“I think the first problem is most people do not understand how elections work and I would count the politicians in that. I think most elected leaders actually don’t understand how an election works. We look at Congress, I don’t think there’s anyone that’s actually running an election at the local level in Congress today. Secretaries of state, most of them have actually not run an election. They’ve run the state offices, which are regulatory and have responsibility for voter registration systems, but they haven’t dealt with hiring poll workers for the most part or counting ballots or processing voter registration forms and all of that. They don’t deal with the direct service, if you will, for voters. And so I think there’s a complete lack of understanding. I think the political class tends to think that it’s the same thing as running a campaign. And those two things are couldn’t be farther from not the same.”

That’s Amber McReynolds, this week’s guest on Why Public Service?, speaking about running elections and her experience as a former elections administrator.

Today, McReynolds is CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute and Coalition, dedicated to improving voter engagement, reducing election-related cots and making elections more secure. She has been in public service for more than two decades, previously served as director of elections in Denver, Colorado and coauthored the book, “When Women Vote.” Follow her on Twitter @AmberMcReynolds.

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Transcript:

Kevin Kosar:

Welcome to Why Public Service, a podcast of the R Street Institute, a free market think tank in Washington, DC. I’m your host, Kevin Kosar. And each episode, I speak with an individual who made the choice to participate in governing our nation. Some of my guests have worked for the government. Others have toiled in various private sector organizations, including think tanks, philanthropies, and political groups. All of them share the same goal, however, which is to improve our country through public service.

Kevin Kosar:

Today’s guest is Amber McReynolds, chief executive officer of Vote at Home. It’s a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving voter engagement, reducing election related costs and making our elections more secure. Amber has been in public service for nearly 20 years and previously was the Director of Elections in Denver, Colorado. She’s the co-author of the book, When Women Vote and serves on the national task force on election crises. You can learn more about Amber McReynolds by visiting voteathome.org. Amber, welcome to the Why Public Service Podcast.

Amber McReynolds:

It’s great to be here.

Kevin Kosar:

With a national election fast approaching, you are no doubt, very busy. So let’s get right to my questions. The first of which is how did you come to work at Vote at Home? What was your career path?

Amber McReynolds:

Sure. Well, I actually did my undergrad as most people did. And then I lived in London, England and did my master’s degree. And in that work, I studied comparative politics and worked in Parliament and was there actually right after 2001 and the 9/11 attacks, started to get very involved in public policy, but also elections policy in the UK. And after I finished that, decided to move back to the United States and be here and started working for an organization called The New Voters Project and in which was a nonpartisan effort to work with college campuses to increase civic engagement activities and make sure that the student body was educated on voting. In that work, I worked in Iowa for a year around the 2004 presidential election, kept visiting Colorado and decided to try to find a job in elections administration and the administration side of things.

Amber McReynolds:

So I started working for Denver as an operational coordinator, and I had lots of great ideas that all kind of went on deaf ears because most of the team was sort of all about the way it had always been done. Then I moved into a leadership role and was able to start generating changes and really revamping the organization in Denver. And then we started leading on policy changes at the state level and getting things done. And now seven years ago, I actually, I had moved up to the director level back in 2011 and then seven years ago, Colorado had an opportunity to really modernize elections. And so after running elections for a long period of time, I was an elections official for over 13 years and was the director for a long period of time, about half of that in Denver. And we were able to rewrite Colorado’s laws and make it a system that put voters first and met voters where they were, and in their everyday lives and really may Colorado one of the standout States in terms of voter engagement.

Amber McReynolds:

So I did all of that. And then two years ago decided to leave my elections official role and come and run the national Vote at Home Institute and coalition. And we’re focused on improving the voting experience for all voters by expanding convenient options to vote. And one of the ways that we can do that is to expand options for people to vote at home. And that’s what we’ve been focused on for the last couple of years, trying to work with States across the country to do.

Kevin Kosar:

So as a followup, let me ask, when you were a graduate student in the UK, was elections for form and administration, an issue that you sought out or was it just something you happened to encounter?

Amber McReynolds:

I was working for actually the Solicitor General under Tony Blair at the time. And I was a policy associate and Prime Minister Blair actually asked her to review some of the election procedures and laws that the UK was working on at the time or looking at. And she basically handed it to me and said, write me a memo and brief me on all these issues. I started researching more about it, went and visited a few of the elections offices and actually got to witness and be one of the municipal level elections that they were having there, one of the local elections that they were having there while I was there. And just kind of wrote up a policy brief for her on some of those issues.

Amber McReynolds:

And it was always of interest to me. I will say that I never shied away from a political science moment in the United States. And so being able to kind of study the UK in that way, and honestly, at the time was doing my master’s in comparative politics at the London School of Economics. And so it was sort of the perfect project and it really sparked my interest. I just got more involved with doing that and found it extremely interesting to think about different ways of doing things and ways that the process could be improved for voters.

Kevin Kosar:

Funny how life sometimes surprises us, things we hadn’t expected to get into suddenly become our life’s work.

Amber McReynolds:

Yes.

Kevin Kosar:

I had something similar at the Congressional Research Service back long, long ago where I started, I had a supervisor asked me to take up a topic and to essay on it. Nearly 20 years later, I’m still working it. And that’s post the reform.

Amber McReynolds:

It’s kind of fascinating how life turns and sort of what life prepares us for because the voting process for me was introduced at a very young age. I had grandmothers and my great aunt who talked about the women’s suffrage movement all the time. It was very impactful to them as young women at the time, and seeing their mothers not be able to participate in all that, I learned at a very young age, all about that movement and the struggles. And my grandmother regularly had parades in the neighborhood around the 4th of July and around Labor Day. And I would load up my doll cart with pamphlets that my grandma had and help her hand them out during the parade. And it was all like voting guides and voting information and all of this that she would write out and prepare and do on her own as part of her civic work.

Kevin Kosar:

Fantastic.

Amber McReynolds:

Yeah.

Kevin Kosar:

You’re the CEO of a not-for-profit, Vote at Home. What are your responsibilities?

Amber McReynolds:

So my responsibilities are to run the organization, ensure that our mission and objectives are aligned with our goals, not only from a budgetary perspective, but also aligned with the current issues of the day. Our overall mission is to expand voting options and improve the voting experience overall. And so within that, we really work across three main areas. One of those is policy design and advocacy. So we work with state legislative bodies. We research these issues. We provide data and information and recommendations on how policies should be structured to make the process better and improve the vote by mail programs within each states. We also sort of take it to the next level. So if we work on passing legislation or seeing legislation through, we also want to help state and localities actually implement that legislation. So a lot of organizations pass legislation and then leave it up to the state and locals. And then if it doesn’t go well, they sue them. And so what we want to do is really work on the policies and then work on implementation and help support states.

Amber McReynolds:

And then finally we work, do a lot actually on communications and really we’ve become a national voice on this topic. We have a lot of partner organizations that come to us for help and support. So I’m trying to drive the mission of the organization and continue to advance this topic. And frankly, I would love to not have to have this exist. I would love to get to a place where we can say mission accomplished and all the goals and objectives were met and all the states are operating in a great way. And we can all move on to do something different. I mean, ultimately I would love to kind of put myself out of business if you will, with this job.

Amber McReynolds:

But the reality is elections policy and administration is an ongoing discussion. There’s going to be changes. There’s going to need to be shifts. I think the pandemic has exposed some real vulnerabilities in the in-person voting structure that we’re going to need to talk about longterm as a country. And really fix some very big issues, including governance issues, agility within adjusting in a pandemic and in an emergency situation. All of those very big discussions are going to have to happen post 2020.

Kevin Kosar:

What does your average day look like? Or is there no average day in this very strange year of 2020?

Amber McReynolds:

I feel like everything that I have done in my professional career and frankly, life has prepared me for this moment. And I was describing this to someone the other day. Running elections like I did for 13 years, I ran 3 different presidential elections, 3 different voting models during that time, transition the office to 3 different systems and models and offices. And the stress of all of that is significant. And I can tell you election officials around the country, and I know this very well just from doing it as long as I did. It is a high stress, roller coaster type environment that doesn’t ever let go. There’s no downtime. People always say, well, there’s downtime between elections. There’s not really downtime between elections. It is a magnificent role that election officials play around the country. And I like to say that they’re the guardians of democracy in terms of serving the public and making this process work.

Amber McReynolds:

So I feel like that role was very instrumental in preparing me for how to help states today. I had to go through a lot of difficult change and manage through a lot of change and lead through change and come up with solutions to solve really difficult problems during my time as an elections official, which frankly put me in the right position to be able to help a lot of states right now.

Amber McReynolds:

And then secondly, one of the other self identification roles that I have and perspectives that I have is as a single mother. My personal life has been challenging for the last nine years or so. Not only as being a mother, but I’m going through a difficult personal experience that really had to make me more resilient as a human being. And so having two elementary kids as a single mom in a pandemic is challenging. And then also balancing my work life that has exponentially gotten more important this year. I think all of those things kind of made me pretty resilient up to this point and able to manage through a difficult period of time. So in a lot of ways, I just feel like a lot of the life experiences I’ve had, I look back and I’m grateful for frankly, the difficulties and the hurdles that I had to experience before and now, because I think it did make stronger and make me more resilient to be ready to do more of this right now.

Kevin Kosar:

Clearly, the demands upon you are immense. It seems every time I’m opening the newspapers or getting online, I’m seeing you in the news and there are so many challenges nationwide in terms of elections administration. You’ve worked both inside the government and tried to enact reforms. And in your current role, outside the government, trying to improve things. What general lessons have you learned about governance and the reform of it?

Amber McReynolds:

Well I think first and foremost, the structure, the government structure of elections in the United States needs to be reformed. And that’s a frustration that I had as a local election official. And now at kind of in the reform space, the inconsistencies by state, and even by locality in some cases, but mostly by state, where you’re more eligible if you live in certain states, then if you’re not in certain states, I think is problematic when we think about a federal election. And so I think there’s more we can do as a country to try to make the voting process better for everyone, but also more consistent so that there’s not such great disparities by state. And I get that states run elections, but I just don’t think that it makes sense for one voter, if you live in Colorado to be more eligible, to vote than a voter in Mississippi.

Amber McReynolds:

And right now that’s the case. You have more options if you live in certain States to vote, more accessible options, more automatic options, less paperwork, less bureaucracy, all those things. And to me, we have to have a conversation about that. I also think that this pandemic like it has with many systems, especially government, has exposed the lack of agility in our voting process. And what I mean by that is right now, we rely on state policy makers that have a direct stake in the outcome of the election to set the rules of the election and secretaries of state don’t have emergency powers for the most part. There’s now, we were able to get a bill passed in Vermont that gave the secretary power and North Carolina has some, but for the most part, secretaries of state do not have authority or power to make many adjustments.

Amber McReynolds:

And in many cases, the governors don’t have the authority or power to make significant adjustments to the election process. And that is very challenging in an emergency. And so I think we have to have a very big conversation about what this looks like going forward, not only the process of voting, but the governance and how we respond and act in an emergency like a pandemic or like a natural disaster. We have to make sure that the local election officials and state elections officials have the ability to act and make decisions so that voters can vote. And right now that is just not the case in most states.

Amber McReynolds:

And then finally, the other big lesson that I have learned, Denver. When I first got to Denver, elections were very underfunded. We were able to build a really good rapport and relationship with the city and the budget office and all of that to get our needs met and get the funding that we needed. But for the most part, elections are completely underfunded in this country. They’re often the last priority that local budgets address, they’re funded mostly at the local level. So a lot of people think states run elections or states pay for elections and all that. That’s not usually the case. And the federal government pays the least of anybody, of any of the government institutions.

Amber McReynolds:

And so I think we have to have a very big discussion about the funding stream to support our elections and support our democracy, make sure that elections are secure, make sure that voters have access and make sure that the systems are ready and that has not been the case. And so I think we just need to have a very big discussion over governance, the partisanship that is infused into our governance structure and our election administration structure. And we have to have that conversation for the longterm to make sure that our democracy functions for all and that it’s strengthened and that it’s secure and accessible for every single American.

Kevin Kosar:

It sounds like one of the things that you’ve encountered is not everyone even realizes or recognizes that there are problems, that there are old ways that just because they’ve been kept to for decades, if not longer, are not optimal. And getting people to accept that there’s a problem or multiple problems is a challenge in and of itself to say nothing of all the other hurdles that you have to get past. Is that right?

Amber McReynolds:

Yeah. I would say, I think the first problem is most people do not understand how elections work and I would count the politicians in that. I think most elected leaders actually don’t understand how an election works. We look at Congress, I don’t think there’s anyone that’s actually running an election at the local level in Congress today. Secretaries of state, most of them have actually not run an election. They’ve run the state offices, which are regulatory and have responsibility for voter registration systems, but they haven’t dealt with hiring poll workers for the most part or counting ballots or processing voter registration forms and all of that. They don’t deal with the direct service, if you will, for voters. And so I think there’s a complete lack of understanding. I think the political class tends to think that it’s the same thing as running a campaign. And those two things are couldn’t be farther from not the same.

Amber McReynolds:

So we have a complete lack of understanding in that part of it. And then the public at large doesn’t understand how elections work. And so I think our first problem is that lack of understanding and lack of education about the process. And so then when you go and think about, okay, how can we change it to make it better when you’re starting from a place of them not understanding the difficulties that are ingrained in the process now, it makes it difficult to articulate how to change for the better when they don’t have an understanding of the difficulties and the challenges that are within it today. So, yes, I think there’s a lack of understanding. I think there’s also a lack of trust from Democrats to Republicans. When we talk about election administration and I say this all the time in every speech I give, it has to be about who votes, not who wins.

Amber McReynolds:

And the problem is as we’ve infused decision-makers on policies into the process in the United States that have a direct stake in the outcome of the election. And it’s hard for them to disconnect those two things. And we have to get to a better place of nonpartisan election administration truly, that means focus on serving all voters and many secretaries of state do this. They already do this in their everyday lives. Many local officials already do it, but the policymakers really that’s where we see more of the partisanship and people trying to change the rules of the game to benefit themselves, or what have you. When really we need to be focused on what benefits the voting public at large? And what are the gaps that we have to identify? And why is turnout as low as it is? And how do we deal with that?

Kevin Kosar:

That leads me to my next question. What is the toughest part of your current job? Is it persuading people that there’s a problem? Is it balancing all your various responsibilities or is it something else?

Amber McReynolds:

I think the most difficult part, at least in the last few weeks has been, I work very hard and we work very hard to convince people, share good information, share good research, share the real data under the hood with this reform, share improvements. And what is extremely challenging is that one tweet can disrupt an entire day on this topic and it can perpetuate misinformation on a voting reform and a voting method, frankly, that millions of Americans have used successfully. Our military has used successfully, and that misinformation can spread like wildfire. And so on the one hand, information is powerful and we can share a lot more today than we ever could.

Amber McReynolds:

But on the other, that kind of lack of understanding of the process as it exists today, combined with one or two misinformed tweets and one or two statements that don’t actually have backing of data and real information can really cause a lot of disruption and cause a lot of distrust. So I continue to be very saddened by this sort of us against them mentality with the two political parties in particular, that up to this point, this has been a bipartisan reform. There’s red states and blue states and voters of both sides that have voted this way. And yet we’re seeing people question it because of frankly, misinformation about the topic itself.

Kevin Kosar:

Yes, politics ultimately is an act of persuasion. It means getting everybody to agree on the problem, share the basic facts and agree on a solution so you can take policy action and misinformation gums up all those works. Let me get to my closing question. You could have chosen another career path. Why public service?

Amber McReynolds:

Gosh, I think it goes back to really me being, I think I was five or six years old. I mentioned the story of my grandma, both my grandmas and my great aunt all served as election judges. They were deeply rooted in civic engagement and serving their communities. And that inspiration has encouraged me throughout my life. My dad’s a public servant. He was a public defender for a long time and represented lots of different clients over time and then became a judge and he serves government every day. My mom’s a school teacher. So I think we’ve had within our family, we’ve had this ingrained sense or at least I’ve had this ingrained sense of public service.

Amber McReynolds:

And then also when I was probably six or seven, my dad, he’d come home from work from his law firm. And I often did my homework up at his law firm and read the books, or at least I tried to, when I started reading. And tried to help him, like we always tried to help him at his law firm and help out where we could. He would come home from work and he would stand on his head, which I know is really funny. And we would laugh and he’d do it in the yard and he’d kick his feet in the air and we’d see how long, and we’d count and see how long he could do that. And one day I said to him, “Why do you always do that? It’s so funny.” And I tried to do it and we’d always try to do it ourselves.

Amber McReynolds:

And he said to me, one day, “Don’t you want to learn how to see the world from a different view, a different perspective?” And I tilted over on my head and did that. And you see the world in a completely different way when you just turn yourself upside down. And so that really has driven to look at solving problems in a different way. Like if we just need to change our view of it, or if we just need to change the perspective we have, can we get to a better solution for all? And that’s what I’ve tried to bring to elections. I know that some of my ideas are crazy. A lot of people are like, no, that’s not possible, or no, we can’t do it that way, or what have you. But it’s really rooted in that ideal that there should be a better way and we can figure out solutions when we’re creative and when we’re curious about identifying options to create solutions. So that’s sort of how I got here, and I think it’s deeply rooted within me to leave the world a better place than the way I found it.

Kevin Kosar:

In an upside down world, you might be the one who’s right side up. Amber, thank you for joining me on the podcast today.

Amber McReynolds:

Thanks for having me.

Kevin Kosar:

Thank you for listening to Why Public Service, a podcast of the R Street Institute. Please subscribe to the podcast and share it with your friends. Even better, rate and review us on iTunes so we can reach more listeners. Tell us what you thought about it and who we should interview next by finding us on Twitter at RSI. If you want to know more about R Street, sign up for our newsletters at www.rstreet.org. I’m your host, Kevin Kosar. Thank you to producer, William Gray, and editor, Parker Tant from parkerpodcasting.com.