Meet just a few of the secretaries of state and chief election officials who administer the nation’s foundational democratic institution.
By Joel Sams and Trey Delida
Brad Raffensperger – Georgia Secretary of State
Brad Raffensperger may have a high profile in the national media, but the Georgia secretary of state’s focus is the same as when he took office in 2018 — keeping elections secure, accessible and fair in his home state.
He couldn’t have anticipated when he started this job how quickly challenges would come, both from the right and the left.
“When I ran in 2018, I didn’t realize that, as soon as I took office, I’d have nine lawsuits from the losing gubernatorial candidate and her allies,” Raffesnperger said. “We’ve been pushing back on false election claims, really, since January of 2019.”
When he ran, Raffensperger says the issues were straightforward — Georgia was still using outdated direct recording electronic voting machines. His campaign message was based on security: the state needed to move to new voting machines with a verifiable paper ballot, and Raffesnperger wanted the authority to join the electronic registration information center, known as ERIC, a collaborative tool that allows states to objectively and accurately update voter rolls.
As it turned out, however, Raffesnperger encountered an elections climate that was far from ordinary.
“We didn’t expect it — I don’t think anyone could have expected it, really — looking at the scrutiny that [secretaries of state] have gone through since the recent elections,” he said.
Raffensperger says tensions around elections aren’t new. In Georgia, the problem goes back at least to 2014, and he lays blame to activist groups like the New Georgia Project, and to those who refused to accept the results of the 2016 election, as well. In 2020, Raffensperger didn’t hesitate to call out his own side of the aisle when former President Donald Trump made unfounded claims about fraud in the 2020 election.
“The challenge the President had is that we looked up and down the line to make sure that we checked out every single allegation,” Raffensperger said. “By the time we had that call with the President, we knew that the numbers were the numbers. And it was just trying to respectfully and as calmly, you know, let the President know that. ‘These are what the numbers are, sir.’”
False claims about elections — from the right or the left — are distractions. The important thing, Raffesnperger says, are that elections in Georgia are more secure and more accessible than ever before. The state has photo ID for all forms of voting, automatic voter registration and citizenship checks through the Department of Driver Services, and 17 days of mandatory early voting. Raffensperger says registration rates shot up, and today the state has more than 7.5 million voters.
“It just shows you that it’s easier to vote in Georgia, but we’ve struck that proper balance. Georgia is really doing a great job and we’re going to focus in on that.”
Raffensperger says trust and consensus building are two of the ways state leaders and everyday citizens can move away from election conflict and begin restoring trust in democratic institutions.
“Someone said that Eisenhower was a very effective president because he looked at where he could get 60-80% of people agreeing on an issue, and then he focused on that,” Raffensperger said. “He didn’t worry about the stuff where he knew he was going to get 20-40% or even 55%.”
Raffesnperger believes that change really begins on the individual level, though. Rather than focusing on policies, he says focusing on principles and character will create pathways back from the precipice. That, and a little bit of good will.
“Luke Bryan said it best — most people are good,” Raffensperger said. “So never lose sight of that: that most Americans are good people.”
Shenna Bellows – Maine Secretary of State
Shenna Bellows has served as the executive director to the Holocaust and Human Rights Center as well as the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. She was a Maine senator for four years before being selected by the Maine Legislature to serve as secretary of state. Throughout her career, and specifically in her role as secretary, Bellows has led with the philosophy of “radical transparency,” and this election season is no different.
Bellows says that she and her staff are fighting against the brewing distrust of the voting process and widespread misinformation with open communication to the people of Maine.
“Everything that we do, we share,” she said. “We have published voter information guides, we work with our local election officials to help conduct radio interviews to talk through election processes, not just once in election season, but in an ongoing basis. We have relationships with our radio hosts, with our television broadcasters and the local media so that they understand how our elections are administered.”
Partisan pushbacks are an area of concern across the nation. However, Maine’s deliberate bipartisan efforts have been extremely helpful in building back voter confidence. The state has codified law that requires an equal representation of Democrats and Republicans at the polls, information Bellows has used to ease the minds of voters and even recruit volunteers. This upcoming election season, state leaders are grappling with a drop in local election clerks, in-part due to the rise in animosity toward elections. Maine’s elections are run through municipalities, as opposed to being county-based and rely on over 500 election officials to administer state, local and federal elections.
“One of the trends that we’re seeing that’s happening across the country is the retirement and turnover among local election officials. That’s precipitated in part because of a rise in threats against election workers and people being more extreme or angry when they’re interacting with their local election officials, which has made the job more challenging,” Bellows said.
However, new bi-partisan legislation has put in place protections for poll workers in addition to bolstering the security and efficiency of elections.
“We’ve been successful in our state legislature. The legislation to protect election workers was bipartisan and we were also able to work collaboratively in the legislature to secure additional resources for training and post-election audits to help strengthen public trust and the accuracy and security of our elections. So, we’ve been really pleased to see that.”
Maine was one of the first states to introduce and adopt ranked choice voting with overwhelming support from voters. For Bellows, it was important to make this new voting process visible for all Mainers, which she says helped boost voter trust.
“Like any other aspect of elections, what’s most important is to be fully transparent about how it works,” she said. “Live streaming the ranked choice voting tabulation, for example, helps people understand how that works. Making sure that we test some of our materials like ballot design and voting for people with disabilities with representatives from the disabilities community before we launch has increased voter confidence as well.”
Beyond the ballot, Secretary Bellows is optimistic for a future of positive change. To achieve that future, she’s relying on her ideals of valiant honesty and fairness through cross-party collaboration.
“We can only achieve permanent and lasting positive change if we work together and bipartisan coalitions to get things done. Our country depends on a process. That entails checks and balances and the free and fair debate of ideas.
“The principle of no permanent friends and no permit enemies is one that I brought with me into elected office, because I think it’s really important to look past where we come from or our political affiliation to try to reach common ground around shared values.”
Scott Nago – Hawaii Chief Elections Officer
While COVID-19 scrambled election plans in other states, Scott Nago had an advantage — legislation signed by Hawaii Gov. David Ige in 2019 had prepared the state for all-mail elections beginning in 2020.
As chief election officer in Hawaii, Nago couldn’t have known in 2019 just how important the move to all-mail elections would become for public health, but he’d known for years it would be an important step to improve voter turnout. Some version of an all-mail voting bill had been introduced in the legislature every year since Nago started working in the state election office 1998, he said, and he was “pleasantly surprised” when it finally passed in 2019.
“It wasn’t overnight,” he said. “It was something that took a long time to get done.”
For several years, voters had already shown a preference for voting by no-excuse absentee ballot. Moving to all-mail elections was a response to voter preference, especially since voters were more than usually reluctant to go to polls because of COVID-19.
“They would have probably requested an absentee mail ballot anyway,” Nago said. “But once they found out that your ballot is automatically coming to you in the mail, all you have to do is vote it, sign it and get it back to us by the deadline — it’s really easy.”
All mail voting has streamlined the administration side of elections, too, significantly reduced the number of personnel needed and the logistics of securing polling locations.
“From a selfish point of view for an election administrator, when you have a polling place election, there’s a lot of moving parts that you just can’t control,” Nago said.
When the state had polling place elections, Nago needed to reserve 250 polling places statewide, booked two years in advance. He had to recruit people to open and prepare the polling places in addition to recruiting poll workers. Each of these elements was a potential point of failure.
“All it takes is one person to oversleep or get sick, and we can’t open on time, and we have to scramble to send somebody out there with a key or wake up a principal of a school or a custodian just to get access to the polling place to open it up on election day,” he said. “A lot of that logistical headache is gone with the vote by mail.”
Since Nago started working in the state election office, the state has implemented automatic voter registration, conducted two elections by mail and offered online registration. The challenge now is simply getting the word out. One other point Nago wants to spread the word about — election officials everywhere are doing their best for voters.
“In elections, there’s only one answer — the right answer,” he said.
“There’s no interpretation. You have to follow the law. And that’s what we’re going to do because we want to make it fair as possible. We don’t want to be talked about, as the election officials. We don’t want the story to be about us. We want it to be about candidates at the end of the night.”
Jim Condos – Vermont Secretary of State
Jim Condos served 18 years on the South Burlington City Council, he was a Vermont state senator for eight years, and since 2011, he has served as Vermont secretary of state, ensuring that Vermont elections are fair, accessible and secure. In all his years of public service, though, he says he’s never seen the scale of election disinformation his state now faces — and he’s had just about enough.
“This year has been troubling to say the least. The misinformation and disinformation that we’ve been dealing with has been a real struggle. So many people just trust the information they see online. I believe strongly that voting is the very basis of our democracy, and we need to ensure that people have the right to cast a ballot. It’s a constitutional right and they need to be able to do that without influence and without threats of violence.”
In a post-2020 election cycle, distrust in the voting process is a challenge that still lingers for many election officials across the nation. According to Condos, a large portion of this mistrust comes from disinformation spread by social media.
“My personal feeling is that the greatest challenge we have today, and I think many of my colleagues would agree with me, is the social media misinformation and disinformation that’s out there. It’s all designed to sow division to weaken the confidence of voters and we need to just stay above it, stay consistent and continue to do the job that we do.”
To mitigate any confusion, Condos says directing people to trustworthy sources is a starting point.
“We’re pushing the idea that you need to go to your trusted sources, be it the election folks in the secretaries of state office or your local elections officials to get the right information to make sure that you’re getting credible information.”
He and his staff work year-round to ensure that every component is in place for a fair, smooth election. Through updating cybersecurity and using data to create informed voting initiatives for the state, Condos has raised Vermont’s Election Performance Index rating from 38th in the nation to first. He attributes this improvement to transparency and accessibility in the voting process through hosting media roundtables and, more recently, opting to universal vote-by-mail for the entire state.
“It was so successful that the legislature, with tri-partisan support, supported and passed legislation to make the general election vote by mail permanent going forward.”
While his 30-plus years of public office are drawing to a close after his current term, Condos has been an adamant supporter of maintaining a non-partisan office for his staffers and the people of Vermont during his tenure.
“It has been the honor of my lifetime,” Condos said in a statement regarding his retirement, “and I am grateful to have been provided the opportunity to help protect, defend, and expand our democracy.”
Steve Hobbs – Washington Secretary of State
Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs is no stranger to stressful elections.
A National Guard member, Hobbs previously served in the Army both on active duty and in the Reserves. During deployments in Kosovo and Iraq, Hobbs worked on election security, including the first elections in Kosovo. Hobbs says his overseas experience was contentious and dangerous — and he never dreamed it would be a test run for an increasingly difficult climate in the U.S.
“I take it very, very seriously,” he said. “I put my life on the line in those two countries, and I’m willing to put my life on the line for this country to ensure that our elections remain the way they are — free, accessible and secure.”
Hobbs assumed the office of secretary of state in November 2021, when Washington Gov. Jay Inslee nominated him to succeed departing Secretary Kim Wyman. Hobbs previously served 15 years in the state Senate.
Through the Defense Information School, Hobbs learned about combating misinformation and disinformation, and he’s excited to combine his military and government expertise to keep Washington elections accessible and secure. He has three election priorities as secretary: increasing our cybersecurity, combating misinformation and disinformation, and engaging in voter outreach and education.
On the cybersecurity front, Hobbs has worked with the legislature to double the size of his cybersecurity team, and he is strengthening ties with the National Guard, particularly an Air National Guard cyber unit. He is also having “continuous meetings” with Homeland Security and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Hobbs says he’s also focused on actively engaging with the public.
“What I want to do in this role is educate the public about how secure our elections are, and how all these checks are in place,” he said. “We’ve taken it for granted for many, many years. […] But now with all this misinformation and disinformation out there, and malign actors […], we have to get the word out about our elections.”
Communicating quickly is important, Hobbs says — “a tweet becomes a re-tweet becomes a meme” — but so is preemptive and proactive engagement. He says what’s needed is active engagement, not just public relations.
“It’s not just doing a commercial or a Facebook post or social media, but actually going out to communities and talking to people building relationships,” he said.
Elections remain a main focus for Hobbs, but in Washington, the secretary of state’s office also manages libraries, the state library and archives, corporations and charities, and Hobbs says he’s energized by all aspects of his role.
“I love my job,” Hobbs said. “It’s great to be able to combine my 15 years of political experience in the state Senate and my military experience. It’s just a great job to be where I can combine both of these experiences into one and manage such an awesome agency.”