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PUBLIC OFFICIALS of the YEAR

Amber McReynolds 2018 HONOREE

Former Elections Director, City and County of Denver


(David Kidd)

 

<< See the full list of the 2018 Public Officials of the Year.

 

Two of the biggest problems our election system faces are keeping the voting process secure and boosting dismal voter participation. To Amber McReynolds, both of those problems have the same solution: better customer service. In seven years managing elections in Denver, McReynolds used technology and common sense to improve turnout and lower costs -- all while turning Denver into a national model of reform for election security. Her strategy was to make the process as simple and easy as possible for those casting the votes. “The entire elections process was never designed with the voters’ interest first,” McReynolds says. “It was designed for political parties and campaigns.” 

During her tenure, which spanned 13 years at the elections division, Denver has been a veritable testing ground for improving the voter experience. Early on, McReynolds was instrumental in making Denver the first municipality to adopt Ballot TRACE, a tracking system for voters who mail in their ballots. The program, which has since been adopted by other municipalities, came about in response to the many calls McReynolds’ office received from voters on Election Day about the status of their mail-in ballots. Ballot TRACE works like a package tracking service. It notifies Denver voters of when their ballot has been printed, mailed, delivered and eventually received by the elections division. The approach is working -- after it was implemented, Denver’s call volume on Election Day went down by 90 percent.  

That was just the beginning of innovations that have targeted the entire election process. For campaigners, McReynolds introduced a signature-gathering app called eSign so candidates and petitioners can collect electronic signatures on tablets and get instant verifications of the signatures’ validity. In 2015, McReynolds and her team launched a new voting system using scanners, printers and touchscreen tablets. Not only are these commercial products more familiar and intuitive to most voters, but the tablets come at one-tenth of the price of a standard voting machine. And Denver was one of five counties to pioneer a first-in-the-nation “risk-limiting audit,” a cheaper way to validate election results and one that was eventually adopted statewide.

McReynolds’ approach has increased participation in the election process while lowering overall costs. In the 2016 general election, turnout in Denver was at 72 percent -- up six points from 2008 and 10 points higher than the national average.  Meanwhile, costs had decreased by one-third, to $4.15 per voter. 

In 2013, McReynolds was a key player in bringing about change at the state level. Reforms she helped design require a ballot to be mailed to all registered voters, and extend voter registration through Election Day.  “Elections are for the most part run by local officials and they’re the ones who can make the biggest difference,” says Jonathan Brater of the Brennan Center for Justice. “Amber’s an example of someone who can bring the importance of that discussion to state and other policy officials.”

This summer, McReynolds made the leap from administrator to policy advocate when she stepped down from her post in Denver to head up the National Vote at Home Institute. “If I can make it easier for one voter, let alone many,” she says, “then I know I’ve done something in this world.”

—Liz Farmer