Election officials carry out the most basic function of our democracy — making sure our eligible citizens can vote and that their votes count. Their work happens around the clock and far beyond what voters see on Election Day. Last year, they faced the extraordinary challenge of conducting elections amidst a pandemic, a polarized electorate, and even threats to their personal safety. At Verified Voting, we are privileged to work closely with election officials, and we know how important they are to our democratic process and the work that they do. This is the first in our series of profiles that helps shine a light on their heroic work.
Neal Kelley’s (Orange County, California’s Registrar of Voters) background in logistics, marketing, management, and finance all comes into play when the voters of Orange County participate in the democratic process. Here he tells us more about his work.
How did you get involved with election administration? How does the responsibility of being an administrator of democracy shape your approach to your work?
This was a bit by happenstance – I grew and developed companies in the retail sector for nearly 15 years. I earned my MBA from University of Southern California, ran for public office, and taught in the Community College system. In 2004, Orange County encountered problems with their newly-launched voting system and was seeking someone from the outside to serve as the Chief Deputy. Shortly after I was hired in that role, the previous Registrar was removed, and I was appointed.
What don’t Americans know about the election process that you wish they did?
I wish Americans knew the level of detail, effort, and precision that goes into elections. The care with which we handle every ballot is something that is lost among the white noise of politics and glossy media stories. I really feel that every voter should tour our office and see first-hand how ballots are produced, processed, and tabulated and the efforts that are made through audits and security to ensure the reported results reflect the will of the voters.
You’ve been an advocate for risk-limiting audits for many years and Orange County was the first CA county to conduct a pilot program. What surprised you about the auditing process?
Since we first piloted RLAs in 2011, I have worked hard to champion this effort in CA. I think what surprised me most was the level of detail and logistics necessary in order to sort over 4 million pieces of paper during a major election. Pre-planning is key to a successful audit.
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?
Because of our size, automation is necessary – but through that automation we have been able to build a sound infrastructure to ensure each ballot is accounted for and every voter record is examined. Signatures are compared by humans (not software). Multiple layers of audit and quality control teams keep track of each step along the way. During COVID-19 we established an online broadcast system so that members of the public could view every step of ballot processing, along with post-election audits, which expanded our transparency and provided reassurance to voters.
What positive changes came out of operating an election amidst a pandemic that you might like to see implemented permanently?
We were already providing a ballot to every voter as a Voters Choice Act county, but expanded ballot processing times and extending time for voters to cure ballot issues were additional positive changes that, in my opinion, should continue.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve encountered in administering elections?
Communication with voters is critical – and while it is a challenge, it is something that I have made a priority. Another challenge is the sheer scope and scale of the operation – many people don’t realize that in large counties elections are “events” that are some of the largest in the world, larger than major sporting events, festivals, fairs, etc. all rolled into one.
How can Americans support election officials in their work to implement democracy?
If you’re available, work an election! Spend time as a poll worker or vote center employee. This service has changed the minds of many individuals who were skeptical of the process, while at the same time allowing them to participate and to provide support as we work to implement democracy.
We’ve seen a lot of press about election administrators facing threats to their personal safety. How does this subversive rhetoric affect your job?
It is alarming, and it does concern me. I truly believe our founding fathers would be ashamed, sad, and angry over this behavior. At the end of the day we are counting ballots. But I am resilient, as are many of my colleagues, and I am not going to let this nonsense stop me from my obligations to the great voters of our county.
What question/s do you wish the press would ask when reporting about election administration and/or election security?
“Tell us why you believe elections in the United States, or in your County, are truly free and fair? How can you prove that?”
The answer for me is simple – it’s embedded in everything we do.
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.