[Image via crainsdetroit]
Michigan state election director Sally Williams is retiring at the end of this year, and she sat down virtually with electionlineWeekly’s Mindy Moretti for the newsletter’s latest “exit interview.” Check it out:
While the dawn of 2020 will mean a lot of different things to different people, for Michigan’s Sally Williams it will mean the first day in more than 30 years that she has not been an employee of the state’s Bureau of Elections.
Although Williams has only been director since 2017, she’s been with the office for 34 years. Before being appointed director she served as the director of the Election Liaison Division where she worked closely with county and local clerks in administering elections.
“I am tremendously grateful for the leadership and commitment Sally Williams has demonstrated throughout her entire 34 years of service to the Department of State, including most recently serving as the first woman to lead our Bureau of Elections,” said Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in a statement. “Her tireless work ethic and dedication to integrity are apparent in everything she does. All who have the opportunity to work with her are better for it.”
Williams wasn’t just busy in her home state of Michigan she was also active in the elections community serving in numerous capacities including as a board member of ERIC and the National Association of State Election Directors and chair of the United State Postal Service Committee, a division of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s Standards Board.
“Sally has been a valued member of the elections community since long before she became Michigan’s Director of Elections,” said Keith Ingram, NASED president and director of elections, Texas. “She’s brought important insight and experience to the NASED Board and the entire organization over the last few years, to the benefit of voters across the country. We’ll miss her perspective, but definitely understand the appeal of escaping those tough Michigan winters!”
Enjoy your retirement and the warm weather Sally!
You’ve been with the secretary of state’s office for a long time, why have you decided to retire now?
I’ve always found that the right things in life find you. Be it the right job, the right partner, the right place to live or just the right course in life. I’ve had a few things come to fruition this year (both personally and professionally) that all pointed to me taking the step to retirement now.
That said, this has not been a quick or easy decision for me. I couldn’t in good conscience leave my role without being fully comfortable that my office was strong and completely ready to carry on without me. The staff makeup at the Michigan Bureau of Elections is larger now than it’s been in years, made up of both experienced veterans and newer faces (many who have come to us from our local election offices) – who are all extremely bright, hard-working and fully engaged. Additionally, we have a new administration and new Election Director who came in with extensive election-related background and a keen focus on election administration. Everyone here is well-equipped and ready, which makes me ready too.
From a personal standpoint – I’ve worked full time, at a full-tilt pace for over 34 years. I’ve raised three grown kids and have proudly watched them launch into the professional world themselves. Through all of this, I’ve rarely taken more time off than just a long weekend (other than the requisite 6-week maternity leave). As election administrators, we all live and breathe our jobs, 24/7. As rewarding and important as it is, I’m honestly just ready to take it down a notch and focus on fully enjoying life.
In the end, a major deciding factor was finding a perfect retirement property in Southwest Florida where we’ll be retreating during much of Michigan’s cold season – near parents who we’ve not seen much in recent years, perfect for us and in our price range – something we just couldn’t pass up. While I know 2020 will be an extraordinary election year, we all know there’s no quiet time in the world of election administration and no perfect time to go. For me, it just all added up to now.
As the suffrage centennial approaches, any advice for women seeking to make a career in election administration?
I couldn’t be more proud about being appointed Michigan’s first female Election Director. My entire management team consists of women and I’ve worked with numerous smart, strong, hard-working and high-achieving women all through our election structure and throughout my entire career. There are many wonderful groups to get involved with to learn about this profession and the key issues involved. It’s also heartening to see some true academic curriculums emerging in the field of election administration. [Aw, shucks. – DMCj] My advice is that you can do anything with a strong commitment and work ethic, especially in this critical field.
It’s certainly worth mentioning though that there are so many talented individuals in this field, both men and women alike. I was mentored by the best in Chris Thomas, who taught, encouraged, and supported me for many years. What I’ll miss most about my job and the field of election administration is the universal and unwavering commitment I’ve seen from all involved – doing all they can to support one another and continuously fighting so hard to ensure integrity in all that we do.
If you could build the “perfect” voting system, what would it look like?
Well there’s a challenging question. (And the one that took me longest to answer…)
How about some key goals? Auditable, trusted, and tested; reliable; easy to use by any voter and any election official in any environment; configurable for in-precinct voting, absentee/by mail/from home and centralized count sites; adaptable over time with regard to new approaches to tabulation methodologies (as long as they comply with all of these other goals); and of course as SECURE as can be. There are many opinions and preferences out there with regard to the optimal system, and these concepts don’t all line up with one another. I think in the long run, there needs to be wide-ranging continued discussion and collaboration; as well as a very cautious approach to the ongoing evolution of voting systems, that includes input and acceptance by voters, election officials, experts (from several fields), and election security and integrity advocates.
What are you most proud of during your time in Michigan Elections?
It goes without saying, but the most important part of administering elections is doing so with complete impartiality. Political environments present challenges to that concept – but in Michigan, we have always taken great pride in the fact that our office has been able to operate with full neutrality, and this has continued to be my most critical objective.
From there, I’m just very proud of our staff and all that we’ve achieved over the last couple of years – complete replacement of our voting systems, complete re-write of our statewide voter registration system, modernizing our approach to training and communicating with our locals, implementing several major election law and constitutional changes, and more. Also, being a large decentralized state makes it quite challenging to implement large-scale change smoothly. Another major focus for me has been to involve and work closely with our local election officials in everything we do. We have many who are happy to step up and work hand-in-hand with us as we tackle these challenges, and I’ve loved watching my staff and our local officials work so closely together in so many ways. Not to say that this always goes perfectly – change is a reality, and it’s never easy. Even if we don’t always agree on the best way to achieve a goal, we work hard to hear every perspective, approach problem solving professionally and productively, and in the end, make decisions based on the most important consideration of all – doing what’s best for the voter. There’s a great sense of team here in Michigan, and I’d like to think I was a big part of building that sense of community.
In 2018, Michigan approved Prop. 3 and we’ve already seen some impacts of the new law in the 2019 election cycle. How do you think that will impact Michigan in 2020?
Michigan’s Prop 3 of 2018 was a constitutional amendment that brought many welcome changes that are already proving beneficial to voters – chief among them, the elimination of voter registration deadlines and mandated reasons to vote absentee/by mail/from home, and implementation of Automatic Voter Registration for customers conducting driver’s license transactions with our Secretary of State branch offices (our DMV). All of this entailed many detailed changes to our voter registration system and election administration processes. From there, there’s been a continual need to train, communicate and reinforce all the changes to voters and local election officials in conjunction with each election. I was very thankful that we could tackle these challenges in the odd year (now with three post-Prop 3 elections under our belt). We’ve also had a great deal of help from national partners, resulting in a very smooth implementation thus far. We’ve also seen the overall goals of this proposal achieved – greater voter participation, especially with our younger voters. We’re ready to keep this going in 2020, and will be anxious to see the impacts in a statewide presidential year, especially with respect to our overall expected increases in the number of registered voters, overall voter turnout, youth voting and those voting absentee/by mail/from home.
Any parting words of advice for your successor?
I have to say I’m thrilled to see Jonathan Brater as my successor. He comes into this role very well prepared and ready. We’ve worked together all year on numerous issues and changes, especially with respect to implementing last year’s constitutional amendment changes. He is smart, thoughtful, highly productive and has both the voter’s and the staff’s best interest at heart. He is getting to know our local election officials and knows and values the relationships we have with them. He’ll also be a great representative for Michigan nationally. He has been wonderful to work with, and I really don’t think he needs much advice! But he knows I’m here for him if he needs.
Other than sleeping in on Election Day, what’s next for you?
I’m sure dialing back will be a big adjustment for me after all these years, so in some ways I guess I’ll be in a period of reinvention. My overall hope is to spend more time on myself, become more active and in shape – as from an aches and pains perspective I’ve been feeling quite a bit older than my years! Then just spending time with family and exploring and developing our new space down south.
I’ll also be keeping up with everything in the elections world from afar – as once you’re into this field of election geekdom, who can really stay away? For those I’ve worked with, thank you so much for your mentorship, support and innate ability to make this world of elections what it TRULY is – solid, intact, transparent, secure, and best of all, fun. I will always look back on this time with a smile, a great deal of pride, and a sense of kinship with you all that will never leave me. I’ll be watching all of you with pride and hope for the most smooth-running election in one of the busiest years ever. And if you get to SW Florida in the cold months, or beautiful Michigan in the warmer months, please look me up!
Thanks as always to Mindy for continuing this fascinating series of exit interviews. [There’s another one with outgoing Kentucky SoS Alison Lundergan Grimes in this week’s issue as well.] Michigan has been lucky to have benefited from such strong elections leadership over the years – most recently with Sally, whose retirement is well-deserved even though she’ll be missed. Congratulations, Sally; enjoy the warmth – and stay tuned!