We continue the “Recount Ready” series with Neal Kelley, Registrar of Voters, Orange County, California, and member of both the EAC’s Board of Advisors and Standards Board. Below, Neal reflects on his and his office’s experiences with close elections, recounts and election contests.
EAC: What do you wish you had known about recounts and election contests before you experienced one?
Kelley: It may sound naïve, but I wish I had realized how brutally a recount can be contested. One can examine the procedures and training materials, but until one is actually participating in a recount, it is difficult to train for the challenges faced in this experience. After the first recount I presided over, we significantly modified the training materials for the recount board members. I learned that training and preparation are critical to the success of the recount. With every recount, we continue to update the training materials (including lessons learned and actual examples from each recount). I personally meet with the recount board members and update them throughout the process, which they find helpful. Monitoring the observers is also significant, as it provides the controlled environment that is required to concentrate on the task at hand.
EAC: How did you handle the heightened scrutiny of the media and candidate supporters in the post-election period? What about rumors and false information?
Kelley: In 2016, we implemented a formal observer educational process to assist with the heightened scrutiny during the post-election period. This briefing consists of a mandatory video that must be watched by all observers, which explains the guidelines, laws, and rules of expected behavior. Observers are also required to sign in and obtain a dated badge for security purposes. We have added a security checkpoint before observers enter the processing areas. Signs are posted throughout the areas as a reminder of the regulations. Observation Leads wear yellow shirts to easily identify themselves for questions. This allows staff the ability to continue the canvass process without interruption.
Information is also key to limiting the spread of rumors and false information. We post updated results on the status of the recount every evening at 5:00 p.m. The number of ballots left to count by category is also updated on a daily basis. This is helpful in disseminating information to those interested in tight races. For recounts, we post recount status online to reflect precincts recounted and precincts left to be recounted. Live status reports reflect the progress of the recount online. The recount is live-streamed, allowing the process to be completely transparent. In addition, social media is leveraged heavily and we proactively push out newsfeeds that help to clarify any misinformation. Finally, scripts are used for our public phone bank personnel and chat agents to produce a clear, consistent message responding directly to information that has been falsely reported.
EAC: What resources were available to you when interpreting relevant laws and regulations on recounts?
Kelley: Before we conduct a recount, we review the Recount Regulations from the California Secretary of State’s office. In addition, we study the current California Uniform Vote Counting Standards to ensure that we have the most current information. We have also compiled a list of historical legal opinions that are reviewed which has also been beneficial. We created a Recount Handbook that is examined before every recount (and has become one of our most downloaded handbooks in our Election Library).
Most importantly, we interface with our attorneys (assigned from our County Counsel office) to assist in interpreting relevant laws and regulations.
EAC: How did post-election litigation or the threat of litigation affect your work?
Kelley: Post-election litigation has definitely impacted the canvass process in Orange County. We have modified training procedures for processing provisional ballots, provided additional training for signature verification, and have added a proofing step for the ballot duplication process. Before we begin processing provisional ballots or begin the 1 percent manual tally, extensive training is given to the individuals selected for this process. Experienced staff members mentor Extra-Help staffing until they are competently performing the task as trained. We routinely conduct debriefing meetings to discuss ways to improve our performance in canvass processes.
EAC: What advice would you give your fellow election officials about preparing for recounts and election contests?
Kelley: To prepare for the unexpected and plan for the expected! I would also remind them to keep physical security and cybersecurity as high priorities. During non-election periods, dedicate time to identify and discuss challenges that have been encountered in previous recounts. This will assist in updating procedures and checklists to avoid or minimize challenges. The formalized observation procedures made a significant difference on managing observers as well (in November 2016, we had our largest amount of observers from the public on a single day – 280 in total). Preparation done in advance of a recount is key to conducting a successful recount. I speak from heavy experience in this area – I have managed over 25 recounts in 14 years.
EAC: What can election officials do to make sure their provisional and mail balloting processes hold up well under the intense spotlight of a close race and potential recounts or election contests?
Kelley: Thorough training and preparation are critical to the success of post-election processes. We update our procedures and checklists after election debriefing meetings to highlight areas for improvement. We have implemented a program that designates highly experienced staff as “Observation Leads.” This allows staff to readily identify individuals that can assist them with questions. Experienced staff serve as mentors to Extra Help staff, ensuring that the training is executed properly. Consistency in processing is an important goal that can be achieved through extensive and detailed training.
EAC: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Kelley: I believe that it would be beneficial for elections officials to share their recount experiences in a teleconference debriefing (internal to their state or nearby counties). There may be procedures implemented in one office that might benefit another, or lessons learned that could prevent similar issues in another office. Recounts are one of the most challenging processes that elections officials must administer. Perhaps sharing these experiences would benefit elections officials.
A big thank you to Neal for sharing all the great work he and his staff do! Keep coming back to our blog to hear more from election officials about their experiences with close elections, recounts and election contests.