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 Originated in the 1960s, the hardware and underlying systems used to build the County’s voting system had become outdated and inflexible, putting stress on election officials and limiting the voter’s experience.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.

Beyond the Ballot with Barb Byrum

Black Man placing ballot into ballot box with an american flag background and the words Beyond the Ballot on navy background in foreground
Barb Byrum, a white woman with blonde hair in a black dress with red flowers stands in front of the Ingham County MI seal

As Barb Byrum’s third and final term in the Michigan House of Representatives was coming to an end, she faced a daunting question – what now? For Byrum, this question was not a matter of whether to continue her career in public service, but how. As the daughter of former House Minority Leader Dianne Byrum, Barb’s desire to serve her community ran deep.

As such, Byrum decided to run for the position of Ingham County Clerk in 2012. Byrum, having served on the House Committee on Redistricting and Elections, was uniquely positioned to enter the field of election administration. Having owned a local hardware store in southwestern Ingham County, serving as County Clerk would not only allow her to serve her local community but also build her neighbors’ faith in the electoral process.

Following a successful campaign, Byrum joined the ranks of the approximately 1,500 individuals tasked with administering elections at the county, local and township level in Michigan. As chief election official, Byrum has spearheaded her jurisdiction’s efforts to train election workers, program ballots and tabulators, coordinate and create precinct supplies as well as report and audit election results, among other duties. She is a Certified Elections Registration Administrator (CERA) with the National Association of Election Officials’ Election Center and has hosted the Ingham County Election Administration Academy.

Notable among these achievements is Byrum’s handling of the recount of the 2016 presidential election results. Following the election, Green Party candidate Jill Stein requested a recount of all votes cast in Michigan. Byrum successfully organized the transfer of the approximately 136,000 ballots cast in Ingham County to a central location to be counted by hand. With the help of approximately 60 election workers, the recount was completed in just over two days, making Byrum’s jurisdiction among the first to report their results. According to Byrum, the contributions of Ingham County’s election workers to this effort cannot go without recognition.

Unique among Byrum’s endeavors as County Clerk have been her continued efforts to foster transparency and educate the public about the conduct of elections. Her office routinely disseminates newsletters via email and implements updates to the Clerk’s website in order to ensure that officials’ contact information is up-to-date and that information regarding registration and ballots is easily accessible.

Among her constituents and the wider election community, Byrum has become known for her active presence on Twitter and her use of the platform to combat election misinformation by disseminating fact-based narratives. She often retweets articles from credible sources and shares links to heavily cited blogs and primary source documents. As of March 2021, Byrum had amassed a following of just over 8,000 accounts.

For Byrum, her presence on social media is not only intended to educate but engage future generations of election administrators. According to Byrum, “…the more people that truly understand election administration and can articulate the many procedures to secure our elections, can counter the narrative that our elections are not safe and secure.”

Often, traditional news media outlets portray election officials solely in terms of their professional duties. This can leave voters with a one-dimensional view of election administrators, devoid of the personal details that cultivate their reputation as working professionals and integral members of their communities. The absence of such details online poses a challenge to election officials when attempting to build trust and rapport with the voters they serve.

Byrum has faced this challenge head-on through her social media presence. The Clerk’s posts demonstrate her passion for running, social activism and family as well as her lively sense of humor. She is most notable for her joke of the day accompanied by the hashtag “JokeThenVote*.” These punchy one-liners have proven effective at engaging voters and other election officials alike, with a growing number of replies, retweets and likes per post.

Furthermore, Byrum has leveraged her social media platforms to engage policymakers in dialogue surrounding the conduct of elections. Byrum’s tenure in the state legislature has acted as the impetus for these efforts, demonstrating the need for enhanced and sustained dialogue between election administrators and elected officials.

As an administrator, Byrum has witnessed first-hand the negative impact of constrained budgets on city and township clerks as well as the challenges posed by unreliable rural broadband and the enhanced public scrutiny of elections. For example, it is not uncommon for local clerks in Ingham County to use a nearby McDonald’s Wi-Fi network to transmit election night results and download/send ballots to uniformed and overseas citizen absentee (UOCAVA) voters given the lack of a reliable internet connection in their office.

According to Byrum, this has led increasingly to burnout among her staff and fellow election officials throughout the state. As such, these issues are frequent topics of conversation between Byrum and Michigan’s legislators. She frequently attends coffee hours with state policymakers and has testified in front of numerous legislative committees to ensure these issues are not overlooked. In Byrum’s view, “legislators are going to decide on election policy, and they’re either going to do it with us, or without us. I believe it’s in the best interest of the state to join with us, or at least to bring us along even when disagreeing adamantly.”

Although election administration is one among many of Byram’s duties as Clerk, she has never faltered in her commitment to serving Ingham County voters. This commitment has garnered the respect of her colleagues throughout the state and will continue to benefit Michigan’s voters long after her tenure in office. To keep up-to-date with Byrum’s efforts, follow her on Twitter, TikTok and Facebook at @BarbByrum.

*For example, on Monday, April 5th Byrum tweeted, “When is the saddest part of the week? Monday mourning. #JokeThenVote.”

Beyond the Ballot with Lance Gough

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

In the late 1970s, Lance Gough made the decision to relocate from Southern California to the Midwest’s Windy City. Shortly thereafter, Gough entered one of Chicago’s many election offices in search of temporary work. After filling out a brief application, he was hired on the spot. Unbeknownst to Gough, what started as a temporary position would quickly turn into a life-long passion and distinguished professional career as Executive Director of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners. 

Since walking into the election office that day, Gough has undertaken numerous roles for the Board, ranging from the records processing division to investigations and IT. Through these experiences, Gough came to understand the many facets of election administration and the importance of well-trained staff. As such, he played an integral role in the Board’s efforts to cross-train staff so that any individual could troubleshoot a broad range of issues. Within a few short years, Gough’s work culminated in his appointment as Executive Director – a role in which he served for over 30 years. Although Lance has now retired, he works with the Board in an advisory capacity.

Throughout his tenure as Executive Director, Gough was responsible for managing voter registration and election administration for over 1.5 million voters. He managed change during an era of unprecedented changes in election administration. Examples include: the transition from punch cards to optical scanners and touch screens; the introduction of electronic poll books; expanded registration with online and election-day programs; and the launch of in-person early voting, no-excuse Vote By Mail and Secured Drop Boxes. According to Gough, these transformations had a significant and lasting impact on his role as Director. In addition to modernizing administrative processes, Gough has sought to prioritize engagement with voters and ensure accessibility for individuals with disabilities and language barriers.

To achieve these goals, Gough spearheaded many pioneering initiatives within his jurisdiction. These initiatives include the integration of an automated text messaging system to help voters find their polling place and the implementation of a web-based system to allow uniformed and overseas voters to access and mark their ballots instantly online, then return them by mail. According to the Board’s records, this system led to a 25.4% increase in the rate of military/overseas ballots returned in his jurisdiction. 

Throughout his career, Gough also has built lasting partnerships with community leaders and organizations to better engage with voters and ensure accessibility in the conduct of elections. In recent years, the Board of Election Commissioners has worked with Equip for Equality and the U.S. Justice Department to make every polling place in Chicago accessible to voters with disabilities. Gough also has developed a strong relationship with the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute. This sustained collaboration has facilitated the recruitment of young Latinx poll workers and provided the Board of Commissioners with a valuable resource for enhancing language accessibility. 

Under Gough’s leadership, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners has fostered a strong partnership with Chicago’s branch of the Mikva Challenge, a non-profit organization empowering youth to be active, informed citizens. Under Gough, this program grew over 20 years from 100 high school poll workers to approximately 2,000 high school poll workers being recruited, trained and assigned to work at every citywide election. The work of youth in the city’s elections has helped fully staff the polling places and mitigate the introduction of new balloting-system technology.

When asked about the impact of the program, Lance recalled his experience during a poll worker training that highlighted the value of the younger generation’s technical skills within the polling place. Prior to each city-wide election, the Board holds various trainings to educate voters on polling place procedures and voting equipment. At one training in particular, students in attendance were able to set up the voting equipment so quickly that precinct staff were left unsure of how to fill the remaining time. As this story shows, young poll workers have provided precincts with staff that can operate voting equipment with minimal instruction and supervision, saving the city money and time. 

Partnerships such as with the Mikva Challenge not only have enhanced voter engagement and polling place accessibility, but also helped the city navigate the 2020 primary and presidential election. Just days before the March 2020 Primary, owners of 186 polling locations declined to open due to the public health concerns posed by COVID-19. Through outreach conducted by the Board of Election Commissioners in conjunction with their community partners, the Board and Gough managed to expand the capacity of early voting sites with adequate Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). This work minimized the adverse impact of polling place closures on voters while also prioritizing the health and safety of the city’s poll workers.

For at-risk members of the community, absentee voting was expanded throughout the primary to minimize risk of exposure to COVID-19. According to Gough, poll workers and voters alike expressed concern regarding the safety and continued operation of a local nursing home’s voting program. Upon obtaining the necessary court authority, the Board successfully converted this location into an absentee voting program.

In the summer months ahead of the November 2020 General Election, the coronavirus pandemic worsened. Having learned from the challenges of the primary, Gough and the Board had the proper contingency protocols in place to ensure the election was conducted safely and securely. Polling locations and staff were equipped with adequate PPE and sanitizing supplies such that they were able to supply face masks to any voter in need. Ealy voting locations, drop boxes and vote by mail were expanded to allow voters to avoid in-person election day crowds. As a result, more than 550,000 Vote-By-Mail applications were processed and 50% of the city’s mailed ballots were returned via drop box. Between Vote By Mail and Early Voting, roughly 8 of every 11 ballots were cast before Election Day. As a result, Chicago had its smoothest Election Day, even as the city experienced its highest Presidential Election turnout in 36 years.

Although there are many takeaways from the 2020 election cycle, at the forefront is the value and importance of the community partnerships that Gough has forged throughout his career. As Gough transitions into retirement, the wider elections community will undoubtedly continue to build on the foundation he laid, most notable for its focus on advocacy – for Chicago’s voters and poll workers alike.

Election 2020 in Review: Poll Watchers, Observers and the Ballot Duplication Process

Definition of ballot duplication

Before the November 2020 election, the Overseas Voting Initiative anticipated an increase in absentee/by-mail ballots throughout the country, and the corresponding necessity for election jurisdictions to examine their ballot tabulation processes. In a series of articles, published between July and September the ballot duplication (or transcription) process in states was assessed.

All states allow poll watchers or observers access to some parts of the election process, and many states permit these individuals to be present during tabulation processes, including ballot duplication/transcription. In the midst of a global pandemic, states were faced with the question of how to allow the public or authorized observers access to tabulation processes while still maintaining social distancing and keeping election officials and observers safe. This September 23, 2020 article highlighted some of the ways states were planning on dealing with this issue, including streaming tabulation processes online and providing more space to process ballots. Now that a very challenging election is over, this article analyzes what worked and what could be improved in the realm of observing ballot tabulation processes.

As members of the Overseas Voting Initiative’s working group reflected on how they handled election observation of the ballot duplication process, several ideas emerged.  

  • For remote observation, in which the ballot duplication and other ballot tabulation processes are streamed online:
    • Require those who want to observe remotely to provide their name, address, and other information and to accept conditions/guidelines for remote observation (like Orange County, CA did here).
    • Track Internet Service Providers (ISPs) of those observing remotely so that if someone illegally takes a screen shot of a ballot or otherwise abuses their rights as an observer, they can be identified for possible investigation and penalty.
    • Keep recordings of the process to combat misinformation. If there is a manipulated or misunderstood video circulating, use the original to combat the false narrative.
    • Livestreams should have some context, whether it is a voice-over of what is happening as ballots are being processed, on-screen text explaining the process, or both. Livestreams could contain “pop-up” messages periodically explaining the process.
  • For in-person observation of ballot duplication/transcription processes:
    • Create a dedicated “ballot duplication” area with signs that describe the process and what is happening to give observers context for what they are seeing.
    • Explain the entire process and lay out expectations for what observers will be seeing ahead of time.
    • Provide observers with handouts that explain the process. 
    • Speak with observers frequently and do a “tip of the hour” to explain more about the process.

Although 2020 was an extraordinary year requiring adaptations and quick thinking, many of the processes that election officials put in place for remote and in-person observation of tabulation processes will likely be useful in the future as well.

Beyond the Ballot with David Stafford

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

Following nearly 10 years of work in federal affairs, David Stafford was elected Escambia County Supervisor of Elections in 2004. Stafford, a native son of Escambia County, was drawn to public service by his family’s tradition of such work and his own involvement in political campaigns. With this background as a foundation, David successfully transitioned into his new role with the support of a strong staff and has continued to win re-election since taking office.  

Despite being thrust into the world of elections administration during a period of sweeping and transformative change, Stafford quickly established himself as a respected member of the election administrator community. He previously served as the President of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections and currently acts as Legislative Chair of the National Association of Election Officials. In addition to his membership on the Overseas Voting Initiative Working Group, he has served in multiple sector-specific roles on the Election Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.  

To each of these roles, Stafford brings a wealth of unique experience informed by the challenges he has faced throughout his tenure in office. In 2002, the U.S. Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) – one of the more notable federal overhauls of state elections infrastructure. Despite only having been in office for two years, Stafford and his team successfully navigated Escambia County’s implementation of Florida’s new statewide voter registration system and the acquisition of  accessible voting equipment for voters with disabilities.  

Further incorporation of new technologies into elections infrastructure has not subsided since the implementation of HAVA. For example, David has overseen the implementation of ballot marking devices, an online voter registration system and electronic pollbooks, among other things. Although advancements in elections technology have significantly streamlined many formerly cumbersome processes, these technologies require operators with increasingly advanced technical skills. For Stafford, seeking out and hiring such staff often has posed a significant challenge.  

Furthermore, with each new technology rollout comes the need to train staff on new procedures and educate the public on such changes. In many jurisdictions, voters often express reservations regarding the security and efficacy of a new technology. According to Stafford, his role as the Supervisor of Elections is to address these reservations head-on through enhancing the transparency of his office’s operations. While in office, David has personally overseen the development of voter resources on the county elections website, enhanced their social media presence with fact-based content and generated informational videos to disseminate online. Stafford’s reputation as an honest broker within his community further promotes transparency between voters and his office.  

While many election officials experience the challenges posed by the ever-changing landscape of elections technology, Stafford’s expertise as Supervisor has been uniquely informed by one of the few immutable characteristics of any given election – the location of his jurisdiction. Spanning the Gulf of Mexico coastline, Escambia County is frequently battered by hurricanes and other extreme weather conditions. Most recently, David and his staff were tasked with administering the 2020 general election following a direct hit from Hurricane Sally in September that inflicted major damage to election facilities and polling locations across the county. A second hurricane, Zeta, forced a brief suspension of early voting in order to protect voters and poll workers.  

Although David’s contingency protocols helped prevent a significant reduction in the number of early voting options available, he attributes much of his jurisdiction’s resilience to the support from the wider election community. Numerous colleagues throughout the country reached out, offering additional resources and expertise. With many jurisdictions having previously conducted primaries throughout the coronavirus pandemic, these officials were able to share best practices and lessons learned to help David ensure voting could be carried out efficiently and in line with public health protocols.  

Only after the final votes were cast and the results tallied was the success of this collaboration made clear. According to Escambia County records, approximately 77% of votes were cast before election day in the 2020 general election. This constituted an increase of more than 26% from the 2016 general election despite similar levels of voter turnout. As these figures demonstrate, Stafford and his office were able to mitigate the impacts of the recent hurricanes and successfully accommodate the shifting voting patterns of his County’s residents that resulted from the coronavirus pandemic.  

David Stafford’s experience conducting safe and secure elections in the face of significant obstacles has re-enforced a reputation for efficient and effective leadership among election administrators. The impact of the improvements he has made while in office have been felt by voters in his jurisdiction and in communities throughout the country as fellow officials learn from his lived experiences. Rather than be revered for this work, Stafford hopes to be one among many future officeholders who lead with a voter-centric approach and an unrelenting pursuit of forward progress.  

Election 2020 in Review: Ballot Duplication in the News

Definition of ballot duplication

With the November 3, 2020 election in the nation’s rearview mirror, it is time to examine some of the challenges that affected military and overseas ballots the Overseas Voting Initiative (OVI) discussed in the lead up to the presidential election.

One such topic is ballot duplication. In the coming weeks, the OVI will examine:

  • noteworthy instances of ballot duplication that occurred last fall;
  • implementation of new automated ballot duplication systems and how they fared;
  • in-person and remote observation of ballot duplication and post-election processes during the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions; and
  • ideas for improvement to the ballot duplication process going forward.

Last summer, the OVI issued a series of articles regarding ballot duplication and providing timely recommendations for election officials to consider in 2020. It was anticipated that the pandemic would result in an increase in the use of absentee, by mail and other ballots cast outside of polling places. This, in turn, would necessitate an increase in duplication.

In fact, the topic of ballot duplication was discussed frequently by election officials and in the media as voting procedures were a focus of post-election analysis.

Election officials across the country, including those in Montgomery County, Maryland, Marin County, California, and San Joaquin County, California, proactively shared information  with their communities and the media on their processes for duplicating damaged or otherwise machine-unreadable ballots prior to November 3, 2020. The Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) even highlighted the ballot duplication process preemptively – and cited the OVI’s article series – in its highly-referenced “Rumor Control” website explaining that, “In some circumstances, elections officials are permitted to “duplicate” or otherwise further mark cast ballots to ensure they can be properly counted.

Despite the diligent work by election officials and others to explain the nature and purpose of ballot duplication, the topic was still a subject of considerable misinformation and disinformation [1] post-election. For example, officials in Delaware County, Pennsylvania were forced to debunk manipulated video of their ballot duplication process and City of Detroit election officials testified about the process to their state senate.

Perhaps most notably, Maricopa County, Arizona authorities worked to explain and combat ballot duplication misinformation and disinformation that quickly spread on social media. This was focused on proper vs. improper methods for marking paper ballots and concerns about whether these ballots would be counted. This became known as “Sharpiegate.” It was featured in CISA’s Rumor Control site, again referencing the OVI series on ballot duplication.

Additionally, there were stories about jurisdictions utilizing the ballot duplication process for ballots affected by the following notable circumstances:

  • Ballots with Printing Errors – In Tarrant County, Texas, election workers had to duplicate one-third of the jurisdiction’s absentee ballots due to a printing error that rendered bar codes illegible on approximately 20,000 ballots. Ballots in Outagamie County, Wisconsin contained a misprint visible in a black square — known as a timing mark — near the edge of the ballots. The misprint necessitated the duplication of 13,500 ballots so ballot machines could read them accurately.
  • Burned and Water Damaged Ballots – 2020 saw ballot drop boxes set on fire in Boston and Los Angeles. In Boston, there were 122 ballots inside the drop box when it was set on fire, only 87 of which were legible and able to be counted, though it is likely some fire-damaged ballots required duplication to go through ballot scanners. In Los Angeles, another ballot drop box fire resulted in over 200 damaged ballots left in a seared, soggy pile. Election officials had to sift through these to see what could be saved, again, likely using ballot duplication procedures. In both instances, voters whose ballots were not able to be saved received replacement ballots.
  • Braille and Large Print Ballots – Election jurisdictions offer a variety of assistance and services to aid voters with accessibility challenges. In some jurisdictions, like counties throughout Arizona, Braille and large print ballots are offered to voters. Prior to the November 3 election, Maricopa County election officials received requests for 26 Braille ballots and 555 large print ballots, all of which needed to be duplicated upon return before they could be counted. While duplication of Braille and large print ballots was not new in 2020, extensive discussion of it was.

The next article in this series will cover how ballot duplication and other post-election processes were viewed by both in-person and remote election observers while dealing with physical distancing, building capacity restrictions, and other COVID-19 restrictions.

[1] Misinformation is false information that one spreads because they believe it to be true. Disinformation is false information that one spreads even though they know it to be false. The difference between the two is intent.

Beyond the Ballot with Sandi Wesolowski

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

As Sandi Wesolowski’s senior year of high school came to a close, she stood calmly by as her fellow classmates struggled to carve out their post-graduation plans. For Sandi, the choice was simple. Inspired by events of the recent 1976 election, Sandi felt called to a career in public service, working in the field of elections administration.

By the time Sandi walked across the stage at graduation, she’d been offered a position with the municipal government in nearby Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Working for the City Clerk, Sandi became directly involved with the administration of local, state and federal elections, helping these processes run smoothly for those in her community. After eight years of service to the City of Oak Creek, Sandi was offered the position of Clerk in the neighboring City of Franklin. She has remained in this role for the past 36 years, during which the population of her jurisdiction has doubled.

During her time as City Clerk, Sandi has administered 11 presidential elections and 124 local elections as well as conducted three statewide recounts. Given elections in Wisconsin are administered at the local level, she has been able to make key improvements and streamline the voting process not only for her staff, but for her voters. With each procedural change her office administered, Sandi sought to prioritize the education of key stakeholders on such changes in order to maintain transparency and public confidence in her office’s conduct of elections.

Despite the improvements Sandi’s office has been able to implement in Franklin, she has become all too familiar with the notion that forward progress is not always linear. Over the years, numerous state laws and regulations have been amended to modify voting processes. Although many of these changes have been permanent, it is not uncommon for policy-makers to revert to old procedures when such changes have adverse impacts. Although taxing for her office, Sandi is reluctant to view such frequent changes as overly burdensome, but as a means through which her office can better serve their voters.

Over the years, the statutory and procedural changes Sandi has implemented have often deployed new and innovative technologies in the polling place. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, Sandi and her colleagues learned how to operate and troubleshoot lever voting machines used by voters to mark and cast their ballot. When she became Clerk for the City of Franklin, lever machines were phased out, replaced by punch card voting systems and later touch screen devices. Today, Franklin utilizes optical scan voting systems to read marked paper ballots and tally the results.

With each voting system roll out came additional training for Sandi and her staff. Not only are election officials required to learn the procedures for operating each system, but also relay any relevant procedural modifications to the public. Often times, voters do not fully recognize the impact of such changes on election officials and merely reap the benefits. Voters typically think of elections as a straightforward, three-step process consisting of registration, casting a ballot and determining the election’s outcome. For some voters, this may be true; however, successfully administering any given election in Franklin City alone requires Sandi and her staff to undertake between 2,000 and 3,000 different steps. When considering these steps alongside state mandated trainings, it becomes clear the staggering challenge that implementing new technologies can pose for her office.

Despite the challenges brought by each election cycle, Sandi has maintained her heart for service and a voter-centric approach in her role as City Clerk. In any given election year, she typically works an average of 10 hours a day, six days a week. During the 2020 election cycle, however, this increased to 12-15 hour workdays, seven days a week. For Sandi, such a demanding schedule was not only necessary to administer an election in the middle of a global pandemic, but worthwhile when her office successfully reported their results in the face of curtailed staffing levels and heightened public scrutiny.

Sandi’s dedication to customer service and her voters is not only demonstrated through her taxing schedule, but also the personal connections she has established with voters. For voters covered by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) in particular, she has made it her personal responsibility to see to it that those who wish to vote while stationed stateside or while living abroad are able to do so. For each of her approximately 100 UOCAVA voters, Sandi provides detailed instructions for how to return their voted ballot based on their personal situation. Over the years, she has come to know many of these voters and anticipate their needs each election cycle.

When asked about the lasting connections she has made with her voters, Wesolowski recalled one story in particular that stood out. One day, Sandi was advised by her staff that a woman had come into the office asking to speak with her directly. Through tears, the woman would come to explain how she was there to thank Sandi for the time and effort she had spent making sure her son could vote from abroad. After a few pictures of the two were snapped, they parted ways. Although brief, the impact the interaction left on the parties involved was indelible.

As events surrounding the 2020 election demonstrate, it is important now more than ever to highlight and support the work of election officials like Sandi Wesolowski and her staff. While Sandi’s personal commitment to her voters may be unique, the taxing schedule she maintains is all too often reflected among election officials throughout the country. Countless hours are spent prepping registration and ballot materials, polling places and voting systems in any given election year and it is only thanks to such work that voters’ voices are heard.

Overseas Citizen Voter Outreach and Strategies for Improvement

Colorado Representative Jeni James-Arndt headshot

While abroad, overseas citizen voters often face significant challenges as they attempt to cast their ballot, including gaining access to timely and accurate election information. Exacerbating this challenge is the difficulty election officials face when seeking to engage with these individuals. Prior to representing Colorado’s 53rd District, Rep. Jeni James Arndt learned first-hand the difficulties of voting abroad. Arndt first registered as a UOCAVA (Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act) voter in 1990 while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco and later as a postdoctoral student in Denmark. From 2006 – 2008, she worked as an education specialist for the American International School of Mozambique.

Although Arndt was able to successfully cast her ballot abroad, her experiences as an overseas citizen are reflective of the unique challenges long faced by UOCAVA voters. At the forefront of these challenges is voters’ access to timely and accurate election-related information. While abroad, voters have many sources to turn to for this information. However, knowing what these sources are and where to direct questions can present a significant barrier.

As an overseas voter, Arndt was not impervious to this obstacle. While residing in Maputo, Mozambique, the Representative was largely reliant on local election officials and U.S. Embassy staff to receive timely election-related information. Unfortunately, she was never the audience for such outreach. Arndt recalled experiencing more difficulty when attempting to cast her ballot and less confidence in its successful transmission compared to previous voting experiences.

In contrast, the Representative’s voting experience while serving in the Peace Corps was quite different. Throughout her two years of service in Morocco, Arndt frequently received timely election information from her local Peace Corps office. Through this office, she also was able to return her ballot to local election officials. According to Arndt, this outreach, coupled with the simplicity of returning her ballot, greatly facilitated her ability to vote.

Voter Outreach During the 2020 General Election

Although voter outreach efforts conducted by both local election officials and embassies have improved significantly in recent years, Arndt’s experiences still reflect that of many overseas citizens today. While some report having frequent contact with local election officials and embassy staff, others recall having little, if any. The voting experiences of three overseas citizens this fall – Liz Renzagila, Lendee Sanchez and Hannah Touchton – best demonstrate this variation.

According to Liz Renzagila, an American citizen living in Belgium, the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program acted as the primary means through which she received election-related information this fall. Outreach from her local election officials was limited to receiving confirmation of her voter registration and notification that her completed ballot had been received.

In contrast, the primary source of election-related information for Lendee Sanchez, a U.S. citizen living in Germany, was through Democrats Abroad. Sanchez’s contact with her local election officials and the nearest U.S. Embassy was minimal. She recalled receiving instructions from these officials regarding how to return her completed ballot. However, their communication did not extend beyond this interaction.

After submitting both her absentee ballot application and Federal Post Card Application (FPCA), Hannah Touchton frequently received election information from the U.S. Embassy in Malaysia. According to Touchton, this outreach started in September and included Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) resources pertaining to absentee ballot request, transmittal and return. The Embassy also notified her of FVAP’s virtual voting assistance via Zoom. During these virtual meetings, voting ambassadors were available to answer her questions regarding the absentee voting process and inquiries about FPCA and Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot (FWAB) forms. While abroad, Touchton’s attempts to contact her local election officials were largely unsuccessful.

Strategies for Improvement

Given that U.S. elections are administered at the state and local level, variation in election officials’ outreach and communication with overseas voters is an inevitable facet of elections. Voter registration deadlines, methods of ballot return and timelines for the return of these ballots vary significantly by state. As such, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to communicating with voters. There are, however, practical steps that local election officials can take to enhance communication with their UOCAVA voters.

Solicit additional contact information from UOCAVA voters

Regardless of the jurisdiction, the ability of local election officials to conduct outreach to overseas citizens often is constrained by the availability of complete and up-to-date voter contact information. One way election officials can improve voter outreach is through utilizing voters’ physical addresses on record to solicit additional contact information. For example, election officials can use “mailers” to solicit additional contact information so that further outreach can be conducted via email and phone. In recent years, election officials in Colorado have been able to bolster their outreach efforts through such methods.

Ensure UOCAVA voting information on front-facing websites is clear, comprehensive and user-friendly

Despite best efforts, insufficient contact information may render local election officials unable to reach overseas citizens. In these instances, providing readily accessible voting information and resources on front-facing websites may present the best opportunity for local officials to engage with their overseas citizens. FVAP’s recent research note (Assessing State UOCAVA Web Pages)and The Council of State Governments Overseas Voting Initiative 2016 Report (Overseas Voting: Strategies for Engaging Every Voter) are useful tools for election officials wishing to enhance UOCAVA voting information on their websites.

Establish Partnerships with Organizations Serving Overseas Voters

Although collaboration with FVAP is vital to ensuring overseas voters receive timely and accurate election information, significant opportunity exists for election officials to collaborate with organizations serving overseas voters. Due to their strong ties with expatriate communities, these organizations can act as valuable intermediaries between voters and election officials. Through this collaboration, relevant FVAP resources can be shared and contact information exchanged between voters and election officials so that reliable channels of communication are established.

The Overseas Voting Initiative would like to thank the voters whose stories served as the foundation for this blog. These individuals include Rep. Jeni James Arndt, Morgan Floyd, Liz Renzagila, Maggie Dickman, Hannah Touchton, Alyssa Ayse Jahnigen and Lendee Sanchez.

Every Vote Counts: Military and Overseas Voting Ballots

Breakdown of UOCAVA numbers

In the lead up to the Nov. 3, there have been countless articles about military and overseas voters. Some encouraging the voters to return their ballots as soon as possible. Others are speculating about how important these voters may be to the election. It has brought to the forefront of our minds the age-old myth that military and overseas ballots are only counted if it is a close race.

Traditionally, the majority of Americans head to their local polling place on election day and cast their vote in person with not much thought given to absentee ballots. Polls are often congested places on Election Day. In light of Covid-19 health risks, many states have turned to absentee voting as a method of cutting down on the number of people crowded into gymnasiums, churches, and other polling locations. However, military voters have voted via absentee ballot since the U.S. Civil War, and those protections were codified in 1986 with the Uniform and Absentee Citizen Voting Act (UOCAVA).

Election officials are required count every valid ballot that comes into their possession prior to their state’s relevant deadlines. For a ballot to be valid, a voter must have completed the ballot and relevant identification processes according to state law. This can include signatures on envelopes, proof of identification, witness certification, etc.

Deadlines for ballots to be received by election officials are different for each state and there are special considerations for military and overseas citizens- find yours here. For example:

  • In Florida, if you are living outside of the U.S. your ballot must be postmarked by Nov. 3 and will be counted as long as it is received by the 10th day AFTER the election.
  • In New York, your ballot must be postmarked by Nov. 3, and the received by the local election office by the 13th day AFTER the election.
  • In California, your ballot must be postmarked by Nov. 3 and, for the November General election only, must be received no later than 17 days AFTER the election.
  • In Arizona, your ballot must be received by your election office by 7:00p.m. Nov. 3.

If you have concerns about the status of your ballot, contact your local election official, or check their website. States are required by the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act to have some method by which UOCAVA voters can track their ballot. In some states there is a phone number to call, but many states have websites dedicated to tracking the status of your absentee ballot.

Election officials do not “call” elections. That is something done by the media . Instead election officials are responsible for counting each and every valid ballot that receive before deadlines. The media have methodology they employee in order to “call” an election. Even after the media has “called” an election, election officials continue their official counting process, which can include recounts. Local election officials provide their official count to a state’s chief election officer (oftentimes the Secretary of State), who will certify the official count. See more on that here. Record numbers of absentee ballots are expected this year which could cause some delay to election results, but rest assured that election officials will be working hard to get every validly submitted timely ballot counted