[Image courtesy of kitsapsun]
I have on many occasions referred to election administration as the “accidental profession,” filled with incredibly talented and hardworking people who initially found their way into the field through happenstance or an unrelated opportunity. This weekend, the Kitsap Sun provided a sterling example of that phenomenon with its profile of incoming Kitsap County auditor Dolores Gilmore (paywall):
Dolores Gilmore bought a typing book for a quarter at a yard sale not long after she moved to Kitsap County with her two children in 1984.
“I got here and I thought, ‘I need to learn to type.’ I never took typing in high school,” said Gilmore, who graduated high school in 1972 and never earned a college degree.
As a divorced, single mother, she took a temporary job in a welfare work program with the Kitsap County Auditor’s Office and taught herself to type.
Thirty years later, she was elected auditor.
The story of how Gilmore, a single parent, found her way to the top of the County’s election office started with a job opportunity close to home:
She never envisioned running for office when she took the temporary job with the county.
“I was just like everybody else,” she said. “I was just trying to get the bills paid.”
She needed a job close to the house she was renting with her 7-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son, because her car wasn’t always reliable.
“I knew I could ride my bike or walk and still get to work, even if the car didn’t start,” she said.
The job was part of a welfare work program Gilmore joined. She had three options — the auditor’s office, the school district or the hospital. The auditor’s office was her final choice because it was the closest to her house.
Then, the cyclical nature of elections – and the field’s insatiable need for temporary help at times of peak demand – created an opportunity which she seized:
When the temp job with the auditor’s office ended following the 1984 presidential election, a part-time job opened up in the office’s licensing division. Gilmore got the job and was able to pick up extra hours helping in the elections division.
At that point, working for the county wasn’t just a job. She enjoyed it, she said. She even described it as fun.
She worked in licensing for about a year before getting a full-time job in the recording division in 1986, where she worked for several years before she became supervisor of that division.
“Through all of this, there is one thing that’s really great to be said about Kitsap County, it’s that if a person really applies themselves there are so many training opportunities,” she said.
She took advantage of all the training she could and even bettered herself by participating in 4½ years of Toastmasters to improve her public speaking.
As she grew in the job, she found ways to bring her own skills and interests to her work:
While Gilmore is often described as a hard worker and an analytical thinker, she also has a creative streak… [which] has helped her come up with several improvements in the auditor’s office during her 30 years there.
“So often in government things change and people add a layer, add a layer, add a layer and pretty soon it’s crazy. When a new thing comes in you look at it to see how can we fix it without adding another layer on,” she said. “You change it, you don’t add to it.”
During her time in the auditor’s office, the county has been at the forefront of providing military, overseas and disabled voters access to ballots.
The county was not only the first in the state to implement online ballot access for military voters, it went beyond basic state requirements, winning a national award.
The county could meet requirements for military voter access by attaching a PDF to an email. Overseas military voters can’t always open a PDF and don’t always have access to a printer, Gilmore said, so the county provides online ballot access through its website.
The end result is an “accidental professional” with years of experience and a fierce drive to keep improving:
“I was never satisfied with just staying where I was at,” Gilmore said. “I would look and say, ‘OK, I can improve here. How can I improve?’ I’d look at different areas of a job to see what can get better. And that’s the part I have always really enjoyed.”
While Gilmore never planned on climbing the ranks in the auditor’s office, she had ideas and wanted to make changes that weren’t always easy or possible to initiate at the lower ranks.
“That was always the pull for me,” she said. “To make it better.”
Gilmore’s story isn’t unique; I’d bet that there are literally hundreds of election officials across the nation who stumbled into the field, found their calling and made it their home.
The challenge going forward is to find a way to harness the knowledge and experience of top professionals like Dolores Gilmore and share them with the next generation of election administrators.
In other words, we’ve been lucky with the current system, but now it’s time to cash in on that luck and use the jewels of the accidental profession to focus on developing new election professionals – who, hopefully, will choose the field on purpose!