Electionline Exit Interview with Democracy Fund (and Nevada County, CA)’s Natalie Adona

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The Democracy Fund’s Natalie Adona is about to do something unusual in the election field: move from policy work back into election administration as she joins Nevada County, CA as a local election official. She sat down with electionlineWeekly’s Mindy Moretti for one of the site’s eagerly-anticipated “exit interviews.” Check it out:

Every election geek has their story for how they got started in the field. For Natalie Adona, it was doing poll worker training in San Francisco in 2008.

Following her foray in to local elections, Adona, who is the Senior Research and Learning Associate for the Elections Program at the Democracy Fund, went on to work at the Fair Elections Legal Network and Project Vote before coming to Democracy Fund.

While at Democracy Fund, Adona’s primary interests were in election administration, with a particular legal research emphasis on the use of strict precinct requirements in provisional voting.

“Natalie has worked to promote and expand the study of election science and systems thinking to improve voting in ways that have left their mark. From initiating the first public survey of election officials in more than a decade, to promoting collaboration from foundations on research, to driving greater diversity in the political science field through the ‘Women Also Know Stuff’ initiative, Natalie has used research to promote a better system of elections in this country,” said Adam Ambrogi, director, Elections, The Democracy Fund. “I am glad she will be taking those skills and using them to promote elections and serve voters directly, and thank her for her years of service to Democracy Fund’s election team.”

Now Adona is getting back to her roots and is headed west to serve as the assistant clerk-recorder in Nevada County, California. But before she packed up the U-Haul she sat down for one of electionline’s infamous Exit Interviews.

Good luck Natalie!

After being a local election official, then on the advocacy side with Democracy Fund, why have you decided to go back to being a local election official?
My first real job in local elections was as a poll worker trainer for the City and County of San Francisco. Then-candidate Obama was running for president for the first time and Proposition 8 was on the ballot, the California citizen-led initiative that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. But for me, politics was not what made the work exciting. Rather, I really loved interacting with poll workers and explaining the voting process to the public. When I wasn’t training poll workers, I soaked up all I could about election administration, whether it was learning about warehouse operations, sifting through old election materials, being part of the call center team, participating in canvass—basically, every single process between registration and the audit. I was a natural born election geek!

At the same time, the nation was facing the worst economic recession in recent history. As many who’ve worked elections, I started out as a temporary employee. While I managed to find elections work beyond November, the 2008 financial crisis meant that there would be no permanent work in local government for the foreseeable future and temporary positions would get even more competitive. I was extremely disheartened because I felt like I found my calling but was being forced down another path.

Fortunately, I held onto my stubborn belief that I could control the direction I’d go. Unfortunately, competition for work got so bad that I had to look outside of California. Leaving my family, my friends, and everything I knew remains one of the toughest choices I’ve ever made. My expectation was that, through enough schooling, hard work, and persistence, someday I’d be able to go back to working in local elections. So, I highlighted my growing experience in elections research, which took me to Montana and then to Washington, DC. Through it all, I never forgot about how much I loved serving voters.

It took me over 10 years to come full circle, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m so happy and excited to come back home to the people I love and to serve California voters once again! I’ll be serving as the Assistant Clerk-Recorder for the County of Nevada, California (not to be confused with the state of Nevada, though the County does border the state line)!

How do you think your time working for the Democracy Fund will help inform your work as a local election official?
I definitely know more now than I did when I first started—as one would expect, but I never could have pictured how much I’d learn. Working in a DC-based philanthropy gave me a bird’s eye view of elections processes happening all over the country, as well as the people and organizations that work toward improving elections. I would not know as much about election policy, research, advocacy, or the resources available for election officials if I’d never been with Democracy Fund and the fine people that make up the Elections Program team.

While all this knowledge has obvious benefits (and I plan to use that knowledge to the fullest extent possible), I admit that I feel a lot of pressure to get it all right the first time around. Thankfully I’ll be working with a great team of people in Nevada County! I’ve also been lucky enough to get to know some of the country’s foremost elections experts and I hope that they’ll be glad to lend a helping hand when needed!

You have worked with academics, grantees, and election officials. How have you navigated those different audiences? How would you recommend they best learn to work together?
Navigating different audiences is not always easy, especially when you work with people as passionate as the election geeks I’ve met! That was definitely a learning curve for me. In those difficult-to-navigate moments, I reminded myself that my “true north” is the voter and my “map” is the elections process. I can only hope that in all my interactions with the folks I’ve talked to, they understand that my primary concern is in making elections understandable and accessible for voters and my main goal is to make sure that the voter feels empowered to participate.

For the future, I hope that academics, grantees, and election officials will continue the process of building trust with each other. I hope that they all continue to create space for stakeholders to have honest, productive conversations and encourage newcomers to participate. Some good examples where this is happening include the Election Science, Reform, and Administration conference, the NASS Advocacy Breakfast, and the Language Access Summit. The more you can invite folks into these spaces—especially those who haven’t had the chance to access these opportunities—the better.

Is there a question not on the new LEO survey that you wish someone would ask locals, and how would you answerthat?
Good one! If I could add one question, I would ask for their opinions about whether election officials ought to be elected, appointed, or chosen in some other manner. The public opinion work that I’ve done with the Reed College team finds that the public prefers to elect their local election officials in nonpartisan contests. It’d be great to know what LEOs think about this important topic and the extent to which their opinions mimic the public’s.

And how would I answer that question? If forced to choose, I’d have to agree with the public on this one—especially on the issue of nonpartisanship, which is incredibly important to me. But it’s a hard question—“ought to” implies a judgment call on what process is better, and I can’t say that I really know which option produces the highest levels of voter confidence (assuming that’s what’s meant by “better”). On one hand, elections offer an opportunity for the public to hold election officials accountable, which is critical given the election official’s role in democracy. On the other hand, the potential for real or perceived conflicts of interest arise when the person in charge of overseeing elections processes also appears as a candidate on the ballot. The direct election of election officials and—importantly—the steps that they take to mitigate conflicts of interest is a somewhat (if not altogether) unique phenomenon in public administration that’s worthy of further study.

In research that you helped lead you identified that only 5% of [election officals] did not identify as being Caucasian. Now you are going to be a leader as a local election official yourself- can you talk about representation and diversity within the election official community— and what that means to you?
Thank you for asking! Yes, I was quite taken aback by that finding—but not because I thought we’d see the opposite trend. Rather, I thought that there would have been a change between the time that the Congressional Research Service conducted similar research over 10 years ago and today. There wasn’t. I also think it’s important to recognize that elections appear to provide paths to leadership for women—the majority of respondents to the Democracy Fund-Reed College survey were also female. Again, that finding was not different from the CRS surveys conducted so long ago.

As many who read electionline.org know, election officials create rules that have the potential to impact the voter experience, whether good or bad. Election officials deal in high stakes and are oftentimes blamed for problems, sometimes rightfully but other times without regard to any exculpatory details. Given the increasingly diverse electorate, I think it’s important to have a serious discussion about the apparent lack of racial diversity in elections leadership and what that might mean to voters and to the future leaders in the profession. This deserves more nuanced conversation than I have time for here—but I will say that it’s worth talking about the body of research showing that passive and active forms of representation in government have the potential to lead to more equitable administrative decision making. I find this conversation especially compelling now because I am entering into a position that’ll allow me to help shape the next generation of election administrators. In that role, I will endeavor to work with people who are knowledgeable, passionate, and have the ability to recognize how their decisions impact others. I believe that this part of my job will be best accomplished by inviting a diverse set of perspectives into our tight knit elections community.

What’s the one thing you’ll miss most about Democracy Fund and what’s the one thing you’re most looking forward to getting back into local elections?
I was afforded a lot of opportunities to participate and am thankful for the time I spent with Democracy Fund. I’m thankful for my team (which includes the Democracy Fund and Reed College), all of whom bring so much experience to their jobs and are amazing people. I had the opportunity to invest in innovative organizations and people who’ll no doubt continue to add tremendous value to the elections community. I got to know a cohort of election scientists who blow me away with their intellect and passion for research. I also had the great privilege of access—the standout for me was attending the pilgrimage from Montgomery to Selma with John Lewis and other members of Congress on the 52nd anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.

When I get back to local elections, I’m most looking forward to sharing the wealth of knowledge I’ve managed to accumulate over my time in DC (spoiler alert: I’m already doing that!). When your audience includes local election officials, it’s hard to get information to everyone. While I can’t promise to change California politics, I can play a role in making sure that my community of peers knows more about the wonderful research and projects that are available for election administrators, as well as the people behind those ideas. And I’ll have fun doing it!

You started out as an election administrator, took the academic route to philanthropy, and are now returning to administration. Is there a ninja movie with a plot line that mirrors your path?
First of all, anyone who really knows me knows that I love martial arts movies and know more about them than your average person. A martial arts movie that features elections? That would be pretty amazing! What would a movie like that be called? Way of the Intercepting Punch Card Ballot? The 36th Voting Booth of Shaolin? 47 State Senate Candidates? (Those election geeks who know martial arts movies would actually get those jokes. Is that you? Talk to me!)

Second of all, never did it ever cross my mind that there would be philanthropies that cared about election administration, nor that I’d find election experts in philanthropy. The idea that any person or organization would invest in democracy was all brand new to me. I’m glad I could be part of it!

Third and last, I agree that my career path has been pretty unconventional. I actually didn’t really start in elections—I spent the better part of my 20s working professionally in community theatre as an actor, dancer, and teacher. In my late 20s I decided it was time to get my Bachelor’s degree in political science, so I put myself through Cal and got one. In my mid-30s, I put myself through school once again and enrolled in a joint JD/MPA program at American University. As I was figuring out what the heck to do with myself after law school, I met Rob Ritchie of FairVote and he told me of an internship with a new program called Democracy Fund and said I should consider applying. Longest. Internship. Ever.

Tell us something embarrassing about [your longtime colleague, Reed College’s] Paul Gronke that no one already knows.
Haha! Excellent. (Touches fingertips together and sits back in seat like Montgomery Burns from The Simpsons.)

I’m totally kidding. The truth is, there’s nothing I know about Paul that people don’t already know. But I’ll share my two reactions:

Short answer: Mr. Outdoor Recreation has never been to Yosemite. He and I both know that he should feel embarrassed by that.

Long-ish answer: Paul is one of the most kindhearted people I know and a great mentor. (This isn’t a secret but deserves to be said because it isn’t said enough.) The first time I ever worked with Paul, he strolled into our office grinning ear-to-ear, proudly holding a homemade apple pie he carried with him on the airplane (accompanied by a story about his refusal to use McCormick’s cinnamon spice, which I found both frustrating and hilarious) and some beer (presumably from some local brewery ‘cause that’s how he rolls). I was struck by his unfiltered honesty, his passion for teaching, and his West Coast “work hard, play harder” attitude. I knew right then and there that he was someone I’d enjoy working with. And I was right! You’re the best Paul…

Thanks as always for Mindy for sharing this conversation, and congratulations to Natalie as she makes the big move back to the Golden State. The field is much (much!) richer for her time in it, and I can’t wait to see and hear what she does next in her new perch in the Sierra Nevada! Safe travels and stay tuned…

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