I. In Focus This Week
Exit Interview: John Lindback
From Alaska to Oregon to the private sector, Lindback has seen a lot
By M. Mindy Moretti
One other “giant” in the elections world also retired in June and that was John Lindback. John was the first executive director of ERIC. He also was a senior officer for Elections Initiatives at The Pew Charitable Trusts where he worked as the lead on Pew’s work to upgrade voter registration.
He served as director of elections in the Oregon secretary of state’s office for eight years and was the chief of staff for the Alaska lieutenant governor which included six years with administrative oversight of the Alaska Division of Elections.
John has seen a lot during his tenure in the world of elections administration and has seen it from both sides of the spectrum—the day-to-day work and the advocacy side, which is why we did not want to miss the opportunity to sit down with him (so-to-speak) for one of our exit interviews.
You are leaving the field at an interesting time, to say the least, why now?
A year ago I decided that I didn’t want to work full-time anymore. My wife and I would like to travel the world for up to three months a year if we can afford it. It’s time to start living that dream.
In your career you’ve had the opportunity to work day-to-day in elections as well as on the advocacy side, did you prefer one over the other and if so, why? [I know, it's like choosing a favorite child, but every parent has one!]
I can’t say I liked one more than the other. I can say, though, that I was very glad I had served as an administrator of elections before I went to work for the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Elections administrators frequently work with charitable foundations, civic tech groups, academics, and advocacy organizations on improving US elections. Administrators tend to trust advocates who have a background in running elections. It’s offensive when advocates and academics who don’t know the difference between a spoiled ballot and a provisional ballot or the difference between active and inactive voters walk in the door and start telling seasoned administrators how to do their jobs.
Is there anything you wished you had accomplished while working in elections that you weren’t able to?
Yes, about a thousand things. There are too many to mention. But I worked hard every day to make progress. Making changes in how elections are conducted takes extreme patience and tons of time. Nothing happens quickly because most worthwhile changes require legislative action and requests for more money. Partisan politics can get in the way. I just kept my head down and kept plugging away. I got as far as I could.
Talk to us about duct tape. We understand it's played a key role in your career.
I’ve been looking forward to the day when I don’t have to worry that what I say could threaten my job. The day is here.
Elections administrators in this country for far too long have held together aging elections systems and voter registration systems with the proverbial duct tape and paper clips. It’s ridiculous that state legislatures and county commissioners have strangled elections budgets to the point where the foundation of our Democracy is threatened.
In my home state of Oregon, the University of Oregon athletic department is swimming in money and palatial facilities. Yet counties can’t afford to replace aging voting equipment.
It’s time for elections officials to shed the “I’ll keep it together with duct tape” mentality and the fear of speaking out. Elections officials, and those of us who support them, all must demand that appropriators make elections a priority rather than an afterthought.
In an increasingly partisan world, what advice would you give to up-and-coming elections officials to deal with that?
When I stepped into the world of elections administration I thought it was important to put away my “partisan past” and stay out of political activities. The public and political campaigns, including the political parties, expect elections administrators to run elections on a level playing field. I stopped affiliating with a political party. I avoided all political activities. I don’t put bumper stickers on my car. I don’t tell my friends how to vote on Facebook. I just tell them to vote. My family and close friends know my political leanings. But that’s it. It worked well for me. I encourage up-and-coming elections officials to do the same.
What do you feel was your greatest accomplishment and why?
Personally: Serving as a strong role model to three sons.
Professionally: Expanding ERIC to 20 states and the District of Columbia and getting it up as a fully functioning, efficient organization. It was the hardest job I’ve ever done and the most rewarding job of my life. And I’ve had some great jobs.
If you could create the perfect elections system, what would it look like?
I’m not sure what the perfect elections system looks like. But if I could wave a magic wand and change things I’d make the following happen:
- Require all states and territories to participate in ERIC.
- Implement automatic voter registration in all 50 states and the territories.
- Provide adequate funding for resources and first-rate training of elections officials on how to keep their voting systems and voter registration databases secure.
- Make the federal government pay its share of expenses for federal elections.
- Prohibit Secretaries of State and Lt. Governors from running for another office at the same time as they have jurisdiction over elections in their state.
- Require all states to give access to international observers for federal general elections.
What will you miss most about working in the elections field?
I’ll miss that sense that what I’m doing every day is important to American Democracy. And I’ll miss talking every day to all the wonderful friends I’ve made in the elections community. Doug Lewis tells me I can join him and Chris Thomas and others in the Has Been Club. Gladly.
What’s next for you, after your fabulous Scandinavian excursion that is?
I’m looking forward to a life where I get to travel every year and then come and work on small elections projects. I’d like to work on short-term projects that have a clear goal. If I can work part-time and still make a difference I’ll be a happy man.
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