Today we’d like to introduce you to Amber McReynolds.
So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I grew up in a small town in Illinois and was a civic engagement enthusiast from an early age. I attended the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign for college and earned a double major in political science and speech communication. Just before my senior year, I completed an internship in England and worked as a research associate for a member of the UK parliament. My boss (Rt. Hon. Harriet Harman, QC, MP) was an incredible, tenacious, and inspirational women and she demonstrated strength, resilience, and taught me about obtaining a seat at the table, and then what to do with an opportunity to lead. After that experience, I was accepted into one the top graduate programs in the world for comparative politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. I would then continue to work for Harriet during my time in London. This was my first experience working on policy in a legislative body. I learned about designing policies to better serve constituents.
I returned to the US post-graduate degree and my first position was as the director of a coordinating council that was focused on streamlining the court process to better handle family violence cases including child abuse, domestic violence, and elder abuse. I focused on collaborating and bringing all interests to the table to find solutions to some of the most pressing issues facing victims. I again learned about how to adjust policies and processes to better serve constituents.
In 2004 during the presidential election, I then went on to work for the New Voters Project in Iowa. The New Voters Project was a nonpartisan nonprofit focused educating young voters about the voting process and creating programs on college campuses to expand voter registration opportunities on campus. I immediately felt passionate about the mission and the work I was doing. However, I also saw a process that was inefficient, had significant barriers and outdated deadlines that didn’t make sense for anyone and were difficult to navigate. I remember thinking, ‘it really should not be this complicated.’ This was another process and more policies that didn’t serve customers effectively. At that time, a few of the trainings for this position were held in Denver and it was the first time I had been in the mile high city. I loved it! I had been thinking I would move to DC or to Chicago but I quickly shifted my thinking to the west.
So, in 2005, I applied for a position as an operational coordinator at the Denver Elections Division and I moved west. During my interview, the man that would eventually become by direct supervisor said ‘aren’t you a little young to be applying for this job.’ That question was shocking at first because I didn’t expect it to be part of an interview with a government agency in 2005. However, that question (as I would realize later) told me everything I needed to know about the culture in this office and how they approached new ideas. I started at Denver Elections and the first few years were so difficult. I worked at least 12 hour days, mostly out of necessity because we lacked effective resources to get everything done, but also because I was personally invested in learning everything I could as quickly as I could so that I could serve voters. There are many stories that I could tell about my time and about the thousands of voters I served, but there are a few stories that stand out. We were running an election within the first few months of me joining the team. I was responsible for the Oversees and Military Voting Process and also the absentee ballot program. Thus, I regularly interacted with voters to help them with their needs. Now realize, that Denver Elections 2005 looks absolutely nothing like Denver Elections 2019. A few days before the 2005 November election, I received a call from a member of our military and he started to explain that he had not received his ballot and needed to know what to do. He went on to say that he had a relative running for school board and his kids were in school in Denver and that it was really important for him to vote. He was in Afghanistan at the time and had been there for a long time. As he talked, we were interrupted a few times with a bad connection and then I heard the sounds of war in the background. This soldier told me he would have to call me back or try to email to determine what his options were. So, I got to work on what we could do for him.
In my research and as I attempted to figure out a solution, I found that state law and federal law essentially had no solutions for this solider. This was before ballots were required to be mailed 45 days before an election, it was before electronic transmissions solutions, the solider didn’t have a fax machine, and they’re really no options. So, I decided that a possible solution was to have two election judges of a different party affiliation listen to this solider on the phone share his vote choices so that they could mark a ballot for him. I discussed this idea with our Director and with our city attorney and they were ok with this plan. So, when he called me back, I had two election judges ready to go to help him vote. He voted.
That experience inspired me to do whatever I could to help voters vote. I can describe countless stories of voters that faced difficult circumstances to vote – due to an accessibility issue, due to life circumstances, due to a childcare challenge, due to confusing deadlines or processes, due to a hospitalization, due to a sick child or family member, due to an emergency work situation, due to working multiple jobs, etc. But the bottom line is that the policies that govern elections were not pro-voter and the processes were not voter centric.
So, I started a journal and took notes about what laws didn’t function correctly, which processes needed to be streamlined, what additional resources were needed, etc. I did this for the first two years I was in Denver. Then, post-2006 (when Denver had a terrible technical failure which produced issues at voting locations across the city), there was an opportunity for change. This was it. This was the time that I had waited for to move things forward, it was like a light at the end of a long tunnel. In 2007, a new Clerk and Recorder came in who had energy, commitment, and urgency to change. We were meeting and discussing my role at the office, and she said, ‘do you want to be a part of change here and help me get things on track?’ I said enthusiastically – yes, and I pulled out my journal and said I have ideas. Stephanie O’Malley, Denver’s first elected Clerk was this leader. She wanted to make this happen and make voting better for the citizens that we served. So, we set out to do just that.
We re-built the organization and started to work on improving the culture. We needed to move away from a mentality that was focused on ‘the way it had been done’ to ‘the way it should be done to serve voters.’ I was Deputy Director from 2007 – 2011 and then was appointed to be Director of Elections in 2011. We moved mountains to implement change ahead of 2008. After that, we perfected the new processes and streamlined operations, but it wasn’t enough. We had to do these things first to stabilize the organization then starting in 2010, we started to innovate, advocate for policy changes. By 2011, we were moving forward and were collecting the necessary data and metrics to measure performance – this was my focus. I knew that data-driven decisions and policies would address the inherent systematic flaws in the current voting process. It was clear as day to me and I needed to find a way to articulate this to policymakers, advocates, the public, etc. So, that opportunity came in 2012. We had just closed out the 2012 presidential election with most Coloradans voting with a mail ballot. Leaders at the legislature called me and invited me to come discuss potential election reforms. By this time, I had also became known as a process improver and innovator in the election space, I had built relationships with voting rights advocates and other stakeholders over a long period of time. I had become known for my work in elections and everyone knew that I put voters first.
So, I went to the meeting and that was the first of many where we sketched out a plan to modernize Colorado’s voting process and finally design a system that puts voters first. I had waited for this moment for years. Honestly, everything I had learned along the way with previous jobs prepared me for this in one way or another. It was exciting and I was ready.
In 2013, we (a coalition of the bill sponsors, advocates, a few election officials) created and passed the most comprehensive election reform in recent memory. We streamlined the process – for voters, for administrators, and for campaigns. We created efficiencies that benefit taxpayers, we addressed flaws that had perpetuated for years, we increased security and integrity within the process, and we really created a system that served all voters in an equitable, fair, secure, and accessible way. The results are impressive. These reforms have made Colorado one of the top states to vote, a top state for turnout, the top voter registration rate in the country, one of the safest states to vote, and has increased confidence in the process. We improved the voting experience for ALL voters across Colorado.
From 2013-2018, hundreds of election officials, advocates, policymakers, international visitors, reporters, and others came to visit Denver to see this model in action. I started to receive speaking requests to come and discuss what we had done. It was an incredible experience to share our model with other states and try to help them contemplate changes.
I left my role as Director of Elections in Denver in August 2018 to be the Executive Director of the National Vote at Home Institute, a national nonpartisan, nonprofit organization focused on improving the voting experience across the country. Our goal is to expand opportunities to vote by leveraging some of success in states like Colorado and others. I’m also working on various projects as a consultant to help improve elections and technology broadly.
Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Change is our greatest barrier. I saw that during my time at Denver Elections and in positions prior to that. It is difficult for some people to see a different way of doing things. I liken it to the fact that some people can walk into a home that needs a lot of work and see how it could be, and others cannot imagine it until it is complete.
Policymakers (legislators) are the decision makers when it comes to making change to election laws. They have a vested interest in how the system works today. So, I find that many will say ‘would I have won my election if this was in place.’ So the winners (legislators serving today) tend to be fine with a system which produced an outcome where they won.
Thus, my motto is this. When it comes to election policy and election administration, we must put voters first. We must focus on who votes, not who wins.
Our entire election system and voting process was designed to leave people out – going back to the struggle for women’s suffrage or voting rights broadly. It was not designed for voters and thus, to change it is difficult.
A second struggle was getting a voice at the table, it was figuring out how to navigate a largely male-dominated legislative body and process. I have two children – one was born in 2011 (during a professional milestone for me) and the other in 2013 (a week before I testified at the capitol on the Election Modernization Bill). So, being a mom, a single mom today, with significant professional responsibilities, is not a struggle in the traditional sense but it has made me stronger, even more resilient, given me a different perspective about the future. I want my kids to be a part of this journey with me so I take them to speeches and when I travel as I can.
Please tell us about the National Vote at Home Institute (Nonpartisan Nonprofit focused on Voting Reform) and Strategy Rose.
I am known as being an election policy expert, a civic engagement enthusiast, a good government advocate, and innovator, a pro-voter advocate, a voter, a mom, a sister, a daughter, and a friend. I specialize in election innovation, election policy design, and operational and administrative efficiency. I’m an ideas person that wants to make being a citizen and engaging with government effective and efficient.
I am intently focused on improving the voting experience for all voters across the country. I want to make civic engagement and voting cool and inspiring. I want to make the process easy and accessible. I put voters first and create voter-centric systems. I believe that pro-voter policies + voter centric processes + technical innovation = an improved voting experience.
What makes me unique: Professionally, I have over 13 years of experience actually running elections. Often you see people running nonprofits or voting reform organizations or talking about voting reform that have not actually run an election or have practical experience in the field. There are not many examples of an elections director with my depth of experience now running an election reform organization – in fact, I may be the only one. I am passionate about this work and have a sense of urgency which is likely why it’s hard for me to turn off my ideas long enough to sleep. I am in the process of writing a book called ‘When Women Vote’ about voting reform with a tie to the history of women’s suffrage. I am writing this book with one of my best friends and a woman that I admire and have tremendous respect for.
I’m also a single mom with two little ones. There are not many (if any) women legislators serving in congress that are single moms with small children. I believe this is a missing perspective and we need to contemplate changes to the overall system that makes it difficult for moms to run for office.
I’m also politically independent and believe strongly that officials overseeing the voting process – elected as Secretary of State, elected as local election officials, or appointed to run an elections office, should be nonpartisan in their approach to the operation of elections.
IN addition to my ED role with Vote at Home, I started my own LLC and consult on various election projects across the country.
Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
First, the love, encouragement, fun, commitment, and energy that my parents created in our home growing up was endearing. We are a close family even today and respect each other, support each other, and help each other. My parents demonstrated what it meant to be passionate about what you do and how to try and make the world a better place. My dad was a lawyer and now a judge and in public service. My mom was a teacher and loved children and improving all kids lives through education. I do now know two people who have worked harder in their lives – not just for work, but to support their families, to support their communities, to raise children, and take care of each other.
My most vivid memory and one that has driven who I am today is a story about my dad. When we were little, he would do silly things to make us laugh. One was when he would stand on his head. We would giggle and dance around him as he would kick his legs in crazy motions. At one point, I asked him why he did that. He said, don’t you want to see the world from a different view? I said, ‘Why Yes Dad, I do.’ At that moment, I turned myself upside down, stood on my head, and saw the world in a different way.
I’ve been doing that my entire life. If I face a challenge, or if something doesn’t work like it should (like the voting process or the judicial process), I have tried to look at it from a different view. And I have almost always found a solution simply by changing my view or my perspective about a challenge.
- Website: www.voteathome.org
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
- Facebook: @nationalvoteathome or @AmberMcReynolds
- Twitter: @AmberMcReynolds or @voteathome