electionline Exit Interview: Utah’s Mark Thomas

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electionlineWeekly’s latest exit interview features Utah’s Mark Thomas, who is stepping down as the state’s election director to take a new position with the Utah Senate:

Most people, especially younger generations, don’t expect to spend their entire career in one job and that’s why Utah’s Director of Elections Mark Thomas is moving on.

Thomas began in the Lieutenant Governor’s office right out of college in 2006. At the time he was tasked with helping the state transition to new voting equipment. He was appointed elections director in 2009.

Now, 12 years after he started, Thomas is moving on to a new job as chief of staff for the Utah Senate.

We chatted with Thomas as he prepared for his last election in Utah and prepared to leave the office he’s called “home” for more than a decade.

Why have you decided to step down as Utah’s elections director?

It’s a very hard and stressful job. I had two jobs actually. I was also the chief deputy for the lieutenant governor. It just takes a toll after some time and 12 years was my run and I felt like if there was an opportunity that came up this year, it would be a good time. The opportunity came up in the Senate and the things that I have learned and done here would work well there and I’m glad they agreed. It was time for a different pace and just something a little bit different.

What are you most proud of during your tenure in elections? 

For me personally I think as I think about it, we have over the past 10 years, elections have become much more complicated and it’s also become more partisan and I felt like the elections office has done a really good job to be a fair and neutral executor of election laws in how we interpret those laws and how we enforce them. We’re a trusted office. Everyone has a lot of trust in the elections office. We’ve worked really hard to try and ensure that. Yes, it’s a partisan office, but I feel like we’ve done a really good job of being that trusted resource to go to and ask question. I felt like we always tried to make very reasonable decisions that people could understand. They may not have liked the decision we made, but they did understand it. We could have easily become a really partisan office, but we’ve navigated that.

What would you say is the most difficult thing you faced during your time running elections in Utah and how did you deal with it/what did you learn from it?  

At least the biggest thing for our office, we never seemed to have all of the resources that we could have used. It was always difficult to be too be proactive with some of the things we wanted to do because we didn’t have all the resources. And even as I leave that’s still an issue. We just need more resources, particularly on our tech side. Trying to have the resources not to just keep up, but to be proactive and be imaginative of what we could do and better increase the election experience.

Also, what I think makes elections hard is most people think you only work a few days year. You work, work, work and if you do such a great job, pretty much no one cares because no one is calling you the day after the election saying “oh you did such a great job.” It’s hard to get that positive feedback and it’s fine you get used to that, it’s just one of those professions where your successes are not well known and any time you make a mistake they are VERY well-known and they are all over the newspaper and it’s your name that’s quoted all over the press.

Is there anything you were not able to accomplish as elections director that you really wish you had?

I think one of the things that’s puzzling for our office and even Utah in general, our voter participation numbers have been towards the bottom for a couple of decades now. It’s odd because Utah is civic minded. We’re number one in volunteers, we have a lot of people who want to run for office but when it comes to voter participation, it tends to be at the low end and we’ve always tried to struggle to figure out why that is. As a majority GOP state we’ve been able to do early voting, vote-by-mail, we’ve done a lot of things to increase participation and we’ve only had some very modest increases. I know some people would say that’s not our fault or even really our job, but I wish we could have figured that out and at least turned a corner and increase that.

If you could design the perfect elections system, what would it look like? 

The perfect elections system? I think Utah has done a lot, I feel like we are fortunate to have a Legislature that trusts us. We offer early voting, on election day, we have vote centers and we have vote by mail. Those are a lot of options that makes it difficult to manage, but I do like that we have those and we’re making it really convenient for the voters.

Probably where I see other ways to improve elections systems is through automated voter registration and maybe not even automatic, but working with licenses bureaus and finding that data. We live in such a mobile society, people are moving all the time and I don’t’ know if it’s a huge barrier, but it would certainly make it a lot easier to be able to participate and just save time and effort on coming up with some really good voter registration system.

I really do think we’ll be there [voting online] at some point. I don’t think it’s any time soon. We know that tech exists that allows it, I think that’s pretty clear, now it’s coming up w/ a system that can be trusted and I think that’s the hardest part. I think there will be voters that will trust it and they are willing to take the risk. You think about our systems now, there are risks now, voters have to trust the system that it’s going to work and that ballot is going to be tabulated that’s taken years to build of course. With Internet voting it’s going to come with this younger generation.

In an increasingly partisan world, what advice would you give to up-and-coming elections officials to deal with that? 

First off, we listened. We were always listening more than we talked and I think that was helpful in allowing people to trust us. We were able to listen and understand, what their concerns and issues were.

I also think that everything we did was very careful, methodical and deliberate. We didn’t overreact and it’s so easy to get caught up in the moment, especially with these big issues that come with elections. It’s just really being careful.

I’d also say, just not taking it personal. I think sometimes people take things really personal and as you make decisions you are basing it on personal feelings you might have and maybe not based on actual it’s very easy to go down that route. It’s just a rabbit hole you don’t want to go down and it’s hard, very hard to shake stuff off and make a very careful decision on things. If people can remind themselves of that, not to take that personal and just really be careful. I think those would be some good advice.

What innovations would you like to see the elections community work on in the future?

I know for me, one of the things that I would have liked to really have access to is data. In the elections world there is so much data that we are capturing there is even more that we could capture. To have someone in our office that just focuses on data that captures it correctly and runs all the numbers. As we talk about I think it’s just really taking the data and running the numbers and just trying to come up with more efficiencies and look at the election world through data, I think that’s where officials really should focus. There is so much out there that we could learn and become better at by looking at the data.

Thanks in part to Mark, Utah has been one of the states most willing to try new innovations in the elections sphere. Thanks as always to Mindy Moretti for these interviews – and best of luck to Mark in his new job! Stay tuned …

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