From the Election Administrators Perspective

The Election Administrator's Perspective


NCSL Elections Resources

a hand voting "yes"

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. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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.

Don Blevins, county clerk for Fayette County, Ky. (April 2015)

Photo of Fayette County Clerk Don Blevins.Dan Blevins is the county clerk in Fayette County, Ky.—the second largest county in the Bluegrass State and the home of Lexington. His office handles land records, marriage licenses, vehicle registration, elections and more. The Canvass spoke with him on April 16.

Q: How did you get into elections administration?

A: I have always been interested in public service. The office of the county clerk is a partisan-elected position in Kentucky. I first ran for city council in 2006 and served 2 years. Then my father, who served as county clerk for 27 years, retired so I put my hat in the ring to fill that vacancy and have been county clerk since 2009.

Q: What are the issues that your jurisdiction faces now?

A: Our primary issue is voter turnout. Ever since the motor-voter act in the 1990s, our registration numbers have not been an issue. It is getting people to the polls, and the consequences that come with low voter-turnout, that are the biggest issues. In addition, we have laws that require employers to give employees time to go to the polls. There really is no excuse.

Q: It’s said that being an election official is a lot like being an IT manager. How does technology work for you?

A: By far, the vast majority of counties use printed ballots that are then scanned. Fayette County is one of only two counties that don’t use printed ballots. We have held out on buying new machines because it looked like the feds were going to require something nationally. If we do get new technology we are looking in the direction of providing support to precinct workers and the behind-the-scenes work, such as electronic poll books. Our state board of elections is looking into it.

Also, electronic voter registration is worth exploring further, but with the importance of the signature in our election process it could be difficult.

Q: How can state legislators help (or what would you want them to know)?

A: Our biggest challenge is absentee voting and mail-in voting, which is the easiest way to perpetrate voter fraud. For instance, nursing homes can request any number of ballots.

Also, we have a required number of steps to complete an absentee ballot. The process is onerous for a reason: to prevent voter fraud. Unfortunately, particularly for elderly citizens who have a harder time, following the directions exactly can be difficult and sometimes results in a vote not being counted. In one election, we had a 20 percent rejection rate because they didn’t follow the directions exactly.

Preventing fraud while making it easier for the voter is a tough balance to strike. It would be ideal to have a review of the laws to ensure that we are doing the best we can with fraud protection, but also tweaking the laws to make the efforts of the legitimate voter pay off.

Julie Freese, county clerk for Fremont County, Wyo. (March 2015)

Photo of Julie Freese.Julie Freese is the county clerk in Fremont County, Wyo. With 41,000 residents, Fremont is the fifth most populous county in the Cowboy State. Its 9,266 square miles—larger than six states—include the town of Lander, Sinks Canyon State Park, where a river disappears into the side of the mountain and reappears a quarter-mile later, ranch lands, public lands and the Wind River Indian Reservation. The Canvass spoke with Freese on February 27.

Q: How did you get into elections administration?

A: I worked at the county clerk’s office every summer when I was in high school. Later on, I got thrown into elections and I loved, loved, loved it. The former county clerk trained me on all the duties, and I was first elected in 1994.

Q: What makes elections in Fremont County unique?

A: In our county specifically, elections are big because we have so many special districts and the Wind River Indian Reservation, and we elect commissioners by district. Elections rank right up there with budget. And, I run book elections for second and third graders, with ballots and our elections equipment so they can really vote. We do our own coding here so it doesn’t cost us that much.

Q: What are the issues that your jurisdiction faces now?

A: Finding election judges—the average age is 75. I love them to pieces, but it is a complex job for the judges in our county, with all the splits (editor’s note: “splits” refers to distinct ballot styles).

For our county, because we have so many splits, I had to re-do an election two years ago when my election judges mistakenly gave out the wrong ballots. You’re not going to keep judges if they are scared of making mistakes.

Electronic poll books could help with that. It’s easier to look a voter up in an e-poll book, and if someone is changing their address, the e-poll book would automatically tell you the right ballot style. That is huge for us. The downside is that some judges have said “if you go to that, I’ll have to quit” because they’re scared of it.

Wyoming is considering using e-poll books and vote centers. I don’t want to go that way right now, but it would be an avenue to consider if in the future we can’t get enough polling locations. With schools pushing away from having elections in their buildings, it’s hard to find locations.

I am also concerned with the apathy of our young folks, in terms of volunteering in their community and getting involved in the electoral process. We are looking at a couple of programs including using student election judges. At one point we had a group of 30 saying they’d come, and only eight actually served. I need to find ways to reach those folks. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.

Q: How can state legislators help with elections?

A: I realize legislators know more than the average person about elections, but we live and breathe it. Here in Wyoming we have a good rapport with the Corporation Committee (the committee of jurisdiction for elections). When they have an idea, we don’t just say no—we say “let us work with you on that.”

We need to have good, factual information for decision-making. Our state is asking for interim studies a lot more. This session, with the bills we worked during the interim committees, things went much better than with the bills that came through later.

Q: Any final comments?

A: We always try to keep open about what we do. People want to trust that their vote counts, and they do when they know the system is transparent.

Jerry Midgette, election administrator for Somerset County, N.J. (February 2015)

Photo of Jerry Midgette.Jerry Midgette is the election administrator for the Somerset County Board of Elections in New Jersey. He is the top staffer for this bipartisan board. NCSL interviewed Midgette on Feb. 3.

Q: How did you get into elections administration?

A: I started as an elections lawyer representing candidates, parties and interest groups. As an administrator, I’m ensuring that the election process is fair and correct—if there are any issues with the procedures, that they are identified and corrected. It’s a whole different perspective on the pursuit of fair and accurate elections.

Q: What are the issues that your jurisdiction faces now?

A: I’m always thinking about the next election—what happened in the last, what can I improve, what needs to be put in place, how do we anticipate? We need to prepare for what will happen—and something always does—for the next big election. For example, when Superstorm Sandy hit, downed trees caused traffic issues for staff as well as voters. We lost power for over a week, so I had to implement our emergency elections plan on a very short timeframe to minimize the impact on the voter. Since the election wasn’t the primary focus for all the county’s officials, I had to advocate for the resources I needed.

In addition, ever-increasing issues are the recruiting and training of poll workers and finding ADA-compliant locations. New Jersey has an aging population of poll workers, so we are always trying to increase the numbers and improve their training. Identifying appropriate poll locations is becoming more difficult, with public schools not wanting elections to take place in their schools given the tragedies we’ve seen in the last several years.

Q: How can state legislators help, or what would you want them to know?

A: If I could wave my magic wand, I’d like them to have a better understanding of how we perform and the constraints. They don’t know the intricacies of what we have to do. Sometimes bills have been introduced and we think, there’s no way we can do this. Two-way communication between legislators and election officials before bills are introduced would go a long way to refine legislation.

Q: What expectations do you have for voting equipment and registration for the next few years?

A: I look at it as keeping up with new and emerging technologies. I want to implement electronic poll books to serve, minimally, a three-fold purpose: (1) ease of voter check-in; (2) ease of use for poll workers; and (3) more importantly, an efficient process to update voter history and signatures, as opposed to how we do it now.

Clifford Rodgers, elections administrator for Knox County, Tenn. (November-December 2014)

A photograph of Clifford Rodgers, elections administrator for Knox County, Tenn.Clifford Rodgers is the elections administrator for Knox County, Tenn. Since 2011, he has served the county, which includes Knoxville and has about 275,000 voters. NCSL interviewed Rodgers on Oct. 22.

Q: What is the biggest challenge Knox County faces when running elections?

A: Our biggest challenge is that we don’t have a nice public facility for all of our early voting locations.  We sometimes have to rely on private property owners for our early voting sites and so I’m like a beggar out there trying to get a piece of real estate for voting. And that means that not all of those sites have all of what we have at public facilities. The heat is out at one of the sites and the air-conditioning is out at another. These are logistical issues. You want everything to go smooth but we are starved for sufficient public facilities for voting.

Q: About public facilities, we know that some school districts have asked to not have their schools serve as polling places because of concerns of about security for students. What are your thoughts on that?

A: I wish lawmakers would take the bull by the horns to fix this. We need to shut schools down when we are voting out there. I saw the (Presidential Commission on Election Administration’s) report in January and its recommendation for closing schools on Election Day made sense to me. Anybody with a lick of common sense would agree that we don’t need strangers going into schools to vote while children are there. There is nothing good about that. It causes logistical issues and there are safety issues. I wish legislators would do this.

Q: Knox County is in the middle of its early voting period. What kind of setup do you have for early voting?

A: I keep reading that people are cutting back on early voting sites and early voting hours. Not here in Knox County. We have 10 early voting sites and we are extending the hours the last three days of voting. My goal is to see everybody voting early because all of the drama is on Election Day. You don’t see as many of the kinds of hiccups in early voting that you find on Election Day so I love early voting and I want everybody to early vote.

Q: What would surprise people about your job?

A: I have people ask me if this is a part-time job. It’s an overtime job; I have not had a full week off since a year ago in May. I retired from the federal government and got this job because I thought it would be challenging and keep me busy and that’s been an understatement. Here in Knox County I’ve got 275,000 registered voters, which is to say that’s our customer base, people we are trying to keep happy. Another thing I’ve learned from this job is that everybody who votes is an expert on elections. They vote one time and overnight they know it all and they are not bashful about telling us.

Q: Tell us what has been challenging about running elections?

A: How many elections laws there are. Sometimes it can be a little disjointed, discombobulated and hard to find. I spend a lot of my time trying to educate candidates and trying to educate the public about our elections laws. I send people who have complaints the elections law to show them that it’s not supposed to be a secret what goes on down here. I’ll send them the exact statute that says there is a 100 foot boundary at the polling place as a zone to protect people voting from being harassed. I am always educating myself about the law because there is a lot to understand.

Q: What can legislators do to help elections run better?

A: You want to make some changes but you want to think through what those changes will do. Those changes are a big deal because everybody has to learn the new law, you have to make sure it goes into the proper place of the code so that everybody can find it. And you have to make sure the change is for the benefit of everybody. When we get into problems is when someone creates a law as a knee-jerk reaction to something. You need to make sure that the problem is of a sufficient nature that the law needs to be changed. One example here is cell phones at the polling places, which has become an issue. Instead of having a state law to address it, each election commission can have their own policy about it.

Joe Gloria, registrar of voters for Clark County, Nevada (October 2014)

Joe Gloria, Clark County Registrar of VotersJoe Gloria is the registrar of voters for Clark County, Nev., which includes Las Vegas, home to about 806,000 registered voters. He got his start in elections administration in his hometown of Las Cruces, N.M. The Canvass spoke to Gloria on Aug. 4.

Q: What’s a big challenge for Clark County elections?

A: We have a pretty seasoned staff. We’re fortunate in that respect. We have a lot of people who know what they’re doing and they’ve been doing it for a while. The challenge that we deal with is maintaining what we’ve produced here. Nothing stays the same. The only thing constant in this world is change and we have to migrate to new software platforms that are supported. Much of what we’re running on now is no longer supported by Oracle and Microsoft so we’re making a concerted effort to get our system and our ballot definition software upgraded so they’ll continue to work for us.

Q: How do you make sure that these needs are understood and addressed?

A: Early voting plays a huge role in what we do to support elections and it’s not just that it’s a successful program and that people have become accustomed to voting early. It’s that it is much more economical for us as a department to process voters during the early voting cycle than it would be on Election Day. Our number one priority being to make sure that we can move forward with that program, we identified the software pieces that we used to support that and made it clear to our management that we wouldn’t be able to continue providing that level of service for early voting. That would cost them more in the long run because we need more equipment on Election Day to support the voters that come in for one day versus 14 days of early voting.

Q: You have early voting sites at malls and grocery stores? What’s the thinking behind that?

One of our ideas was that you had to go where the people are. We’ve been early voting since 1995 and the program was developed to what it is today with 63 percent of the people coming out in a big election. (Voters) are actively looking for the site that’s closest to their home so they can take advantage of the convenience of early voting. We’ve been able to make use of some community centers, libraries, other private facilities that, in the beginning, we probably wouldn’t have been looking to vote at. But now that the program is developed, we can definitely take advantage of some of those sites as well.

Q: Have you run into the problem of school districts not wanting to host polling places because of the concern of mixing the student population with voters?

A: There isn’t a cycle that goes by where we don’t have individual schools calling to try to make their argument that we shouldn’t be there, but what’s most important is the relationship that we developed with the district. There are some states that the schools have told them that they cannot use those facilities but here in Clark, we’d be dead in the water. There just aren’t enough government or private facilities to support Election Day voting in the current way we support it, which is why we are trying to move to a vote center concept, but that’s down the road.

Q: What can legislators keep in mind that would help elections administrators do their jobs?

A: We always try to make it as easy as we possibly can for voters to register and to show up at the polls and vote so that we don’t disenfranchise anyone. But you always have to keep security in mind, be transparent about how you do things and share exactly what you have in place for those security measures. As far as legislators, when they get calls from constituents, they need to do their homework and find out what exactly it is that we do before they react.

Q: What got you started with this line of work?

A: Nobody goes to elementary school dreaming of becoming an election official but I was fortunate enough to have exposure to some public servants in my hometown of Las Cruces, New Mexico, who influenced me. You know, they kind of went about public service with a different mentality in that it’s an honor to serve and without good public servants you don’t have good government. I kind of fell into that and I took a job when it was offered to me with a new voting system in Dona Ana County, N.M. I didn’t see any reason to change professions. I stuck with it and I still do it today.

Barbara Agnew, elections administrator for Burnet County, Texas (August 2014)

A photograph of Barbara Agnew, elections administrator for Burnet County, TexasBarbara Agnew is the elections administrator for Burnet County, Texas. The community in Texas’ Hill Country, northwest of Austin, has 27,000 registered voters. The Canvass spoke to Agnew on Aug. 7.

Q: Are there any recent processes your office worked on?

A: Texas recently implemented a new law requiring voters to have photo ID and it was important to me and my staff (during the early voting period) to see how that was actually going to play out in a polling location … we could see where there were little gaps and some clarifications that needed to be made between then and Election Day.

Q: What is Burnet County’s biggest challenge in administering an election?

A: The most complicated part of any election is knowing your jurisdictions, how they overlap in the county and using that information to program ballots that are going to serve the needs of the voters and ensuring the voters get the correct ballot style, which is probably the most important part of the election process. We do the elections for the cities, the school districts and the water districts and those boundaries often don’t match up. We don’t have a GIS department and we are a small department so it’s up to us to make sure voters get the correct ballots at the election polls.

Q: What’s been your county’s experience with electronic poll books?

A: There are many benefits of (electronic) poll books but a main benefit is that you are no longer having to hand-write information on a paper form and having to make sure that you can read the handwriting.... Ours is easy to use and anyone can work with it, even someone without much computer experience. We are able to process people more quickly and more accurately.

Q: Can you tell us how you’ve gone about addressing a specific challenge?

A: We used to have paper maps for the boundaries to our jurisdictions and we are now using county maps with jurisdiction layers on our computers so that we can accurately assign voters to the correct locations…We have new jurisdictions all the time. We are in a part of Texas that is fast-growing and there are new emergency (services) districts and municipal utility districts being created and we are having to figure out where a particular district is in the county and what its boundaries are and which voters need to be assigned to that district.

Q: How do you go about recruiting poll workers for a county that is growing at your pace?

A: Recruitment (of poll workers) is an ongoing project. The parties work really well together and do a good job of recruiting. Some of our poll workers are on the lookout for new poll workers. There is a small area of the county that is rural where we have a hard time recruiting but, fortunately, there are some people willing to go up there and help out. That was a change that came from the 2011 legislative session that allows a county, if it cannot find poll workers living within a precinct, (to have) other county residents go in there and work.

Q: What changes are occurring within elections administration?

A: Our job has become more and more technical in every aspect of our work. You have to have technical skills to do the programming, to work with electronic poll books...Texas will be changing over in 2015 to a new (voter) registration system and that will definitely change our workflow.

Q: How do you make a case for the resources your office needs to administer elections?

A: If we do a good job in elections then the elected officials don’t hear from their constituents...We just go to our elected officials with our request for things we need.

Q: What can legislators do to help elections run smoothly?

A: Sometimes there is a cleanup that needs to be done in the election code and so we can ask for that in a nonpartisan way. We usually rely on the Secretary of State’s office to move something through for that. I like to stay out of the partisan legislation as long as it does not negatively affect what we are doing and cause us some real difficulties or creates a timeline that is difficult for us. Part of our legislative watch is making sure legislators don’t dream up something they think will help their constituents but will difficult or impossible for us to perform in our daily duties.

David Maeda, city clerk for Minnetonka, Minn. (July 2014)

A photograph of David Maeda, city clerk for Minnetonka, Minnesota.David Maeda is the city clerk for Minnetonka, Minn., a suburban community west of Minneapolis with about 35,000 registered voters. The Canvass spoke to Maeda on June 10.

Q: What is the biggest challenge Minnetonka faces in administering an election?

A: Absentee voting. Our absentee voting period is 45 days prior to every election. People can vote an absentee ballot through the mail or they can come in to City Hall during the 45 days and vote in person. Particularly in presidential elections, our City Hall becomes basically a polling place for about the two weeks before the election we have lines of people waiting to vote.

Q: And that is because Minnesota does not have traditional early in-person voting?

A: That’s correct, and I think a lot of voters don’t really understand the difference. They think we are running a polling place here but it is still absentee voting, which is a little more complicated. People have to apply for the ballot and once they vote that ballot, it doesn’t automatically get tabulated. It gets either accepted or rejected after they leave the building.

Q: That must yield a lot of behind-the-scenes work?

A: Yes. There is a lot of work we are doing behind-the-scenes for every ballot. Absentee voting has increased in every even year that I have been here (seven years). People are taking advantage of it; in fact our state just went to no-excuse absentee voting. Our first election using no-excuse absentee ballots will be in August… The biggest challenge is that we don’t know what that increase (in absentee voters) will be…We have no data for how this will look but we are anticipating the kind of turnout we saw during the last presidential election and we are going to staff up that way.

Q: What has been your take on part-time poll workers or allowing people working at polling places to split up their shifts?

A: That was started by my predecessor here and it’s been very successful. The ability (for Election Day workers to) work in shifts appeals to a lot of our elections judges and it’s really helped us retain a good group of people to work every election.

Q: Recently, NCSL visited your office for a robust discussion about voting technology. Why has this issue been important for your office?

 A: We were the first city in the state to use electronic poll books…. We started using them in 2009 and we have basically been using electronic poll books on a very limited basis for Election Day registration ever since. To me it’s a great example that this technology is not just a gadget. It really helps our elections judges and walks them through our most complicated process that they have to deal with on Election Day. It makes their job easier and it makes the voting experience better because it speeds up our process. To me, the only downside of (electronic poll books) is the cost.

Q: What can legislators do to help the elections process?

A: The one thing that really struck me from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration’s report was the revelation that one size does not fit all in most legislation. It’s very difficult for a law to be written that is specific enough to set a standard for all the election administrators in the state to follow while not tying our hands so that the law does not work on the local level. That’s a very difficult line to define. The example that comes to mind for Minnesota is the 2008 statewide recount for the U.S. Senate race. The recount showed us a couple of things: that our equipment is incredibly accurate. When we hand-recounted the ballots, it was like 99 percent accurate on how the tabulation occurred. The only discrepancies were when a voter didn’t mark the ballot the way they were instructed to mark the ballot. From that experience, the issue came down to how we accepted and rejected absentee ballots. So the legislature in the next session standardized the way we are all processing absentee ballots, which helped the overall process but, again, it took away a lot of discretion at the local level that was useful in past elections.

Q: What will likely be some interesting issues affecting Minnesota?

A: I think it will be interesting to see where the discussion goes for all-mail elections. I think we are all keeping an eye on the other states: Washington, Oregon and Colorado. I think there is a group of people who feel that is the way Minnesota is going to go and that it’s just a matter of when.

Leslie Hoffman, recorder, and Lynn Constabile, elections director, of Yavapai County, Ariz. (May 2014)

A photo of Leslie Hoffman, recorder for Yavapai County in Arizona.Leslie Hoffman (top) registers voters and Lynn Constabile (below) administers elections in Yavapai County in Arizona, which includes the city of Prescott and boasts about 125,000 registered voters. The county in central Arizona typically has the highest turnout percentage in the state. The Canvass spoke to the pair on May 6.

Q: Can you point out some challenges in running elections in Yavapai County?

A: (Constabile) One of our biggest challenges with running elections is money. Arizona has four elections per year, but we are thought about just once every two years and that’s when they think we need staff and money, but we need resources all the timeA photo of Lynn Constabile, elections director for Yavapai County in Arizona..

(Hoffman) It’s meant being very creative with what money we have for technology and other equipment in a way that works for our voters and for our board of supervisors.

Q: How have you overcome those challenges?

A: (Constabile) Because we saw this vote-by-mail trend…we realized we could consolidate down the number of polling places to 50 in 2010 and we bought (electronic) poll books. We were really afraid that the pollworkers wouldn’t like them but they love them.… We created a mixed model vote center so we have urban vote centers that have four check-in stations with (electronic) poll books and we have a ballot on demand printer and we have a touchscreen. So anybody who goes in there can get any ballot printed on paper or they can use any touchscreen to get any ballot. So we have 19 urban centers…Our rural centers are smaller. They have two check-ins with printed ballots for the precincts that surround that voter center. And if you are from outside of the rural precinct, you can vote on a touchscreen.  

Q: How has online voter registration fared in Yavapai County?

A: (Hoffman) We love online voter registration. About 70 percent of all of our registrations come through online voter registration…It’s very easy and it’s convenient. People can sit at home and register in their pajamas if they choose.

(Constabile) At first when they started online voter registration, we could not read the signatures. But once we worked with the state, they cleared that up right away.

Q: What advice do you have for legislators crafting elections bills?

A: (Hoffman) Talk to the elections officials. We’ve had legislators (sponsor) bill but we talk to them and they realize that’s not how it really works. Something I’d like to see is before they start crafting a bill, that they bring that idea to the elections people with the boots on the ground…that would save a lot of rewriting and amending.

(Constabile) My advice is to not listen to the conspiracy theorists…Come to us and see what safeguards are in place. Arizona has a 350-page procedures manual for election administration and that manual has the effective law. I have to do everything in that book. If I don’t, I’m doing something against the law. We have a lot of procedures in place to protect the voter, to make sure that we are auditing to make sure things are coming out correctly.

Q: If you had ample funds, what project would you propose?

A: (Hoffman) I would have more education on our vote-by-mail system. It saves so much money. I would like to further the development of that and by using that money to do more education. It would help bring relief to people who are hesitant about that process.

Q: How did Yavapai County get its reputation for seeking out novel ideas for administering elections?

A: (Constabile) We are always doing something new. We hear from vendors that they are sick of hearing that someone is going to wait to see what Yavapai does. I have a computer programming degree and a public management degree and I have never shied away from different technology and how technology can make our lives more efficient.

(Hoffman) This has always been a progressive county even though it’s so heavily populated by a retirement community. We have a very progressive-thinking board of supervisors. My predecessors were very forward-thinking and Lynn has been here 15 years and she is a wealth of knowledge. My staffers have been progressive and the board has behind us because they see us saving them money.

Pat McDonald, director of the Cuyahoga County, Ohio Board of Elections (April 2014)

A photogaph of Pat McDonald, director of the board of elections for Cuyahoga County in Ohio.Pat McDonald is the director of the board of elections for Cuyahoga County in Ohio. The county includes Cleveland and 58 other communities. It has about 887,000 registered voters. The Canvass interviewed McDonald on April 8.

Q: What is the most pressing elections issue Cuyahoga County faces?

A: It’s two-fold. Right now we have a county executive who is running for governor and he is using that platform to counter a recent law that prohibits counties from sending out unsolicited vote-by-mail applications. The law also limits hours of early in-person voting…we are constantly answering questions about the fallout of the legislature’s new law and about the county executive running for office.

Our most challenging administrative issue will be integrating new technology into the election process. We just upgraded our software for our optical scanners and we are also infusing new high-speed scanners into our tabulation system. We started a cost-benefit analysis a year ago and this is the final test of the high-speed scanners and getting our employees comfortable with it…then showing this benefit to the public because the county council has to buy into the concept of new technology.

Q: Does serving in a closely watched county in a closely watched state for federal elections bring pressure to the work?

A: It kind of stimulates you to do the best job possible. There is some excitement there but then you get down to the daily grind of the position and then you don’t pay so much attention to that.

Q: What do you tell a voter who has a concern about voting by mail?

A: You have to work hard at communicating with the public and to send out the message that vote-by-mail is reliable, accurate and secure. You can vote 24-7 from the convenience of your kitchen table and we do count those votes. Voter information is so important. We have a track-your-ballot mechanism on the website. If I can get the public comfortable with tracking their ballot, they can see where their (vote-by-mail) ballot is at in the process. You have to have that trust factor out there with the absentee or vote-by-mail program. We will have a media campaign more towards the fall campaign and I’m going to go out and tell groups that it’s a great way to vote.

Q: How do you figure out where you can make improvements to the casting and counting of votes?

A: Our staff is always trying to learn from each election and we meet to discuss that. Our advocacy groups are important for that too. They are out there watching our efforts and they are partnering with us on many occasions, so we get their feedback. We also have very active political parties; we are constantly meeting with elected officials and the party executives and they are providing input. For example, we had a problem recruiting Republican poll workers and so we met with the Republican board leaders last week to talk about those challenges…to tell them we need a proper bipartisan balance of poll workers for our checks and balances for polling locations.

Q: What can legislators do to improve elections?

A: My advice to legislators is to not continue to change the rules during the middle of the game. Let’s set some standards, set some laws for early voting, for vote-by-mail, for funding sources and let’s move on. It’s very difficult to put together and run sound elections when you have the courts, the legislature and the secretary of state changing up the rules as you go. Let’s put a sound election administration policy in law and let’s leave it so that we can start planning well in advance for the election.

Q: What impact will the new legislation to reduce the number of days for early voting have on elections?

A: In the immediate future I don’t think there will be much impact because of the lack of interest in the primary election. It will limit the weekend hours and limits our ability to send out (unsolicited) vote-by-mail ballots. It will be a different way of doing business for us. We are not going to send (vote-by-mail) ballots out so we will have to promote other people to send them out and direct the public to call us or use our website to request a vote-by-mail application. We will have to let the public know when we are open for business and when we are open for voting, how they can access online registration and how they can access the vote-by-mail application.

Paul Lux, supervisor of elections for Okaloosa County, Fla. (March 2014)

A photograph of Paul Lux, supervisor of elections for Okaloosa County, Florida.Paul Lux is supervisor of elections for Okaloosa County in Florida. About one-fifth of the 120,000 registered voters in his jurisdiction are members of the military or part of a military family, and many of those voters are overseas. The Canvass interviewed Lux on March 12.

Q: Do you foresee many improvements to help ease the voting process for people who are overseas?

A: Right now the federal government seems preoccupied with the notion that these absent voters have a problem with getting registered to vote, which I don’t think is correct. They seem to also be suffering from the misconception that these people cannot get access to ballots. The voters who are in remote areas overseas do not have a problem with getting a blank ballot. Their problem is trying to return their ballot back to me. The federal government right now doesn’t want to have that conversation (about the return of ballots) because they don’t want to fight with the anti-Internet voting activists over the issue.

Q: So will technology soon solve this?

A: I know there are better ways to do it and I know the technologists know there are better ways for overseas voting. When I spoke at (National Institute of Standards and Technology) last year I made the appeal to that community that we needed their help and expertise. I told them we cannot throw the doors open and have Internet voting for everybody but there’s a segment of our population that we cannot serve well if we don’t have a more technologically-based solution. We are going to get to that solution; I prefer that we do it in a manner that makes it more secure rather than less. I understand that there is no 100 percent, fool-proof solution out there as far as ensuring security…. It was heartening to know that (the technology community) is starting to have that conversation as well so I’m hopeful that these discussions will bear fruit in the near future.

Q: What other challenges does Okaloosa County face?

A: Our biggest challenges have been not having the money to have demonstration projects. It gets frustrating because without resources, you don’t get to experiment with what works and does not work in improving elections. I don’t have the resources to keep trying kiosk-based systems and Internet-based systems because all of that requires servers and programming and all of those people need to be paid for their services. Most of the projects we have tried have been expensive but privately funded. Our biggest hurdle is that everybody keeps saying some of these things will not work and the only way you can find out for sure is if you keep trying new systems.

Q: What can legislators do to help improve the elections process?

A: I think elections administrators are often the last people legislators talk to when they are trying to make policy decisions about elections. They talk to the secretary of state and sometimes the elections director at the state level…. I always tell legislators that if you really want to know what is going on, you need to come talk to election directors at the jurisdictional level where the work is being done. I can tell you what is going to happen on Election Day when you change this part of election law.

Q: What did your testimony with the Presidential Commission on Election Administration focus on?

A: It was based on the challenges of serving military voters and why I understand those issues. I’m a veteran myself, which gives me a pretty unique perspective on this because not only was I in the Army, I met and married my wife who stayed in the Army until she retired. So I’ve served in the military, I’ve been a reservist and I’ve been a military family member. I know what some of those voting challenges are.

Q: If you had unlimited resources, what voting project would you pursue?

A: We have two-dimensional bar-code technology that allows me to take this code, scan it and produce a ballot with ovals filled in that can go straight into a tabulator. The question is, can I get that bar-code back from the voter without it being tampered with and still have a way for the voter to know I received it without it being tampered? I know this can be done. I have talked to technology people about some of the best ways to affect that delivery whether it’s by email or by some cloud-based delivery. I think it’s doable.

Q: What do you find most appealing about your job?

A: I enjoy this job because it allows me to pursue my interests in technology by helping to make sure that our process remains free and fair.... I’ve yet to get up in the morning and think that I want to go do something else.

Neal Kelley, registrar of voters for Orange County, Calif. (February 2014)

A photograph of Neal Kelley, registrar of voters for Orange County, Calif.Neal Kelley is registrar of voters for Orange County, Calif., the fifth largest jurisdiction in the U.S., which has about 1.6 million registered voters. A former entrepreneur and police officer, Kelley was appointed registrar of voters in 2006. The Canvass interviewed him on Jan. 22, 2014.

Q: What is it like administering an election in Orange County?

A: We currently have about 700,000 of our voters vote their ballots through the mail and that number continues to grow. The electorate has really been moving on its own to voting by mail. We have done some promotion. We also have 10,000 poll workers that we recruit and train for major elections. And we conduct all of the elections for all of the cities in Orange County. We have 11,000 voting booths that we distribute throughout the county and we have a team of about 35 folks in semi-trucks getting that equipment out.

We are the only county in California that prints all of our ballots and addresses all of our own sample ballots. Back in 2006 I got a little frustrated with some of the issues with vendors and I just wanted to bring that control in-house because if we control those issues, we reduce risk. We have gone to almost full automation on our outbound mail, our inbound mail and our extraction of ballots. So we have pretty much eliminated 90-plus temporary people and have nearly gone to full automation.

Q: With so many precincts and communities in your county, what other challenges do you face?

A: We have 400 ballot styles, and we have 2,700 voting precincts and we have five languages so there are hundreds of thousands of combinations. It’s a very complex process and so serving all of those voters in this many jurisdictions is pretty intense.

Q: What is the most pressing elections issue for Orange County?

A: The end of life for our voting system is definitely our most pressing issue. I convened a working group back in August and we have been studying our current system. To cut to the chase, there are no federal funds coming, no state funds coming and the county is in a hole of about $30 million. There is just no money so what do we do?

Well we are going to be self-sustaining on that equipment (finding new parts and retrofitting old machines) and hope to get it in operation through 2018. There are some potential pitfalls to that. Some parts are not being manufactured anymore, long-term vendor support is questionable and then we are still on Windows 2000 on some of that system and when you are locked into certification, you can’t do a lot about that. To mitigate that, we have been looking to stamp our own parts. We have been buying up inventory like craz –I want to be like an airplane shop–so we’ve been purchasing all the parts in stock and we are pretty self-sustaining. We can service almost 90 percent on that equipment.

Q: Can you share with others a past concern your office addressed?

A: Our team has done well with finding ways to innovate and finding ways to improve services for voters. We have done some of that with the way we train poll workers. That process in 2005 or 2006 was broken and we have revamped that, going to a digital model. We created an online banking account system for lack of a better word. So when you are recruited as a poll worker everything is done digitally. You can log into your account and you can see every experience with us; you see when you went to training, you see who your board members are, you see all the things that are going to be happening on Election Day. You can request tables and chairs through an online portal. All of this has been done to improve the process for poll workers and their volunteer experience. We call it our poll worker pass program. They get a card that comes in the mail and they carry that everywhere they go. If they go to training, we scan (the card). If they pick up supplies, we can scan it. It’s all a digital process. Thinking that through and creating that system has saved us tens of thousands of dollars in mailing costs. It’s improved and streamlined the process for the volunteers from top to bottom.  

Q: The Presidential Commission on Election Administration cited your office as a good example of making elections efficient for the voter. How does it work?

A: We completely changed the way we allocate equipment using turnout data history. As a part of that we took a look at the times that people were waiting in line. So we developed a system based on turnout data where we could predict what the wait times would be at each polling place at each hour of the day based on all of our data from before. We put that into an algorithm that our team developed. You can put in your polling place and get an estimated wait time at a given time during the day. It’s been pretty spot-on. We have teams out in the field checking it and we are within 10 minutes of our estimates. People can access this (online). We have seen people in line looking at it.

Q:  What can lawmakers do to help improve the elections process?

A: To always keep in mind what the effect of the policy is on the voter. When we are getting calls from some voters, a lot of the frustration we hear about are the steps they have to go through. A lot of the laws in the books are based on old operational needs. That’s what I’d love to have them keep in mind: to continue to progress with everything else in society. Now I get the security versus access issue, but I think there can be a better balance that we can achieve. We pushed for legislation and now this year you can call in to request a vote-by-mail ballot on the phone and that makes sense because that’s like half of our calls.

Sherril Huff, elections director for King County, Wash. (January 2014)

Photo of Sherril Huff.Sherril Huff is the elections director for King County, Wash., the biggest jurisdiction in the Evergreen State and the largest vote-by-mail jurisdiction in the country. She has held that role since 2007. The Canvass interviewed her on Jan. 10.

Q: What are some of the most pressing elections issues for King County?

A: There are a number of things with which vote-by-mail has made a tremendous difference. Vote-by-mail gives elections offices far more control over the processes and far greater accuracy. We are able to reconcile and account for every ballot that comes back to our office. We have worked really hard to achieve that and we have a quality assurance program that we rely upon. (The program) has helped a number of other counties and agencies who have talked with us about how we are doing that.

Q: So voter confidence is fairly high?

A: Last year the county did a survey to check in to see if we were hitting the marks for what was most important to voters and the results were very positive. We were in the top two in terms of confidence in our office.

Q: Have you found challenges from having all-mail elections?

A: We currently have materials in two additional languages. We began with Chinese and last year we had to take on Vietnamese. The translation of everything we print and provide to voters, all of those materials–including the voters’ pamphlets with all of the candidate statements and all of the referendums and ballots issues–has become monumental for us. Because of how our county has set up our candidate filing process and the timeframes, we end up with a very narrow window where we are having to work people extremely long hours. The cost for this last election ended up being $81 a voter as opposed to about $1.90 for a regular voter. So that impact has been huge and it becomes a little more serious each year and we are working to find some solutions on that.

Q: King County has vans as drop boxes to help collect ballots. What prompted that?

A: There is a difficulty in finding venues that could and would host very large drop boxes. We need to have very large drop boxes because, otherwise, we are having to send staff to collect ballots from a very large geographic area just constantly for days on end. So there was a consideration for how to make that easier for our office. Also, there has been growing demand for us to place drop locations on college campuses and we just put our heads together and got creative to figure out a solution. So the van (placed near the campus) was an ideal solution for that.

Q: Any advice for how to work with lawmakers who are dealing with election legislation?

A: The difficulty is getting (lawmakers) to check with us when they are considering legislation so that we can be a part of that conversation…. What we requested from them is that they give us some time to be able to demonstrate to them everything that is being done across the state uniformly in adhering to all of the rules related to drop boxes and how the voters are experiencing them as well. We are hoping to make some traction with that this session.

Q: How else have you looked to improve the election process?

A: Three years ago we launched what we termed the “informed voter” campaign and we began doing ads using local celebrities…to address all of those issues where voters make mistakes or ignore instructions and end up with our not being able to count their ballots. So we addressed each of those issues that can result in that circumstance with education pieces, and it was fabulously successful.

Q: Any other practices you would like to share?

We applied lean business principles to all of our ballot processing functions...we have reduced time and we have reduced staffing tremendously…. We have continued to looking at where there is waste and even looking at how many steps people are taking to perform a particular task or how many times the same type of evaluation of something is taking place. That’s just made a huge difference for all of our functions.

Linda Lindberg, general registrar for Arlington County, Va. (December 2013)

Photo of Linda LindbergLinda Lindberg, general registrar in Arlington County, Virginia (December 2013)

Election season still has not faded in Virginia where the race for attorney general has yielded a statewide recount. This month, Linda Lindberg, the general registrar for Arlington County, and her staff of seven full-time employees and six part-time workers unsealed hundreds of voting machines and re-tallied results for her community of 218,000 just outside of Washington. The Canvass spoke with Lindberg on Dec. 6.

Q: What impact will this recall have on your office and what special steps must you take to carry that process out?

A: The recount for us isn’t as onerous as it may be for some of our neighboring localities and that’s because we use electronic voting machines for the precinct level here in Arlington. The only thing we do for the recount is to review the tapes from the electronic machines and to verify that we have recorded the vote totals correctly. For our mail ballots, which are optical scan ballots, we do have to reprogram our tabulators to only record that one race, for the attorney general’s office, and then run the ballots back through the tabulator. So for us, again, it’s not terribly onerous. 

Q: What must you consider as far as the voting system or systems you will be using?

The only equipment that is being certified by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission is optical scan or digital-scan equipment. (Digitial-scan equipment) is the way everybody’s going. There have been some localities in Virginia that have already made that transition for a variety of reasons, either because of growth and they don’t have enough equipment, because with the HAVA funds–that was based on the number of precincts that were in existence in the 2000 presidential election. And sure it was a gift to many localities because you had the federal government giving you money to pay for voting equipment so a lot of these smaller localities, particular in Virginia, just simply purchased a one-to-one ratio on the voting machines. They were given so much money to be able to replace their aging punch-card and aging mechanical systems so that was a real boon for them. In Arlington, we were a little bit more forward thinking. We were already using a first-generation electronic voting machine. We actually purchased our existing equipment before we got the HAVA money. We got our equipment in 2003 but the EAC wasn’t in existence quite yet so we didn’t have our money yet. We went ahead and made that purchase and then were reimbursed a portion of it, but we were a little more forward thinking and projecting for about 10 years down the line and we are getting to that point now where we are growing too and our equipment is getting old, so I would guess that probably by the 2016 presidential election, we will have to go with a new (digital-scan) system. 

Q: What does your jurisdiction find are challenges?

A: We have a lot of growth and, because we are a small county and we practice “smart growth” along metro lines, that growth is up in the air–going upwards instead of outwards–so we have a lot of high-rise buildings. Our challenge is finding locations to use as polling places because we are pretty much running out of county-owned facilities. We are using almost every facility there is in the county at this point that we can. So as our county board starts approving more growth, we work with the planning commission to see what the impact that might have on our polling places. So we try as much as possible to have them work with developers to build in a space such as a party room or something similar–a club room in a building–that we can use for voting purposes as part of a site-plan condition.

A: The Supreme Court’s decision regarding the Voting Rights Act this summer lifted requirements for preclearance for your jurisdiction. What is the practical impact upon your office from this change?

Q: The practical impact for us is that we can make changes now that used to take a lot longer to implement. We can now implement them in about half the time. An example would be if we had to relocate a polling place because we had renovations at a school, and let’s say we wanted to move the poll from the school to a church. When we were covered under section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and subject to the preclearance requirement, we, first of all, had to find a location and take it before the local government because in Virginia it is the local governing authority that must approve any such changes. That’s about a two-month process for us because my governing body only meets once a month. After that, it would have to go to the Department of Justice and that was a good 60-day time period. It’s always funny, they could do it in less than 60 days but generally our experience was they used to just sit on them until the end of the period. Usually there was not an issue but it would take that extra two months.

Q: What can state legislators do to help folks like you run a good election?

A: They can look at what we do here and some of the implications of what we have in terms of our resources. A lot of offices are extremely underfunded, understaffed. They are asking us to do more with less as it is with all parts of local, state and federal government. That is certainly the case in elections. The more complicated they make the process, the more we have to work in order to implement it. We also need in elections to have a plan for the future, an ongoing capital plan. For example, you are going to replace your computers every two years. We have not seen that. Most of us have only been using electronic equipment for about 10 years. Now we really need to have an ongoing replacement plan at the outset saying ‘OK, here is some funding available each year to put into that pot so that five years down the line, six years down the line, we will have the funds to replace our aging equipment.’

Q: You started out as a poll worker in 1992 and stayed with this work. What has kept you in election administration?

A: It’s exciting. I think most anybody who has been bitten by the elections bug will tell you that once you’ve been bitten, it’s hard to get out of it. It’s frustrating at times but it is fun work. It’s really exciting to be able to say ‘hey, we put on this election, we put it all together and we made it happen. Look what we’ve done here, folks--we’ve assisted the democratic process electing our representatives here in our country.’ There is a real sense of pride in it too. I’m very fortunate that I have a lot of support from the leaders in my locality. And I have a fabulous staff. Election people hold each other up and support each other in a way that I have not seen in any other industry.

Sharon Harrington, supervisor of elections in Lee County, Fla. (November 2013)

photo of Sharon HarringtonSharon Harrington has been the supervisor of elections for Lee County, Fla., since 2004. Lee County, on Florida’s gulf coast south of Tampa, has beautiful shell beaches and 386,732 registered voters. The Canvass spoke with Ms. Harrington on October 11, 2013.

Q: Florida has gotten press for its efforts to remove non-citizens from the voter rolls. Can you explain how this works?

A: Some people think we are purging voters; I wish that word would go away. People think we’re going in with a list of names and hitting delete, delete, delete. It doesn’t work that way.  It’s a systematic removal of ineligible voters, period. First we get lists from the courts of people who declined jury duty because they are not citizens. With these people we send them a notice saying they are being removed, since they’ve signed an oath on the jury duty form.

If we’ve been notified that someone may not be a citizen from some other data source such as the federal SAVE list (Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements), we start with sending certified mail, receipt requested. Some people ignore it, and others bring in documents. If we don’t hear from the person, we wait 30 days and we publish in the newspaper an ad that says ‘you’re about to be removed from the voter rolls, please contact us.’ Only if there is still no response, do we finally remove them. The voter has to take some responsibility to respond, but there is a several-step process.

In all cases, we’re working with information that will guide us to the right voter, and gives us a little more information. And looking at the lists is just a preliminary step. Nothing gets started until we send that certified letter. And in any case, we don’t actually remove voters—we just code them, so it’s easy to recode.

Q: What are you working on now to make elections run even better in Lee County?

A: I think about how do we get the word out to voters. How do we help them to understand how important voting is? A lot of people have no idea how elections work.  So, I’ve set up a Community Outreach and Awareness Program, and said to my new staff, ‘if I find you sitting at your desk for more than one day, you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do.’ 

I’ve also just hired a new person to do nothing but update and maintain our website, since technology is changing so fast. It’s bad enough with voting equipment, where you’ve got equipment for five years and it’s outdated. Now, we’ll stream information about waiting times. We’re working our proverbial backsides off to make voting a pleasurable experience again.

Q: Florida had some problems in 2012, right?

A: We had a total breakdown in 2012 in our state. It was caused by our legislation. The legislature shortened the days for early voting. The trend has been for more people to request mail ballots or to want early voting. We had crowds that were unbelievable. There were people waiting four hours, and by my standards that’s totally unacceptable.

 We also had to switch from touch screen voting equipment to optical scan equipment, based on state law. Across the state there was not enough equipment bought and no money for training or backup. Fortunately, my county pitched in to get us more equipment. 

Q: How do you relate to your state legislators?

A: After the 2012 election, we (election supervisors) were called to Tallahassee to testify before the Senate and House committees on ethics and elections. The secretary of state learned a lot that day. We said ‘you guys have got to give us a seat at the table. You need to talk to the people in the trenches, on the ground floor. Do we have the equipment? Do we have the money to make the changes you want?’ Anything that they change, they need to run it by us.

 Since this has happened, our state legislature fixed all the problems and gave us more flexibility for early voting. And we are finally getting questions, and being asked what do you think, and is this going to work? We now have good relations with our legislators.

Sharon Harrington has been the Supervisor of Elections for Lee County, Fla., since 2004. Lee County, on Florida’s gulf coast south of Tampa, has beautiful shell beaches and 386,732 registered voters. The Canvass spoke with Ms. Harrington on October 11, 2013.

Q: Florida has gotten press for its efforts to remove non-citizens from the voter rolls. Can you explain how this works?

A: Some people think we are purging voters; I wish that word would go away. They think we’re going in with a list of names and hitting delete, delete, delete. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a  very systematic removal of ineligible voters, period.  First we get lists from the courts of people who declined jury duty because they are not citizens. With these people we send them a notice saying they are being removed, since they’ve signed an oath on the jury duty form.

If we’ve been notified that someone may not be a citizen from some other data source such as the Federal SAVE list (Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements), we start with sending certified mail, receipt requested. Some people ignore it, and others bring in documents. If we don’t hear from the person, we wait 30 days and we publish in the newspaper an ad that says ‘you’re about to be removed from the voter rolls, please contact us.’ Only if there is still no response, do we finally remove them. The voter has to take some responsibility to respond, but there is a several-step process.

 In all cases, we’re working with information that will guide us to the right voter, and gives us a little more information. And looking at the lists is just a preliminary step. Nothing gets started until we send that certified letter. And in any case, we don’t actually remove voters—we just code them, so it’s easy to recode.

Q: What are you working on now to make elections run even better in Lee County?

A: I think about how do we get the word out to voters. How do we help them to understand how important voting is? A lot of people have no idea how elections work. So, I’ve set up a Community Outreach and Awareness Program, and said to my new staff, ‘if I find you sitting at your desk for more than one day, you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do.’ 

I’ve also just hired a new person to do nothing but update and maintain our website, since technology is changing so fast. It’s bad enough with voting equipment, where you’ve got equipment for five years and it’s outdated. With the new updates to the website we’ll  be able to stream information about waiting times at the various early voting sites or at the precincts on Election Day.  We’re working extremely hard to make voting a pleasurable experience again.

Q: Florida had some problems in 2012, right?

A: We had a total breakdown in 2012 in our state. It was caused by major changes to our election laws in 2011. For example, the legislature shortened the days for early voting. The trend has been for more people to request mail ballots or to want early voting. We had crowds that were unbelievable. There were people waiting four hours, and by my standards that’s totally unacceptable.

 We also had to switch from touch screen voting equipment to optical scan equipment, based on state law. Across the state there was not enough equipment purchased for training or backup. Fortunately, my county pitched in to get us more equipment. 

Q: How do you relate to your state legislators?

A: After the 2012 election, we (election supervisors) were called to Tallahassee to testify before the Senate and House committees on ethics and elections. The secretary of state learned a lot that day. We said ‘you guys have got to give us a seat at the table. You need to talk to the people in the trenches, on the ground floor. Do we have the equipment? Do we have the money to make the changes you want? Anything that they change, they need to run it by us.

Since this has happened, our state legislature fixed all the problems and gave us more flexibility for early voting. And we are finally getting questions from them, and being asked what do you think, and is this going to work? We now have very good relations with our legislators.

David Orr, Clerk, Cook County, Ill. (September 2013)

photo of David OrrDavid Orr has been the Cook County (Ill.) clerk since 1990. As a former professor of history and politics, he knew back then that “few places cried out more for reform than Cook County.” He’s been on the case ever since.  Orr spoke with The Canvass on September 3, 2013.

Q: With your lengthy perspective in the political and administrative trenches, what has changed in the elections world?

A: There have always been the high points and low points—low usually based on political desires. When you put a microscope on an imperfect business, as we did after the 2000 presidential election, you’ll find some things that didn’t go perfectly.  

 A lot of what happens in elections is still human error, and it is not intentional and usually not fatal by any means.  A hard pressed person gives out the wrong ballot, for instance. But then there are partisan acts that tend to create much doubt within the public.

Q: What about some high points?

A: Since 2000, we’ve seen fairly significant improvements in the election process. We have better equipment and dramatically improved training for poll workers. 

Q: You work in a major urban area; what does that mean for elections?

A: Chicago and Cook County together have 1.4 million active voters. Cook County has 10,000 pollworkers, and Chicago has approximately the same, and we work well together. As for urban vs. rural, each of us is somewhat jealous of the other. Small jurisdictions may have to do it all with just three staff, whereas I have 300.  And yet, we have ballots in four languages and we maintain 46 suburban early voting sites and 50 in the city. We can learn a lot from each other, and the best practices from the EAC have been good for the smaller jurisdictions. I also try to share what we develop with smaller jurisdictions.

Q: What issues face you now?

A: Overall, we are trying to get ahead of changing technology and changing laws. A specific thing we’re doing is introducing electronic pollbooks. That’s new for us in Cook County; we used them in some precincts in April, and the results are great. It is easier to check in voters, easier to communicate between central staff and poll workers, and we have faster processing. But when you have  a complicated and large system such as ours, you have to watch out for unintended consequences when you have any change, even a good one.

We’re also adjusting to Illinois’ new online voter registration. And, Illinois is moving to allow people to get their absentee ballot application online. In Illinois, we have “no fault” absentee voting—all people can vote by mail if they choose.

Q: How does your work connect with  legislators?

A:  We’ve had good experiences with our legislators. Most of them pay great attention to elections and to administrators. We do have a challenge now, though. We’ve got a certain amount of equipment that’s becoming outdated, and there’s no framework for what the new equipment may be and who will pay for it. The goal would be to develop more competition between vendors and to get more clarity at the federal level on how we get things certified.

Lynn Bailey, executive director Richmond County, Georgia Board of Elections

Picture of Lynn Bailey, ED Richmond County, GA ElectionsLynn Bailey has been the executive director of the Richmond County Board of Elections, in Augusta, Georgia, since 1993. Richmond county is a mix of urban and rural areas, with 106,000 voters. She says “I love helping people work their way through bureaucracies, so it’s a good fit.” Bailey spoke with NCSL on June 27, 2013.
Q: How did you get into elections administration?
A: I came to work as a seasonal employee 35 years ago; I didn’t know a thing about what I was getting into; I just needed a job. It was 1978 and Georgia had a highly contested gubernatorial race, and the job was a lot of fun. It didn’t take long for me to completely fall in love with the work.
Q: What is a key issue that your jurisdiction faces now?
A: Urban renewal and its impact. We have several large Housing and Urban Development renewal projects in our City. The result is that houses are being demolished, lot lines are being redrawn, and addresses are changing. All of that is great for the city, but we have voters who are registered to vote at addresses that no longer exist. We’ve worked hard with our Geographical Information System (GIS), to come up with a layer on the mapping system to identify where vacant lots are located and compare that layer to the Voter Registration List to identify people who are registered at addresses that are now vacant.
We are also working with our local housing authority, so that they’ll include an application for registration at the time their consumers are relocated. That works well because once somebody moves, it’s difficult to track them down.
Q: How has the recent Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act (essentially ending the requirement that states such as Georgia have all election law changes pre-cleared by the federal government) affected you?
A: It’s a lot to digest. That Supreme Court ruling in no way obviates the state from the requirements of Sec 2 of the VRA, requiring things to be done in a fair manner. I hope we’ll do business in the same way we’ve always done business, by being fair.
There are people who definitely need reassurance that voter registration and elections will continue to be fair. From an election administration point of view, there is one less administrative layer in making changes.
Q: How can state legislators help (or what would you want them to know)?
A: They can help by being very mindful of how changes they make may affect the voters and the practical application of certain changes. It’s easy to brainstorm and think, ‘why don’t we just do this or just do that,’ but there needs to be better communication with those of us who run elections.
Q: What are your expectations around voting equipment at this point?
A: Georgia has a great voting system, but it is 12 years old now. It is touch screen technology, purely electronic for Election Day voting. We went through the 2012 elections with little or no problems with the equipment, but it is old. We are well aware that Georgia is very fortunate that the General Assembly purchased the uniform voting system 10 years ago. It’s going to cost a lot of money to replace the system, so we’ll just wait to see what the future holds.
 (Editor’s note: in many states, local jurisdictions choose and pay for their own equipment.)
The uniform system has been so wonderful because we no longer have over 100 ways of doing business. We now have one way we do things in Georgia. Also, we are very fortunate to have the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University, which I cannot imagine working without. The people at the Center have taught us how to properly test and store our equipment, and have given us a broader perspective on best practices. This has lead to a really good efficient system in Georgia.

Joe Burns, deputy director for New York State Board of Elections

photo of Joe BurnsJoe Burns is the deputy director of election operations for the New York State Board of Elections. He took this position four years ago, after working as staff for the New York Senate. NCSL talked with him on May 1, 2013, about his involvement with elections policy and administration.

Q: What did you notice as you transitioned from legislative work to the administrative side of elections?  

A: I had been very involved in elections generally and had gotten into election law, but coming over here to  work on the administrative side of things was eye opening. It was eye opening to see how much goes into conducting an election. It’s not just something that you turn the key and it happens on Election Day or primary day or the day of a special election. It didn’t take me long to realize that I work with some very smart people. It takes people with grit because elections take multi-year planning, and involve working with a lot of different people and personalities, and dealing with minor setbacks on a daily basis.

Q: State boards of election are not common; please describe how New York’s works.

A: We’ve got four commissioners, two Republicans and two Democrats. One commissioner from each party is appointed by the legislative leaders of that party, and the two remaining commissioners are recommended by the state party chairs to the governor, who makes the final appointment. It’s slightly different on the local level. There are generally two commissioners in each county, recommended by the two parties. I think the vast majority of the time, both sides work together well. And you have both sides keeping an eye on each other!  Ninety-nine percent of the problems we have in New York have nothing to do with partisanship.

Q: What are the issues that New York faces?

A: Money matters. Every day I speak to one county election commissioner or another, and in every conversation, they bring up the fact they don’t have enough money. People around the country forget that New York is a lot more than Manhattan. Parts of upstate are very rural, very poor. These areas have a declining tax base, and local governments are struggling and have been struggling for some time. And, by all accounts, elections have gotten very expensive. In the wake of some of the corruption scandals New York has faced, there has been talk about election reforms, and there will be vigorous debate about some of these. A reform package can become a Christmas tree and everybody gets to hang their ornament on it. We’ll see.

Q: How can state legislators help?

A: I would say communicate, and then communicate more. From our side, our responsibility is to keep lawmakers educated on some of the more technical points. Legislators clearly know elections—they all got elected to their jobs. But there has to be continued and constant communication between the elections people and the elected officials. We, Republicans and Democrats, do a good job of that.

Q: Is there anything new in terms of technology?

A: I got here when we were transitioning from lever machines to optical scan machines. Everyone has a lot of nostalgia for lever machines, but they understand the reasoning behind why we have t go away from them.

Wes Wagner, county clerk for Jefferson County, Mo. (April 2013)

photo of Wes WagnerWes 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?

A: 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

photo of Jacque CallanenJacquelyn 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?

A: 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.

photo of Maggie Toulouse OliverMaggie 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?

A: 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?

A: 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?

A: 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, Colo.

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?

A: 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, Fla.

photo of Lori EdwardsLori 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, Mich.

photo of Bill Bullard, Jr, MichiganWhile 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, N.C.

photo of George GilbertGeorge 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?

A: 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?

A: 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?

A: 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?

A: 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

Photo of Steve RawlingsSteve 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?

A: 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?

A: 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?

A: 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, Calif.

photo of Candace GrubbsCandace 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?

A: 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, Va.

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

Photo of Michael Winn.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, Kan. (February 2012)

photo of Brian NewbyBrian 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.

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