Beyond the Ballot with Jeffrey Danovich

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Jeffrey Danovich headshot with a VOTE mask on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond the Ballot with Brianna Lennon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond the Ballot with Michael Winn

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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

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

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

Continue reading “Beyond the Ballot with Lynn Bailey”

Beyond the Ballot with Paul Lux

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

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

Continue reading “Beyond the Ballot with Paul Lux”

Beyond the Ballot with Aaron Nevarez

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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

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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

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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.

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.