[Image courtesy of CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project]
The following article by my friend and colleague Mindy Moretti appeared in the December 15, 2011 electionlineWeekly:
When Ann McGeehan applied for a job in the Texas secretary of state’s office, the most the recently licensed attorney knew about the administration of elections was how to cast her own ballot.
But she knew she didn’t want to work as a litigation attorney and also knew that she wanted to get back to Austin where she had attended undergrad and law school, so she applied and as they say, the rest is history.
After nearly a quarter of a century working in the elections division of the Lone Star state, McGeehan stepped down in November to pursue other challenges leaving behind a legacy of a hard worker who was fair but firm.
“Ann has worked tirelessly to ensure the electoral process in Texas is fair, accessible and secure. I am very grateful for her leadership, hard work and dedication to the state of Texas,” said Hope Andrade, Texas secretary of state. “While we will miss her, among her greatest accomplishments is the outstanding Elections staff she has built and who will maintain the high standards she has set for the Elections Division.”
McGeehan started out as a staff attorney where she got her elections sea legs by answering the state’s toll-free number set up to help the state’s political subdivisions with questions and issues. In 1991 she was promoted to the position of legal director and then in 1995 she became the director of the elections division.
During her tenure, McGeehan worked for 13 different secretaries of state and saw numerous changes in the way Americans cast their ballots. She also came eye-to-eye with an actual Texas longhorn, but more on that later.
Working for so many secretaries of state won McGeehan praises from her counterparts in other states throughout the country including Christopher Thomas, director of elections in the Michigan secretary of state’s office.
“Ann McGeehan reflects all that is right about good election administration in the United States. She set an unenviable record of working for far, far more secretaries of state than any other director in the country,” Thomas said. “To maintain a solid reputation of integrity and well-run elections with over 250 counties is a testament to her ability to adapt to new bosses. I can’t imagine!”
McGeehan chalks up her ability to work with a number of different secretaries of state from a variety of political backgrounds is that she’s fairly apolitical herself.
“For me, I wasn’t a real political animal before I came to the secretary’s office and I’ve always seen my job as nothing more than an administrative position,” McGeehan said. “I came into this thinking it was a public service position and I wanted to maintain that not only for myself, but also the staff.”
In 22 years, McGeehan saw a lot of changes to how not only Texas, but also the United States administers elections. She ticked off some of the major changes during her time in office:
- + Passage and implementation of the National Voter Registration Act;
- + A legal challenge by disability advocates concerning accessible voting systems;
- + The 2000 presidential election and the scrutiny that followed;
- + Passage and implementation of the Help America Vote Act of 2002; and
- + Passage and implementation of the MOVE Act.
It was during the implementation of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) that McGeehan first met former Election Assistance Commission (EAC) Commissioner Ray Martinez.
“During my tenure as an EAC commissioner, there were a handful of election officials that I regularly called upon for objective, timely and frank advice about the state of U.S. elections and the proper role of the EAC in helping to improve election administration. Ann was one of them,” Martinez said. “Today, as an adjunct professor of public policy at The University of Texas Law School, Ann is one of my regular guest lecturers for my Election Law and Policy class. Her intellect, honesty and passion for public policy is admired by many. I know she will be a tremendous success in her future endeavors.”
McGeehan’s long tenure as an elections official, especially during a period with so many changes made her a helpful resource to many within the elections industry not only in Texas, but nationwide.
“Ann is a consummate professional – one of electionline.org’s first ‘friends in the business’ who I could always count on for her ideas and encouragement, as well as friendly but firm criticism when we wrote something she didn’t think was correct or fair,” said Doug Chapin, director of the Program for Excellence in Election Administration at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “She is someone who I consider a model for the kind of person we need and want to be in election offices across the nation in the 21st Century.”
For McGeehan, the best part about working in elections was the uniqueness of the process.
“Elections are fun and exciting and each one is unique. In the state office, our job was to interpret the laws to apply fairly in all jurisdictions. Many times a statute does not answer the real question, so we had to use our best judgment to provide reliable, accurate, and nonpartisan advice and in many instances, create new processes and procedures that worked for our state,” McGeehan said. “The job turned out to be very creative and analytical, and generally very satisfying as we could see the fruits of our labor in the next election.”
But like any job, no matter how much you love it, there are some downsides and for McGeehan the downside to elections was the intense pressure.
“Election Day comes whether you are ready or not, so many times election officials must be very reactive,” McGeehan said. “In the ideal world, it would be great to have the time and resources to be more proactive.”
As for what’s next for McGeehan, while she’s now working with the Texas County and District Retirement System, she hasn’t given up completely on elections.
“I’d love to stay involved in elections,” McGeehan said. ” My work with TCDRS will keep me very busy, but I do plan to keep my toe in the elections’ pond and that may involve serving as a poll worker.”
Now back to that longhorn. As anyone who works in the world of elections knows, just about anything and everything can happen during the administration of an election. For McGeehan, one of those “anything and everything” moments came during the 2004 filing deadline for minor parties when the elections division had to set-up shop in another office because of a fire in their building.
“One of the minor parties showed up with a huge, fully developed, Texas longhorn as part of their filing party. As the longhorn thundered down Brazos Street and up the steps to the wrong building entrance, I tried to get the petitioners’ attention to redirect them to our temporary new office filing area. This proved more difficult than I would have imagined — I had no rope!” McGeehan said. “It was tricky for that longhorn to turn around without stabbing me or someone else with his longhorns on a fairly narrow downtown street. Let me say, I had never been that close to a longhorn and I never appreciated just how far those horns reach.”
Never a dull moment in 22 years.
Happy trails Ann McGeehan!