Beyond the Ballot with Jeffrey Danovich

Black Man placing ballot into ballot box with an american flag background and the words Beyond the Ballot on navy background in foreground
Jeffrey Danovich headshot with a VOTE mask on

Following the American – led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Jeffrey Danovich found himself among the many military men and women deployed to the country’s Northern region as part of the “War on Terror.” While serving in the Nineveh Province, Danovich was assigned to his battalion’s government legal team, where he worked as a Civil Affairs Operator with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Following the CPA’s dissolution in 2004, Danovich was selected by his battalion commander to become a Voting Assistance Officer (VAO).

As a VAO, Danovich quickly became well-versed in every aspect of military voting. The program, managed by the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), is designed to ensure citizens covered by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) are aware of their voting rights and know how to exercise them – no small feat. For Danovich, this meant completing online training, in-person workshops and becoming versed in state-specific election rules, processes, and deadlines pertaining to the voters in his unit.

For Danovich, the role of VAO was a collateral, rather than primary duty. This required him to complete many of the position’s responsibilities in his downtime. Although many deployed VAOs find themselves in similar situations, the nature of Danovich’s battalion posed a unique challenge. Put simply, his battalion was divided into three smaller units that were stationed throughout the Province. Managing transportation to and from the different units according to various election cycles soon became an inescapable reality.

Over the course of his deployment, Danovich spent numerous hours in the back of a Humvee to fulfill his responsibilities as a VAO. “What little downtime deployed service members have is spent catching up on sleep, sending an email to family or reading a book, etc. Upcoming elections and how to vote in them are not at the forefront of their minds. That’s where my role came into play. It was my job to make a seemingly convoluted process as easy as possible for our soldiers,” said Danovich.

Upon returning stateside, Danovich attended George Washington University where he earned his bachelor’s degree in Political Science. Shortly thereafter, he decided to leverage his experience  as a VAO to re-enter the field of elections. Danovich has since worked for the District of Columbia Board of Elections, the Open Source Election Technology Institute and the Fulton County Government in Atlanta, Georgia. Through these roles, Danovich has trained poll workers and poll managers, managed mobile voting units and performed Logic and Accuracy Testing, among other things. In August 2021, he accepted a position with the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office as the Election Training Administrator.

Danovich has worn many different hats throughout his career in elections; however, his sustained and close contact with poll workers has made clear to him the mounting threat to their safety. Throughout the U.S., poll workers complete numerous tasks that are pivotal to any given election. Despite their centrality to the electoral process, the recent proliferation of disinformation has led poll workers to experience an increasing number of threats and abuse. “Because of the constant threat posed to poll workers, many of the folks who work the polls on Election Day are leaving. We are losing some of our best and brightest,” said Danovich.

Although poll workers experience some of the most significant impacts of election disinformation, they also play a crucial role in combatting it. Those working or volunteering at the polls on election day have extensive knowledge of precinct procedures and are trusted members of the community. This uniquely positions current and former poll workers to serve as reliable sources of election information within their communities.

In regard to the importance of poll workers, Danovich stated that, “One of my biggest takeaways from the 2020 election is that many of our fellow citizens are willing to step up in a crisis situation. The spread of misinformation is currently one of the biggest threats to the conduct of our elections. My colleagues throughout the country and I have sought to mitigate this by encouraging more and more people to become poll workers.”

In the coming months, Danovich will begin to transition into his new role with the Secretary of State’s Office. While he looks forward to the opportunity to shape elections policy at the state level, Fulton County always will hold a special place in his heart – after all, who else can say they found love in a polling place? Through all the turmoil that characterized the 2020 Presidential election, Danovich happened to exchange contact information with an observer who wanted to know more about the conduct of elections. Semi-formal conversations over dinners  quickly turned into something more and nearly a year later, the two have never been happier.

Election 2020: What Did We Learn? Check Out New OVI Ballot Duplication Recommendations

In the spring of 2020, the members of the Sustainability of UOCAVA Balloting Solutions Subgroup(SUBSS) of The Council of State Governments Overseas Voting Initiative (OVI) developed  recommendations for duplication of damaged and/or machine unreadable ballots. Our Working Group of state and local election officials wanted to aid other election officials and inform the greater election stakeholder community as contingency planning for the 2020 election began to unfold. These enhanced, pandemic-era recommendations built upon the previous work of the OVI on ballot duplication.

After assessing the 2020 election cycle in relation to lessons learned regarding ballot duplication and other post-election processes, including how they were discussed in both social and mainstream media, the OVI SUBSS Working Group members developed the following recommendations:

Ballot Duplication Technology

  • In addition to continuously evaluating emerging ballot duplication-specific technology solutions, election officials could also explore the possibility of using dedicated ballot marking devices to aid in the ballot duplication process. In an effort to move away from completely manual ballot transcription processes, many jurisdictions reportedly did this successfully in 2020.

Ballot Duplication Observation

  • When broadcasting ballot duplication processes, captions, narrations and other explanatory information should be given by election officials to provide context for observers given their curtailed ability to ask clarifying questions in person. This will also help provide context to the media and aid in fighting attempts at video manipulation and disinformation.
  • Election officials should keep any recordings of the duplication or other post-election processes so that they have the original footage should a manipulated version show up online.
  • Officials should consider keeping a record of remote observers, either by having them agree to observer guidelines and collecting their information ahead of time, or by tracking observers’ internet service providers so they can be tracked down if they violate observer principals.
  • Educational materials on post-election processing, including ballot duplication, shared by election officials should include a spot for signatures of both in-person and remote observers indicating they have read and understand the materials and are trained or certified to begin observation.
  • Election officials should consider observer area signage and room layout with clear physical distancing markers. Additionally, cameras should be considered for both on-site and remote observers who must keep physical distance but find it hard to see the process when distant.
  • Election officials should provide staff availability for observer questions both on-site and via remote access as well as to implement a process for advance sign-ups, limiting the number of observers at one time.
  • Chain of custody and security processes and procedures for ballot duplication and post-election processing should be reviewed by election officials and strengthened as appropriate to address evolving risk mitigation needs.

If you have any ballot duplication questions or suggestions for additional recommendations based on your experience, please reach out to us at elections@csg.org. We’d love to hear from you!

Beyond the Ballot with Brianna Lennon

Black Man placing ballot into ballot box with an american flag background and the words Beyond the Ballot on navy background in foreground

Inspired by events surrounding the 2020 election, you turn to your computer in search of answers. How do local offices utilize technology to administer an election? What events take place prior to your ballot arriving in the mail? How do election officials know vote tallies are correct? After reading through numerous articles, you come across a podcast about election administration. You click on the most recent episode and hear the voice of Brianna Lennon, Boone County Clerk and co-host of High Turnout Wide Margins. 

Elected Boone County Clerk in 2018, Lennon’s expertise in election administration has been forged by years of experience and mentorship under seasoned practitioners. As an undergraduate, Lennon completed an internship with the League of Women Voters where she worked to reformat voter education materials. Upon entering law school at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law, she secured a position with the Missouri Secretary of State’s Office, then under the administration of Robin Carnahan. It was during this time that Lennon fell in love with elections. 

After graduating with her Juris Doctor, Lennon worked briefly in the Missouri Attorney General’s Office before returning to the Secretary of State’s office, where she assumed the role of Deputy Director of Elections and Elections Counsel. In this role, she collaborated with county clerks to ensure state election procedures supported the operations of clerks at the local level. She also worked alongside vendors and fellow election officials to design and implement the statewide Military and Overseas Voting Access Portal.  

Having worked closely with numerous county clerks throughout the state, Lennon was soon drawn to the position. For Lennon, it was the challenging nature of the job that compelled her to run for office. “At the local level, officials are afforded a lot of discretion in how they implement policies. This is both a challenge and an opportunity. For me, I saw the position as allowing me to leverage this discretion to uniquely serve voters,” said Lennon. By 2018, she had mounted a successful campaign for Boone County Clerk and assumed office in January of the following year. 

Through these experiences, Lennon has become attuned to the importance of communication and the solicitation of feedback by state officials. Although the Military and Overseas Voting Access Portal was developed by state-level officials, the feedback of local officials has greatly shaped and improved the customer service experience for voters. “Election officials at all levels need to seek out conversations to share and solicit feedback. There are many lessons to be shared; it’s often just a matter of asking the right questions.” 

As Clerk, Lennon has personally sought to connect clerks with subject-matter experts and one another to better share best practices. In Missouri, the work of a county clerk depends on the assessed valuation of the county. The smaller the locality, the wider the range of responsibilities a county clerk is assigned. As a result, some clerks have less time to explore the practices of fellow election officials. According to Lennon, this is where her podcast, High Turnout Wide Margins, came into play. 

 Thirty-nine episodes strong and counting, High Turnout Wide Margins was started by Brianna Lennon and her fellow election administrator, Eric Fey, in December 2020. In each episode, Lennon and her co-host take approximately 30 minutes to touch on a pressing topic in elections through consultation with prominent subject-matter experts. “The purpose of the podcast is to act as a resource for fellow election authorities. We want to highlight local election stories, national trends, and really anything that may be useful for practitioners just entering the field,” said Lennon. 

Through the podcast, Lennon has had the opportunity to connect with some of the nation’s most experienced practitioners. Guests have included Overseas Voting Initiative working group members Neal Kelley (Orange County Registrar of Voters) and David Stafford (Escambia County Supervisor of Elections). When asked what she enjoys most about the podcast, Lennon stated, “you can just feel the guests’ devotion and enthusiasm for the profession.”  

Conversations that have emerged through the podcast also have highlighted the adaptability of election officials. When it comes to the 2020 election, everyone has a story to tell. Lennon has proven no exception. As the November election approached, her office was tasked with joining the statewide voter registration database. As the existing system was gradually phased out, staff were required to enter voter registration data in both systems.  

Although dual data entry took its toll on Lennon’s staff, the coronavirus pandemic later took hold and quickly overshadowed the stress of the task. Rapidly changing public health and safety protocols soon led to confusion among voters regarding absentee voting eligibility. Added to this confusion was the prevalence of election mis- and dis-information online.  

As nearly all election administrators can attest, the burden of combatting misinformation fell on the shoulders of local officials. In anticipation of a challenging election cycle, Lennon’s office created social media accounts earlier that year to enhance voter outreach and voter education efforts. These accounts later became key avenues through which Boone County officials communicated with voters. Posts were made online to eliminate gray areas surrounding absentee eligibility and public health protocols as well as to communicate the safeguards in place to protect elections from wide scale fraud. 

Looking back on 2020, Lennon realizes that, unlike the pandemic, the heightened scrutiny of elections and election administrators will linger. Another wave of practitioners will retire, and a younger generation will step into positions of leadership. Creative strategies must be applied to meet the challenges posed by the digital age. According to Lennon, these creative strategies must be built on a solid foundation and a deep understanding of the laws and policies that govern elections. “Read all the statutes that apply to your job. Even go as far as to read them once a year. Also, get to know your fellow independently elected officials. It’s always good to glean their perspective and put your minds together to solve the issues you may collectively face,” said Lennon. 

Election 2020 in Review: Ballot Duplication Technology Implementation in Orange County, California

The Council of State Governments (CSG) Overseas Voting Initiative (OVI) has been examining the November 3, 2020 election in relation to all things “ballot duplication” and sharing insights in our latest article series. We recently highlighted ballot duplication in the news followed by a look at poll watchers, observers and the ballot duplication process. In this third series installment, we’re providing an overview on the rollout of new ballot duplication technology by the office of the Orange County, California Registrar of Voters (ROV)  following their research efforts to advance this process in one of the largest U.S. voting jurisdictions.

Background

For several years, Orange County ROV Neal Kelley and his team researched technology-aided solutions to help streamline the process for duplicating ballots marked outside of a polling place that may have become damaged or are otherwise unable to be read by vote tabulation scanners. Potential tools to partially automate the transcription of these ballots – including military and overseas ballots – were part of the overall election modernization effort. More importantly, continuous innovation better serves the jurisdiction’s voters while meeting the new requirements of the California’s Voter’s Choice Act of 2016. Orange County was mandated to reach compliance to this act in 2020.

In 2016, the ROV’s office issued a request for information (RFI) on several segments of election technology including voting systems, electronic pollbooks, and ballot duplication solutions. Following an in-depth review of the RFI responses received, the ROV’s office hosted an election technology fair with over 20 providers demonstrating their offerings in 2017. This allowed the ROV’s office to learn more about the latest election technologies available in the marketplace.

Around this time, the OVI Working Group, in which Orange County ROV Kelley participates, began its study of tools and processes to aid in ballot duplication. The OVI released its initial set of ballot duplication recommendations in January 2016, and an in-depth report on the group’s ballot duplication research in December 2016.

In early 2019, armed with robust election technology research outputs from their exhaustive work, the Orange County ROV’s office issued a request for proposals (RFP) for election technology solutions. They selected each type of desired technology and entered into contracts with providers to implement these solutions during the 2020 election cycle. Ballot duplication technology was just one of the many solutions procured by the ROV’s office, with Novus optical character recognition ballot duplication software from Runbeck Election Systems selected.

The ROV’s office gradually phased in the Novus software with its first small-scale test usage during the March 2020 primary with its legacy voting system. Use of the Novus software expanded significantly during the November 3, 2020 general election in conjunction with the implementation of their new voting system plus many additional election technologies and processes.

The 2020 general election was an extremely challenging time to implement any new technology, but the Orange County ROV’s office experienced great success. Over 1.54 million ballots were cast by Orange County during the November 3, 2020 election representing an 87.3% turnout, the second highest voter turnout percentage ever experienced in the county. To add even more service to voters due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the California Secretary of State’s office mandated that all registered voters automatically received a vote by mail (VBM) ballot from their county election office. Both in Orange County and throughout the state, this resulted in a significant increase in VBM ballots. Despite the large number of VBM ballots, COVID-19’s significant impact on election administration, and the introduction of a new voting system and additional election technology, Orange County ROV Kelley said 2020 was one of the smoothest elections ever in Orange County’s history.

How did the ballot duplication technology work?

With oversight from Orange County ROV office’s operators, the Novus software read each ballot needing duplication, then extracted a “clean” ballot in the same style from the ROV’s election definition software. The Novus software then replicated the original ballot, adding duplicate identification numbers on both the original and the replicated ballot in order to match the newly replicated ballot to the original. The ROV team operators then manually verified all ballot selections that the Novus software suggested. The duplicate ballots were then printed, matched, and checked for quality control.

How did the ballot duplication technology fare?

The Orange County ROV’s office conducted time and process studies to compare the new ballot duplication technology solution with traditional manual remaking of ballots. While not dramatically increasing through-put and time savings, time and staff-power was still saved, plus the addition of the ballot duplication technology resulted in a smoother, more efficient, and easier to track / easier to audit process. Improvement in transparency and chain of custody alone makes this solution critical to the Orange County ROV’s post-election processing.

To learn more about ballot duplication technology, please see our 2020 and 2021 article series and be on the lookout for our new OVI ballot duplication recommendations for election officials.

Beyond the Ballot with Michael Winn

Black Man placing ballot into ballot box with an american flag background and the words Beyond the Ballot on navy background in foreground

The Greek philosopher Aristotle said that by nature, man is a social animal. For Michael Winn, this quote has long resonated deeply with his desire to bring about positive change. While working as a sanitarian in the mid-1990s, Winn realized it was time to switch paths and pursue this passion through a career in public service. Shortly after beginning his job search, Winn was approached by an acquaintance working in the Bexar County Clerk’s Office regarding an open position as a contract specialist. Shortly thereafter, he was brought on staff. What he anticipated to be a 9:00-5:00 commitment quickly became a life-long passion. 

As a contract specialist, Winn developed a foundational understanding of election processes in his jurisdiction and an awareness of how these procedures contributed to a cohesive statewide system. Winn continued to build upon this foundation as he rose through the ranks to become the Administrator of Elections in Harris County in 2019 and the Chief Deputy of Administration for the County Clerk’s Office one year later. According to Winn, his experience as an administrator has greatly facilitated his ability to educate voters on critical aspects of elections at the municipal, county, and statewide levels. 

Given this background, Winn soon came to prioritize engagement with the community as Chief Deputy to better reach and educate his jurisdiction’s diverse voting population. Harris County, home to the city of Houston, boasts one of the most diverse populations in the nation. As of 2016, the County’s foreign-born population totaled approximately 1.2 million, with residents hailing from Mexico, El Salvador, India, and Vietnam, among others. Although Winn had previously held positions in Bexar and Travis counties, the diversity of Houston posed a new and exciting challenge. 

To address this challenge and better meet the needs of his constituents, Winn and his colleagues turned to the numerous community organizations throughout the city for support. In Houston, these organizations exist to foster a sense of belonging, maintain cultural ties and traditions, and advocate for the interests of the group(s) they represent. As such, organizational leadership is uniquely positioned to inform election administrators of their community’s needs and assist in voter education efforts. 

In Harris County, long-standing relationships have been built with organizations such as the Texas Civil Rights Project, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and those representing the interests of the Hispanic and Asian communities. Over the years, these relationships allowed Winn and his colleagues to effectively disseminate information regarding upcoming elections and polling place locations. Through feedback solicited from these organizations, the Clerk’s Office also was able to better locate polling places based on voters’ access to private and public transportation. 

Community partnerships also have played a critical role in helping Houston’s voters overcome the language barriers they may experience prior to and once having arrived at their polling place. Although election officials in Harris County have incorporated four languages – English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Chinese – into their operations, numerous other languages and dialects also are prevalent within the community. Therefore, further action was needed in order to better serve all voters. 

Recognizing this need, Winn and his colleagues in Harris County worked alongside a local vendor to expand the language services available to voters. Prior to the 2020 presidential primary, officials in the Clerk’s office were looking for ways to repurpose older iPads that had long fallen out of use. With the help of the local vendor, 29 different languages were incorporated into each tablet’s software. Volunteers in the field were then equipped with the tablets so they could better communicate timely and accurate election information to voters with limited English proficiency. When asked about this collaboration, Winn stated that “While forging connections with community groups may be a daunting task, it is critical to ensuring that this (electoral) process works for everyone.” 

By the November 2020 election, the COVID-19 pandemic had yet to subside, leaving election officials throughout the nation with mounting uncertainties. In Harris County, relationships with community leaders were once again leveraged to put procedures in place that protected the health of poll workers and voters alike.  

At the time of the election, conflicting guidance from varying state officials in Texas resulted in confusion among residents regarding mask wearing requirements at the polls. Winn and his colleagues resolved this confusion by first consulting with members of the community on what procedures they felt were necessary to ensure their safety. Through surveys, the Clerk’s Office found overwhelming support for mask mandates and social distancing requirements within election facilities. Upon finalizing procedures with this feedback in mind, relationships with trusted community leaders were then leveraged to ensure these requirements were made clear to the public.  

After the results had been declared and the election fervor subsided, the success of Harris County’s contingency planning was made clear. Despite over 1.8 million Houston residents having voted in the November election, Chief Deputy Harris is not aware of any cases of community transmission linked to the County’s polling locations. According to Winn, the success of the November election was reliant upon one key takeaway: listening to your electorate. “When you listen to the electorate that you serve and include them in critical conversations taking place, it makes for a better process,” stated Winn.  

Beyond the Ballot with Lynn Bailey

Black Man placing ballot into ballot box with an american flag background and the words Beyond the Ballot on navy background in foreground

In 1978, Lynn Bailey had just graduated from high school when the Richmond County Board of Elections recruited her to work in the upcoming gubernatorial election. As with many high turnout elections, local offices were in desperate need of temporary workers to help complete their ever-growing list of administrative tasks. Although Bailey knew little about her new role, she brought with her a strong desire to learn and serve her community.  

Within a short amount of time, it became clear Richmond County’s investment in the recent graduate would pay off. Bailey rose through the ranks to become Assistant Director of the Richmond County Board of Elections in 1988. She remained in this role for five years before accepting the position of Executive Director in 1993, when longtime Director Linda Beazley resigned to serve as Richmond County administrator. According to Bailey, the formative impact of her predecessor’s dynamism and mentorship cannot be overstated. 

Continue reading “Beyond the Ballot with Lynn Bailey”

Achieving Balance Between Security and Ballot Access when Serving Military and Overseas Citizen Voters

Members of The Council of State Governments (CSG) Overseas Voting Initiative (OVI) recently released a position paper titled, “Electronic Ballot Return for Military and Overseas Voters: Considerations for Achieving Balance Between Security and Ballot Access.

Created by 14 state and local election officials comprising the Sustainability of UOCAVA Balloting Systems Subgroup (SUBSS), this set of recommendations was issued in response to the current state of change within the states regarding election policy. As states grapple with how to best serve their voters, SUBSS members are seeking to make clear that military and overseas voters face novel challenges when participating in elections. These challenges may necessitate the consideration of additional voting solutions such as electronic return of voted ballots. These recommendations are targeted towards key stakeholders within the elections community, such as election officials, state legislators, researchers and election-centered federal agencies.

Continue reading “Achieving Balance Between Security and Ballot Access when Serving Military and Overseas Citizen Voters”

Beyond the Ballot with Paul Lux

Black Man placing ballot into ballot box with an american flag background and the words Beyond the Ballot on navy background in foreground

“The sun never sets on voting in Okaloosa County,” shared Paul Lux as he showcased the pins representing his overseas voters that dot the world map in his office. In 1999, Lux was working as an information technology (IT) specialist for a local real estate office in Okaloosa County when he was approached by the company’s secretary regarding an open position with the Supervisor of Elections. Influenced by his educational background in government and his voting experience during his military service, Lux soon applied for the position. Shortly thereafter, he was brought on staff as an Information Systems Coordinator, a role in which he served for five years before rising through the ranks to become Supervisor of Elections in 2009.

While in office, Lux has witnessed numerous advancements in the technologies used to administer elections. During the early 2000’s, lever machines and punch card voting were still commonly used to cast and count voters’ ballots. Following the Bush v. Gore Presidential Election, punch card voting was largely abandoned due to counting issues stemming from incompletely punched chads. Direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines were then adopted due to their utility for voters with disabilities, provision of immediate feedback to voters, and prevention of overvotes. Some machines, however, do not produce voter-verified paper audit trails (VVPAT), and thus many jurisdictions have since transitioned back to the use of paper ballots and optical scanners.

Continue reading “Beyond the Ballot with Paul Lux”

Beyond the Ballot with Aaron Nevarez

Black Man placing ballot into ballot box with an american flag background and the words Beyond the Ballot on navy background in foreground

Following years of strained resources and stagnant budgets, officials in Los Angeles County (County) were challenged to administer elections to an increasingly large and complex electorate. At the forefront of these struggles were the inefficiencies posed by the County’s aging voting system. Originated in the 1960s, the hardware and underlying systems used to build the County’s voting system had become outdated and inflexible, putting stress on election officials and limiting the voter’s experience.

Beginning in 2009, the Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk (RRCC) sought to overhaul the County’s dated system and bring the voting experience into the 21st Century. Upon partnering with the Voting Technology Project (VTP) and securing financial support from the James Irvine Foundation, the County launched the Voting Systems Assessment Project (VSAP). Through this project, the RRCC intended to modernize the voting experience in Los Angeles County by researching, designing, manufacturing and implementing a new voting model with the systems to support it.

At the time of the Project’s inception, Aaron Nevarez was working as a Policy Deputy for a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors where he served as the Supervisor’s liaison and provided policy oversight to several County departments, including the RRCC. Shortly after the VSAP was underway, Nevarez became the main party responsible for fostering communication between his office and the RRCC project team. Through this role, he developed a deep understanding of the VSAP timeline and its overall goals.

As a long-time public servant, Nevarez quickly became invested in the VSAP’s mission of putting the voter experience at the center of the system’s design. When selecting a new voting system, election administrators often solicit proposals from technology vendors through a competitive bidding process. Following a lengthy trial period, the RRCC was to then select the system that best meets the needs of their jurisdiction. The County, however, found that no existing commercial off the shelf system met the complex needs of the County and therefore elected to chart its own path by designing and developing its own system.

For Nevarez, the VSAP’s unique approach to developing the County’s new voting system presented him with the kind of opportunity that had long driven him to pursue a career in public service. “When I started out in public service, I was focused on how I, as a small component of this system, could help make the lives of the public better,” Nevarez said. Not only would joining the VSAP team allow him to positively impact the lives of the County’s current voters but those of future voters as well. As such, shortly after the project entered its third phase of development in 2015, Nevarez joined the RRCC as the Division Manager for Governmental and Legislative Affairs.

As Division Manager, Nevarez was principally responsible for working with elected officials to secure funding for the VSAP and ensure the RRCC’s proposed changes to County voting procedures were aligned with California regulations. According to Nevarez, his commitment to addressing underserved groups of voters and his ability to garner stakeholder buy-in largely contributed to his success in this position. Recognizing his dedication to the VSAP, the RRCC later asked Nevarez to assume the role of VSAP Project Director and Assistant Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk of Election Operations & Logistics.

As Assistant Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk, Nevarez never strayed from his commitment to serving the County’s voters. Focus groups, community discussions, and VSAP advisory group members were convened to learn about the electorate’s voting experiences and opportunities for improvement. The experiences of voters with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency were at the forefront of the RRCC’s research into the key functionalities of the prospective voting system.

Based on these conversations, Nevarez and his colleagues placed customizability of the voting system at the forefront of their concerns. They found that voters with disabilities and limited English proficiency were often unable to cast their ballot independently and privately. “What we really focused on was the fact that no voter should have to disclose anything about any disability they have,” explained Nevarez. As such, the design team ensured the new system supported plain language and was intuitive, user-friendly, and accessible to all. They also incorporated the opportunity for voters to easily correct any errors that appeared on their ballot prior to submission.

Following the initial design phases of the VSAP, Nevarez took on project management responsibilities for the RRCC’s efforts to manufacture and implement the new voting system throughout the jurisdiction. With more than 500 political districts and almost 6 million registered voters, the process of rolling out such sweeping election reforms was no simple task. Numerous workshops and demonstration centers were established within local communities to educate the public on new voting equipment and modified procedures. As part of these efforts, a two day Countywide mock election was held at approximately 50 vote centers to effectively imitate the experience voters would encounter on election day. Nevarez also attended local city council meetings to make sure local government officials understood the changes being implemented.

In conjunction with the County’s efforts to design the new voting system, Nevarez was an instrumental member of the legislative working group and community engagement team that helped draft and pass the California Voter’s Choice Act (VCA) in 2016 which supported the new VSAP voter experience by expanding voting options. This legislation authorized a local option for adoption of a voting model that allows voters to choose how and when to cast their ballot in a way that is most convenient for them; a foundational principle in the VSAP initiative. With enactment, every voter in LA County receives a mail ballot and can return their ballot either via mail or hand delivery to any of the County’s drop boxes or vote centers. Voters also were permitted to cast their ballot in person at the vote center most convenient for them.

To ensure the convenience afforded to voters in the VCA transferred from paper to practice, Nevarez and the County’s project team directly engaged with the electorate to formulate the County’s implementation strategy. Through surveys and additional focus groups, the RRCC developed an understanding of the challenges that geographic isolation and limited access to private transportation posed to their voters. In response, plans were developed to deploy mobile vote centers to serve rural voters in isolated parts of the County and officials worked with geographic information system experts to locate vote centers close to key public transportation routes.

As Nevarez’s work demonstrates, he is tireless in instituting voter-centric reforms to the conduct of elections in Los Angeles County. When faced with the difficult decision of whether to choose administrative efficiency over the needs of voters, Nevarez is yet to set aside the interests of the public. The many negotiations the County has undertaken to make the VSAP a reality – and the execution managed by Nevarez and the project team — are not only evidence of his fulfilled commitment to the public interest but success as a leader and administrator.

Beyond the Ballot with Neal Kelley

Black Man placing ballot into ballot box with an american flag background and the words Beyond the Ballot on navy background in foreground

Following passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, officials throughout the U.S. were tasked with implementing sweeping reforms to the administration of our nation’s elections. For Orange County, California, the ensuing transition to a new electronic voting system was fraught with numerous errors and complications. As a result, the County Board of Elections sought to institute much needed administrative reforms through appointing an outsider to serve as Chief Deputy Registrar of Voters.

At the time, Neal Kelley was employed as an adjunct professor with Riverside Community College’s Business Administration Department following the sale of his retail photo lab business. Recognizing Kelley’s sharp business acumen, Riverside’s Dean promptly recommended he apply for the position. Shortly thereafter, Kelley joined the ranks of Orange County’s election officials as Chief Deputy, a position in which he served until his appointment as Registrar in 2006.

To date, Neal Kelley is the longest serving Registrar in the history of Orange County and among the most senior election officials in California. He is a Certified Elections and Registration Administrator (CERA) through the National Election Center and is a long-standing member of the United States Election Assistance Commission (EAC) Board of Advisors. Kelley previously served as president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials (CACEO) and the National Association of County Recorders, Election Officials and Clerks (NACRC).

In these positions, Kelley is not only looked upon as a seasoned administrator but an expert in implementing process reforms that benefit election workers and voters alike. At the time of Kelley’s appointment, there were few policies and procedures in place to ensure effective coordination between polling places and other key election offices. In some jurisdictions, informal procedures may meet the demands of a smaller electorate. In Orange County, however, any given election conducted prior to 2020 required effective coordination between 1,000 – 1,200 polling places and 10,000 volunteers. This required not only extensive logistics coordination, but well-established procedures for communication between poll workers and leadership in central offices.

Upon taking office, Kelley wasted no time in addressing this need. To improve communication between poll workers and leadership, the Registrar’s Office partnered with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to establish a radio network for election night operations. Kelley’s office also was the first in California to incorporate online chat technology for poll workers and voters, providing answers to questions without the need for a phone call. By 2010, Kelley had launched the Poll Worker PASS program, a one-stop portal for Orange County poll workers. It is estimated that this system saves the county approximately $20,000 in postage and printing costs each election through providing poll workers with a more efficient means to access the latest election information and complete pre-election day tasks online.

Among the biggest changes to how elections were administered in Orange County was the jurisdiction’s adoption of the vote center model. Following numerous deliberations with the County Board of Supervisors, the model was approved in 2019 despite past resistance to a similar proposal. This model allowed for the consolidation of around 1,200 polling locations into just under 200 vote centers and reduced staffing levels to approximately 2,500 paid employees. This was accompanied by the introduction of new voting equipment and vote-by-mail procedures as well as expanded early voting timeframes and ballot drop box locations.

In Orange County, the transition to vote centers was intended to provide residents with added convenience and improved overall satisfaction with the voting process. Most vote centers were opened within a mile of existing polling places and have allowed voters to cast their ballot at any open vote center. No longer are voters tethered to their home precinct. At vote centers, residents are also able to cast a ballot tailored to their local races rather than be required to complete a provisional ballot. This in turn cuts down on time spent hand-counting provisional ballots, allowing election officials to provide faster results.

According to Kelley, vote centers in the county were designed to follow a “franchise model” that facilitates uniformity among locations. This provides voters with virtually the same experience regardless of which vote center they frequent. Signage, electronic voter check-in and vote center lay outs are held constant and reflected in maps provided to voters in information guides prior to their arrival at the polls. Vote centers have also enhanced language access, providing voters with the ability to initiate a live video conference with translators at the Registrar’s Office if none are present on site. Surveys of vote center staff, customer service agents and voters demonstrate high levels of satisfaction with these reforms in Orange County. To access these survey results, click here.

The success of Orange County’s model can be attributed in part to the vote center lab established by Kelley’s office. The first of its kind, Orange County’s vote center lab is an exact replica of those open and operating on election day. Using this lab, the Registrar’s Office can pilot changes to vote center procedures prior to implementation as well as train staff in the exact environment in which they will work. As such, only the most effective, well-researched policies are put in place on election day. Further, Kelley’s vote center lab acts as an effective educational tool for local schools and attracts year-round visits from election officials and legislators throughout the U.S.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Orange County vote center lab also played a pivotal role in determining the most effective procedures for prioritizing the health and safety of staff and voters alike. Procedures pertaining to social distancing requirements, personal protective equipment and sanitizing procedures were all tested, evaluated and adjusted prior to approval. As a result, the 2020 general election was conducted seamlessly and bolstered one of the highest voter turnout levels in the county’s history.

For nearly two decades, Kelley has utilized his entrepreneurial spirit to facilitate Orange County’s transition to more cost effective and voter-centric election procedures. He has not only spearheaded numerous improvements to the voting process but relentlessly advocated for them at all levels of state government. Despite fierce initial backlash to his reforms, the success of Kelley’s transformative approach has solidified his reputation as a respected figure and leading innovator within the elections community.