Orange County Registrar leading the pack on administering elections

150 150 Catherine Shieh

You might not be taking notice of the quality of elections being held in your own backyard, but other counties are. 

Administering elections (primary, general, and special) is an expensive and complex process that deals with a number of issues in any county, such as botching the mailings of election materials or providing timely, updated data to volunteers. Simply put, it’s a grueling process that could easily be riddled with mistakes if elections are not well run. However, if you talk to virtually any elections official in the state of California, they say that the Orange County Registrar of Voters is doing it right.

The long road towards elections reform for Orange County started seven years ago. When Korean-translated propositions went out on ballots that year, the Neal Kelley, the OC Registrar of Voters, witnessed an alarming lack of accountability in the process, resulting in voter confusion that could have easily been prevented.

“Never again”, he recalls thinking to himself. In the seven year journey, now almost every detail is done and reviewed with specialized teams using in-house technology.

Since that unfortunate election, he and his team have virtually eliminated the use of all vendors and consultants in the elections process. All of the addressing of vote-by-mail ballots, website development, poll worker training, etc. is done in-house. The more vendors you deal with, he explained, the more control over your process you give up.

“I’m frustrated with the outsourcing trend,” Kelley said. “You need homegrown talent to battle resource limitations.” With in-house technology and production, the county controls every bit of the process and can literally catch mistakes at the flip of a switch.

Kelley first tackled website development in the form of a two-year project to revamp the interface and production of plain language information for voters. During this time, the three-person team (including Kelley himself) began peeling back the onion layers to take the same approach in dissecting parts of the website into operations. In Orange County’s seven-year journey, their outreach team continues to collect feedback from voters to find the next piece of the elections process to improve on.

When the county uses digital tools correctly in elections it saves time, money, and staffing by streamlining ballot counting and reducing human error. The Orange County Registrar uses a wide array of technology equipment for additional ways to bring vital information to voters. With real-time poll worker updates via scanning, troubleshooting and maintenance for voting systems can easily be tracked and reported to a central location. With ubiquitous e-slate tablets, voting is accessible for ordinary voters and those with disabilities alike on a single, versatile electronic ballot.

Currently, the change in organizational management for poll workers in Orange County is saving them tens of thousands of dollars alone. Taxpayer dollars are saved when every part of the complex elections process is carefully enhanced to improve public access to information and voting.

Building capacity for technology isn’t easy, and elections can always be improved. Reform requires lofty goals, perseverance and continuous investments over a long period of time. But with homegrown success, the county preserves the integrity of elections, helps provide clear cut accountability measures and maintains that accountability when administering elections.

California Forward has been working with like minded groups on the Future of California Elections (FOCE) to examine and address the unique challenges facing the State of California’s election system. Orange County, under the leadership of Neal Kelley and his staff, have demonstrated what your local  government can do to encourage voting in a streamlined process. 


Catherine Shieh

All stories by: Catherine Shieh