We are privileged to work closely with election officials on a daily basis. 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, Coconino County Recorder Patty Hansen tells us more about her work:
Tell us how you got involved with election administration.
I’ve been in election administration for 34 years. I was appointed to be the Deputy Election Commissioner for Lancaster County, Nebraska in 1987 and worked there for 13 years. Then, I worked in election administration in Minnesota. I’ve been in Coconino County, Arizona for over 18 years and it truly feels like a vacation from living in Minnesota!
What makes Coconino County, Arizona so unique?
Our county is geographically very large, covering both rims of the Grand Canyon and part of the Red Rocks of Sedona. However, we only have about 92,000 registered voters, and over one-third of our voters are from the Navajo and Hopi Nations. Many areas of the county have no wifi or cell service, and the best way to reach folks is through radio advertising and face-to-face contact. During the 2020 election, we had two outreach staff dedicated to in-person education at chapter meetings, flea markets, food distribution sites, and other places where we could reach Native American voters with accurate information and resources about voting. COVID-19 hit the Nations very hard. Our Native American outreach coordinator had been with the county elections office for over 30 years and had built up our program as a true trusted messenger. She passed away in January of this year from COVID, which has been devastating for all of us.
How did the COVID-19 pandemic change your operations in such a big election year?
Mail voting was simply a very limited option for many voters in the Navajo Nation and on the Hopi Reservation. We had a small, confined office space in Tuba in the Navajo Nation that we moved outside and had drive-up voting available; voters could drop off their completed ballots, or cast their votes right in their cars, especially if they needed language assistance with filling out the ballot. We also offered early voting at different locations on the reservations (like trading posts) where we knew people would be running errands. We were fortunate to receive a grant of $614,000 to do this – I’m not sure how we would have managed without this additional funding.
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’m extremely proud of what we accomplished in 2020 and it was an accurate, secure election amidst extraordinary circumstances. We expanded our outreach, had record turnout and registration, and kept everyone healthy and safe. Elections are still a big mystery to most voters and they have no idea what goes on behind the scenes and everything we do to document and improve our processes. I’m fortunate to have a fantastic team that helps reach out to voters in person, but if we could make greater investments in our democracy, people would be more informed, more likely to participate, and more likely to trust the process.
There has been a lot 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?
Everything is documented — transferring ballots, ballot accounting, ballot custody, signature verification, and early ballot processing — everything. I tell my staff to treat each ballot like a $100 bill and to keep the ballot secure throughout the process. It is also extremely important to have bipartisan oversight of the process. I’ve been doing this for 34 years and it’s not like election security is a brand new concept. Cybersecurity and hacking threats are relatively “new” but that’s why we have voter-verified paper ballots, and strong ballot counting and tabulation procedures.
Does your county conduct some type of post-election audit before the results are certified? If so, tell us a little bit about the legal requirements and how your office fulfills them.
Yes, state law requires for an audit to occur within 24 hours after the polls close with representatives from both parties present. We randomly draw precincts to be hand counted. It’s really important to have the transparency and double checks in place, including the logic and accuracy testing of the voting equipment. I wish the legislature would consider something more robust like risk-limiting audits.
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?
I’d like a bigger space for people to come and observe the vote tabulation, and more live streaming cameras set up (right now we only have one camera). I’d also love to implement a ballot tracking system like Maricopa County has, so voters can be able to track their ballot throughout the entire process, which would help reassure voters that their ballots were received and their votes count.
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?
Democracy works best when everyone’s voice is heard and it’s a huge responsibility to make sure it’s fair for everyone. My objective is to make sure that voting is easy while still keeping the election secure. It’s frustrating to see legislation being passed throughout the country that actively undermines the right to vote because I’ve spent most of my life trying to strike down barriers.
Election officials don’t use the system to manipulate the results. The Big Lie is incredibly disturbing and destructive to our democracy. Get involved. Be a poll worker. Be a poll watcher. In a democracy, you have the right to vote and the right to participate and help conduct the election. If you’re criticizing the process, remember that you’re criticizing your neighbors, family, and friends who work and volunteer their time, and we couldn’t do it without them.
If you, like us, know how important election officials are for our democracy – consider thanking them for their service. Look up your local election official on the 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.