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.

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

How did they get my voter information!?: Access and Use of Voter Registration Lists

Breakdown of UOCAVA numbers

There is a difference between general voter information that is readily available to the public in voter registration lists; and sensitive personal information that is protected by numerous safeguards.

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 requires the chief election official of each state to implement a “single, uniform, official, centralized, interactive computerized statewide voter registration list.” This list is to be “defined, maintained, and administered at the State level.”[1] The goal is to allow states to have a computerized list of voters. This allows state and local election officials immediate electronic access to  check the registration status of a voter. It also allows verification of voter information with other state, local and federal agencies; provides a means for list maintenance; and tracks certain appropriate voting histories.

Historically, these lists have been available for campaign purposes. But different states have different requirements for who can request a list of voters and what information that list includes.[2] Additionally, many states have specific Address Confidentiality Programs (ACP) to keep voter information confidential for certain classes of voters, such as victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. Some examples of state requirements for requesting a voter registration list include:

  • Alaska: Anyone can request a copy of the state voter registration list, which contains the names, addresses and party affiliations of all registered voters in the state. Voters may request in writing to keep their residential address confidential, if they provide a separate mailing address.[3]
  • Colorado: Voter registration lists are available to the public upon request and contain a voter’s full name, address, year of birth, political party and vote history. Information remains private for ACP participants and pre-registrants[4] (a procedure that allows individuals under 18 to register to vote so they are eligible to cast a ballot when they reach 18).
  • Massachusetts: State party committees, statewide candidate committees, state ballot question committees, the jury commissioner, adjutant general and any other individual, agency, or entity that the Secretary of State designates may request the list, which includes names and addresses. Information on ACP participants remains private.[5]
  • Idaho: Any person may request a voter registration list, which include voter name, address and precinct – excluding ACP participants.[6]

Thus far in 2020, there is no evidence that voter registration systems have been penetrated by foreign or domestic actors. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), in conjunction with the FBI, has released a public alert about false claims of hacked voter information. The agencies believe the intention of these claims is to cast doubt of the legitimacy of U.S. elections.[7]

Importantly, that a voter registration system is experiencing an outage does not necessarily mean a voter registration information or other election system has been compromised.[8] In fact, there are many innocuous reasons such errors occur, including configuration errors and natural disasters. [9] Additionally, foreign and domestic cyber actors may make claims they have “hacked” these databases in order to undermine confidence in the November 3 election and U.S. election institutions. In reality, these actors merely have information that is publicly available.

Voter misinformation (false information) and disinformation (false information designed to mislead) campaigns by foreign and domestic actors have been and will continue to be an issue for U.S. election institutions. It is important that federal, state, and local election officials and voters continue to question the veracity of these campaigns and claims. State and local election officials in collaboration with federal agencies, such as CISA, work and train to conduct elections as safely, fairly and securely as possible.

[1] Help Americans Vote Act §303(a)(1)(A0(i)-§303(a)(1)(A)(viii)

[2] Access To and Use of Voter Registration Lists, National Conference of State Legislatures

[3] AS §15.07.127 and §15.07.195

[4] Colo. Rev. Stat. §1-2-302, §24-30-2108, §1-2-227

[5] Mass. Gen. Laws Ch. 51 §47C, §37, §44

[6] Idaho Code §34-437, §34-437A, §19-5706

[7] False Claims of Hacked Voter Information Likely Intended to Cast Doubt on Legitimacy of U.S. Elections

[8] See CISA Cyber Threats to Voting Processes Could Slow but Not Prevent Voting,

[9] CISA #Protect2020 Rumor vs. Reality

Overseas Voting Initiative Special Task Force Issues Recommendations to Improve Ballot Processes for Overseas Citizens

The ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic has caused mail disruptions around the world that will undoubtedly impact the many American citizens living and working abroad when it comes time to vote in the November election. As of late June, the United States Postal Service (USPS) lists 103 international mail disruptions — a number that changes regularly.

Continue reading “Overseas Voting Initiative Special Task Force Issues Recommendations to Improve Ballot Processes for Overseas Citizens”