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.
II. Election News This Week
The Senate Intelligence Committee has asked 21 states to make public information about 2016 Russian hacking efforts into their election systems. According to The Hill, the request was made in a letter sent last week from Sens. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Mark Warner (D-Va.). “I do not see how Americans are made safer when they do not know which state elections systems Russia tried to hack,” Warner told The Hill.
This week, Vice President Mike Pence held an organizational phone call with members of the newly established Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The commission will hold its first meeting in late July in Washington, D.C. "The integrity of the vote is a foundation of our democracy," Pence said Wednesday, according to a White House press release. "This bipartisan commission will review ways to strengthen that integrity in order to protect and preserve the principle of one person, one vote." A complete readout of the call can be found here.
Although Massachusetts teens are allowed to pre-register to vote beginning at 16, a recent review by the secretary of state’s office found that many teens aren’t taking advantage of that option. According to Secretary of State William Galvin, only 2,270 teens pre-registered before the November 2016 election. According to the Daily News, that’s slightly more than 1 percent of the 16- and 17-year olds living in the state. “It’s a well-intentioned effort to increase participation,” Galvin told the paper. “But because it doesn’t allow you to vote immediately, it doesn’t get the same interest as other programs.”
The Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security has determined that there was no malicious intent from the attempted intrusion into the Georgia voter registration database by DHS. “Earlier today, I personally spoke with current DHS Secretary John Kelly and learned that the investigation is now complete,” Kemp said in a statement. “DHS did not knowingly attempt to breach Georgia’s firewall or hack our systems. Federal officials were able to re-create the event, and they have promised to provide a detailed report for my review.
Vote centers: In a follow-up to last week’s item about vote centers, the Sebastian County, Arkansas Quorum Court finally approved the use of countywide vote centers beginning with this September’s school election. And in Guadalupe County, Texas, the county’s voting center application is moving forward after a resolution was approved by the county commission.
What if we could vote as easily as we order a hot dog? Congratulations to Phil McGrane, chief deputy of the Ada County, Idaho clerk’s office who just did a TEDx talk on the county’s innovative Food Truck Voting efforts. You can watch the almost 12-minute video here!
Personnel News: Sally Williams has been appointed the new Michigan elections bureau chief replacing Christopher Thomas, who is retiring. Williams, who is currently the election liaison division director will be the first woman to ever serve in the role as bureau chief. Mark Rhodes, Wood County, West Virginia clerk, has been appointed to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The Houston County, Georgia commission recently honored Board of Elections member Tony Robbins for is 44 years of service on the board. David Dunn, a former Arkansas state representative has been named to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. Kansas State Rep. Keith Esau (R-Johnson County) has announced his bid for secretary of state. Joseph Sobecki has been named the new DuPage County, Illinois election commission executive director.
In Memoriam: Ruthelle Frank, the lead plaintiff in the ACLU’s case against Wisconsin’s voter ID law has died. She was 89. Frank was an alderwoman in the Village of Brokaw but could not vote for herself because she didn’t have an ID or the birth certificate necessary to obtain one. "Well, that was just a slap in the face," Frank told Wisconsin Public Radio. "They wouldn't even look at my other papers. I had everything. I had my social security card. I had my marriage license. I had proof where I lived, and I had all the other requirements. The only thing I didn't have was a birth certificate. I don't feel that I should have to have a birth certificate to be able to vote." The lawsuit continues.
III. Research and Report Summaries
2016 Election Administration and Voting Survey - U.S. Election Assistance Commission, June 29, 2017: The U.S. Election Assistance Commission released the 2016 Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS), the most comprehensive nationwide data about election administration in the United States. The survey is a deep dive into a wealth of election and voting data and includes findings such as an increase in registered voters since 2012, a growing number of Americans voting before Election Day, and a larger number of jurisdictions using technologies such as e-poll books.
“In the face of unique challenges last year, election officials across the country administered fair and accurate elections,” said EAC Chairman Matthew V. Masterson. “Today’s report gives us a detailed look inside that process and provides data we can use to improve future elections and voter experience. The EAC looks forward to turning the 2016 EAVS responses into resources for state and local election officials and the American voters they serve.”
Recommendations for Improving Military and Overseas Data Collection - The Council of State Governments, June 2017: The Council of State Governments' Overseas Voting Initiative recently published recommendations, as well as a corresponding final report, to improve Section B of the Election Administration and Voting Survey, or EAVS, which tracks military and overseas voter behavior. The CSG EAVS Section B Working Group recommendations include:
- Eliminate redundant survey questions;
- Improve the understanding of each survey question; and
- Establish greater outreach to states prior to the submission of each biennial survey.
Why Are Millions of Citizens Not Registered to Vote? - The Pew Charitable Trusts, June 2017: Analyzing a survey about the attitudes and experiences of unregistered voters, this report finds:
- Less than 20 percent of eligible citizens have been offered the chance to register at a motor vehicle or other government agency.
- The unregistered were more likely to say they do not vote because they dislike politics or believe voting will not make a difference.
- At least 13 percent of the unregistered say they could be motivated to register in the future.
IV. Legislative Updates
Maine: A proposed constitutional amendment that would have proposed altering the state’s constitution in order to allow for the legality of the recently voter-approved ranked choice voting system failed in the House by a 78-68 vote. Bills before the House and Senate both failed on Wednesday meaning that the new system will remain in effect until at least 2018.
New Mexico: The Santa Fe City Council voted to delay implementing a voter approved ranked-choice voting system citing concerns about whether the voting system would be ready in time for the March 2018 elections. The new system was first approved in 2008 and set for implementation in 2010, but has faced mounting technical implementation issues.
U.S. Virgin Island: In the ongoing saga surrounding a special election to fill a vacant seat in the Legislature, this week the Senate voted 8-6 not to admit the candidate in question.
V. Legal Updates
Kansas: U.S. Magistrate Judge James O’Hara has fined Secretary of State Kris Kobach $1,000 fine for misleading the court about the nature of the documents he was seen holding when meeting with then-President Elect Trump.
New Jersey: Superior Court Judge Ernest Caposella has ruled that 22 votes in Paterson’s 2016 2nd Ward city council election would be invalidated. The election was decided by a 20-vote margin.
North Carolina: Wake County has reached a settlement agreement with the Voter Integrity Project which had sued the county alleging that the voter rolls contained more registered voters than the county had people. The group agreed to drop their suit and Wake agreed to seek more frequent reviews of its voter rolls.
Texas: The Texas Attorney General’s office announced this week that the office will the Dallas County District Attorney’s office investigation into voter fraud.
Virginia: A 21-year-old James Madison University student has been sentenced to 100 to 120 days in prison for filing up to 18 phony voter registration applications in Harrisonburg.
VI. Tech Thursday
Oklahoma: Voters in Oklahoma can now receive reminders about upcoming elections via text or email alert. They can also sign up to get reminders to renew their annual absentee ballot requests.
VII. Opinions This Week
Maine: Ranked choice voting
Maryland: Voting system
Pennsylvania: Voting system
VIII. VIP Update
Request for Applications Signals Next Step in Voting Information Project Transition
Today, that transition takes another major step with the release of a request for applications (RFA) by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The RFA encourages entities to indicate their interest in and qualifications for taking on VIP’s work serving voters across the nation.
Applicants will have an opportunity to demonstrate how they will:
- Adhere to the key VIP principles set out by a group of stakeholders from the fields of election administration, technology (including civic technology), and academia.
- Manage the current and future technical challenges of aggregating official election data in the VIP form and ensuring the success of voter-facing tools established by VIP and its collaborative partners.
- Maintain and nurture the strong relationships with state and local election officials that are instrumental to VIP’s success.
At the end of the RFA process, Pew hopes to identify a new home for VIP, which will assume responsibility in early 2018 and commit to its long-term success.
Expressions of interest are due Tuesday, July 11, 2017, and full responses are due Monday, Aug. 21. Pew and VIP will host an informational conference Tuesday, July 18, to further explain the RFA process and answer any questions that prospective applicants may have.
All of us associated with VIP are excited about this next stage and look forward to thoughtful and skilled responses from a variety of leaders in the field.
Alexis Schuler is a senior director at The Pew Charitable Trusts.
IX. Upcoming Events
IaoGO 2017 Annual Conference — The iGO Annual Conference is packed with over 24 hours of education specifically for government officials with sessions for election officials, clerks, recorders and treasurers. Get knowledge and concrete learning you can bring back to your office. Visit the iGO website for full info and register by June 23 for the lowest rates. When: July 6-13, 2017. Where: Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin.
NASS 2017 Summer Conference — Mark your calendars now and stay tuned for more information and registration details on the National Association of Secretaries of State 2017 Summer Conference. When: July 7-10, 2017. Where: Indianapolis, Indiana.
National Association of Election Officials Professional Education Program — Program includes Course I (Introduction to Election and Voter Registration Systems Administration); Course II (Management and Leadership Concepts in Election and Voter Registration Administration); Course III (Planning and Budgeting for Elections and Voter Registration); Course IV (Election and Voter Registration Information Management and Technology); Course V (Ethics in Elections and Voter Registration Administration). Where: Sanibel Harbour Hotel, Fort Meyers, Florida. When: July 8-15.
Summer Conference on Election Science, Reform and Administration — Hosted by Reed College and Portland State University the goals of the conference are, first, to provide a forum for scholars in political science, public administration, law, computer science, statistics, and other fields who are working to develop rigorous empirical approaches to the study of how laws and administrative procedures affect the quality of elections in the United States; and, second, to build scientific capacity by identifying major questions in the field, fostering collaboration, and connecting senior and junior scholars. When: July 26-27. Where: Portland, Oregon.
National Association of Election Officials 33rd Annual Conference —This year’s Conference attendees will be inspired and energized as we share trending elections and voter registration issues including The 2016 Elections in Review, Technology Advances in Voter Registration and Elections and Polling Place Line Management, to name a few, Also, crucial information from federal agencies to local election officials sharing practical information for day to day election administration operations. This is the also the time to honor and celebrate the winners of the Election Center’s acclaimed Professional Practices Papers’ Program. You will hear the winning presentations and you will take home all of the innovative programs and ideas that were submitted by your colleagues in other jurisdictions around the country. When: August 19-23. Where: Orange County, California.
NASED 2017 Summer Meeting— Mark your calendars now and stay tuned for more information and registration details on the National Association of State Election Directors 2017 Summer Meeting. When: August 22-25, 2017. Where: Anaheim, California.
X. Job Postings This Week
Associate Components Engineer, Clear Ballot, Boston — our growing team has an immediate need in our Boston office for an entry-level/early career Associate Components Engineer in our Product Management organization. As an Associate Components Engineer, you will be at the center of maintaining Clear Ballot as the leader of commercial-off-the-shelf based voting systems. The list of materials in our voting systems is broad and dynamic; and you will be accountable for staying ahead of vendor product roadmaps, leading the identification and evaluation of new technologies and products from those vendors, identifying new sources of components, then managing new models and products through introduction, test, internal training and deployment. You may also perform manufacturing engineering duties and vendor surveys. The successful candidate will be managing finished goods and subassemblies such as computers, printers, and scanners- not board level components. Deadline: Open until filled. Application: For the complete job listing and to apply, click here.
Data Reporting Supervisor, Orange County, Florida — The Office of the Supervisor of Elections is seeking an experienced GIS Data Reporting Supervisor to join our dynamic team. With minimal supervision, this position maintains accurate street index, precinct map, municipal and district boundaries for the elections office. The position coordinates all activities related to management of census data and redistricting. The ideal candidate would have experience managing GIS data for a government agency, developing and maintaining data reporting for internal and external parties and experience working with Oracle database, forms and reports including development of SQL queries and stored procedures. Preference will be given to candidates with strong supervisory skills, project management experience and prior experience utilizing MapInfo. Employment with the Orange County Supervisor of Elections Office is contingent upon successfully passing a criminal background check, health screening and verification of work history, academic credentials, licenses and certifications, as applicable. Salary: Grade 14-Minimum $56,998, Maximum $85,486. Deadline: Open until filled. Application: For the complete job listing and to apply, click here.
Program Specialist 4, Washington Secretary of State’s Office — this position is the Election Review Program lead within the Election Certification and Training program. The Election Certification and Training program oversees, directs, and advises county auditors in interpretations of federal and state election law and the correct administration of voter registration and elections throughout the state. The certification and training program reviews county practices for adherence to election law and best practices, provides essential tools for election administrators through official communications and training, and acts as liaisons for the Office of the Secretary of State. This position reports to the certification and training program manager and is responsible for overseeing, reviewing and advising county auditors on the federal and state elections laws and the administration of voter registration. Salary: $4,109-$5,385. Deadline: Open until filled. Application: For the complete job listing and to apply, click here.
Regional Sales Manager (West), Dominion Voting Systems — Dominion Voting Systems is seeking is highly-motivated and accomplished Regional Sales Manager to work remotely and be based in the Western United States; preferably California. The Regional Sales Manager is responsible for long term sales (3-5 years) of the company’s election products and services in a specified geographic region to governmental agencies. This position uses technical, organizational and customer knowledge to influence customers and assist them in applying the products and services to their needs, resulting in revenue generation. In addition, the position provides input and participates in the marketing, planning and development of products and services. Salary: Negotiable base + commission & benefits. Deadline: Open until filled. Application: For the complete job listing and to apply, click here.
Research Associate, Democracy Works — we’re seeking a researcher to help us know as much as possible about elections, and use that knowledge to inform our software design, operations, and customer service for more than 1 million voters across 50 states. You’ll: Learn the ins-and-outs of election rules across 50 states, and apply that big-picture understanding to the smallest details of how we serve individual voters; Track when every election is happening, using your wits, charm, and deft Google Alert-wrangling skills (plus the occasional temp staffer); Solve problems, answer questions, and ensure that even our most confused voter gets the information they need; and Break things, hunt bugs, and help prioritize new features for our developer team. Salary: $48,000 to $53,000. Deadline: Open until filled. Application: For the complete job listing and to apply, click here.
Senior Technical Trainer, Clear Ballot, Boston, Massachusetts — our small and growing documentation and training team has an immediate need for a new member with intermediate-to-senior experience in: Instructional design, development of learning curricula, production of training materials, and hands-on, customer facing training. Generally, the training department, technical staff, and operations staff provide training at the customer’s site. We need an instructional designer and trainer who can analyze the learners and materials, and establish an appropriately targeted learning program. The opportunity exists to develop computer based training as an enhancement to our learning curriculum. Deadline: Open until filled. Application: For the complete job listing and to apply, click here.
Systems Engineer, Clear Ballot, Boston, Massachusetts — we are looking for a talented Systems Engineer who has both a technical and services/support background which enables them to quickly assess customer needs and offer value to Clear Ballot’s customers. The Systems Engineer will gain a deep understanding of how Clear Ballot’s products operate and their optimal configuration to build a streamlined installation process of the Clear Vote election system. The ideal candidate for this position can prioritize mission critical tasks and coordinate the implementation and expansion of our systems. They will be able to work directly with customers, display innovation, think conceptually and act tactically to build consensus around system installation and enhancement and meet deadlines. Deadline: Open until filled. Application: For the complete job listing and to apply, click here.
System Specialist, Dominion Voting Systems — Dominion Voting Systems is seeking tech-savvy, passionate System Specialist to be based in our Toronto office! This position will be responsible for a wide range of projects to include end-to-end election simulations, identifying new features for development, coming up with creative solutions to meet customer needs; and documenting procedures and solutions. Salary: Negotiable base + bonus target & benefits. Deadline: Open until filled. Application: For the complete job listing and to apply, click here.
Voting Rights Associate/Attorney, The American Civil Liberties Union, San Francisco— the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU-NC) seeks an advocate with two to three years of relevant experience to help advance voting rights across California. The Voting Rights Associate is a critical member of the ACLU of California’s Voting Rights Project team, which works to protect and promote the voting rights of Californians by utilizing a range of advocacy strategies, including collaborative work with other advocates and election officials, legislative and administrative advocacy, strategic communications/media, and litigation. The position will be based in our San Francisco office and reports to the Voting Rights Project Manager & Attorney, who is based in the Sacramento office. Your focus will be on advancing voting rights and reforming campaign finance in California. Specifically, you will work to improve California’s compliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), a federal law that is a critical vehicle to ensure that historically disenfranchised communities, including people of color, people with disabilities, and low-income people have access to engage in our democracy. You will also focus on advancing publicly financed elections in the Bay Area to help create a more level playing field for candidates. You are responsible for evaluating existing policies and best practices, crafting recommendations, and establishing relationships with stakeholders. You may also write reports and will serve as a resource for community groups and organize local events and meetings. You will support other Voting Rights Project work, including helping to implement new reforms such as California’s new vote center model and automated registration, while seeking opportunities to improve accessibility for voters with disabilities and voters with limited English proficiency. Deadline: July 7. Application: For the complete job listing and to apply, click here.
XII. Electionline Underwriting
For 15 years, electionline.org has brought you all the election administration reform news and information of the day through electionlineToday and of the week through our weekly newsletter electionlineWeekly.
Because of the generosity of such organizations as The Pew Charitable Trusts, Democracy Fund and the Hewlett Foundation we were able to bring you that news and information for free and free of advertising.
In order to continue providing you with the important news of the day and week we are now offering monthly underwriting for our daily and weekly postings (think more NPR, less local radio and television).
Underwriting will be available for electionlineToday, the weekly email that reaches about 4,800 inboxes each week and the weekly newsletter. Underwriting is available on a per-month basis and costs $2,500 per section per month. The underwriting is available on a first come, first-served basis. Each section will be exclusive to one underwriter per month.
We will accept underwriting from a variety of entities in the elections world, but will not accept political advertising.
Job posting and marketplace listings from elections offices seeking to sell/trade voting equipment will remain free of charge.