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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.