David Orr has been the Cook County (IL) clerk since 1990. As a former professor of history and politics, he knew back then that “few places cried out more for reform than Cook County.” He’s been on the case ever since. Orr spoke with The Canvass on September 3, 2013 –
Q: With your lengthy perspective in the political and administrative trenches, what has changed in the elections world?
A: There have always been the high points and low points – low usually based on political desires. When you put a microscope on an imperfect business, as we did after the 2000 presidential election, you’ll find some things that didn’t go perfectly. A lot of what happens in elections is human error, and it is not intentional and usually not fatal by any means. A hard pressed person gives out the wrong ballot, for instance. But then there are partisan acts that tend to create much doubt within the public.
Q: What about some high points?
A: Since 2000, we’ve seen fairly significant improvements in the election process. We have better equipment and dramatically improved training for poll workers.
Q: You work in a major urban area; what does that mean for elections?
A: Chicago and Cook County together have 1.4 million active voters. Cook County has 10,000 pollworkers, and Chicago has approximately the same, and we work well together. As for urban vs. rural, small jurisdictions may have to do it all with just three staff, whereas I have 300. And yet, we have ballots in four languages and we maintain 46 suburban early voting sites and 50 in the city. We can learn a lot from each other, and the best practices from the EAC have been good for the smaller jurisdictions. I also try to share what we develop with small jurisdictions.
Q: What issues face you now?
A: Overall, we are trying to get ahead of changing technology and changing laws. A specific thing we’re doing is introducing electronic pollbooks. That’s new for us in Cook County, we used them in some precincts in April, and the results are great. It is easier to check in voters, easier to communicate between central staff and poll workers, and we have faster processing. But when you have a complicated and large system such as ours, you have to watch out for unintended consequences when you have any change, even a good one.
We’re also adjusting to Illinois new online voter registration. And, Illinois is moving to allow people to get their absentee ballot application online. In Illinois, we have “no fault” absentee voting – all people can vote by mail if they choose.
Q: How does your work connect with legislators?
A: We’ve had good experiences without legislators. Most of them pay great attention to elections and to administrators. We do have a challenge now, though. We’ve got a certain amount of equipment that’s becoming outdated, and there’s no framework for what the new equipment may be and who will pay for it. The goal would be to develop more competition between vendors and to get more clarity at the federal level on how we get things certified.