I. In Focus This Week
Exit Interview: Merle King
King retires for second time, but will it be his last?
By M. Mindy Moretti
This year will mark the second retirement for Merle King. This time around he’s retiring as an associate professor emeritus for Information Systems and the executive director for the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University.
In addition to his work with the State of Georgia, King has worked with the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the National Conference of State Legislatures and various other organizations to identify and disseminate best practices for election administration and election technology innovation.
King was the 2005 recipient of the National Association of Secretaries of State Medallion Award for his work in elections.
Why have you decided to retire at this time?
I actually retired in 2011 and have worked part-time since then. With the closing of the Center at Kennesaw State, this seemed like a good time to retire (again).
The decision to retire is agonizing but I think it’s the right thing to do, at the right time. For a decade or more I have been speaking with election officials about the importance of mentoring young people to come into this profession, then knowing when to step aside and give them space to grow and apply their knowledge and skills to the election space. Too many folks hang on too long – and I did not want to be one of those old-timers who occupy space that can be better used by a deserving, up-and-comer.
What got you into elections in the first place and what kept you around for so long?
I was an academic department chair in 2002 when my friend and mentor, Brit Williams, approached me about getting involved in the roll out of the voting system in Georgia. Brit convinced me that I would like elections – and he was right! We had a chance to do something in Georgia that had never been done before (implement a statewide voting system in four months) and I loved the challenge.
The reason I stayed so long is that I love working with election officials – local, state and federal. There is a comradery among them that is hard to describe but wonderful to embrace. Their sincerity, resilience and creativity is remarkable.
I also love working with students and the many student assistants we have employed at the Center. Some of these students have gone on to employment in the elections space and I am very proud of them and their accomplishments.
You’ve been at this a while and have seen a lot of changes, we would love to hear your views about how election officials’ attitudes toward technology have changed over the years.
Every election official is an Information Technology (IT) manager – whether they think they are or not. IT permeates every aspect of elections administration and, although not as important as the people-part of elections, is more complicated. Election officials have made enormous progress is the past decade of embracing this role and internalizing it into the work. Sometimes they have been willing students – other times kicking and screaming, but in the end they get it. Each generation of election officials learns from their predecessors and the next generation will be better prepared to meet the IT and cyber security challenges of election administration.
If you could design the perfect election system, what would it look like?
Perfection in elections is a laudable goal, but as many people have pointed out, perfection is the enemy of the good. We certainly have better election systems now than we did in 2002 when I came into the field. The next generation systems look very good and I think voters and election officials will be pleased with what they find in the voting booth in the coming decades.
Where we have made progress in the past decade is understanding that the success of the voting system is dependent upon the overall integrity of the election systems that surround and interface with the voting system. The VR systems, electronic poll books, ballot-on-demand systems, voter-information systems, etc., have to be harmonized with the voting system to ensure optimum performance of all the systems. Future systems will be flexible and robust in ways that permit the voter to vote how they wish to, with no compromise between accessibility and security requirements.
What’s next for you? I understand you and your brother are in a band, will you be hitting the road?
I am not sure what’s next for me. Certainly I will continue to play music and pursue my other hobbies such as golf and woodworking. And I will follow the work of my colleagues in the election space with great interest and provide moral and physical support when and where I can.
It has been a long, strange trip, but I could not have asked for better traveling companions than the election officials I have met along the way.
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