Beyond the Ballot with Neal Kelley

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.