Orange County is about to see a big change to the leadership of its elections system, with the retirement and replacement of outgoing Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley – who by his own estimate oversaw roughly 90 elections and 20 recounts in his 18-year tenure.
County leaders picked current San Bernardino Registrar of Voters Bob Page to succeed Kelley.
Page has far less experience than Kelley.
By his own account, Page has administered about three statewide elections, one recall election, and a “handful” of local elections in the neighboring county
Before Page got his current job in 2018, he was a “principal management analyst” for the county.
And before that, he was a top county political aide, serving as chief of staff for two San Bernardino county supervisors at different points in the 2000s, most recently for Democrat Josie Gonzales, former chair of the board and before that for the late Jon Mikels, a Republican.
During his time as a political aide, unsuccessful attempts were made to bribe Page while he worked for Gonzales, according to the San Bernardino Sun.
In a Thursday phone interview, Page said he approaches government affairs with integrity.
“A business that was looking to develop in the community of Bloomington attempted to bribe me and I immediately reported that to the district attorney’s office. They completed an investigation and a prosecution and ultimately those brothers pled guilty one to attempted bribery and the other to bribery,” he said.
Page makes $195,000 as San Bernardino’s Registrar of Voters annually and will see a $40,000 pay raise when he comes to Orange County for a starting salary of $235,000.
In Orange County, he’s walking into a dense metropolitan center of 3.2 million people, 34 cities, and a mix of communities differing by race, class, and political beliefs.
Page is also taking over during a time when questions about the integrity of elections have become part of the discourse in recent election cycles across the nation.
Though Page isn’t exactly new to the area – he said he grew up in Orange County.
Kelley, who is set to leave his post on March 10, is widely regarded across the state and U.S. as a leader in elections administration and helped steer California’s pivot to vote centers in the later end of his 18 years leading the county’s election system.
Page has acknowledged this experience gap – and the work cut out for him.
“Neal Kelley has done an amazing job as a Registrar of Voters,” Page said. “But he also started at a point where he had not conducted an election. He, over the years, developed that experience, built an amazing team that will be there to work with me,” Page said.
“I’m not going to say that I have the same amount of experience as Neal, I don’t. But that’s not to say that I can’t do the job,” Page added.
That echoes the sentiment coming from the county’s chief executive, CEO Frank Kim who notes there’s a strong team of staff at the OC Registrar’s office as well as the fact that when Kelley took over at the Registrar’s Office, he came in with private sector background that wasn’t’ in elections.
Regarding Page’s hire, Kim replied,
“We are happy that we were able to recruit a Registrar from a Southern California urban county. Bob will be a dynamic leader for us and (we) have to have him in Orange County.”
Kelley, when asked about the difference in experience between himself and his successor, said he’ll work to set Page up for success.
“One of the things that I really value with the county here is that they’re giving us an opportunity for me to have some overlap with him so I think it’ll be a smooth transition,” Kelley said in a Thursday interview.
Page will start work on Feb. 25 and Kelley will stick around until about the middle of March to help him with the transition.
Kelley said his wife’s coinciding retirement from the U.S. Navy – and the recent death of a family member – has warranted a step back.
“I recently lost a sister and I’m kind of just reflecting on life. It’s going to give me a chance to stop and smell the roses for a little bit,” he said.
Kelley has not only overseen about 90 elections and 20 recounts during his tenure, but also led the county’s switch from traditional polling sites to vote centers in 2020.
It was a year of election firsts, seeing an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots and a push to contest the integrity of the election process when current U.S. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, beat out Republican incumbent Donald Trump.
On Thursday, Page said there have been a number of questions on election integrity and security in recent years.
“That’s something that we deal with upfront and directly. When people have questions, we answer them. We let them view the process, and show them all the different things that we do to ensure that elections are accurate, and fair,” he said.
Page said in a previous Tuesday interview, “transparency will be key.”
“All of our election processes are observable for people to come and watch, and continuing that is important so people understand how elections work,” Page said, speaking from his experience in San Bernardino County,
It will take “constant” public messaging “on all the provisions we put in place to ensure elections are accurate and fair,” Page said. “In our county (San Bernardino) when we got those questions, it was a matter of sitting down, saying, ‘You may have heard this about this system, here’s what we do before every election’ …”
“Yes, there will be differences to learn from and see how Orange County’s operation works, but the goal is still the same: To ensure voters have access to a regular ballot and won’t have to vote provisionally.”
Page will oversee county elections beginning with the June primary.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @photherecord.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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