I recently had a chance to have an email conversation with Nick Handy, Director of Elections under the Secretary of State for Washington. With a dedication to public service and a knack for handling tough situations with sensitivity, Mr. Handy has served Washington well and entered a well-deserved retirement at the end of 2010.
Could you tell us a little bit about your background? What prepared you to be Director of Elections?
I am perhaps an unconventional appointment to an Elections Director position in that I had no experience in elections management prior to the appointment.
I was a long time personal and political friend of the Secretary of State. I had 30 years experience in senior management in state and local government working in areas of high controversy and political scrutiny. These included open government after Watergate, natural resource management during the spotted owl and endangered species debates, and oil spill preventing after Exxon Valdez.
I was recruited to the position directly by the Secretary without any public recruitment process. When I pointed out my lack of elections experience, he explained that the top four managers in the position had a combined 100 years of experience in elections. He was looking for someone to manage the high profile political and public affairs issues associated with modern election management, and to bring vision, mission and direction to the program.
I have been in the position for seven years, have done two Presidential and two midterm elections and have given notice that I will be retiring on December 31, 2010.
Washington is one of the most innovative states in election law – what’s the best feature of elections in Washington?
Our Secretary of State Sam Reed served as an elected County Auditor for 22 years before being elected Secretary. As such, he brought a deep knowledge, understanding and commitment to election management. He was not seeking to be Secretary to further his political career, he wanted the position to make lasting and durable innovation in the field, which he has done.
Secretary Reed has created a climate in the office that seeks innovation and new ideas in every part of the office. He mission has been to make Washington elections the most progressive and innovative programs in the country. His focus has been on ensuring the most accessible, fair and accurate elections possible for voters. He believes passionately in providing more information tools for voters and making the registration and voting processes easy and straightforward.
Consistent with these goals, Washington State has pursued the following initiatives:
Vote by Mail. Washington and Oregon lead the country in vote by mail. Poll site voting occurs on one day and if a voter has complications that day, voting might not occur. Storms, weather, soccer games, car breakdowns and the routines of life can easily defeat the voting experience. Vote by mail delivers a ballot to each voter 20 days before the election. The voter can vote at any time at the voter’s convenience. Vote by mail is increasing in its popularity in other states because it works for voters and increases turnout.
Online Voter Registration. Washington became the second state after Arizona to institute online voter registration. When developed, we turned our voter registration feature on “quietly” on our website with a “Register to Vote” icon without publicity to make sure it worked before we advised the world. We immediately began getting online registrations about every 30 seconds. Our voters expected to be able to register on line and began immediately using the service. www.vote.wa.gov. click on Online Voter Registration.
Paperless Motor Voter. We are one of the first states in the country to make motor voter paperless. Providing voter registration services at state driver licensing agencies is mandated by the National Voter Registration Act. In most states, it involves a licensing official giving a voter a paper voter registration form. Many voters just throw it away leaving the office or lose it at home. In our system, the licensing agent downloads all relevant information and asks if the voter wishes to register to vote. If the answer is affirmative, the agent pushes a button and the voter registration comes to our office electronically with the voter’s driver’s license signature. We have received national recognition from the Department of Justice for this innovation that has dramatically improved motor voter registrations.
Voter Registration Database. Every state was required to develop one unified statewide voter registration database by HAVA, the Help America Vote Act. Washington was unique in that we built it and maintain it ourselves, rather than purchasing a vendor product. Microsoft was our contractor and we maintain and develop the site with our own staff.
My Vote. Washington is the first state to initiate a personalized vault of information for each voter in the state. Our feature is called MyVote. MyVote provides each voter with a information about registration status, voting history, elected officials who represent that voter, mail drop box locations near that voter with maps, the voter’s next ballot, and a personal voters’m pamphlet with statements and pictures about candidates and issues on the ballot. We received a national award from The Election Center for this innovation. www.vote.wa.gov. Click on “My Vote”. Enter Nixon Handy, DOB: 09/08/1948.
MyBallot. MyBallot is a feature of MyVote in which the voter can go online and electronically retrieve a complete ballot for the current election. This is included in the MyVote feature.
Election Night Results Report. Washington has the most interesting and sophisticated election night reporting features. Enjoy at http://vote.wa.gov/Elections/WEI/?ElectionID=37. Voters see our results at the same time as election officials. It all goes up real time.
Online Candidate Filing. We allow state candidates to file on line and have just this year extended this to the counties for local candidates.
Websites. We maintain our own elections website and have built websites for the counties as part of a connected system. Much of the information that appears on the County Elections Website is actually coming from the state. So, if we change the state’s voter registration form, we only change it once, and all the counties get the update through our system.
Washington Election Information. All of the electronic features described above are part of the WEI, Washington Election Information. These are all programmed so they interact and draw upon each other in one unified system: voter registration database, online registration, paperless motor voter, election night results report, state website, county websites, MyVote, and My Ballot. Microsoft has been our contractor in building this unified system but we maintain it with our own internal staff.
Voters’ Pamphlet. Washington is one of a few states that prints a paper voters’ pamphlet for each general election that is delivered to 3 million households in Washington at the same time the ballots arrive. We also post the Voters’ Pamphlet online.
Other. We have many other innovations that we are proud of but these are the ones which get the most attention.
Are there any national initiatives that NASED is pushing for that you’re playing a role in as Western Regional Representative?
NASED is following closely the development of internet and electronic voting pilot projects around the country and are also very closely working with the Election Assistance Commission on the certification of voting systems and I have been active in both of those projects. They are also closely monitoring various bills in the Congress and Katie Blinn on our staff has been actively involved in that. NASED is very active with the Election Assistance Commission on audits and monitoring state and local expenditures of federal HAVA funds and Lori Guerrero in our office is very actively involved in that.The TGDC, Technical Guidelines Development Committtee, created by HAVA, recommends standards for voting system certification. Paul Miller in our office is one of two NASED members appointed to the TGDC and Paul is a national leader on these issues.
The Secretary of State has many responsibilities and interpretation authority with regard to elections. Yet the Secretary is an elected position in Washington. What makes Washington’s Secretary of State – with just as many contentious elections – function differently than Ohio, Florida, and some of the other highly partisan operations?
I am not sure I would agree that other states are maintaining highly partisan election operations. I would agree that claims to that effect are commonly made. I know and have worked with all the Election Directors in the 50 states and 5 territories. It is my strong impression that the professionals in the leadership positions in these state election operations are qualified professionals who are committed to not allowing partisan politics influence elections. I believe there are many forces out there working to create the notion that election operations in the United States are partisan and not objective. That is not my view nor the view of anyone else who actually works in elections. So, that is just my personal view on that.
Scalia’s opinion in Doe v. Reed poignantly hit on the lack of anonymity in the history of elections. Care to comment on that and the future of the role of privacy in the democratic process?
I am not an expert on the lack of anonymity in U.S. elections. I understand at the beginning that anonymity was not an important value. How you voted was not a secret and having that information be public was considered good public policy. That is not the case in elections today. Anonymity in elections is one of the highest core values held by Americans across the country and every election official that I know of in the country is completely committed to protecting voter privacy. That is to be distinguished from “fact of voting.” The fact that a person has voted is very public. What votes were cast by the voter is completely private.
Family PAC has challenged the restrictions Washington puts on large donations within the three week run-up to the election. How important is that restriction in the overall network of regulations for elections in Washington?
Our office does not regulate campaign finance. The Public Disclosure Commission regulates campaign finance in our state, so your question would be better answered by the PDC
I am not familiar with these issues at all. While they may seem related to election administration, they are not in this state. Campaign finance and disclosure and regulation are completely separate fields from election administration.
Now that the 2010 elections are wrapping up – what is coming up on your radar?
I am retiring December 31, 2010.
But, election administration is a year round endeavor. Immediately after certification of the election, we move into recounts. We will be recounting three legislative races.
After recounts, our legislature comes to town for four months starting in January. All attention of our senior managers will be on elections related legislation and the budget. Typically over 100 bills are introduced each year in our Legislature on election related matters. In addition, we propose our own “Secretary of State” request bills. So, this is a huge undertaking. After the session, we launch education and training programs for election officials statewide so they understand all the new federal and state rules and changes that occurred in the legislature.
In addition, in the Spring our counties administer three elections for special purpose districts. Filing week is in June, the primary is in August and the general election is in November. Election administration is a full time year round job for about 300 people in our state.
Brian Cannon is a third-year student at William & Mary Law School.