I. In Focus This Week
Exit Interview: Edgardo Cortes
Edgardo Cortés has worked in elections for more than 15 years, with experience in all facets of the electoral process including campaigns, non-partisan voter registration, federal and state election policy, and local and state election administration.
As the first Virginia Commissioner of Elections, Cortés spearheaded voter registration and election administration modernization efforts in the Commonwealth. Accomplishments during Commissioner Cortés’ tenure included:
- Establishing paperless voter registration at DMV locations
- Fully integrating online DMV transactions with the online voter registration system
- Establishing an online, paperless absentee ballot request system
- Implementing an easier to use voter registration form
- Creating an online assessment of election administration at the local level, making election data more accessible to the public
Cortés served as the Chairman of the Board for the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) and Chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission Standards Board. Cortés was a charter member of the Election Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council established by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Cortés previously served as General Registrar in Fairfax County, VA and Deputy Director for Policy and Grants Director at the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. He has also directed Congressional field campaigns, a national non-partisan voter registration program, and led efforts to implement automatic restoration of voting rights for individuals with prior felony convictions in Virginia.
What are you most proud of during your time as the Virginia elections commissioner?
There are so many things to be proud of that we were able to accomplish the past 4 years to make it easier for eligible Virginians to vote. We worked to modernize every part of the election process with the goal of making it easier for people to participate in our democracy. However, the biggest change and the one that stands out is making the DMV voter registration process completely paperless. Electronic voter registration at DMVs has resulted in more registered voters and more accurate voter rolls in Virginia. The system fully integrated DMVs online processes with the Department of Elections online voter registration and provides paperless in-person voter registration using the same touchscreen terminals used for payments.
The best part is the real-time connection between Elections and DMV that lets DMV know if someone is already registered to vote and allows the voter to do a 1 step address update rather than having to reregister and fill out an entire application. This makes it so easy for voters to update or confirm their information. The success of this project shows in the registration rates for DMV customers and the overall registration numbers in Virginia.
We used the same framework that was created for DMV to create a secure API for 3rd party registration groups to conduct paperless voter registration drives. This exciting project makes it more secure for voters to register with 3rd party groups, increases accountability for the groups, and provides the groups with more useful data and assurances that the information has been properly received by election officials. The work we did in modernizing voter registration took Virginia from 100 percent paper-based registration in 2014 to roughly 80 percent electronic registration now. These projects serve as a model for how election officials can use technology to improve the process and open new avenues for registration and increase participation.
What would you say is the most difficult thing you faced during your time running elections in Virginia and how did you deal with it/what did you learn from it?
I think the biggest difficulty I faced was dealing with the divide in the election community between those who want to facilitate the process for eligible voters and those who see themselves as gatekeepers to the process. This isn’t a problem specific to Virginia, but it was incredibly frustrating.
Gatekeepers would often attempt to impose additional requirements on individuals they didn’t believe should be able to vote in their communities – whether it was attempting to block college students from registering or improperly scrutinizing individuals with a prior felony conviction. For many of those gatekeepers, our efforts to simplify the process and make it easier for eligible voters to participate was troubling and they fought hard to continue doing things how they’d always been done. Thankfully, I’ve seen a trend towards local election officials who view themselves as facilitators for eligible voters. These officials try their hardest to help voters navigate the process and work hard to ensure they can exercise their right to vote. We approached this challenge through a focus on transparency.
The best way to encourage good behavior is to let voters see and understand what is going on and have them demand accountability. My take away from those experiences is that the field of election administration continues to move towards facilitating the process for eligible voters and away from acting as gatekeepers to citizens that simply want to have their voice heard.
Is there anything you were not able to accomplish as elections commissioner that you really wish you had?
The one project I really wish I had been able to accomplish was to integrate voter registration at social service agencies in the same way we did at DMV. Social service agencies are an important avenue for voter registration for underserved communities and they have had a significant shift to online services in the past few years.
Unfortunately, their shift to online service delivery has meant a decrease in registration opportunities for those receiving services. Getting full integration of voter registration with the online services offered by social service agencies will be an important part of not only ensuring social service agencies continue to comply with their NVRA requirements but will also make it easier for social service clients to have meaningful access to voter registration opportunities when they are interacting with government.
In an increasingly partisan world, what advice would you give to an up-and-coming elections official to deal with that?
Keep your cool. Election officials make an easy target for partisan attacks, especially if you work in an area with close elections or divided government. Dealing with partisan attacks is just like dealing with any other kind of bullying. Just remember why you’re there – to help the voters. I dealt with many partisan attacks during my tenure, but I knew that if I was doing my job and making sure voters were able to participate in the electoral process, that I had nothing to worry about.
The Latino population is growing nationwide, but you were one of only a handful of Latino elections officials, especially at the state level. Do you have any thoughts about how to get more of the Latino population involved in the administration of elections?
Unfortunately, there is a lack of diversity in the election administration community, especially at the state level. Getting people interested in any public service is difficult. I think the key to getting more Latinos and other people of color into the field of election administration is showing how they can make a difference for their communities.
I’ve spent most of my career in elections working to open the process for underserved communities and individuals that feel disconnected from the electoral process. Whether it was registering voters in communities of color, advocating for re-enfranchisement of individuals with prior felony convictions, or working to make voter registration easier in Virginia, my work has been to ensure people can exercise their fundamental right to vote.
I think explaining the huge impact you can have on your community by being involved in administering elections will go a long way to bringing more people to the process.
The Virginia General Assembly has introduced a host of election-reform legislation from no-excuse absentee voting to runoff elections. What would you like to see them focus on?
I would love to see the Virginia General Assembly finally provide no-excuse absentee voting. The current excuse-based process is cumbersome for voters, inefficient to administer, and serves no purpose other than to keep eligible voters from participating. The Department drafted compromise legislation to address the concerns expressed in the past related to no-excuse absentee voting and hopefully the legislature will eventually decide to open the process for voters.
I would also like to see a state constitutional amendment that allows for automatic restoration of rights for all individuals with a felony conviction once they’re no longer incarcerated. I was proud to work for Governor McAuliffe, who restored voting rights to more people than any other Governor in the history of the country, but being able to exercise a fundamental right of citizenship shouldn’t be dependent on a single individual doing the right thing.
What advice you have for jurisdictions trying to bring key election functions in house like you did in Virginia?
Bringing IT functions in-house and growing the IT expertise of the Department of Elections was the best internal decision we made during my tenure. Having the expertise we needed in-house made all our other projects possible without the need for massive investments contractor spending. Having control over our IT systems also provided greater security for our statewide voter registration system and assurances that we were doing everything possible to keep our systems secure. For states that are looking to do the same, they need to have a transition plan in place and realize that it will take some initial increased funding before you begin to see the benefits. There will be some overlap time as you transition from vendors to in-house staff but in the long run, you will see a great improvement over your ability to maintain and secure your IT systems.
If you could create the prefect election system, what would it look like?
For me, it’s all about the voter and having a positive experience when you interact with the elections process. I think that can take many forms, but there are some key requirements:
- We need voter registration to be portable and the onus to be on the government for updating your information. We have all the information we need and placing all these obstacles to voter registration doesn’t serve any purpose other than to keep people out of the process.
- We need flexibility for voters in how and when they cast ballots. We need to be responsive as election officials to the myriad needs of voters to participate in different ways and times other than the traditional election day at a polling place.
- We need appropriate resources for election officials to ensure voters have a positive voting experience. Elections are a core function of government and essential to maintaining our democracy and we should provide resource levels that reflect that.
Voters should only have to worry about who they will be voting for. If their focus is on the mechanics of the process rather than who will be representing them when policies are being created, then we need to do a better job with the process.
What’s next for you?
In March, I’ll be starting some exciting projects. I'll be working with the Center for Secure and Modern Elections promoting automatic voter registration and other modernization efforts. I'll also be working with the Brennan Center for Justice as an Election Security Fellow. I’m looking for ways to use my experiences to help other election officials that want to modernize their processes to make it easier for voters.
In the future, I may look towards venues other than elections where I can help communities have their voices heard. I’ve enjoyed working with so many talented and dedicated public servants throughout Virginia and across the country and have made many amazing friendships.
Right now, I’m enjoying picking up my son from school every day and looking forward to the arrival of our new baby this summer.
- Next >>