Weekend Open Thread: OC Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley Retires!

OC Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley
“Shoes,” hell: Kelley will leave a gigantic empty shipping container of competence fairness, and class to fill!

I have long dreaded the day when Neal Kelley would leave his position — all the more so given the current tone of the country, when competent elections officials have never been more critical. But the terms of his departure, reviewed recently in this Voice of OC story, give me some reason for hope.

Kelley intends to retire in March, long enough ahead of this announcement to advise and work with Frank Kim on picking a perfect replacement — and with the statewide and national prominence of Kelley within his field, we should have the pick of the litter so long as the Supervisors don’t decide to mess things up — but enough ahead of the June primary election to allow his successor an ample head-start on making the system work. Kim seemed absolutely giddy in the VOC story about getting this level of notice and support from an outgoing department head.

Given that this will be a national search, I don’t have a rooting interest in any particular candidate, but I do have a rooting interest in some results.

  • Choose someone who will be prepared for literally anything

I thought that I had seen every trick that Neal Kelley had in his bag prior to this time last year, when the Brea-Olinda Unified School Board race came down to one vote and the candidate who was leading (having read my coverage of the race) contacted me to represent her interests in the recount. Having seen video of recounts done in other jurisdictions, I was expecting something less than antiseptic, with procedures perhaps tending towards the ad hoc. I could not have been more wrong. Kelley had a perfect procedure laid out, enough video monitors for two people on each side to get both a clear view (at a distance) of the proceedings and close-ups of the ballots. I remember thinking over the course of the recount that I could not think of a way to improve upon anything except the result: my client’s opponent gained one vote to set up a tie — I think that I objected to his call on the ballot’s eligibility and was reasonably rebuffed — and then won the seat after a dumping the dice straight down from the cup. (That’s what I would really have wanted to appeal, as that maneuver could get one banned from a casino. At the end of the count, it became clear that Kelley had already reviewed all of the ballots and knew what the result would be — which ballot would be at issue and how he would rule on it, none of which he had telegraphed before that moment. I’m sure that he was still open to any unexpected objection I might have, but I’m also sure that I would not be able to come up with a deficiency that he had not already noticed and resolved.

  • Choose someone who will retain the current senior staff

The senior staff (and junior staff, so far as I can tell) at the ROV’s office is both ridiculously competent and fiercely devoted to Kelley and his systems. I know that there is a tendency for a new person to come in planning on clearing out the old guard and installing a new one. Don’t hire anyone like that. The new Registrar will have the loyalty of the staff based on their ability to do the job competently, respectfully — and when necessary, as when fighting for the reform of vote centers, courageously. It should be someone who treats the staff with absolute respect and probity — I’ve never heard a peep of complaints from anyone there about Kelley. It should be someone who does not fear having a staff loyal to Kelley’s principles and practices, because that staff will help the new Registrar be as good as Kelley has been.

  • Choose someone who will fight the good fight

We need someone who will stand up to political influence and for best practices. I know how much pressure there is against both — including, potentially, from the Board of Supervisors themselves. They need to understand the need to stand down and let Kim pick someone who will be a beacon to everyone else. Here’s a good example: When the ROV’s office was the last one open in the county — I think that this was the last one before drop boxes — and I looked (and maybe even wrote from on-site) that given the size of the line and the rate of voting the voting could go on until sunrise, Kelley did not prevent people from passing out water and pizza to people in line. Instead, he called an audible and hauled out a large number of paper ballots, which could be used at the counter rather than just at the machines. Once he did that, the line was gone in about an hour. Maybe this was always the plan for this sort of contingency, but it struck me that it was the obvious right move that Registrars in other cities I’d lived in would never have tried.

  • Choose someone who has encyclopedic knowledge of the law, yet will suffer fools gladly

My former avocation as a party apparatchik and my continuing one as (among other things) an elections law attorney have one thing in common: for the benefit of my client, I’m supposed to overreach. (If I’m not overreaching, I’m likely leaving something that my client should have had on the table.) So, more than once, I would stake out a position to Kelley that I thought was at the outer bounds of reasonableness. (Not past the bounds of reasonableness — I’m not that good at keeping a straight face — but beyond where I thought Kelley might go on his own.) Only in one case — involving a Fullerton City Council race — do I recall Kelley giving even the slightest sign of being irked. In various emails and phone calls we had, I sometimes realized that because Kelley knew the Elections Code (and court decisions regarding its interpretation) so much better than I did, I had taken a position that likely struck him as foolish. Whether he ultimately agreed with my position or not, he was always unfailingly polite. We want someone like that.

  • Choose someone who (1) will come up with a system where, when one copies and pastes the election results onto a page, doesn’t print the candidate’s or contest’s name twice (once for the name itself and once for the colored bar signifying their total and (2) won’t leave weird small numbers of ballots in the various categories uncounted until the end, when they all clear up at once.

These are the only two gripes that I’ve had about Kelley’s system, and the former probably comes with the software while the latter is meant mostly in jest. (The part that isn’t in jest is due to OCD.) But I’d live with them forever to see someone as good as he is in place. (And I hope that someday he’ll explain the latter quirk to me.)

I’ll save the weepy glurge until he actually retires. This is your Weekend Open Thread. Talk about this or whatever else you’d like, within reasonable bounds of decency and discretion.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)