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.
From January 2019 until January 2023, George Stern, a registered Democrat, served as the clerk and recorder in Jefferson County, Colorado, a politically diverse county of more than 400,000 registered voters on the outskirts of Denver that is nicknamed the “Gateway to the Rocky Mountains.”
A father of two who loves the outdoors, mountain biking, and skiing, Stern not only had to fight figurative fires as part of his day job but he has also fought literal fires as a volunteer firefighter in Golden, the county seat of Jefferson County.
Prior to serving as Jefferson County’s clerk and recorder, Stern had extensive professional experience in both the public and private sectors. He was a public high school teacher and baseball coach before studying voting rights and public policy in law school. During law school, he worked in the White House during the administration of President Barack Obama and in the office of Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. He also worked as a business consultant with McKinsey, helping Fortune 500 companies and various governments improve their strategies and operations.
Under his leadership, Jefferson County’s clerk and recorder’s office won four national innovation awards, including a Clearinghouse Award (aka, a “Clearie”) from the U.S. Election Assistance Administration in 2020 for the county’s online chat service. In 2022, he opted against running for reelection.
Since 2022, he has been part of Issue One’s Faces of Democracy project 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.
Issue One: How many voters are on the rolls in Jefferson County? And what are the main challenges of a jurisdiction of that size?
George Stern: We’ve got about 430,000 active, registered voters. Jefferson County is very much a swing county. Its plurality is unaffiliated voters, at about 45%. And then Democrats and Republicans are split relatively equally, at less than 30% each. When you have that kind of political diversity, you’ve got close elections, and you’ve got a lot of questions about those elections. People hear national narratives and conspiracy theories and think those apply to where they live locally.
At the end of the day, election administration is local. If you hear something on national TV about what’s happening in elections, don’t assume that’s happening in your local municipality. Talk to your local election officials. The answers are often much more transparent and benevolent than you may think.
Issue One: What would you consider your greatest achievement as an elections administrator?
George Stern: I ran eight elections in my time. In almost all of them, we had record turnout. In almost all of them, we had the highest turnout of the big counties in Colorado. And in all of them, we were the fastest to process our ballots. That was a direct result of our team and their innovation on how we move ballots through our system accurately but quickly.
Counting ballots takes time. That’s the reality of it. Folks should be patient, but the media and the conspiracy theorists are not patient. As soon as ballots take a long time to get counted, they start asking questions. They start deciding things are happening when they’re not. So we placed a very large emphasis on making sure our processes were efficient.
Issue One: What were the processes in place in Jefferson County that made things so efficient?
George Stern: More than anything, it is a culture of constant improvement. When I was clerk, we had eight goes at it, and we just made sure that we were paying close attention to where our bottlenecks were, to where we could be improving after each election. It was just being smart with what we had and constantly getting better.
Issue One: How widespread do you think that kind of “let’s keep having a culture of constant improvement” is?
George Stern: Now, as a former election administrator — so I’m not talking about myself — I don’t mind saying that election administrators are heroes. They are, with ever-tightening budgets and ever more scrutiny, doing really, really hard work. It’s like gearing a startup from scratch, but doing it with no funding coming your way, and with a whole ton of scrutiny of people looking at you. Every election office I’ve been to, people are focused on doing the best they possibly can.
Issue One: What was the price tag for running elections in Jefferson County?
George Stern: A general election is in the neighborhood of about $3 million. A primary and coordinated election are about half that. It varies between general elections and all other elections, like primary and coordinated elections, because in general elections, more people vote. So we need more people to do more pickups, to process more ballots, and all of that.
Issue One: If your jurisdiction had had extra funding, how would you have spent it?
George Stern: We had a plan in place in this past election to have our own security guards at some of our busier sites and at our ballot processing facility. We wanted to have a few plainclothes officers at our busiest sites, because we are in a pretty charged environment right now. I had to cut those, and thankfully they ended up not being necessary.
And then, everything else I would have put towards voter engagement and accessibility.
Issue One: A lot of people are surprised to learn that the federal government doesn’t routinely fund election administration. Why do you think the federal government should regularly fund elections?
George Stern: We’re running federal elections. In this last election, we had two federal elections on the top of every ballot in Colorado — a Senate and a House seat. And next year, all local election officials will be running a presidential race in addition to Senate races and House races in their states. Local governments are strapped, and this is a federal concern now. Ensuring safe elections is something that everyone needs to be on board with. Many of the things local election offices are now dealing with are cyber threats from foreign entities. A clerk and recorder is not able to take on the Russian government’s cyber operation. We need the resources of the federal government to be able to do that.
Issue One: What kinds of challenges exist in places that might be struggling to achieve the highest levels of efficiency in terms of election administration?
George Stern: In general, it’s harder to do the work in smaller counties. They’ve got fewer resources, fewer full-time staff to lean on, more pulls on their time. They have to do more with less, which is always impressive.
Issue One: Can you say more about the checks and balances in place in the process of election administration in Colorado?
George Stern: The clerks themselves — the elected officials — never touch ballots. Everything is done by bipartisan teams of election workers. You’ve got two people with different political affiliations doing everything. And when I say everything, I mean everything — from picking up ballots at drop boxes to opening the ballots and counting them. And they’re doing it under 24/7 video surveillance. They’re doing it having gone through rigorous training. And doing it out in the open, in rooms that are not only under video surveillance but are open to watchers.
Issue One: Is that mandated by state law? Or best practice countries have voluntarily embraced?
George Stern: Almost everything I just said is state law in Colorado. Much of it may have started as best practices, but it has been codified. So the 24/7 video surveillance definitely is. Bipartisan election workers doing all the ballot processes definitely is. Watchers being allowed in definitely is. All of it is just good, basic transparency. If other states have not codified it, they should. It gives people a lot more faith in their elections.
Issue One: A lot of jurisdictions really have limited funds in their budgets. Were there other county services or activities that ever had to be reduced or cut as the costs of elections increased, based on limited amounts of funding?
George Stern: For sure. We saw Jefferson County cut spending at the jail. They closed a full floor of the jail for a year or so during some of the cuts. We saw scaling back of many basic government services, having to put on extended holds some road and bridge and other capital projects that probably shouldn’t have been put on hold.
Two of the four years I did my budget, I had to make cuts. In elections, most of what I had to pay for was mandated, like mailing ballots to every voter and opening a certain amount of sites, so I could not make any cuts there. If I had to cut my budget, it was going to the other things in my budget, like services at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and things like that.
Issue One: What do you think the impacts are when those kind of tough decisions have to be made?
George Stern: No one’s happy when a floor of the jail is closed. That means more folks who have previously been in there are back out on our streets. No one’s happy when they’re making cuts at the DMV. That means longer lines. And no one’s happy when there are roads, bridges, and other structures further crumbling. We heard about it. It has deep and daily impacts on people’s lives.
Issue One: Is there anything else you’d like to say about why it’s important for elections to receive more regular and consistent federal funding?
George Stern: Whether you think elections are solid and you want to keep them that way or whether you fear conspiracy theories about elections, you should want elections to have more funding to be even more secure and even more accessible. I hope that’s an issue we can all agree on in a bipartisan way.
Issue One: Outside of being passionate about running safe and secure elections, what are some of your hobbies? Or what is a fun fact that most people might not know about you?
George Stern: When I wasn’t serving as the clerk and recorder, I serve as a volunteer firefighter. I’ve been doing that in Golden for the last six years.
That’s my favorite thing I do. It’s a great change of pace from all of this. I fought figurative fires at the clerk and recorder’s office — and literal ones at my volunteer gig.
When I’m not doing either of those things, I am trying to get out into the mountains with my family.
Issue One: What’s your favorite book or movie about politics or elections?
George Stern: I’m going through a queue in my head right now! A recent book that covers Colorado’s elections and goes into great depth about mail-in voting and some of its strengths is “When Women Vote” by Amber McReynolds and Stephanie Donner, both of whom are inspirational leaders here in Colorado. It’s a quick read, but an important read that I would recommend.
Issue One: Which historical figure would you have most liked to have had the opportunity to meet?
George Stern: I’m going very narrow here with my answer, as you got me in my election lens. Eliza Pickrell Routt was the first first lady of Colorado and a very active and vocal suffragette. Not only would I have liked to meet her, I would have liked to be led by her and to fight alongside her in the important work she was doing.
Note: This piece was cross-published with The Fulcrum.