I. In Focus This Week
Exit Interview: Ross Hein
Persistence, passion and mom lead to an unexpected career path
By M. Mindy Moretti
When your mom tells you to do something, you do it.
That’s why back in 2005, when Ross Hein was a recent college graduate and looking for a job, but also contemplating law school, and his mother saw a job posting for elections specialist, he applied to the Wisconsin Elections Board.
“I had no prior elections experience and there was an incredibly steep learning curve,” explained Hein who ultimately decided against law school and ended up working for the state for almost 12-years.
Hein, who has now stepped down from his position with the Wisconsin Election Commission (nee Government Accountability Board nee Wisconsin Elections Board) went from elections specialist to head of IT in 2011 and helped oversee some of the biggest changes to Wisconsin elections, like the implementation of HAVA and all of its many requirements including a new statewide voter registration database and polling place accessibility.
While he leaves as a fully-seasoned elections official, Hein admits those early days were a bit rough.
“When I initially started in elections the most challenging part was learning all of the various election specifics. All of the rules and exceptions to absentee voting, registration, voting equipment certification, provisional voting, etc. were overwhelming to me,” Hein said. “After about six months, it felt a bit more tolerable, but still challenging as election rules, as you know, never stay the same.”
Hein said he was frequently discouraged but loved to feel like the work he was doing was making a positive influence and he did love the challenge and the learning process.
Although Hein may have felt a bit overwhelmed, his superiors were more than pleased with his work.
Hein was put in charge of two key HAVA programs involving voting equipment. He was responsible for the distribution of HAVA 102 funds for the handful of municipalities transitioning from lever machines. And he was responsible for implementing the HAVA provision requiring every polling place to have an accessible voting system.
“Ross brought us credibility with the disability community and he blew away our county and municipal clerks with his candor, knowledge and support during a very difficult transition,” said Kevin Kennedy, former director of the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board.
Kennedy recalls meeting with the U.S. Department of Justice in early 2006 who wanted to know what the state’s plans were for ensuring accessible voting equipment was in every polling place.
“I was so confident in the preparations Ross and his co-workers had laid out that I never blinked,” Kennedy said. “I guaranteed the DOJ folks we would make the deadline - which we did. Only one municipality, which dithered too long in placing its order, was without accessible voting equipment at our partisan primary election.”
In 2011, after successfully overseeing Wisconsin’s first statewide recount since 1989, Hein was promoted to elections supervisor, which mean overseeing the IT deparment.
“Kevin was comfortable and knew my management style and I was looking for an opportunity to expand my portfolio so learning IT made me excited for the possibilities,” Hein said about his promotion. “I think with any managerial position, it is always about the people that you work with and bringing them together so they understand their roles and see and ideally buy into the vision is the approach that I have always taken.”
Kennedy said he was confident Hein could handle the challenge and he needed someone he could trust.
“As with the voting equipment and recount challenges, Ross embraced the opportunity. Elections in Wisconsin have vaulted ahead with a quantum leap as a result of his work,” Kennedy said. “Ross leaves a lasting impression of commitment, confidence and achievement with his co-workers, our LEOS and a rich legacy that will continue to serve the voters of Wisconsin for a very long time.”
Hein pointed out that while doing IT was different than his previous position, the underlying goals to be successful were the same.
“Most election mangers/directors are really a form on an IT manager, they probably just don't know it,” Hein said. “I think that some may just be a bit intimidated with the title of IT and don't realize that the expertise they have related to voter registration systems, OVR, voting equipment etc. is a form of IT management and I really hope that more will take the leap in considering themselves IT experts- because they really are.”
Moving forward, Hein said he would like to see elections officials further employing technology to make voting easier.
“There is no silver bullet and I understand the reasons for tapping the brakes, slowing the progress for utilizing technology to make voting easier. But it's going to happen-things like electronic ballot return, it is just waiting for the window of opportunity,” Hein said. “I'm always on the side of pushing technology while finding the appropriate security balance. I just want our voters to be able to have the tools to be able to vote in a convenient, easy way, while finding ways to ensure confidence with enhancing security measures. Getting there of course is the challenge!”
Although this is a constant challenge, Hein said he would like “Joe Voter” to know what election officials are doing to protect and maintain voter data from malicious purposes.
“It was always very frustrating to see so much misinformation out there that jeopardizes voter confidence and being an election official attempting to continuously combat that was tiresome,” Hein said. “It would be awesome if election officials wouldn't have to spend countless hours combating misinformation but I acknowledge that I am somewhat of a dreamer.”
Like so many elections officials, Hein said the best part about working in elections was the variety of people that he came in contact with, not only at the office, but out in the counties and towns. And that’s what he’ll miss the most too.
“I will miss all my amazing, dedicated election colleagues. Never have I felt more part of a team and the way an election official makes you feel welcomed is a special thing,” Hein said.
Hein has joined the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development as section chief in their IT bureau.
“I thought I was going to be a lifer in the election field and leaving election administration was one of the hardest decisions I've ever made and I miss it already so much,” Hein said. “Elections will always be in my blood and maybe someday I'll be back should the stars align once again.”
If the stars align, or if Hein’s mom tells him to apply for a job again.
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