Meet the Faces of Democracy: Bruce Brown

Virginia Republican and former State Department employee discusses running elections and boosting confidence among voters with questions about election integrity

Editor’s note: More than 10,000 officials across the country run U.S. elections. This interview is part of a series highlighting the election heroes who are the faces of democracy.

Since August 2010, Bruce Brown, a registered Republican, has served as one of three members of the city of Alexandria’s electoral board, which supervises election administration in the Virginia city that borders the nation’s capital of Washington, D.C. Alexandria is located on the Potomac River, just 10 miles north of Mount Vernon, the historic home of Founding Father George Washington.

In Virginia, local electoral boards are made up of three members who serve staggered terms. Two of these members are associated with the political party of the most recently elected governor, which means these boards currently consist of two Republicans and one Democrat. Each bipartisan board is appointed by a circuit court judge based on recommendations from the local political parties. Members of these electoral boards are required to serve their communities in a nonpartisan manner.

Brown has served on Alexandria’s electoral board for more than 13 years, including stints as the chairman and vice chairman. In 2023, he became its secretary.

Prior to his part-time role on the electoral board, Brown had an extensive career in the U.S. State Department, spanning more than 30 years. During his time at the State Department, Brown served in a variety of positions, including as a Foreign Service Officer, which took him to Mexico, Bolivia, and Canada. His final role was serving as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs, a role he was selected for by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Since 2023, he has been part of Issue One’s Faces of Democracy campaign advocating for protections for election workers and for regular, predictable, and sufficient federal funding of elections.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This interview reflects only Brown’s opinions, not the opinions of Alexandria’s electoral board as a whole.

Issue One: How did you end up in this profession? 

Bruce Brown: I worked for the State Department for many years. After I retired, I worked for a private government contractor, and while I was working there, an opening came up on the city of Alexandria’s elections board. I knew one of the members of the board, and I thought it was fascinating work.

The way it works in Virginia is when a vacancy comes open, that party’s chairman nominates three people to the judge of the circuit court in that area, and from that list of three people, the circuit court judge picks the person.

When I was interviewing for the position, they asked me, “Why do you want to do it?” I said when I was at the State Department, I had the privilege of working on many consequential things, and I think elections and voting is a consequential thing. I have been on the electoral board now for almost 14 years.

I had always been pretty active politically on the side, outside of the State Department. I remember the first time I voted how excited I was. Back then you had to be 21 years old to vote, so I had to wait a lot longer than kids do now, and I have voted in almost every single election since then — primaries, local elections, special elections.

Issue One: You worked in the State Department for more than 30 years. How did your work in the State Department prepare you for what you do now as an elections administrator? 

Bruce Brown: I saw a lot in my work that elections around the world make a difference. Most places do not have free and fair elections, outside of Western Europe and some other spots here and there. That is one of the things I think people take for granted in the United States.

Issue One: What part of the election administration story in your area do you think isn’t told enough or isn’t widely understood enough? 

Bruce Brown: How we do voting by mail. A lot of people are still concerned about ballots being sent by mail and what happens if no one is there, or if someone can try to vote twice, once by  mail ballot and then in person on Election Day.

I spend a lot of time reassuring my party and the citizens in Alexandria about the mailing system in Virginia. People cannot vote twice, and there are a lot of checks and balances in the system. There are not a lot of ballots being sent around that will wind up in someone’s mailbox that did not ask for one.

Prior to the pandemic, mail ballots were a relatively small amount of our ballots. Now, it is a growing amount. For this year’s presidential election, it might be a little bit less than it was in 2020 because of the pandemic, but it will still be a significant amount of the vote.

Issue One: How many voters are on the roll in your jurisdiction, and what are the main challenges of a jurisdiction of your size? 

Bruce Brown: We have about 100,000 active voters. There is a lot of interest now in list maintenance — getting people off the rolls who no longer live in Alexandria or have passed away, things like that. We spend a lot of time on list maintenance. One of our biggest challenges is having a good clean list of people who are active and legally able to vote in Alexandria.

Issue One: On the topic of voter rolls and list maintenance, several Republican-led states, including Virginia, have, since 2020, left ERIC, the Electronic Registration Information Center, which works to improve the accuracy of voter rolls. What’s your take on this?

Bruce Brown: If the Commissioner of Elections in Virginia would have asked me, I would have suggested that she not leave ERIC. I think ERIC is fine. In my opinion, you cannot have enough different sources for list maintenance. Every source helps make your list that much better. And taking away ERIC is taking away one of the things that we used.

I am not saying ERIC was perfect. There are a lot of big states that are not a part of ERIC. For example, California is not part of ERIC. But ERIC is a tool, and the more tools you have in your toolbox for list maintenance, the better. That is my personal opinion, and I think the other two members of Alexandria’s electoral board — both the other Republican and the Democrat — would probably agree with me on that point.

Issue One: Since leaving ERIC, what specific changes have you faced surrounding voter list maintenance in Alexandria?

Bruce Brown: One of the good things the state has done is that we are getting better information about people who die, and so I have seen an uptick in the number of people we have been able to remove from the rolls because of having better death-related information. We are also using the National Change of Address list from the United States Postal Service to aid our list maintenance. That is also a very good way to do some list maintenance. There is a whole process — finding people who no longer live in Alexandria, sending them a piece of official elections mail, seeing if they respond. You are not automatically taken off the roll. Basically, you are put on an inactive list, and you can get back on active, if, for some reason, you did not move and you just didn’t respond to a piece of mail.

Issue One: In the United States, election administration is not centralized, so 50 states have 50 different election administration systems. What are the key features or nuances about the system of election administration in Virginia in general or the electoral board in Alexandria in particular? 

Bruce Brown: Virginia has 133 political jurisdictions, so there are 133 electoral boards and 133 general registrars [as the local election officials who manage voter registration lists and election resources are known in Virginia]. They range from counties the size of Fairfax, which probably has 800,000 registered voters, to counties in the rural part of the state that might have a total population of 2,000 people.

I joke that there are 133 different ways of conducting an election in Virginia. Now, of course, we are all following the same rules and the same laws, but you have to do it given the size of your jurisdiction, both the geographic size and the size of the population.

In Alexandria, we have the right balance. The day-to-day work is done by the general registrar and her staff. During election times, we bring on a number of full-time temporary people. The electoral board provides policy oversight. We generally meet once a month, and our meetings are long meetings. When we meet, the general registrar goes over everything that she is doing, all the planning that we are doing for the next election.

We always have an election to deal with. In Virginia, we have a lot of voting. We have at least two elections every year. This year, we have three elections because we have a presidential primary. With each election, we discuss specific things like if we are creating new precincts because of population growth. That is something the board has to approve.

Our board knows what is going on in a broad sense, but we are not sitting there micro-managing the process. In smaller jurisdictions in Virginia, for example, in the city of Falls Church, I know the board members there are setting up the machinery on Election Day. That is not something we do in Alexandria.

In terms of the canvass, we go over the statement of results of every single precinct very carefully. And in Fairfax County, I am guessing, I doubt their board is looking at all 250 or 300 statements of results. They have ascertainment teams that are looking at them, and if there is a problem, I am sure the board there would look at a certain precinct, but their level of overview is much greater.

Issue One: What else do you have to do as a member of the electoral board?

Bruce Brown: Part of the job is being a liaison to the parties, to reassure the parties that the elections are fair and free. I am a Republican member, and I am an active member in the local Republican Party. At our monthly meetings, I always give them updates on what is happening, like with the precinct changes. I let them know that we are creating new precincts in the West End, where they are going to be, and why we are doing it. I also answer any questions and make them feel more confident about the voting process. I view that as a very important part of my job now, probably more so than prior to other recent elections. It is incumbent upon me to keep the members of the Republican Party up to date with what is happening so they have confidence in the process. I know there are many people in my party who are very skeptical about elections, but in my little 15 square miles of Alexandria, I think that the vast majority of Republicans are confident in how we vote.

Issue One: So many people are really surprised to learn that the federal government does not routinely fund the cost of running elections. Why do you think that the federal government should routinely fund some election administration costs? 

Bruce Brown: They should provide grants to localities that need money. The fact that we have a very decentralized election system, I think is actually good. It brings elections down to the people, so to speak, at a city or county level, or, in New England, at a township level.

I almost feel embarrassed to say this: In Alexandria, while we have to watch our pennies, our resources are not a problem. When we had to buy new election equipment in the summer of 2017, we went to our city council and our city manager and said the state is requiring us to buy new equipment to make sure that a disabled person could vote on the equipment. And they did not blink an eye. They said fine, we will give you the money, it is something that you have to do. I cannot say that is true in all 133 jurisdictions in Virginia. There could be jurisdictions in the rural part of the state that have funding problems when they need to buy equipment or when they need to hire an extra employee.

Issue One: What is the price tag of running an election in Alexandria, and where does funding for election administration in Alexandria come from?

Bruce Brown: Most of the money comes from the city of Alexandria.

We just had a special election to fill a vacancy on the school board. It was not a citywide election. The city has three school board districts and 10 precincts make up that school board district. The cost of that election was about $25,000 to $30,000. By contrast, the cost of the presidential election here will be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Elections are expensive. You cannot just go into Kinko’s to print ballots. Printing ballots has to be done a certain way, and the biggest sin in elections is running out of ballots. That has happened in Virginia in recent history. People can get fired for that.

We also have a lot of election officers [as poll workers in Virginia are called] and while their pay is not a lot, it adds up. If you are deploying 400 or 500 election officers on Election Day, that money adds up. The overtime pay for people working 12- or 13-hour days for three to four weeks before the election — and a couple days after the election, helping pull the results together — that costs money too.

When we have to buy new voting equipment again — the big scanners, and the equipment associated with that — that procurement is going to be over $1 million. We have put a marker in the city’s capital budget for the 2027 fiscal year for that.

Elections are expensive, and they are complicated. Like I said, we are very lucky in Alexandria. We are well-resourced. I cannot say that is true throughout Virginia, and I know that is not true in other parts of the country.

Issue One: I know you said that Alexandria is well-resourced in terms of election funding, but if you received additional funding, how would you choose to spend it? 

Bruce Brown: Probably buy more poll books, and if it was sufficient enough, add another full-time position. Those are the two biggest things.

A poll book is a list of people who are registered in that precinct. It is done on a laptop computer. The more people who have access to poll books in each precinct on Election Day, the easier it is to help people. Maybe their name is not there, or there is some other problem or an issue. You don’t want to have people backed up. Or now, with same-day voter registration in Virginia, that could take a little bit of extra time for them to fill out the paperwork. You need poll books to do that kind of work.

Issue One: You have served on Alexandria’s electoral board in various capacities for more than 13 years. What are the biggest things that have changed over this time? 

Bruce Brown: The biggest change is that they used these machines where you did not mark a ballot, they were like digital machines. You had to put a code in. They gave you a little piece of paper with a code. You put the code in. And the screen came up, and you marked the screen. You pressed a button. There was no physical record of voting, and it was also kind of complicated.

My mother had cognitive problems toward the end of her life. She could never figure out how to vote on these machines, and there was no record of the vote. If you had to do a recount, the way you did a recount back then was you just printed out the tape from the machine again with the results. There was no way to physically count the ballots simultaneously.

When I joined the board, the office was moving toward a system that had a paper ballot that the person marked, and then they scanned it. That has been the biggest change in terms of voting in the last 15 years in Virginia. Now, by law, you have to have a scanning method where there is a physical ballot that you can actually count. I think that is very, very important.

Issue One: What other changes did you see? 

Bruce Brown: The other big change was mail voting. Mail voting is now a big part of our voting. And we now have in-person early voting. You used to have a reason to vote early in person. There were 19 reasons in Virginia. Now, to be honest with you, almost every single voter could find 1 of those 19 reasons. People are inherently honest. I used to watch people when they would come in to vote early, angst over the list of the 19 reasons. And say, you know, I might be working late that day, but I am not sure. And I would joke with them, I said, I would say we do not send the sheriff after you, you know, just if you think you might be working late that day, that is fine. But now we have no excuse absentee voting and a lot of people like to vote early because they do not know what is going to happen on election day. Now, you know, they are near our office, on a Monday, and they just walk in and can vote. So that is the other big change.

In fact, to be honest with you, I like to tell people this, in 2024, there are only three months in the calendar where they will not be voting in Virginia. With the presidential primary, the June primaries, and the November election, there are only 3 months, there will be no voting in Virginia. Voting for the November election will start at like the end of the 3rd week in September.

Issue One: In recent years, election-related misconceptions, conspiracy theories, and lies have proliferated. How has this impacted your daily work?

Bruce Brown: The general registrar and I, we spend a lot of time hand-holding people who are skeptics. We will meet with people, reassuring them or just briefing them on how voting is done in Alexandria, down to the very technical level. I will answer anybody’s questions and so will she.

Jurisdictions need to be as transparent as possible. They need to take the time to sit with people who want to be briefed and explain what happens when you get a mail-in ballot, what happens if someone sends in a mail ballot and comes in to vote on Election Day, and all those things. Explain what the safeguards are and what the fail safe mechanisms are.  Addressing people’s concerns is how you build confidence.

Issue One: As the challenges in the political environment have heightened, what inspires you to stay in this line of work?

Bruce Brown: To be very honest with you, elections prior to 2020 and 2016 were kind of sleepy. You know, you had an election. Someone won. Someone lost. The party that lost said, “Well, we’ll do a better job next time.” The party that won said, “Gee, we won, good.” And that was it.

If I can be a little bit of help trying to keep things calm in Alexandria, then I feel that it is worthwhile. I know my party is the minority in Alexandria. It is just the way it is. And if I can keep the party that loses elections more frequently than wins elections locally, if those people still have confidence in the voting process, I think that is important. That is why I keep on doing it.

Elections are consequential, and being involved in something that is consequential at this stage in my life is pretty important, so that is why I keep on doing it.

Issue One: Outside of being passionate about running safe and secure elections, what are your hobbies or what is a fun fact that most people might not know about you? 

Bruce Brown:  I am trying to relearn Spanish. Many years ago in the State Department, I served in Mexico. I will not say I was fluent in Spanish, but I had a good command of the language. The other jobs I did in the State Department did not involve speaking Spanish, and I kind of forgot a lot of it. When I retired, I decided I was going to relearn Spanish.

Learning a foreign language is a journey, not a destination. I take an adult education Spanish class in Arlington, Virginia, and I take a one-on-one Zoom class with a teacher from a Spanish school in Antigua, Guatemala. I spend a lot of time angsting over trying to relearn Spanish, and I’ve got to tell you, it’s a lot harder now than it was 48 years ago when I first learned Spanish in the State Department.

Earlier this year, my wife and I went on a trip to Argentina and Uruguay. I could really use my Spanish a lot. It made me feel good that I could actually have conversations.

Issue One: What is your favorite book or your favorite movie? 

Bruce Brown: My favorite book is by Erik Larson, “In the Garden of Beasts.” It is about a U.S. ambassador in Germany, and how he went there thinking that things were not really that bad and slowly realized that it was awful and that the United States government needed to do something sooner rather than later. There is also a whole side section about his daughters who wound up becoming friends with some of the high Nazis. It is a true story, the ambassador was a guy named Dolan who was picked by President Franklin Roosevelt to be ambassador to Germany.

Issue One: Which historical figure would you most like the opportunity to meet? 

Bruce Brown: Probably George Washington, when he was president. Alexandria, Virginia is the home of George Washington, so there is a lot of Washington stuff in Alexandria.

He was a great general, and that is a very important part of his career, but how did he figure out how to be the chief executive of the United States? What went into his decision to leave the office when he did, when he could have stayed on as long as he wanted to?  That is something that I would have liked to have asked him, “George, why would you decide to do that?”

Note: This piece was cross-published with The Fulcrum.