I. In Focus This Week
Exit Interview: Michigan Elections Director Christopher Thomas
Thomas looking forward to having time to actually think about elections
There are somethings in life you can just count on and Christopher Thomas being up late on an election night has been one of those things for nearly forty years.
But the times they are a changing and Thomas, Michigan’s election director since 1981, is retiring on June 30.
Thomas has run the state’s elections through five gubernatorial administrations and four bosses from both sides of the aisle.
In his resignation letter Thomas wrote: “Enormous changes in the world of election administration have taken place over the past 40 years. The bureau has never been better prepared or more cohesive as they are right now. I am comfortable leaving Michigan elections in these hands.”
We snagged a bit of Thomas’ time before he set off for St. Joseph and the world and asked him a few questions about his tenure in the world of elections and what he sees in the future.
Thank you for your time for this interview and for your service to Michigan and the entire elections community.
Obviously everyone needs to retire at some point, but why now?
I’ve always been told that “you will know when it is time.” That is a good observation as it was true for me. I met Kristin a couple of years ago and soon knew that we would marry and not live in the Lansing area. Leaving after the 2016 made good sense to me. We married in March and I’m now moving to St. Joseph, Michigan to join her.
Basically your entire career has been in elections, what is about the administration of elections that kept you here for so long?
It is a hard career to walk away from as the work is never finished. It isn’t like a technology project that is theoretically done on a date certain. Each election is obviously a deadline; however, each on usually has consequences that take you into the next cycle.
Frankly, it is comfortable field to work in. The people are great; it has purpose beyond making money; it has more challenges than one could wish for; it places you close enough to politics to observe, but not get burned (well, most of the time); if America stands for anything, this is it; it places you in contact with the widest possible array of professions: lawyers (what can I say), politicians, technology experts, academic wonks, accountants, media of all types, law enforcement, crusaders, professional irritants, public servants of many types, vendors, legislative and congressional staff. Essentially, never a dull moment.
What are you most proud of from your tenure as elections director?
In Michigan we have a legacy of non-partisan election administration even though we are part of the office of Secretary of State, a partisan office. This legacy was established by the first employees hire when the Bureau of Elections was established in the early 1950s. Bernard Apol set this legacy in stone. At the end of World War II Bernie worked with the Nuremberg trials; he brought that experience back to Michigan. I am most proud that I have maintained that legacy through the tenure of four Secretaries of State and have passed that on the to the Bureau staff who will carry on after me.
What will you miss most about working in elections?
That’s easy: the people. All the good laws and the all the innovative technology are worthless without people who are fundamentally committed to the profession of a well-run election. This work is sacred.
What would you say is the most difficult thing you faced during your time running elections in Michigan and how did you deal with it/what did you learn from it?
There were many difficult and trying times. I’d have to say the development and rollout of the Qualified Voter File (our statewide VR system) gets top billing. With 1,600 jurisdictions and clerks this was an enormous undertaking that eventually worked out. Thank you Candice Miller for your patience! Also, I was fortunate to Tim Hanson as the point person for getting this project done correctly…Minnesota’s great loss!
Is there anything that you would have liked to accomplish as elections director that you weren’t able?
Heavens Yes! Every time I think voter registration is finally done and can be checked off the list of projects, something arises to improve the process. Online voter registration didn’t get done here, but hopefully is on the way. Election day needs work in Michigan and a pressure release with a secure option for all voters to vote before election day. Most states have already figured that out. Michigan is close on this too. We are implementing new voting systems statewide, which will require new procedures and law. Finally, I would like to build an election night reporting system that would become the archive of all elections held in the state. As you can see, there is a never ending list of projects in elections.
In an increasingly partisan world, what advice would you give to up-and-coming elections officials to deal with that?
If you are a hardcore partisan who works campaigns or in the rough and tumble world of legislative politics, this career may not be for you. If you see the world through the prism of one political party or another you will face a tough challenge. In the beltway surrounding Washington and every state capital, the common think is there is no such thing as an ‘independent’. I’ve always thought that is the wrong distinction. The one I prefer is the degree to which a person in immersed in partisan politics, especially as a career. Many, many people tend to vote for one party or the other on a consistent basis; however, that is not their world view. It not how they process information and make decisions.
Partisan elected or appointed election officials are a fact of life in America. The challenge is to insulate those who do the work from the partisanship. In Michigan this has been accomplished by having the director in the civil service. I have worked for one Democratic Secretary of State and three Republican Secretaries of State. I have found no problem working for Secretaries of either party. They are the policy maker and I am the administrator. Other states have accomplished this objective through other means.
If you could write the rules, what would be your perfect voting system/process?
A paper based system with electronic tabulation that can be securely programmed and results transmitted. Accommodating a variety of voting devices is also important. I think the optical scan voting system is a good result. Improvements can always be had, but the key for me is the paper ballot that the voter marks.
What innovations would you like to see the elections community work on in the future?
Someone needs to educate young people on civics. This has been lost and likely needed improvement long ago. I am amazed at how little the people know about elections. To a large extent the legitimacy of our system is dependent on participation of the governed. Also, I’d like to see an avenue into election administration open at the undergraduate level. It would be wonderful to expose college students interested in public administration or even political science to the administration of elections. It isn’t for everyone, but those who have the talent for it need exposure to the field.
What’s next for you?
I started working in elections in 1974. I think 2017 is a good time to disengage from the day-to-day. I have been invited onto a couple of boards, US Vote Foundation and MIT Election Data and Science Lab. I still have an interest in seeing the Presidential Commission on Election Administration recommendations implemented. Essentially, I don’t want another job. As I told Kevin Kennedy, we actually have time now to think about election issues rather than just move from one impending issue to another.
Kristin and I are going to travel and explore this country and others. St. Joseph and Benton Harbor will be my local communities where I am planning to be engaged in some type of civic work.
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