While Tuesday’s primary won’t be as exciting on the Republican side as many expected about a month ago, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump should still draw a relatively large number of voters to the polls.

On the Democratic side of the aisle – which represents 34 percent of OC registered voters to Republicans’ 40 percent – recent polls are pointing to a potentially close race between Clinton and Sanders.

And beyond the presidential race, Orange County voters will choose candidates for a number of key government offices, including those for the U.S. Senate and House, the county Board of Supervisors, and judicial seats.

The man in charge of the making sure the election goes smoothly – and that every vote counts – is Neal Kelley, the Orange County registrar of voters.

Kelley, who has served as the county’s top elections official since 2006, has been at the forefront – statewide and nationally – of helping shape the future of elections in America, including improving the ever-growing vote-by-mail system. He serves as president of California’s county election officials association and from 2014 to 2015 was president of the nation-wide county election officials association.

Kelley recently sat down with Voice of OC to talk about preparation for next month’s primary, the future of voting and the move towards vote-by-mail. He said he expects to see more change in voting in the next ten years than we’ve seen in the last hundred years.

Kelley’s answers have been edited for length and clarity:

We’re heading into what could be a record-breaking primary turnout in Orange County, with the public showing a huge interest in the presidential race. How are you preparing for this election and is it any different from past elections?

For us, the level of preparation is the same, because we’re preparing for 100-percent turnout; We never get that. But based on anecdotal information and also data on registration and data on vote-by-mail, I’m kind of seeing it on par with 2008. I really don’t think it’s going to be record-breaking. I think we’re gonna be back up to the 40 percent range for this election, which is good. That’s where we want to be. But at the end of the day I think it will kind of on par with ’08.

In some states we’ve seen big problems like hours-long lines at polling places like in Arizona. What’s your understanding of what went wrong there? And what are we doing here to prevent something like that?

In Arizona, they looked at creating vote centers, and they felt, based on what they had in previous turnout, that that they could handle that volume of voters with fewer polling places. I think they set it up so there were about 21,000 voters to a polling place. We will have no more than 2,000 at a polling place here. It’s vastly different. I don’t have the ability to take 30,000 voters or more and put them into a single polling place. And those laws are in place to protect against those kinds of things happening here.

I think it’s important to point out that, when you look at our vote-by-mail data right now, we’re going to be approaching 65 or 70 percent of the Orange County electorate that will be voting that way. So that means that a lot of those people will be out of the polling place, even though we still have this requirement to have all of these polling places open. I’m the president of our statewide election officials association and we’ve been looking at these issues of going to a vote center model, and what we can do in California to to address it differently.

That being said, what’s in place here are those protections I think that will help prevent those kinds of things from happening: more people voting by mail, inability to consolidate polling places in big numbers. We could consolidate up to 6,000 voters per polling place. Since 2006, I’ve always taken the approach that we need to have more polling places out there so we don’t have these situations occur.

You’ve taken leadership roles at the state and national level on growing vote-by-mail and ultimately potentially reducing in-person polling places. Can you tell us more about that effort, where it’s at, what you’ve learned?

Well the funny thing is, really kind of on their own the electorate has made this move. And so we started promoting vote-by-mail balloting in Orange County here in about 2007 or 2008 for this very reason. But I think, even aside from the promotion that we’ve done, voters have said, ‘I want more convenience. And I talk to voters and they anecdotally say, ‘Look, I may not have time on Election Day to go for vote,’ or ‘I want to do it on my terms.’ We’ve become this society of consumers where the expectation is that everything is instant, there are very few barriers, because if they do occur we don’t like them. We speak up about it. And so it’s the same thing with voting. If somebody wants to get a vote-by-mail ballot, they know that they’ve got 30 days to vote. And I think that’s really important.

I have taken a leadership position both on the state and national side because I really believe when you look at the data, it’s pretty clear that the voters have chosen. They want more convenience. Whether that means that you have a weakened voting period or you end up with a hybrid where you have these large vote centers but everybody gets a ballot in the county, which would be the vote center model. That is really addressing what the electorate is looking for, not what I think they want. The data is showing us what they’re wanting to do.

I think the Colorado model really stands up to the test, in that they’ve got the same kind of approach. Send everybody a ballot in the county. Have these large customer service centers that are open for almost two weeks before election day, where people can drop off their ballot or vote in person if they wanted to. In addition to that, having drop boxes throughout the community. And so we in essence become our own post office. So if you didn’t want to go to a vote center or you didn’t want to mail it, you could drop it in a drop box. That expands the opportunity for these voters, as opposed to only having one polling place to go to, and it’s going to have 30,000 people in it, or whatever the case is.

I had an opportunity go to Denver and visit their last vote center vote with California Secretary of State Alex Padilla.  And he and I traveled to five or six vote centers together. And you would just see voters either coming in and dropping their ballots off, or they would have these drive-up boxes and they would just drive up and pop it in a couple of days before the election. And they were doing that en mass. So that’s why I’m taking that leadership position. I think that it makes sense based on the data.

And then the other piece of this is we’re going down the other side of the bell curve on our voting machines being at their end-of-life. We’ve been planning for five years to replace the system. In Orange County let’s say you have 150 vote centers, down from just under 1,200 polling places currently. You’d be putting equipment in there to handle large volumes of voters in a vote center scenario at a much-reduced rate than if you were putting in new equipment in 1,200 point places. So it’s also economics, but the economics should come last, because it’s important to make sure the voters are serviced. So that’s where I’m at. This is something that the Legislature is going to have to tackle.

Obviously there’s a lot of pluses of vote-by-mail, like the convenience and more participation in the democratic process. But is there a concern that something is lost if less people are showing up on Election Day and voting in person?

So the option would still be there for them to vote in person. I’ve heard those arguments and I’ve talked to people who say, ‘Look, I like going to my neighborhood, I see my neighbors, this is a community event.’ There definitely are valuable points in that. There certainly are elected officials who feel the same way, that we don’t want to do away with that in-person option. But that’s the advantage of the potential California model, which is like the Colorado model. You’re not going to in all vote-by-mail option. That’s not where the leadership wants to go, that’s not where I think the electorate necessarily wants to go. They do want that in-person option. And this vote center model would provide that. If we were sitting here talking about pushing an all vote-by-mail option – you get a ballot, you have no choice – that’s a very different approach than this approach with vote centers.

Last year there were allegations that political operatives were manipulating vote-by-mail ballots.  What’s being done to prevent manipulation?

I still have disagreements with some of those statements that came out, and I don’t think that there was evidence of manipulation. I think that we need to be very careful when we have those discussions, because by and large vote-by-mail is an absolutely safe way to vote. Even for people that may be concerned about putting their ballot  it in the mailbox, they have the option of going to any polling place and dropping it off, so it stays in our chain of custody and stays secure. So we’re always looking at data, we’re always looking at anomalies or anything that might cause us concern.

It’s clearly against the law to go collect batches of vote-by-mail ballots, it’s clearly against the law to drop off large batches. And those are things that we train for and we train our poll workers to look out for. So we’re always looking at doing things to bring attention to that. Just to kind of give you one example, not too long ago we messaged on the ballot box. And now we’re messaging on the back of the sample ballot booklet that if you’re dropping your poll your vote-by-mail ballot off at the polling place, the poll worker is supposed to look at it and make sure it’s filled out correctly and you’re not dropping off big batches. So there are things in place. What I’m trying to say is, we take it seriously, we’re always looking at ways to improve that security and make sure people feel safe in turning in their vote-by-mail ballot.  And I think we’re at a good spot.

Any other big changes you seen in the future when it comes to how elections are conducted?

I think the voter center is going to really be a big decision. I just think that we need to pay attention to the trends and pay attention to what the electorate’s wanting. I think that’s important. There certainly are things that are being looked at to make it easier for voters to cast a ballot. There have been criticisms of the registration process and potential barriers to turning out. For instance if voters go to schools and it’s crowded and they turn around and they drive away, because it’s the end of the school day and there’s parking issues, and these kinds of things. I think things that may change down the road include that we might go to a national holiday for elections. We might go to weekend voting. I think there’s a lot of things that Congress and the state Legislature are looking at. I think there’s gonna be more change in voting in the next ten years than we have seen in the last hundred years. I really do. And that’s for a variety of reasons. That’s because of how people are interacting with technology, how people expect to be treated when they go to busy places – when you look at lines at the airport and other things you can kind of learn lessons from those things.

The disadvantage I think – and I think this is big: If you go to Starbucks every day and you get your coffee or you fly once a week or once a month. It’s an experience that you’re used to. It’s an experience where you know what you need to do to get something done. Half of the voters in Orange County only vote every four years. There’s four elections in that period. They vote when the presidential is on the ballot in the general election. 44 percent of the voters in our database vote that way. Now if you’re doing something once every four years, you need to slow down, pay attention, realize there’s deadlines, realize there are some steps you’re going to have to take. It’s an easy process. I don’t want to say this is a difficult process for voters, it’s really easy. But you’re only doing every four years. You need to look at what’s in front of you.

Any other thoughts?

It’s a long, complex process. I’ve got a great team around here that I’m real proud to work with. I love what I do. It’s either in your blood or it isn’t. And it’s funny – I think it was the New York Times – this was a month or two ago – and they were listing the top five most stressful jobs in the country. And it was enlisted military, firefighter, police officer, airline pilot, and large scale event planner. That’s what we are, we’re large scale event planners. We’re planning a large single event, for a million and a a half people. So again, I guess the bottom line is people around here, including me, are working twenty four hours on Election Day, long, long days, in an effort to make sure people have the right to vote without barriers. So I’m just proud to be a part of that.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. He can be reached at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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