who want to know what's on the mind of legislators can go to similar interviews captured in the From The Chair feature.
If you know of an election administrator who would be good to interview (or if you are an administrator who has a story to tell) please contact us.
Wes Wagner, county clerk for Jefferson County, Mo. (April 2013 issue)
Wes Wagner is the clerk in Jefferson County, MO, with 150,000 registered voters. He took over the job from his first boss, Eleanor Koch Rehm, who held the job from 1966 to 2005. Wagner also served in the Missouri legislature for eight years, giving him a state perspective as well as a local perspective. The Canvass talked with him on April 3, 2013.
Q: How did you get into elections administration?
A: During high school, I worked part time during the summer in the elections office. I’d ride around in a U-Haul truck and deliver equipment. Lo and behold, thirty years later, here I am.
Q: What concerns you about elections?
A: The biggest issue, and one nobody’s talking about, is that in Missouri, you are not required to register to vote with your legal name. It would be my opinion that a voter could go from county to county (jurisdiction to jurisdiction) and register to vote using any variation of the citizen's legal name. This would allow a person to be registered in multiple jurisdictions under multiple names. I believe this individual could cast a ballot under each registration with a high degree of certainty that he would not be caught. We must require voters to sign up with their legal names.
Q: What practical issues face your jurisdiction now?
A: A polling place has three parts. Part A is the check-in; Part B is the voter having the ballot in the voting booth; and Part C is the equipment, whether touch screen or an optical scan device. I think in Missouri the most pressing need is Part C. In my opinion, the equipment we have now was really just a stop-gap measure. After all the problems in Florida in 2000, the federal government gave us money to buy equipment, but it was “hurry up, hurry up,” without any long-term thinking. A lot of counties in Missouri are buying new equipment now, but it’s coming out of their county budgets. In Jefferson County, we buy used equipment from different counties and plan to run the legs off our equipment because we can’t afford to replace it. We’re hoping that an additional round of federal money will come along. It’s too bad that we need something bad to happen in elections, because nothing good will come in terms of funding otherwise.
Q: How can state legislators help?
There are so many issues the legislators have to deal with; they cannot be an expert on everything. They’re not supposed to be; we’re supposed to be. We just want them to have an open ear to hear our concerns. I wish they’d take off their partisan glasses, Democrat or Republican, and seek out our expertise. The people I work with could care less about politics; they just want the election to go smoothly and for every legal voter to have the opportunity to cast a ballot.
Jacquelyn Callanen, election administrator in Bexar county, Texas
Jacquelyn Callanen serves as the elections administrator for Bexar County, Texas, which includes the nation’s seventh largest city, San Antonio. On February 28, 2013, NCSL asked her about the issues in her district and her history with elections.
Q: How did you get into elections administration?
A: I was a teacher during the 1980s and frequently worked on Election Day and during early voting. It got in my blood. When I get to talk to a 80-year-old Hispanic woman who’s going to vote for the first time, it doesn’t get any better than that. Nothing warms your heart more than when you make that difference.
Q: What’s involved in running an election in Bexar County?
In order to have an election run smoothly, it takes about six months to prepare. And yet last year we had six elections in six months. Once we ended an election on a Tuesday, brought all the equipment back in by Thursday, and opened a brand new election the following Monday.
Q: Tell us about military voters in your jurisdiction.
A: Bexar County is proud that we are seventh in the country for mailing out overseas ballots. We had our wall of honor from those voters and photos of soldiers serving in Afghanistan.
Some of our young military have never voted in person. We send a pdf package to them on just how to vote. The package includes directions, a thank-you for voting; a “security envelope” and a second envelope it goes into; and of course the ballot for them to print out and sign.
Q: How can state legislators help (or what would you want them to know)?
A: What we would like from our legislators would be to make Election Day a holiday. This would open the schools for voting without disturbing the children.
Q: Tell us about the equipment Bexar uses.
A: We use 100 percent touch screen voting machines that are 11 years old. Our voters love it, our election officials love it, and we’re making it work. They’re still pumping along, but we’ve had three or four desktop computers here in the office in the meantime.
People have asked for paper trails and we have been able to provide an audit trail for the few times we’ve need a recount. Because we have no HAVA dollars, it would be a huge capital investment to retrofit our old equipment to accommodate today’s needs. In 2001, it was $8.1 million. I can only imagine what it will cost next time.
Q--What keeps you up at night?
A: The average age of our poll workers in Bexar County is 72, and we keep giving them more technology. Tom Brokaw called this age group the greatest generation and they are. They see this as their civic duty. They are proud with what they do and have stepped up and learned each new part of the system. It’s fantastic, everybody’s embracing it, but I feel for our election officials as they adjust.
Maggie Toulouse Oliver, county clerk in Bernalillo county, N.M.
Maggie Toulouse Oliver was appointed in 2007 at the surprisingly young age of 30 to be the county clerk for Bernalillo County, N.M., and then elected to the office for the first time in 2008. Given that Bernalillo County is the largest in the state and includes Albuquerque and one-third of all the state’s registered voters, this was a big job. On February 12, 2013, NCSL asked her about her early start in election administration, and what issues are burning in New Mexico now.
Q: How did you get into elections administration?
A: I didn’t set out to be an election administrator, but I was always engaged even from a very young age in electoral politics. Then in graduate school at the University of New Mexico, I studied American politics and election systems, with a focus on voter participation. In 2006, the county clerk was elected as the secretary of state. I had interacted with the office quite a bit as I did outreach and mobilization, and I was encouraged to apply because of my organizing background and my academic background. I was appointed, and then I was elected two years later.
Q: What do you like about your job?
A: It’s been one of those jobs where you can see the direct impact of the work on both the process and the people we’re trying to serve. When I came into office both New Mexico and our county had been under scrutiny for running disorganized elections. I was handed a mandate to right the ship. We went from being the perennial black eye to being a successful county. Now I can look from election to election and see the positive impact.
Q: Over the years, New Mexico has had a series of academic post-election analyses. From your administrative perspective, are these useful?
A: The studies observe and review the election from a variety of angles—in-person observation, plus surveys of pollworkers and voters. The idea is to get a 360-degree view. The benefit of that is that we get an independent outsider’s perspective. It’s very easy to get tunnel vision on the administrative side, whereas how the election impacts the public is just as important.
The studies show what we’re doing well, and offer areas we can consider for improvement.
Q: What are the issues that your jurisdiction faces now?
First and foremost, across the nation and here in New Mexico, elections are underfunded. That feeds directly into policy. I am spending a lot of time in Santa Fe advocating for some election modernization legislation. We have found that some of our antiquated processes are hindering our ability to do a better job. We have a strictly paper-based registration system, and we see a lot of registrations “falling through the cracks” that way. When we get online voter registration or even the ability to electronically transmit registration applications from the Motor Vehicle Department, we’ll be able to do a lot of other things that will help us bring integrity to our lists.
Also, I’m looking at some legislation to get 16- and 17- year-olds on the voting rolls; then the minute they turn 18 they can cast a ballot. We even have a bill to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections. The sooner people start voting the more likely they are to form a lifelong habit.
Q: What would you want state legislators to know?
Legislators have a direct intersection with the election process. They understand the importance of the election process, the importance of adequate funding of the election process, and the need for overall efficiency and integrity in the election process. But they may not be in a position to understand the background. When we ask them to pass a piece of legislation that tweaks the process, it’s to help alleviate with behind-the-scenes difficulties.
Q: Do you have concerns about equipment for the next few years?
We need to upgrade our equipment here in New Mexico. Our voter registration system and our election reporting software are very old systems, so we have a lack of functionality that could be improved. It’s true that these systems get the job done, but we need to get into the 21st century.
If I had my druthers, I’d do the reporting software first, the registration system next and thirdly the optical scanners. Other clerks might say the reverse. The scanners are buggy, and we always have to swap out a bunch on Election Day. These are less of a priority for me in Bernalillo County because we have enough backups. I think what we have will continue to perform adequately for at least two or three more election cycles.
Jack Arrowsmith, County Clerk in Douglas County, Colorado
Jack Arrowsmith was first elected in 2006, and will be term-limited out in 2014. Before serving, he was a “citizen volunteer” serving on commissions and boards at the local level. He then worked as an appointed public trustee for Douglas County, a position that linked closely with the county clerk’s office. When his predecessor, Carole Murray, became a state senator, she asked him to consider running . He did; he won; he loves it. On January 15, NCSL asked him about his experiences.
Q; I’ve heard that you have a wonderful new facility; not many election administrators can say that.
A: Yes, that’s true. When we held the 2008 election, we were in a building that also housed offices for the recorder, the assessor and the motor vehicle bureau. Space was limited. We were in virtually every space available, including hallways, meeting spaces, etc. We were busting at the seams.
After that election, I went to the county board of commissioners and said ‘I can’t do another presidential election in this building.’ The county was and is growing, and the 2008 election was the biggest we’d ever had.
The commission started a building fund right away. We were fortunate to be able to buy a former newspaper building. It was configured with warehouse space, loading docks and a secure basement area that we could revamp for Election Day operations. It really fit our needs like a glove. We moved in 2012, just in time to run the primary.
Q: How do you describe elections in your jurisdiction?
A: It’s incredible how complicated these processes are. When you run an election in Colorado, there are four pieces that almost stand as independent processes. The mail ballot process is definitely its own, what with printing, mailing, and verifying the signatures. (NOTE: Colorado voters can request an absentee ballot by mail.) In off years, when we don’t run polling place elections, this is the whole process.
In even years, we also offer two weeks of early voting at seven locations around the county, run along the lines of vote centers. The electronic equipment is set up so that anyone can show up at any of those locations and vote any ballot. Then the Friday before Election Day we get the equipment back, reset it, and re-deploy it into the field. We run Election Day as a polling place election. We have some super-precincts with several precincts housed in the same building, but the equipment is configured for that precinct.
Now, provisional ballots are their own process. Douglas County had 2800 provisional ballots cast in 2012! That is higher than seen in the past, and there seems to be a tendency that we are getting more and more. Some of that is voter preference; if someone shows up at the wrong polling place and insists they want to vote, that’s the only way we can have them vote. But it’s intended as a fail-safe process, so that if someone shows up to vote and they aren’t in the poll books they can vote. Human beings are involved, and we can make mistakes. Provisional ballots are a last chance. They serves a good purpose, to ensure that no one is disenfranchised. For us, we have ten days to verify that the person is an eligible voter, so that work becomes harder if more people are using these ballots.
Q: What would you like state legislators to know?
A: I think that oftentimes when clerks go to the legislature and complain about legislation, legislators think, ‘the clerks just want this to be easier.’ The problem that keeps us up at night is that the process now is so complicated it doesn’t take much to blow it up. In 2010, when provisional ballots began to be used heavily, it was all we could do to get those provisional ballots out in the field. Every time the legislature adds a nuance, it puts elections at risk. Every time it becomes more complex, there’s retraining, a new process, and it takes time.
Q: Do you have any concerns about equipment?
In Douglas County, we still have some “shelf life” left on our hard equipment, but no equipment lasts forever. After the 2012 presidential election, I went to the county commission and said, “the building was the first thing; the next thing is going to be the equipment. In the not too distant future, we’re going to have to upgrade. And we’re not talking chump change.” Sooner or later every county is in the same basket. In 2006 we bought new equipment, but about half of the cost was offset by federal money through the Help America Vote Act. Unless there’s something happening in the federal government that I don’t know about , there’s no money to help a county now.
Lori Edwards, Supervisor of Elections in Polk County, Florida
Lori Edwards is beginning her fourth 4-year term as the supervisor of elections in Polk County, Fla. She describes her jurisdiction of 340,000 voters as “in the middle of the I-4 corridor, between Tampa and Orlando, which is the swing part of one of the biggest swing states.” Now she is the incoming president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections. On September 18, 2012, NCSL asked her about her perspective on Florida’s readiness for the presidential election and beyond.
Q: How did you get into the elections administration business?
A: The democratic process has been my lifelong passion. I served as a state legislator for eight years before terming out, and running for my current position. Because I’ve been a legislator, it’s harder to bluff me.
Q: The nation has been watching Florida’s court case over last year’s reduction in early voting. What’s your take?
A: The impact of the shortening of the early voting hours is less than that of some other new laws in Florida. The one most bothersome to me is the harsh guidelines for third party voter registration. I see people in our community, whether they are from the chamber of commerce, or teachers, or young people, who basically back away from helping give people the opportunity to register to vote because they’re daunted and intimidated by the heavy-handed bureaucracy as well as the fines.
Just recently the court threw out the fines and the 48-hour deadline for returning completed registration forms, but many unnecessary hoops and chutes and ladders still exist, just to register people. I’m not worried about the political parties and the League of Women Voters; they’ll be fine. It is the community people who are turning away.
Q: What other issues are front and center for your jurisdiction now?
A: A number of issues have been big in this very important election year in what is a very important swing state. One is the voter purge we saw earlier this year. It was not only slapdash, but it had no upside. The voter rolls were not improved! All that this did was to shake voter confidence. That is going to produce challenges, and it may have the effect of tamping down turnout.
Q: And from an administrative perspective?
A: Election officials get up every day wanting to serve their voters; it is the professional ethic. But in our recent climate, the administrative concerns are always second tier to those of the political parties or the activists, and yet we’re the ones you depend on to give you a fair election.
For instance, we are concerned about this year’s very big ballot and the logistics that will entail. The ballot is four oversized pieces of paper, printed on both sides. That translates in a large county into tons and tons of paper that must be moved and processed, always under secure systems. People don’t ever think about that, and yet that’s what we talk about when we get together.
Q: Is money a concern?
A: Not really. Belts are tight all over, but speaking for my jurisdiction, we’re provided with the money to get the job done, and nothing fancy.
Bill Bullard, Jr., Oakland County Clerk and Recorder, Michigan
While Bill Bullard, Jr., is only in his second year as the county clerk and recorder in Oakland County, Mich., he brings to his office a rich and distinguished public service career, including 20 years as a state legislator. Oakland is Michigan’s second largest county, with 1.2 million voters and a mix of urban and rural areas. On August 27, 2012, NCSL asked for his perspective on elections and the key issues facing his office.
Q: How did you get into elections administration?
A: I got into it by being appointed when the former clerk resigned to become the secretary of state. It was relatively smooth because I had worked in county government for eight years prior to being appointed, and was chair of the county board of commissioners for six years. I already knew how elections work from the candidate’s side, and that gave me a pretty good starting point.
Q: What issues are hot in your area now?
A: Citizenship. Our secretary of state has determined that 103 percent of the voting age population is registered to vote. We have dead people on our rolls, and people who have moved away, and we have non-citizens on our rolls. I’ve proven it from looking at our jury rolls. [Editor’s note: jury pools in Michigan and many other states are drawn from voter registration lists.] For jurors, the fourth question is, ‘are you a citizen?,’ so we can find people who are not citizens and yet are on the voter rolls.
The secretary of state has come up with a solution I support. She has put on our absentee ballot application the question, are you a citizen, yes or no? Answering that question should make people think twice--if you’re not a citizen, you should not be voting. And oh by the way, if you’re a noncitizen legally in this country, voting could hurt your chances of becoming a citizen. To me it’s common sense, although a lawsuit was just filed over this issue.
Q: How can Michigan's legislature help administrators?
A: With deadlines. This year we tried to move the filing deadlines under Michigan law moved back, and we succeeded in getting a bill passed that moves that deadline to 14 weeks before an election for partisan offices and 13 weeks for nonpartisan offices. We now have several statutes with various deadlines for ballot initiatives, and we are working to get those aligned. If we can move those deadlines, we will have gained a week. And that’s important because of the deadlines for military and overseas voter compliance, where we need to send ballots out to overseas voters 45 days before any election. For this November we have tight timeframes, but we’ll meet them.
Q: How does voting equipment work in your county?
A: We’ve got good voting machines here in Oakland County; they are all optical scan machines that read paper ballots. Do mechanical difficulties come up? Yes, but most municipalities have backup voting machines. And the county has a maintenance contract with the vendor, with three roving people in our county on Election Day who can take care of any needs. Really, the number of mechanical problems is pretty minimal.
I’d say that in two to four years we may have new machines. Most of the manufacturers have new generations of machines to look into; this is going to be a topic after this election. Michigan still has $35 million in HAVA funds that can be spent on equipment. I’m a conservative Republican, and I don’t believe in spending money when you don’t have to, but when we’ve got federal money set aside for a particular purpose, if we don’t spend it eventually, somebody will take it away. It would be silly to not use it.
Q: Michigan’s system for running elections is highly decentralized; how does that work for you?
A: In Oakland county, we’ve got 52 voting jurisdictions, cities and townships whose township clerks conduct the elections.
George Gilbert, Elections Director, Guilford County, North Carolina
George Gilbert has been running elections in Guilford County, North Carolina, for 24 years. He is also co-chair of The Election Center’s Legislation Committee, and is among the few election officials who says “nothing keeps me awake at night regarding elections,” giving all the credit to the quality of his staff. On April 27, 2012, NCSL asked for his perspective on elections and the key issues facing his office.
Q: How did you get into elections administration?
A: The same way most people do: by accident. My father-in-law cut a clipping from the newspaper, so I applied. I knew nothing about elections but I was familiar with politics having worked in Washington, and I was familiar with management because I’d helped run a family business. I’ve loved it ever since because I love our polling system but I do not want to work for a candidate.
Q: Is money an issue for you, as it is for most administrators?
My budget has been tight, but since I’ve been here, Guilford County has provided the funds we need to run elections properly. During the first presidential election I ran, in 1988, we had half the equipment we needed, so we had long lines. I kept the file of newspaper clippings saying how stupid I was for letting that happen. When I attended a budget hearing and requested $600,000 extra, I pulled out the clippings and started reading, and they gave me the whole $600,000 and they haven’t questioned me since. It’s in the county commissioner’s best interests for the elections to run smoothly. They’ don’t want to hear thousands of complaints like they did in 1988. I tell them what I need to run the election, and they give it to me. And I don’t spend money I don’t need to spend, and they know that.
Q: You’re known for having opinions about voting equipment. Can you share your thoughts?
We changed to electronic voting equipment (DREs) two weeks after I was hired, so I’ve never conducted an election other than the DRE, except by mail. Then in 1994 we were the first county in the country to use touch screen equipment. My voters in Guilford County love the electronic voting. So do I.
What we’ve done and needed to do all along is to address the concerns of those who were afraid of electronic voting, quite frankly, both the security of the technology and the security of the procedures. By the way, the security of an election comes from the people, not the equipment. And yet, almost all the fraud that’s been done over the years has been on paper systems. Electronic ballots are much less accessible to manipulators.
Electronic equipment is also easier for people with visual impairment because it can produce larger type and you’ve got an audio component, though that’s not good enough yet. And, with an electronic system, voters can’t overvote, and if they undervote, there’s a summary page that tells the voter that they didn’t vote in some races.
Kids are going to think it’s stupid, voting on paper.
Q: If you could make changes in the way the nation looks at voting equipment, what would they be?
Three things. First, there’s no need for specialized, high-priced election equipment these days. Why don’t we write software to use off-the-shelf? In doing so, we could cut the costs of elections dramatically by eliminating the hardware we’ve been spending so much on.
Second, the current ‘voluntary’ federal guidelines for certification of voting equipment is what has driven vendors from the market. States are not required to have nationally certified equipment, and if no new systems can achieve certification, the states are simply going to have to certify their own. Instead of banning technology, we should be encouraging research and development. The way it is now, small businesses can’t get in the door because of certification. Diversity is what we learn from; within a state or between the states, that’s where you get innovation.
Third, we have a very serious concentration in the voting systems industry with only one or two viable vendors. There’s almost no innovation taking place today. If government is the sole customer for voting equipment, then government has an interest in investing in R and D in elections technology. It should be a private-government consortium, to use our university’s incredible talent. All of us have an interest in this process.
Q: How can state legislators help?
They need to know that circumstances are going to change, so decisions about equipment don’t belong in law. They also need to know that elections are state affairs; there are no national elections. I suspect that every state out there has rich counties and poor counties, and if state legislators want to maintain fairness and an equality, they need to take a look at taking some responsibility for paying a small part of elections, because some of those counties really can’t come up with local funds to do hardly anything. You’re going to leave a statewide election in the hands of a board from a 5,000 person county.
Steve Rawlings, County Clerk/Auditor in Davis County, Utah
Steve Rawlings, county clerk/auditor for Davis County, Utah (pop. 312,000), was named Utah’s Overall Outstanding Elected Official in 2011. According to peers, he is also an outstanding elections administrator, one of several responsibilities within the clerk/auditor’s bailiwick. On May 31, 2012, NCSL asked him about his successes, his challenges and his hopes.
Q: How did you get into Election Administration?
A: I went to work for Davis County, Utah in January of 1990. When the elected clerk/auditor who I reported to as finance director retired in 1998 I filed for the elected and consolidated office as Clerk/Auditor. I was elected and took office in 1999.
Elections became a key part of the job and the challenges and activities have become very addicting. Even though I’m elected as a Republican in the county, as far as our election job goes, we are so nonpartisan that politics goes out the window.
Q: What are some election successes in Davis county or Utah that other states can learn from?
A: Here in Davis County, we looked at other jurisdictions and states to see what we could learn about getting the job done at the lowest cost to the taxpayer. From this, we have set a goal to have one-third of our voters vote early, one-third of voters vote by mail, and one-third of voters vote on Election Day. As we move toward achieving these goals we can more efficiently serve the voters, avoid long Election Day lines, utilize the same equipment during the early voting period as on Election Day and therefore have to buy only half as many, and have voting results available to the public in a timely fashion—often by 10 p.m. on Election Night.
We’ve also established vote centers [where any voter in the county can vote at any polling place on Election Day]. This now can be expanded statewide. Here’s my dream: if I’m in another city, I’ll be able to access my ballot through any polling place. That’s down the road.
Q: What are the issues that your jurisdiction faces now?
Like all jurisdictions one of the biggest challenges we face comes in budget constraints; these have been somewhat dictated by the economic downturn and loss of revenues. Another challenge faced nationwide by all jurisdictions is the continual changes in election law and our need to react to those changes in both federal and state legislation.
Overall, we have been very fortunate in our jurisdiction and have taken a very proactive and progressive approach to election administration. We have placed a great deal of emphasis on making the election process more efficient and less costly to our constituents. The use of new technology, training of election workers and utilizing creative new ideas has helped us avoid many challenges faced by other jurisdictions.
Q: What have you done regarding voting technology?
Technology is going in a positive direction in our state. The electronic voting machines and other equipment being used in Davis County and across the state have worked very well and are well accepted by our public. I wanted to be in the forefront on this, so I used direct-recording electronic (DRE) equipment in an election in Farmington, Utah, in 2005, and it went almost perfectly. We will continue to utilize this equipment this year and we’re hopeful that election laws will allow us to continue to utilize current equipment through 2016.
I look at what the feds are talking about, and quite frankly I’m concerned that the federal government might make us go back to paper balloting. If the public would study our technology carefully, they’d realize that there is no way that you can remotely access these machines for fraud. When you plug in a stand-alone calculator, nobody can access that calculator. These are stand-alone machines, and there’s no way to access them from elsewhere, either.
Q: How can state legislators help Utah run good elections?
The greatest help the state legislators can give to those of us in the trenches is to actually take the time to listen and understand before acting. We have a County Clerks Legislative Committee made up of county representatives from all across the state of Utah representing many jurisdictions. It meets frequently to come up with new ideas and recommendations to improve election administration. These ideas are passed on to those legislators willing to listen. Communication is always one of the most important keys to any successful operation and this is ever so true in the exchange of county ideas with state legislators.
Q: You’ve been named the outstanding elected official for Utah; what’s your secret?
A: For any election administrator, teamwork is required. My staff and I have openly shared our best procedures with other counties and municipalities. I have the best staff in the world and I delegate to them. I’ve cross-trained my finance people with my elections people, and we do a lot of training for our election workers—you can’t do too much training. We also have a great partnership with our information technology group; they are topnotch. Our County Commissioners have been a key in their support of our efforts.
Candace Grubbs, County Clerk Recorder/Registrar of Voters in Butte County, California
Candace Grubbs took office in 1987. While hers is an elected position, she operates as if it were an administrative one. She is certified at the highest level as a Certified Election and Voter Registration Administrator, a national distinction earned through The Election Center. On May 1, 2012, NCSL asked for her perspective on how elections have changed during her tenure, and the key issues for her office and state.
Q: How have elections changed over the last 25 years?
A: The elections field is a little more trying now. Generally speaking, elections are more complicated and more expensive than they used to be. The real question is, are we serving the public better or just adding more expense to the process without any real results? For California counties, the election budget is a general fund expense. In these economic times, it is essential to be concerned about the increase in the cost of elections and the impact on the county’s budget, as that is not an infinite pot.
Q: What are the issues that your jurisdiction faces now?
A: The same ones that all counties in California face. One is the cost of conducting elections. In 2000, the general election cost was $3.34 per registered voter in Butte County; it was $6.61 in 2010. And if you look at the cost per vote cast, it went from $4.51 to $9.87. That’s an astronomical climb.
And what, you might ask, has transpired in those intervening years? The California legislature has liberalized voting by mail; voter registration, for all intents and purposes, now runs right up to Election Day; elections are conducted utilizing both optical scan paper ballots and touch screen electronic voting for people with disabilities; and we’ve seen an increased volume of provisional ballots at the polls. When you look at these different areas, we’re employing a lot more extra help staff before, on and after Election Day.
The more we spend on elections, the less general fund there is for other departments like the sheriff and other public needs. It’s time to look at all of this and say ‘enough is enough. Something has to change.’
And, the lack of new certified voting systems is a huge issue which may not be resolved until after 2015.
Q: Have you got a proposed solution?
A: Currently the federal and state races and measures on the ballot are conducted at county expense. The state needs to pay for these. We conduct elections for the cities, school districts and special districts in our county and a proportional share of the election costs are distributed to all entities on the ballot. It seems wrong that a school or recreation district pays its share but the state does not.
Having the state pay a proportional share would replace the current system of submitting reimbursement claims for election mandates. Since the state has run out of money, vote-by-mail and other election mandates are no longer reimbursed by the state, and yet the counties are required to provide the service. Money would be saved by the counties and the state with the elimination of this outdated mandate reimbursement claiming process.
If the state paid for the state and federal portion of the ballot perhaps the legislature would look more deeply into proposed legislation that adds additional costs to the process.
Q: Besides money, what else is on your mind?
Our voting systems are antiquated. All California counties have optical scan, technology that is 30-plus years old. We’re not in the modern era. Isn’t it strange that we sit in California with one of the highest tech centers in the world, and yet we’re working with outdated equipment for elections?
Q: What would you like state legislators to know?
A: A couple of years ago Colombian Rotarians visited our elections office, and they were struck by the fact that in order to vote they are required to have voter ID but California voters are not. They thought ID was common place and questioned how at the polling locations the election officials (precinct officers) knew that the person voting was eligible. If we took a broad look at the issue, we should eliminate the different classifications of potential voters (new citizen, new resident, etc) with different registration deadlines and allow registration to continue through Election Day. At the same time we could make the system more secure so that we know that those who have access to voting are actually citizens by having ID. If a third world country can make it work, we certainly should be able to accomplish the task. It’s a political issue, not an administrative one.
It seems that legislators do not want to look at the whole election code, and while some say that it is confusing, we see only attempts to change or add codes instead of making a complete overhaul. The rules to conduct a statewide primary election have changed every primary for the last 20 years. Elections are conducted best when there is consistency so the entire Election Code should be streamlined. The current system of adding a little more and a little more is like kids adding blocks to a tower. Eventually, it falls down.
Election officials in this state pride themselves on not falling down but with limited resources, there is a limit to how efficiently they can manage.
Cameron Quinn, General Registrar for Fairfax County, Virginia
Cameron Quinn is unusual in the elections world in that she has experience at the state level with the Virginia Board of Elections, at the federal level with the Federal Voting Assistance Program and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, and at the local level, in her current hands-on position as general registrar for Fairfax County, Va. On March 22, 2012, NCSL asked for her perspective on elections, and the key issues for her office and state.
Q: How did you get into elections administration?
A: Almost no one goes into elections intentionally. Like most people, I fell into it backwards. I’m a lawyer and I was working for the attorney general of Virginia, who then became the governor. He asked me to go to the State Board of Elections. Once I got there, I have to say, this work spoke to me. As the daughter of a career naval officer and mother who was a full-time volunteer, I was raised with the idea of public service. Elections are all about “Mom and apple pie” and are fundamental to our democracy.
Q: What are the issues that your jurisdiction faces now?
A: Four things are long term issues. First, recruiting more election officers [aka poll workers], particularly those who are more comfortable with technology. Our current election officers, nationwide, are aging out and we are not getting enough people coming forward to replace them.
Second, integrating technology into what we do so we can better meet voter expectations within the reality of tight resources. Technology will stretch resources, but there are challenges to implementing it with long-time staff who are less comfortable with change. Public expectation and tight resources require that we go there quickly, even as there is resistance to the change. Plus there is a divide in the population among those who live through technology, such as smartphones, and those who don’t understand all the talk about Facebook, Twitter, or even webpages.
Third, making sure voters get the information they need in a way that they will pay attention to it. I know there will be thousands of voters who have not paid attention in four years and have moved, who will not be able to vote if they do not update their voter information or re-register, but these occasional voters tend to tune out the information we send, such as last year’s all-county mailing after redistricting, and we cannot afford to pay for TV and radio ads to catch their attention.
And finally, trying to make elections a little simpler even as the threat or reality of litigation surrounding elections makes them more complex. For example, in the recent presidential primary election we had three policy issues in Virginia that either resulted in litigation or threatened to do so. The first was that only two Republicans got on the ballot at a time when there were still six major contenders. (From a Fairfax County perspective, it was somewhat ironic that we had two major contenders who live here in the county—Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich—who weren’t on the ballot.) Then the Republican state party originally chose to ask primary voters to swear an oath that they would support the eventual Republican candidate, since there is no party registration in Virginia; this did not go over well with voters, and eventually the party retracted this requirement. And finally, there was talk of write-in campaigns for the two candidates that didn’t make it on the ballot and were still in the race a month before the primary. But that is not something that Virginia law permits, and on electronic voting machines there would be no process for people to write in anyway, because they weren’t programmed to allow writ-ins. This kind of escalation or questioning of every rule or procedure makes it hard to finalize the planning and execution of elections.
Q: What would you like state legislators from around the nation to know?
A: Number one is that we are all going to need to buy new voting equipment; the equipment purchased ten years ago with federal money, due to the computer software, wears out more quickly, and is at or beyond its warranted lifetime. Different states will make these choices differently, but legislators need to understand that someone’s going to have to find the money, and that it won’t be federal money this time. Legislators need to have these conversations with their local officials after this November to get things in place before the next presidential elections.
Legislators also need to help election officials on the recruitment and retention of poll workers. We need to find creative ways to improve that process. Election Day has always been a long day, and it’s getting longer as the polls open earlier and stay open later to accommodate voters. It’s also now so much more complex since the 2000 election. The average age of our poll workers is over 65. We are blessed with people still willing to do this work, but they are beginning to drop out, and we aren’t seeing younger people filling in. It’s much more of an issue in larger jurisdictions.
Here’s a place where the concept of states as incubators of good ideas really can work well; where many ideas can be tried in the states and then we all share and learn from them. I hear that Omaha, Neb., drafts people to be poll workers, like they do for juries. When I get past 2012, I’m going to be looking at whether we need to consider that idea.
One other thing: we in Fairfax County are dealing with new federal requirements to provide voter assistance in Spanish under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act. A number of other places are now required for the first time to provide help in many languages. State legislators need to realize this isn’t even just the language issue itself; it is also the cultural issues. There are populations that come from places that didn’t have true democracy, and even though they are now citizens here, they may not fully understand that they have the right to a secret ballot and that they do not have to allow someone to take that from them under the guise of assisting them to vote. We need to reach out and be sure they understand the process, since they did not grow up with some of the democratic values being instilled even in grade school, and be sure they have the assistance they need.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?
A: To the extent that legislators aren’t already regularly interacting with both the state and local people who are involved in elections, they’d be well served to look at some kind of conversation about what they should be thinking about for the next four years. This isn’t just about the equipment issues but also about changes in technology and changes in the voting public. The expectations for your under-35 voters and your voters over 60 are very different, and those kinds of things are going to drive policy.
Michael Winn, Assistant Director of Elections for Travis County, Texas
Michael Winn is the assistant director of elections for Travis County, Texas, and also the director of election officials for the International Association of Clerks, Recorders, Election Officials and Treasurers. Austin is the largest city in Travis County, Texas, a fast-growing urban county. The evidence? Over 847,000 people were registered voters there in 2011, compared to just 306,000 registered voters 20 years earlier. On February 23, 2012, NCSL spoke with Mr. Winn to learn about his job, his worries and his hopes.
Q: What keeps you up at night?
A: Making sure that our planning is in place. In my office, we have six different areas: recruitment, sites, public information, operations and ballot programming. So for us it’s a constant process to keep everybody informed of dates and projects and how they all will work together to pull off this year’s elections. And those elections this year are a constantly moving target for us. A good example of that is that while we have redistricting going on, dates are constantly moving, and time frames are shrinking.
Q: Texas isn’t done with its redistricting?
A: For the most part, Texas is up in arms about how they’re going to solve this problem. Because Texas gained four Congressional districts this year, redistricting has been especially complicated. Texas still doesn’t have its plan finalized. The feds have to agree on the lines that the state set [Texas is a pre-clearance state] and then these have to trickle back down to the state, and only when we hear that ‘you have been blessed to go forward,’ will the precincts get cut. Then we have to get those precinct lines approved before our governing authority. Until we know the precincts, we don’t know who is eligible to run in each district, so we don’t know who will be on the ballots.
Q: We’ve heard from other administrators that voting equipment is an issue. How about in Travis County?
A: We use 100 percent electronic equipment. After each election, the machines need to be re-set for the next. Because of the tight time schedule this year, we need to make sure that we have enough time to be able to do virtually simultaneous elections. Typically that’s not an issue because elections are spaced out and we have time to ‘lock and load’ for the next election. But if, like now, we don’t have much time to lock and reload, we need a back-up plan in place.
Q: What message would you like to offer to state lawmakers?
A: I am very fortunate in that I work for a brilliant County Clerk, Dana DeBeauvoir, who is smart, unselfish and has her hand on the pulse of the elections process. She has worked tirelessly to push that we need to sit down and have a conversation with all the stakeholders in the elections world to figure out how we can navigate forward, especially pertaining to equipment and the process. Because legislators have the power to make things happen, they need to understand what we go through to get those things implemented.
Brian Newby, Election Commissioner, Johnson County, Kansas, (February 2012 issue)
Brian D. Newby has served as the Election Commissioner for Johnson County, Kan., since 2005; he has administered 40 elections during that time. On January 19, 2012, NCSL asked him what the key issues are for his office.
Q: Since Kansas passed photo voter ID legislation last year, we’re guessing you are busy with implementation for it.
A: For me photo ID isn’t even in the top 10 issues for 2012. Photo ID is more about creating procedures and making sure that there are no exceptions. We are working to make sure that voters know what is required. Our approach to voter education is to target influential people who have a lot of contacts. These are candidates, political parties, and people who work on campaigns, or people who, if you get the right information to them, can get it to 10,000 people. We’ll be implementing voter ID in small elections in February where we hope to find out things that we didn’t know we needed to think about for implementation.
Q: If voter ID isn’t a big concern, what are your big concerns?
A: We need locations for advance voting (editor’s note: early, in-person voting). We’ll probably have three sites besides our office, and we need to figure out where they’re going to be located. If half the people don’t vote in advance as they did in 2008, we’ll have long lines on Election Day.
Then there are budget issues; we have no money. We have the same size full-time staff that we had 20 years ago and yet the job is much bigger. Because the hours can be long and stress can be high, staff tend to get serious illnesses during elections, and then we’re really in trouble. That’s why our office has embraced wellness. Keeping people healthy is a big issue.
And, I spend almost 25 percent of my time on meetings to talk about how we might cut our budgets, and that’s a big waste. How do I stay a part of the team and focus on my real job?
Q: What about the age of your voting equipment? Is that a concern?
A: With the equipment we have now and a lot of creativity, we can use our current equipment up through April, 2017, we hope. That means we need to be preparing for a new system now. Who knows what the life span for new equipment will be? The life of an ATM is 12 years.
It would take $12 million to replace all the voting equipment in Johnson County, and that’s huge. I hear others say ‘we need HAVA again or more federal government money.’ We’re not thinking that, but we have to come up with something. We’re trying to define a new way to do it, a way that will be less expensive on the front end, and more flexible as technology changes.
Q: Kansas has a new requirement that new voters show proof of citizenship when they register. The law says this will go into effect on January 1, 2013, but legislation to move that date up is pending. What are your thoughts on this?
A: From an administrative perspective, we’d like to see proof of citizenship go into effect now. We’ve already got a captive audience with the presidential election coming up, which we won’t have the following year. And people are already starting to mix photo ID and proof of citizenship together, so it’s almost better to try to explain the whole thing at once.
Q: Is there anything extra you might like to say to legislators?
A: Yes, we could modernize elections statutes and bring them into the 21st century. That may not seem like a hot issue, but just modernizing them would go a long ways.
For More Information
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