First Person Singular: Gary Bartlett
KISS for a better today and tomorrow
By Gary Bartlett
North Carolina State Board of Elections
This article is going to be about my thoughts on effectively managing the elections process. I’ll tell you that from the start in case you had other ideas. As I sat down to write this article, I started kicking around some thoughts on what was going to be my hook. How do I capture your attention in order to get my points across?
My first thought was to entitle this article: Weathering the Tides of Political Influence and Change. And while the weather presents great opportunities to present analogies about the ebb and flow of the elections process or managing political storms, I felt that this was too cliché.
So how about comparing the elections process to a playground? On a playground, there are swings and slides and see saws, monkey bars and of course, the sandbox. A playground analogy could offer up nice realisms like “take turns” or “let everyone have a turn”, “stay in line,” “play nice,” and of course, “don’t touch the metal when it’s hot.” Effective messages, but again, it’s been done before.
How about a sports theme? I’m in basketball country, for God’s sake. I graduated from Carolina and I love ACC basketball. In the past 20 years, Carolina Basketball has transitioned with new coaches (new elected leaders) and a more up-tempo offense (aggressive campaigning), while the ACC has almost doubled in size with expansion teams (changing political landscapes) and more emphasis on making the conference a revenue-making machine (the influence of PACs). I could great mileage with these themes. In fact, I’m passionate enough about all of these subjects that I have enough material for a book. But I’m not going to write a book, at least not right now.
Instead, I want your attention; so I’m going to use the hook that always works –KISSing. Sorry, no juicy or salacious stuff will be forthcoming from me. Remember, I warned you from the beginning? I’m going to hook you by speaking plain simple truths. In essence, I will be keeping it simple –because I’m not stupid.
While the average citizen may believe elections begin when the first campaign commercial is aired and ends when the media projects a winner, those of us in the elections industry know differently. An election is actually a process that starts well before the first ballot is cast or even before the first candidate files for office.
While Election Day is a culmination of a series of events that lead to citizens voting, in its truest sense, elections really describe the industry that drives these ever-evolving and dynamic events. The elections process is dynamic because by its very nature, the components of the system are designed to change. Some changes are constant (voters are added to and removed from registration lists daily), others are periodic (our local, state and national leaders are one election day away from leaving office) and some changes happen on occasion (laws are amended or new policy is implemented).
While change is inevitable in the election process, the natural order of elections is also shaped by division or partisan tensions. The industry is set up to have winners and losers, thus everyone will not always like or agree with the changes that occur. The role of election officials is to effectively manage these tensions. Reverting to the sports analogy, election officials must be like referees, they must make sure that the game is fair and everyone follows the rules.
Remember the voter
Respect for the process starts with respect for voters. Partisan influences must take a back seat to the very basic premise that individuals who are qualified and eligible to vote must be given the opportunity to cast a ballot and have their ballot counted.
The emphasis must be on inclusion rather than exclusion. It should never be a consideration whether elections officials are elected or appointed by one party versus another, it matters more that every action taken or any policy implemented permits people who are qualified to vote to be able to cast a ballot and have their ballot counted for every contest for which they are eligible to vote.
No election official wants to get caught up in political mischief and be connected with favoring one party over another. The very basic of administering the election process is the ability of a person to vote. With this basic premise, it is inevitable that after an election, someone is not going to be happy. Someone is going to lose. Someone that you’ve voted for will lose.
It’s a natural human instinct to be disappointed with a loss, maybe sometimes angry with a loss. And sometimes when we get angry, we look for others to blame or we blame the “system.” We question the system–did someone cheat? Did people vote who were not supposed to vote? Was someone who should have been allowed to vote, prevented from voting? The best elections are the ones where everyone who plays fairly gets a chance to play, even if the game is close and even if you lose.
Uniformity and equal application
Fairness is not just a concept; it must be applied and its application must be uniform and equal.
In North Carolina, there are 100 county boards of elections. When I became the director for the State Board of Elections, there were 100 different ways that elections were administered in our state. There were 100 different types of voter registration or absentee ballot forms, 100 different methods of how voter files were maintained, and more than a dozen types of voting equipment and vote tallying software or methods. Astoundingly, there were at least 16 ways that dates were recorded – MM/DD/YYYY, YYYY/DD/MM, Jul – 1972 – you get the picture.
Almost 10 years ago, we implemented an elections uniformity project that mandated procedural standards throughout the state's local elections jurisdictions. These standards were recorded in a uniformity manual that provides guidance to election officials throughout various aspects of the elections process. As laws and regulations were amended, we updated the manual, thus providing a training and reference resource. A documented uniform process ensures consistency in an elections system and provides for equal application of the law without regard to partisan considerations.
Self-audits and wellness checks
No system can prevail unless there are assurances in place that the system is operable as designed and its functioning goals are met.
Since elections are a service industry, periodic audits can assess whether optimal services are provided to citizens. Audits are not just based on data analysis, but should also evaluate the health of an elections office: is an elections office adhering to the law and uniform policy; are there security measures in place; does the office have plans to handle emergency situations; is the office meeting list maintenance standards. Audits of local elections offices should not solely be performed by a state’s election officials; local elections administrators should also be given the tools for self-assessments. Audits and wellness checks offer a proactive approach to remedy problems or issues to prevent harm to the elections process.
Participation in professional associations and groups fosters competency and helps to build skills. Reliance and exposure to other professionals in the elections industry provides an opportunity to learn from other’s experiences while sharing your own unique qualities. Regional, statewide, and national participation in professional associations can offer individuals problem solving avenues that make elections fairer, more efficient and promotes an atmosphere for continued growth and overall excellence.
It is essential to not forget the importance of education and training. Offering a certification program and continuing education courses to election board members and staff ensures that skills will always be enhanced and refreshed.
Communication and relationship building
No industry, business, organization or any other entity can be successful without effective communication skills. The key to the election industry is understanding the players with whom relationships need to be built.
Obviously, election officials must communicate effectively with voters, political parties, and elected officials. Not surprisingly, relationships must also be established with advocacy groups, the media, and even election officials in other counties or states.
What may not be as obvious is establishing good working relationships with other federal and state agencies like the United States Department of Justice or the Federal Voting Assistance Program and state departments of motor vehicles or vital statistics authorities.
On a local level, election officials must work with local officials like police and emergency management officials, or GIS and mapping specialists, or city/county managers, attorneys or other pertinent non-elected bureaucrats. These relationships will serve as a valuable resource when unexpected events occur and there is a plan in place to prevent unexpected events or emergencies from becoming a crisis.
The other key to effective communication is to ensure you are providing consistent and accurate information and the information is readily available. In today's age, making public information available on the Internet is the clear preference.
Elections agencies should proactively dedicate a section of their webpage to providing current data and statistics. Citizens, political parties, or other groups who frequently request the same type of data from elections agencies can be directed to a web portal that will permit them to access the data at their convenience. This openness to providing data creates an atmosphere of trust and confidence in elections officials.
Fighting the rumor mill
Despite elections officials' best efforts, at some level, a lack of trust and confidence in the elections process is inherent to elections. Misinformation or misinterpretation goes along with the territory. In the political world, rumors and allegations of fraud and impropriety are to be expected. At some point, notwithstanding election officials' attempts at open, consistent, uniform, and honest communication, there will be individuals or groups that will question or even cast aspersions on the elections process.
Questioning the process can actually be healthy for the process because it provides an opportunity to evaluate nuances that may be taken for granted. Attacks on the process, especially when unfounded are a little trickier. It is important not to brush off such talk, but to actively and aggressively investigate and research such claims, and if evidence is lacking, then it should just as aggressively be dispelled.
Misinformation creates a lack of confidence in the system. Don’t let problems fester. Election officials should use their websites, the media, and social networking resources to refute inaccurate information. Sadly, there are self-appointed election experts out there that don’t understand the historical basis of many laws or policies, nor do they have the proper interpretation of many laws. These "experts" try to imprint their partisan beliefs on the process. Although dealing with these individuals or groups can be frustrating, it is important to just promptly and accurately refute misinformation, and quite frankly move on.
While consistency breeds stability, tradition can impede progress. Just like any other modern industry, election officials must stay abreast of technology and other strategies that can improve performance and efficiency.
More progressive election processes can lead to a reduction in administrative costs, increased productivity and more effective management of limited resources.
For instance, the use of barcode scanners to verify proper ballot distribution, or electronic poll books to look up and verify registration, and for those lucky states, the use of online voter registration has led to incredible cost savings while improving the integrity of the elections process.
Technology is not the only focus when it comes to staying current. Election officials must also be sure to keep informed about changes in laws and regulations that both directly impact and indirectly impact the elections process. In essence, don’t be afraid to seek out the current trends and determine the benefits while weighing possible risks.
Don’t risk the process just to be the first out of the gate -- be on the leading edge and not the bleeding edge. Vision cannot supplant an attention to detail and common sense.
With these guiding principles, change can simply be just that – a change. A change in direction due to partisan or political reasons does not have to result in a sharp detour from proven practices that have benefitted the elections process. What must be avoided are any solely partisan acts that could potentially undermine a sound elections process. More must be done with the election administration to take the partisanship out of what should strictly be a civic endeavor. Simple enough?
Editor’s Note: On May 1, 2013 at the first meeting of the newly appointed North Carolina Board of Elections, the board voted to replace long-time Director of Elections Gary Bartlett. Bartlett served as director of elections for 20 years. Electionline would like to wish Gary well on his future endeavors. He will be missed.