We are privileged to work closely with election officials every day and their work to safely and securely administer our elections goes far beyond what voters see on Election Day. To shine a light on the important role they play in our democratic process, we launched this Q&A series highlighting their work. Here, Shasta County, CA’s Clerk and Registrar of Voters Cathy Darling Allen tells us about her work:
Tell us about how you got involved with election administration.
I grew up in Washington D.C., where I had exposure to local politics with family and friends. My mom was politically active locally and my dad worked for the D.C. government his whole career, so public service is in my DNA. After working for a bunch of private companies, I made a very intentional and conscious choice to work for the county government here in Shasta County, because I wanted to give back to my community and was very uninterested in working just to make someone else a dollar.
I started at the Welfare Department and worked my way up. When the assistant county clerk retired, a friend suggested I apply for this job. Without that phone call I might never have otherwise applied. I’ve told that person more than once, “Thank you for encouraging me.”
Did you feel like you had an affinity with the election administration work? Did you know a lot about it at that point?
When I went to work at the Elections Department, I didn’t know about elections at all. One of the things that has struck me very much about the work of elections – and my private industry experience is helpful here – is that elections are like no other government project, department or service. We have this unforgiving deadline, and I know of no other governmental function with such an immovable deadline as an election, which adds a sense of urgency to our work. We must have the work ethic and a dedication that is appropriate and commensurate with the importance of the task we’re performing – providing all of our citizens with their most regular way of communicating with their government, by casting their ballot. I really enjoy the work. It’s never boring. There’s something new to learn all the time, and no election, even presidential to presidential, is ever identical. That allows us to improve consistently and continuously, and we work hard at that.
As administrators of our democracy, election officials’ work is so important to carry out our democratic process. How does that responsibility shape your approach to your work?
I’ve been saying this since I took the job: never in my working life had I ever worked somewhere where we double, triple, quadruple checked everything. I have such respect for those who trained me, and those who do the work currently. We – all 99.9% of the election officials I have met and worked with and know all over the country, take this job extremely seriously, and understanding how important this work is shapes every decision we make. We don’t think about “continuous process improvement” just because it’s a good buzzword. If someone called us and complained they had a hard time getting their ballot or understanding how ballot tracking worked, we want to fix that. With the increasing amount of misinformation, especially on social media, it’s important that what we do every day has to always translate into serving voters and at the same time ensuring the process is secure, transparent and accessible to every voter who wants to access their ballot.
These days, Americans are hearing a lot about the administration of our elections. What don’t Americans know about the election process, that you wish they did?
There’s no big difference between the way election officials conducted the election in 2020 and the way they conducted it in 2016. We have had strong procedures and processes in place, which have not changed. What changed is the narrative and the discussion around the topic — in some cases misinformation and, I’m sorry to say, intentionally false narratives. As individuals, election officials can have personal opinions of candidates, but professionally we honestly say, “I don’t care who wins, I need to make sure this election runs correctly and appropriately to serve the voters in my community.” One of the best and most significant ways we secure our elections is because they are conducted locally – local folks are the ones handling the ballots for that region.
There has been an unusual amount of press focused on ballot processing and tabulation. What would you like voters to know about how your office implements transparency and accountability? What systems are in place to ensure that every vote is counted?
We have a laundry list of systems in place in California to keep elections secure and transparent. We now have ballot tracking in California, which while not perfect is working really well for vote by mail (VBM) voters. There have been some hiccups with that system for in-person voters, but we are working with the State to improve functionality. They have heard us on that very clearly and are absolutely dedicated to making it work well for all California voters, not just VBM voters.
Post-election audits are hugely important to verifying that the tabulation system is working correctly. We do a 1% hand count, and some counties do RLAs – but also just balancing our precinct — verifying the number of voters who signed in is equal to the number of ballots cast at the precinct and a reconciliation process with paper ballots and unused ballots, etc. — is important to making sure tabulation is working and poll workers are performing their jobs correctly.
Vote by mail signature checking is another security measure. We inform voters if their ballots have been challenged, and reach out to them to have them cure those challenges when appropriate.
I’m very proud of the fact that CA does all of these things (not every state does), and that election administration is nonpartisan in CA. I don’t believe it is partisan to want to count ballots cast by eligible Americans.
What do you as an election official need to safely do your job (and your staff to do their jobs)?
What would be most helpful is for the truth to be believed. I have been encouraged recently with research about misinformation and disinformation and elections. I’ve been encouraged to hear people with actual knowledge talking about getting Facebook and all the big social media companies on board to fight disinformation. I hope we can get there; it’s frustrating right now.
Onsite physical security is an issue. We pay a private contractor to have a security guard part time, morning and evening hours. If someone comes in and makes a threat during other hours, our only option is to call 911.
I just really appreciate that over the last couple of years, Verified Voting as an organization and EVN too are lifting up the work that election officials do. I’ve been so gratified and pleased that in the last year or so – while folks do want the system to work better, they don’t want it to be at the expense of the people who do the work. I so appreciate that they have had election officials’ backs, as a group. It means a lot, and what it tells me, profoundly, that folks who care about elections care about Americans and people. We all are working towards the same goal, to make elections better. So that’s cool.
If you, like us, know how important election officials are for our democracy – consider thanking them for their service. Find your local election official at www.verifiedvoting.org/verifier and send them a note of appreciation for all of the work they do. Feel free to send suggestions for other election official heroes we can interview to firstname.lastname@example.org.