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Derek Bowens is no stranger to election problems, public attacks and federal investigations. The veteran elections administrator set in motion a turnaround plan to rescue Durham County, N.C.’s elections operation soon after becoming its election director in 2017.
But just two weeks ago, he withdrew from consideration for the open position to head the embattled Fulton County elections office.
“I came to Durham when it was, in theory, a very, very bad place,” Bowens told Atlanta Civic Circle. “After the 2016 presidential election, Durham got some national attention for some poll worker failures on Election Day and some election results issues.”
Today, the Durham County Board of Elections is nationally-recognized, winning awards for innovations such as a wait-time tool that lets voters know optimal voting times during its 17-day, early-voting period.
Bowens applied for the Fulton elections director job soon after the notice appeared in his email inbox, because he believed he could apply similar strategies to Fulton’s elections office, which has been dogged for years by complaints of long lines and mismanagement.
“It was very intriguing,” Bowens said. “I thought my skill set would be good for the season that Fulton was in.”
He came to Atlanta for an interview March 24 and while visiting the Fulton election office, he ran into Fulton elections director Rick Barron, whose resignation took effect April 1. “We talked a little bit,” Bowens said.
Then, on March 28, he learned from a story in the Atlanta Journal Constitution that the Fulton Board of Registration and Elections had chosen him as the sole finalist for Barron’s job. That “was very surprising,” he said. He withdrew from consideration less than 24 hours later.
“One of my staff saw a [news] article on Twitter that we were tagged in,” Bowens said. “That definitely caught me way off guard. I’ll be honest, I was kind of bothered that I wasn’t informed first.”
Bowens insists his withdrawal was “strictly for personal family reasons,” and “had nothing to do with anything related to Fulton not being attractive or anything that scared me off.”
“It’s definitely a position to be coveted,” he added. Bowens praised the Fulton Elections Board and the elections operation that Barron ran for its extensive innovations around mobile voting. Had he taken the job, he said, he’d have worked hard to ensure they received the national acclaim they deserved.
“It’s about changing the narrative about Fulton County,” he said.
Fulton’s election director search is a “very clunky process,” the chair of the Fulton Elections Board, Cathy Woolard, told Atlanta Civic Circle shortly after Bowens withdrew from consideration.
“It’s an incredibly complex process that is very difficult to manage,” she acknowledged. “It is public to everybody simultaneously. So [Bowens] found out he was the person we had selected at the same time everyone else did.”
Whoever ultimately takes on the job of running Fulton’s elections office, which has a full-time staff of 45, had better come equipped with thick skin, lots of stamina and some Maalox. They’ll face a caustic political environment, while overseeing elections in a majority-Democratic county that is under threat of a state takeover from a Republican-controlled legislature.
Last August, the State Elections Board appointed a bipartisan performance review panel to investigate potential election law violations by Fulton elections officials, and the findings are due any day.
Here’s our conversation with Bowens, which has been edited for clarity and length.
Tammy Joyner: What prompted you to apply for the Fulton job?
Derek Bowens: It’s a vibrant community [in Atlanta], very similar to Durham in a lot of respects, outside of the size differential. It was just a very intriguing position to me.
What did you do to get Durham County’s elections office back on track?
We had optics issues. We worked hard to professionalize our board meetings, and we centralized communication with the board and the staff. That went a long way.
We improved how the public viewed us and then trained staff. We looked at staff skill sets and put people in the right place–and removed people, if necessary.
Standardizing operating procedures was a huge part of that. We focused on running a good elections operations organizational structure. We brought in logistics officers and developed a division-focused system. For instance, we had a training and recruiting division, a logistics division, and a delivery service division. Those folks focused on those core areas, and there were cross-division aspects where necessary.
What would have been your top three priorities had you taken the Fulton job?
I’m really big on logistics. Elections are nothing but a huge logistical operation. First, I would speak with the staff and get their perspective on what’s going well, what’s not going well–and what we never need to do again.
From there, I’d analyze work products and workflows. If there were needed positions that were not in place, I would work to get the positions that I thought were critical to election operations.
The second thing I would have looked at would be more professionalized communications with the board.
For instance, no staff person would speak in a board of elections meeting unless I saw what they were talking about first. There would be uniformity in how we communicate and present things. There would be significant preparation before board meetings.
I would definitely focus on board meetings, board management and public communication. You’ve got to be on your A-game, telling your story better in a public setting, justifying and [providing] data–and making sure that, optically, you’re seen as a board that knows what its doing. Some things you can’t necessarily control, but you can show that you’ve prepared properly.
Third, I would have ensured that Fulton County got national recognition for their innovative practices through the U.S. Election Assistance Commission or the Election Center, or the National Association of Counties. [Promoting itself] is one of the things I think that has not been done well.
Fulton has done a lot of innovative things, like their mobile voter registration and application units–and their mobile early voting [buses] before they got banned [by the Georgia legislature under the 2021 Election Integrity Act or SB 202].
Georgia’s election laws have undergone sweeping changes in the last couple of years. Has North Carolina experienced similar changes in its election process?
Yes. I’ve been in elections in North Carolina since 2012, and I’ve seen a lot of changes. There’s a photo-ID implementation that’s been caught up in litigation since 2013. There have also been changes related to what the requirements are for absentee mail-in ballots and how they can be submitted. We’re very similar states in terms of our election laws.
As an election administrator, do these changes make it harder for you to do your job?
It’s an aspect you sign up for. Yes, it certainly makes things more challenging, but I don’t think to the extent that it’s unbearable or un-doable. I truly believe proper preparation prevents poor performance. If you prepare properly, then no matter what the situation is, it can be overcome with relative efficiency.
How is your county set financially for running its upcoming elections? Some Georgia counties may face difficulties, especially now that state lawmakers have banned direct private donations to them.
Durham County is probably one of the most liberal, if not the most liberal county in North Carolina, so we don’t have funding issues. Our [county] commissioners are very giving. We also had private entities [that] give.
So your county elections office still can take private donations?
Here in Georgia, local elections offices can no longer receive direct private donations.
They tried that here, but it didn’t make it through [the legislature].
Have you had any problems hiring temporary staff and poll workers for the upcoming election?
No. We have a really engaged, civic-minded community here in Durham [County]. We have a program through the State Board of Elections called Democracy Heroes. On their website, they have a survey where citizens can submit their interest in working the polls. They forward those down to the counties, based on where the citizens live. It’s a very good program that’s helped us.
Also, we have an online poll-worker application and word-of-mouth–and we’re working with our local political parties and political action committees. So we do a pretty good job recruiting and getting folks on board. We typically don’t see those issues.
Any advice for the person who gets the Fulton job?
Fulton County is a treasure. It has a very committed and engaged board. When you come there, you better be prepared to work.
Derek Brown: At A Glance
Title: Elections Director for Durham County, N.C.
Full-time staff: 10
Annual budget: Ranges from $2 million to $4 million
Innovative program: Democracy Heroes