Most North Carolinians have never heard of Gary Bartlett. That speaks well of him and what he did for North Carolina.
For two decades until he left office this month, Bartlett served as the executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections. It’s a vital job. In one sense, it may be the most important thing government does: ensuring that everyone who is eligible to vote has ample opportunity to and that the votes are accurately counted. The director also oversees the recording of campaign contributions and looks into those that might violate campaign finance laws.
But for all its importance, the job is decidedly low profile. The only time a Board of Elections director becomes well known is when something goes badly wrong with a vote. Consider Florida in 2000. A poorly designed “butterfly ballot” used in some heavily Democratic counties may be the reason there wasn’t a President Gore.
“In the elections business boring is wonderful,” Bartlett says. “You want whatever the election is — the winners and the losers — to be the news and not the election official messing up.”
Bartlett, 58, has avoided notoriety but he deserves notice for presiding over a wide range of improvements in how North Carolina votes. The state’s election system is commonly regarded as among the best in the nation. In particular, it’s known for its easy access to data – its website has been rated No. 1 nationally – and its attention to quality control of voting procedures. It was the first state election office to conduct regular “wellness checks” of county election offices.
It wasn’t that way when Bartlett took over in August 1993. North Carolina’s 100 counties had a crazy quilt of voter registration standards, non-uniform absentee ballot forms and were using more than a dozen different types of voting equipment. “When I came in it was a decentralized process. Every county did its own thing,” he said.
Under Bartlett, the staff grew from six to 52, the budget rose from less than $1 million to more than $5 million and registered voters in the fast-growing state more than doubled from 3.1 million to 6.4 million. Voting equipment was improved and made more uniform, registration was streamlined and online data bases were developed that offer a clear overview of the state’s voters.
The changes were driven by federal mandates for easier registration and early voting, but while some states resisted the changes, North Carolina embraced them.
Bartlett, who lives in his native Goldsboro, came to the job through his work as a campaign manager and legislative assistant for former U.S. Rep. Martin Lancaster, a Democrat, but in his work the only party he favored was the voter. In a recent essay about supervising the election process, he wrote:
“Respect for the process starts with respect for voters. Partisan influences must take a back seat to the very basic premise that individuals who are qualified and eligible to vote must be given the opportunity to cast a ballot and have their ballot counted. The emphasis must be on inclusion rather than exclusion.”
And more voters are being included. In the last two presidential elections, roughly seven out of every 10 registered voters participated.
Such progress isn’t guaranteed to continue. Bills in the General Assembly seek to cut back early voting and to require that all voters show a photo ID. Meanwhile, legislators have resisted requiring that all campaign finance reports be filed online, a step that would let the public get an earlier look at contributions in General Assembly races.
Bartlett was committed to nonpartisan elections, but he wasn’t immune to politics. With the election of the first Republican governor since 1992, he was not retained. He was replaced by Kim Strach, a veteran elections board staffer who is expected to continue the agency’s reputation for overseeing well-run elections.
But Strach also will have to continue Bartlett’s work on policing election law. During his tenure there were high profile investigations that led to the convictions of former House Speaker Jim Black, former Agriculture Secretary Meg Scott Phipps, state Rep. Thomas Wright and former Gov. Mike Easley. Now the state elections board is reviewing more than $230,000 in campaign contributions from an indicted promoter of sweepstakes gambling. The checks went to Democrats and Republicans, including current state leaders Gov. Pat McCrory, House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger.
Bartlett has followed campaigns and elections with a practiced eye. He sees the need for government to keep improving access to voting, but he recognizes that ultimately, democracy is steered by money. That makes monitoring contributions as important as protecting the integrity of the vote.
“Rarely do you see a candidate that can go grassroots up against someone with money and win,” he says. “Money is the biggest factor. It represents influence. Whoever wins the money usually wins the election.”
Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or firstname.lastname@example.org