Neal Kelly, who’s led Orange County’s election system for the last 17 years, announced this week he plans to retire in March.
Over the course of his time at county, Kelley has earned a reputation among observers across the political spectrum of being fair, responsive and transparent, and led both the statewide and national associations of county election officials.
In an interview with Voice of OC, Kelley said he wanted to wait to retire until after the governor recall election was over, but with enough time for the county to get a successor in place before the upcoming June primaries.
“It’s almost 18 years for me. And I think that in this business, it’s like 70. And I think it’s just good timing from that perspective,” Kelley said.
His successor will be chosen by county CEO Frank Kim, who plans on working with Kelly on a nationwide recruitment ahead of Kelley’s plans to retire on March 11.
“He’s fantastic,” Kim said of Kelley, in a Wednesday phone interview. “We’re sad to see him go, and he’ll be hard to replace.”
Election observers and politicians of all stripes throughout the county have praised Kelly’s work overseeing elections in Orange County.
“I think he’s generally regarded as one of the best election officials in the state and the nation,” Kim said.
Kelley presided over the county’s switch to electronic voting machines, elections where the results were close and contests where there were concerns about ballot drop boxes.
“All through each of those processes that could have been very difficult and challenging, he was a rock,” Kim said. “He provided good information. He was fair, he was balanced. And so I think we all are going to miss Neal, and we wish him the very best.”
Kelley said the highlights of his county tenure were professionalizing the office, shifting to vote centers and upgrading vote machines.
Kim says he hopes to pick a new registrar of voters by the end of January.
“That would give at least a month and a half of transition time for Neal to be able to assist the incoming registrar” on how the office is structured and organized, and plan for the upcoming June primaries, Kim said.
“What I appreciate about Neal is he’s a consummate professional. So he gave me not just a 2 week or 30 day notice, right? He informed me he’s going to retire on March 11, so he’s giving me many many months, which I really appreciate,” he said.
Kim said he’ll bring in an external recruiter like they typically do for hiring department heads.
Kelley is giving Kim advice on how to reach out to other registrars, and said he’d help identify outstanding candidates.
“So I think we’re in good hands,” Kim said.
Going forward, Kelley said the focus needs to stay on the voter experience and election security.
“I think as we head into the ‘22, ‘24 cycle, [the election integrity discussion] is just going to grow — not only in terms of the scrutiny, but how it’s used in the political arena,” he said.
“I suppose the best advice I can give is perseverance, and transparency and resilience. It’s not an easy job … but it’s so rewarding. You take the bull by the horns. I was talking to somebody and saying, how do you uncouple from this job, because it’s such a big part of my life.”
As for concerns about election security and integrity, Kelley said the existing system is accurate, but requires constant oversight to keep it that way.
“I think I’m certainly registered as having one of the most recounts in the state of California recently. And when you look at the integrity of that system, it speaks for itself,” he said.
“This system is sound, but it needs to continually be focused on,” Kelley added.
“It needs to be watched every single second of the day.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.