Democracy Decoded: Season 3, Episode 3 Transcript
Simone Leeper: Our democracy works best when every eligible voter can participate. And the folks on the ground making sure that happens are election officials. These are people in our communities, our friends, neighbors, and coworkers, who help keep our elections fair. Scott Jarrett became interested in elections when his work introduced him to the people running them.
Scott Jarrett: I really found that the people were fantastic. They're some of the most dedicated public servants that we have working in our local government. They don't do it for the money, it's sort of more of a calling.
Leeper: According to Glassdoor, the average pay for an election official across the US is around $41,000 a year.
Jarrett: I don't think anyone went to school and said, "Okay, I want to be an election administrator." Usually they fall into it in some capacity, and that's sort of how I did it.
Leeper: Scott is now the Elections Director of Maricopa County, Arizona.
Jarrett: I just really found a calling that I wanted to work in this field.
Leeper: Election officials and poll workers work to ensure that elections are safe, secure, and accessible for voters. They're indispensable and hardworking. Planning an election is a year-round, full-time job. So what exactly does election planning look like and how can voters be sure that their votes are counted?
Leeper: I'm Simone Leeper, and this is Democracy Decoded, a podcast where we examine our government and discuss innovative ideas that could lead to a stronger, more transparent, accountable, and inclusive democracy. In this episode, we speak with elections officials from Arizona and Nevada to understand the intricacies of administering state and local elections, from start to finish. Public servants dedicate a lot of their time and energy, and especially in recent elections, put their privacy and safety on the line to ensure that elections are run securely. They do it for the voters who show up and for the volunteers that work the polls.
Lorena Portillo: We do not know what an off year means before a presidential election.
Leeper: That's Lorena Portillo, the Clark County Registrar of Voters in Nevada. She started working with the Clark County Election Department as a part-time employee in college and has been in love with the electoral process ever since. Now, as the registrar of voters, Lorena plans and administers all voter registration processes for Nevada's most populous county. She's also responsible for all election operations and activities throughout her county, and she's been with the county for over two decades.
Portillo: I love to be part of the actual election process, working with a team that is just as passionate as I am. This is a very important process where we help voters vote and we understand the gravity of that not happening, so it's very fulfilling.
Leeper: All elections, even federal ones, are organized by elections officials at the local or state level, which means that they're run by the people in your community.
Portillo: I appreciate the fact that everyone works together to ensure that the election process is ran with integrity. We are election officials, we are government employees, but above all, we are public servants. We're there for them.
Leeper: And it's the months of planning and preparation by these public servants that ensure each election is run in the smoothest and most organized way possible. States administer elections locally, which helps ensure that elections are safe and secure. According to the National Conference of State legislatures, having dispersed responsibilities in election administration actually makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible to manipulate the system. This localized system also allows each county in every state to meet the specific needs of their voters. Something that might work in a densely populated city like Los Angeles might not work in a rural Minnesota County. Individual jurisdictions can be innovative and cater more efficiently to their community. For example, Lorena's jurisdiction has a number of different departments that cover the various aspects of running an election in an area the size of Clark County.
Portillo: We have administration, we have mail ballots, we have registration, we have training and recruitment, we have IT, we have warehouse.
Leeper: And to staff these departments, election officials hire anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand employees, volunteers, and poll workers before an election. Here's Scott.
Jarrett: We start the recruiting efforts probably four months before election day, recruiting those poll workers, starting to train those poll workers, training the training curriculum.
Leeper: In the 2020 presidential election, there were 132,556 polling places across the US, staffed by 775,101 poll workers, according to the Election Assistance Commission.
Portillo: We recruit more than 3,500 workers, which are at the polls for early voting and election day. Over 200 in-house temporary workers that help us in many of our six different election divisions. We conduct a lot of training, a lot of supervision.
Leeper: Even though many aspects of running an election take place at the local level, election rules and dates are still set by state and federal statutes.
Jonathan Diaz: So state and local election workers have a fixed timeline, during which they need to accomplish a huge number of tasks, everything necessary to hold an election.
Leeper: That's Jonathan Diaz, the Director of Voting Advocacy and Partnerships at Campaign Legal Center. He says that even though no two states administer elections the same way, the duties that election officials are tasked with are relatively the same.
Diaz: That's everything from finding locations for polling places and early vote sites, to hiring and training staff and volunteers, preparing and printing ballots and other voting materials, testing and certifying voting machines.
Leeper: In addition to providing effective voter registration and updating their voter roles, like we mentioned in the last episode, they're also crucially ensuring the elections themselves are accessible to all voters. Lorena's number one job in Clark County, Nevada is to make sure that everything runs smoothly once voters start casting their ballots.
Portillo: We supply the equipment, we program, we test the equipment, certify the equipment. We have 5,000 voting machines, so that takes a few months to accomplish.
Leeper: Additionally, Lorena needs to decide secure locations for polling places, staff those locations with sufficient poll workers and ensure each location has all the materials they need throughout the early voting period, and of course, on election day. Election officials are also tasked with making sure voters are educated about the elections, like where and when to vote, who and what they're voting for and how they can vote. For example, by using vote by mail. And of course, once all the ballots are in, election workers have to process, canvas and certify the election results. All this to say, election officials are busy all year long.
Diaz: Every day Americans keep our elections fair and they take this responsibility seriously. These are dedicated friends, neighbors, coworkers who help keep American democracy safe and secure in their own communities.
Leeper: But alarmingly, since the 2020 election in particular, there are more and more threats to election workers.
Katie Hobbs: There were armed protesters outside of my house. I had to have 24 hour security.
Leeper: That was a 2022 MSNBC clip of a United States Senate hearing with former Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs.
Katie Hobbs: But what concerns me more is the near constant harassment faced by the public servants who administer our elections.
Leeper: Here's Jonathan.
Diaz: One of the most disheartening trends of the last few years has been the sharp increase in harassment and threats of violence against election officials across the country. That really took off in 2020, but has continued through the 2022 elections and even through the, quote, unquote, off-cycle years, like 2023, and that's a huge problem for democracy.
Leeper: According to the political reform group, Issue One, nearly three and four election officials reported an increase in threats in recent years. That includes Lorena.
Portillo: So we definitely experience what many election officials experience, the threats, the name-calling, the bad emails. But we work really closely with law enforcement to ensure we are prepared for every election. We want to make sure our team feels comfortable. We want to make sure our voters feel comfortable coming to visit us.
Leeper: State legislators nationwide are pushing for reforms to protect poll workers and election officials. Nevada passed a bill that protects workers from harassment, intimidation, or use of force. The law makes it a felony to docs election workers, which means publishing personal and identifying information about someone online without their consent. Jonathan says this extends beyond the personal level.
Diaz: First off, it's obviously horrifying that these public servants who perform a really complicated service, that is a largely thankless role, that keeps our democracy functioning, that they're being faced with threats to their safety, to the safety of their families. It also poses a huge threat to the health of our democracy because it's driving dozens, if not hundreds of experienced, capable election workers out of the field entirely.
Leeper: The harassment and violence against election workers doesn't always come from private citizens. After the 2020 election, lawmakers across the country have introduced legislation that threatens election officials with criminal sanctions, just for doing their jobs. As of March, 2023, there were over 185 bills introduced in 38 states that would allow state legislatures to interfere with the basic procedures of election administration, according to the non-partisan group, Protect Democracy. Some of those laws would impose criminal penalties on election officials for routine election administration work, or unintended mistakes, while others would make their work significantly more difficult or costly. No two election years are the same, and this has been especially true since the COVID-19 pandemic forced election officials to modify their usual processes to allow for more voting by mail than in years past.
Portillo: And in 2020 when we became all mail ballot voting, the changes happened very quickly. A lot of voters are electing to vote by mail. When I started in 1998, most of the folks voted early or on election day, and now we have mail ballots at almost 26%. So trends have changed significantly.
Leeper: Alternative methods of casting a ballot, like voting by mail and early voting, have become increasingly popular. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, the shift was partially out of necessity, but three years later, voters still prefer these forms of voting to traditional in-person voting on election day. These changes have made voting much more accessible for millions of Americans, including older adults, working parents and people with disabilities. But they've also had ripple effects on election administration. Here's Jonathan again.
Diaz: There's a lot more people taking advantage of those voting options, which is great because it has led to an increase in voter turnout, but it also has made the jobs of election administrators a little bit more complicated.
Leeper: Processing and verifying vote by mail ballots can take more time than doing so for in-person ballots. As a result, in the 2020 presidential election and the 2022 midterms, the process of certifying election results was delayed in some states where there was an influx of mail-in ballots.
Diaz: Some of that is because mail-in ballots take longer to count. Some of that is because states haven't updated their election codes to allow for the rapid processing of mail-in ballots. A state like Florida, for example, where mail-in voting was quite popular for a long time before the pandemic and election officials can start processing mail-in ballots early, they're able to deliver results fairly quickly. Other states, where mail-in voting has grown in popularity, but the law hasn't caught up to it, still have some work to do and are not able to process and count those ballots as quickly, which is what leads to some of the delays that we've seen in the last couple of years.
Leeper: But despite some of the difficulties we've experienced in recent years, checks and balances of the election system are carried out in every state across America, ensuring our elections remain safe and secure.
Diaz: Across the world, people have looked to American elections as a model of freedom, fairness, and choice when it comes to democracy. And while other countries' elections have been more unstable over the years, US elections have been remarkably stable and secure over time.
Leeper: Every state has built-in mechanisms that verify and review the voting process before, during, and after elections take place so that every voter can trust that their vote is protected and that election results are accurate. Here's Lorena, explaining what those verification systems look like in Clark County.
Portillo: So before, during, and even after each election, there are several tests and certifications conducted for our poll pads, for our voting machines, our tabulation equipment and software, our mail ballot sorter equipment. We have to conduct these, by law. We run simulations to ensure the equipment and software are responding properly.
Leeper: So election officials go into election day knowing that their equipment has been tested and their poll workers are trained. For election directors like Scott, he, along with his staff and volunteers, are prepared to work long hours on election day.
Jarrett: We'll start arriving here sometimes some of us at 3:00 AM in the morning, and then we won't leave until 3:00 AM the next day as we're receiving everything back from the voting locations on election day.
Leeper: After a voter casts their ballot, an election worker's job has just begun.
Jarrett: But a lot of people think, okay, well that's it, the election process wrapped up. However, there's still a long process after an election that needs to entail. We'll still be counting ballots, voters that voted provisionally at the voting location, we need to do research to find out should we count that ballot.
Leeper: Depending on how voters cast their votes, the process Scott is describing verifies that each ballot was cast by a registered voter.
Jarrett: We do that through a variety of ways. The first is through bipartisan teams. So throughout the entire process, we have Republicans and Democrats, and they provide a very critical, important checks and balance. There's nothing better than having a highly partisan Republican sitting right next to a highly partisan Democrat working together to serve democracy.
Leeper: The majority of states begin to process early ballots before election day by verifying legitimacy of the ballot, and in states that have expansive voting legislation, which allow things like same day voter registration or deadlines beyond election day for mail-in ballots, the process to verify these votes continues after election day itself. Here's Lorena.
Portillo: So a month prior to election is very, very busy, to say the least, and we do not finish on election day. We have the waiting for the postmarked mail ballots, we're waiting for the signature cure six days after the election.
Leeper: Some states allow the correcting or curing of simple errors on mail or provisional ballots that would otherwise be rejected during processing.
Portillo: And then we finally canvas on the 10th day after election day.
Leeper: The canvas is where election officials compile all of the vote counts into a final vote total. Jonathan explains.
Diaz: The canvassing process involves taking all of the ballot tabulations from each polling center or election office and adding them all up and making sure that every ballot has been accounted for.
Leeper: The amount of time that election officials have to complete their final statewide canvas is determined by that state's law. The deadline typically ranges from just a few days after an election to up to 30 days after.
Portillo: So folks see it as it taking a longer time for us to post the official results to do the public, but in essence, we still have to wait for canvas day in order for those results to be official.
Leeper: As the ballot moves through the canvas process, from the precinct level to the state level, election officials maintain a paper trail that verifies the ballot through each step. These verification tools are also the reason that the nation doesn't get the official results of an election on that same night.
Diaz: The final results are sometimes double-checked through a recount or through the canvassing process itself. And then finally, election results are certified by election officials, and the final numbers are sent to either a statewide authority or are published directly for local elections.
Leeper: To put that work into perspective, Scott breaks down what that post-election verification and tabulation looks like for mail-in and early voting ballots in Maricopa County.
Jarrett: We had 290,000 voters drop off their ballots, early ballots, on election day. So those still have to go through a signature verification process. We still need to then remove those ballots from that green affidavit envelope of how they returned to us, and then we still need to count those and get those reported as results. So that could take upwards of two weeks after election day to finish that process.
And now in Arizona, we have had new legislation that increases the likelihood that a recount would occur, and that doesn't happen until after the state campuses, so in early December. So even though our election days would be in early November, we'll be starting recounts probably early to mid-December, and that'll take us right through those Christmas holidays all the way through the end of December to finalize those recounts. So a very, very long process.
Leeper: These additional verification systems will delay the satisfaction of knowing the results of an election do give voters the absolute confidence that everything in the election process has worked properly. Jonathan says this applies to voters from across the political spectrum.
Diaz: Each step of the election process is really visible to not just the public and the voters, but to observers who are sent by major political parties and the candidates in the election on both sides to make sure that election officials are doing everything that they're supposed to do. There are multiple levels of review. In most jurisdictions, there are bipartisan teams of election workers who process ballots, and they'll have a supervisor who will double check their work.
Leeper: Election administrators not only invite observers to watch the post-election process in person, they also often livestream it. All in the name of transparency. Here's Scott.
Jarrett: We livestream all of our central counting processes 24/7, 365 days a year on our website. But if we have to do maintenance on that equipment, we'll anticipate, all right, this could be a concern for voters that are watching our livestreaming cameras, so we'll take a picture of that. We'll post it online and inform the public of exactly what it is that we're doing.
Leeper: Understanding election processes and knowing what to expect after ballots are submitted is key to establishing trust in the Democratic process and to Lorena and other election officials. That's all just part of the job.
Portillo: I think that we want folks to really believe that we are public servants and we're here for them. We want them to be informed voters. We want them to know what's coming up. We love for folks to call us and question us and say, "I heard this. Is this what's really going on?" Because oftentimes, it's misinformation, and if they call the source, which is us, we can give them the right information.
Leeper: Democracy works best when every voter is engaged in the political process, but when politicians seem to hold all of the power, how can voters be sure that their voices are heard? In the next episode, we'll look at how voters are bypassing legislators and having an impact through ballot initiatives.
Special thanks to Scott Jarrett, Lorena Portillo, and Jonathan Diaz for appearing in this episode. You can find additional background information on the topics discussed in the show notes, along with the full transcript of the show.
Democracy Decoded is produced by LWC Studios for Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization which advances democracy through law at the federal, state, and local levels, fighting for every American's right to responsive government, and a fair opportunity to participate in and affect the democratic process. You can visit us on the web at campaignlegalcenter.org.
Democracy Decoded is hosted by me, Simone Leeper. Legal counsel for redistricting at CLC. Leading the production for Campaign Legal Center are Casey Atkins, multimedia manager, and Matthew Tate-Smith, communications Manager for Voting and Elections. This podcast episode was produced by Michelle Baker, edited by Paulina Velasco and mixed by Tren Lightburn.
Democracy Decoded is a member of the Democracy Group, a network of podcasts dedicated to engaging in civil discourse, inspiring civic engagement, and exploring the future of our democracy. You can learn more at democracygroup.org.