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, St. Louis County’s Democratic Director of Elections Eric Fey tells us more about his work:
Tell us about how you got involved with election administration.
I’ve been the Director of Elections in St. Louis County since 2015, but I started working in elections as a poll worker in college. I was a political science major and was interested in how our elections work, so I signed up on a whim and kept working the polls all through college.
Tell us about your county and how your county votes.
St. Louis County covers about 500 square miles and is the largest Missouri county by population with about one million residents. The county used lever voting machines in the 1950s and transitioned to a punch card system in the 1970s. After the Help America Vote Act passed, we acquired DREs in 2005 like many other counties around the country. In 2019, we acquired a new paper-based voting system through an evaluation committee that chose a print-on-demand ballot system — a voter comes in to vote, signs in with an electronic poll book, and a ballot specific to their precinct is printed for them. The voter marks the ballot by hand before casting it. We have ballot marking devices available for anyone who can’t handmark a ballot, and the device prints a full-face ballot, which is identical to the ballots being handmarked.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic shifted your operations?
When COVID-19 hit after the presidential primary in March 2020, we had poll workers canceling on us and polling places — many of which were privately owned— canceling right and left. Because we had the print-on-demand ballot voting system, we were able to shift to a vote center model in which registered voters in the county could show up to vote at any vote center location and vote on a ballot printed specifically for their precinct. This helped us consolidate our resources.
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 think I’m drawn to this work because I’m serving everybody. Although I’m appointed in a partisan capacity, I’m not here in my role to advantage one party over another. I’m here to serve all voters, and I tell our employees all the time that I think what we do in our office is the most important function of St. Louis County government. If we don’t get our part right, citizens don’t have faith or trust in anything else that’s running in county government. I have a great co-director, Rick Stream, and we emphasize a nonpartisan approach to our employees. Obviously there are a lot of challenges day-to-day, but we take them as they come and try to overcome them to serve our voters.
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?
I wish people would take the time to learn more about how elections really work and how many safeguards are in place, regardless of the state they live in. It’s frustrating when members of the public don’t reach out to us for the facts, but I also think election officials could do a better job of explaining their jobs to the public. It doesn’t come naturally for most of us, because we don’t want to be in the spotlight. We’re just running elections.
If funding was limitless, what would you like to change or have implemented in your elections processes or infrastructure to make your elections more secure?
We received a CTCL grant last year that allowed us to do things we would not be able to do otherwise, like give hazard pay to our poll workers and temporary workers so that we were more than adequately staffed. We were also able to buy election night reporting software and additional supplies for the processing of absentee ballots. If we had a steady, reliable, ongoing source of funds, I’d want to hire more staff to focus on public outreach. When you’re resource-starved, public outreach looks like a luxury compared to things like voting machines, but it’s really important to be able to connect voters with accurate information.
How can Americans support election officials in their work to implement democracy?
First, anyone who has any interest in the process should sign up to be a poll worker or a ballot opener because we always need more help and it’s the best way to see the process up front. Second, poll workers should spread the word about what it’s like to work in an election and the processes that were observed and encourage their friends and neighbors to sign up to become a poll worker too. You don’t have to be a poll worker every year, but just give it a shot once to learn how the process works.There’s no better advocate for an election office than an experienced, well-educated and motivated poll worker.
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.