Colorado Politics: While election administration is probably the most public aspect of a Colorado clerk and recorder’s job, your office handles all kinds of duties. What are some of your other responsibilities, and how have dealt with those over the last year?
George Stern: I like to say that clerks' offices, and especially those in the biggest few counties, are the most public-facing departments in all of Colorado government. As you mentioned, we run elections — from school board races up to President of the United States — and with Colorado's consistently top-three turnout, that can mean we're directly serving almost all adults in the county in just a few weeks. We're also here to serve you if you drive a vehicle (we run the county DMV offices), own a home (we record all public documents), need a liquor license for your business (or your special event), want a passport for your next trip (we're less expensive than the post office), or are getting married (congrats!).
While COVID-19 presented some initial challenges in providing those services, the pandemic ultimately showed the resilience of our recent ways of doing business. Colorado's mail-based election model thrived during COVID, setting record turnouts in the June state primary and November general election. And the efforts we had taken elsewhere in the Jeffco clerk and recorder's office to make more of our services available online and remotely proved instrumental in ensuring our customers could still receive what they needed, often without leaving the safety of their homes.
CP: The DMV has had bad rap and been easy to caricature as the embodiment of bureaucracy, probably in part because it's where pretty much everyone directly interacts with government, and it's usually not that pleasant — there can be lines, lots of waiting, complicated rules, and in the end you write a big check. Are you doing anything to make it less painful? And after all you've done, do you think people's views of the DMV is changing?
Stern: The DMV's bad rap is one of the main reasons I ran for this office. As a former business consultant who helped large companies improve their strategies and operations, the idea of transforming everyone's least favorite government agency into one that delivers efficient, positive experiences was exciting to me. And thanks to the progress we've made in the last two years, I remain excited.
First things first, if the stereotypically bad DMV experience is a long wait in our office, then let's eliminate the need for people to come into our office. As I tell our customers: We love you, but we don't want to see you. Since I took office in January 2019, we've expanded online services and dramatically expanded how we promote those services to our customers. Thanks to those efforts, we increased our online service usage by 17% in 2019 and 60% in 2020. We also added five renewal kiosks in grocery stores throughout the county where people can get their renewal sticker printed on the spot without ever waiting in line. About 6,700 people used those in 2019, and more than 40,000 used them in 2020.
Next up, we overhauled our website and added a live chat so that customers don't need to wait in long phone lines or, worse, come into our office with questions or tasks they can complete remotely. We helped more than 50,000 customers via chat last year.
For those customers who think they do need to come in (chat with us before you do, because you might not!), we switched from an exclusively walk-in model to a primarily appointment-based one. That way, rather than seeing the typical lines at the end of the week and month, we spread out demand and ensure no-wait service to all of our customers at all times.
As to whether it's changing people's views, I'll let our customers do the talking. We ask every person who uses our live chat for feedback, and 95% have rated it excellent. We also ask every person we serve in person to leave us a Google review, and each office is above 4 stars. Indeed, I — an elected official who oversees the DMV — am encouraging you to read our customer reviews.
CP: What’s the organizational philosophy that ties what you do together? How do you make sure the various pieces — elections, motor vehicles, property records, marriage licenses — operate with the same mission? And how do you know if you’re doing a good job or not?
Stern: When I was sworn in in January 2019, I outlined a vision of a 21st-century Clerk and Recorder's office. All of our different divisions are guided by the same mission: To deliver accessible, efficient, and transparent service that is a nationwide model for local governments, by engaging our constituents and empowering our employees. We even have goals for each division, and we track our progress publicly on our website for everyone to see.
One of the first successes we had toward our vision was taking credit cards for the first time (in 2019!) across all of our divisions. My office is right by where we issue marriage licenses, and in my first few weeks, I saw dozens of young couples come in who were planning to get married in our office. They were dressed to the nines, they had family with them, they received the cool marriage license on thick cardstock that made the whole thing official, they were grinning — it was the best day of their lives. At the very end, our employee would say: "Just one more thing, there's a small fee, will that be cash or check?" Silence. These young people had never had checks. They didn't carry cash. They knew of one way to pay. The grins disappeared. The color drained from their faces. We were now sending them out of our office, unmarried, without their license, to find the ATM in a dark alcolve of our building that sometimes worked and always charged a fee. The government had – because of course it had – just ruined the best day of their lives.
I am proud to say we fixed that problem within the first few weeks, and we haven't slowed down since. From the DMV progress mentioned above, to increasing electronic document recording from 70 to 90%, to digitizing the liquor license process, our office has moved quickly into the 21st century, albeit 19 years later than we should have.
Likewise, I could not be more proud of our team for running an election last November that shattered turnout records while still leading the nation in security and processing time. We used data to strategically double the number of ballot drop boxes in Jeffco, and people responded: 90% of active registered voters turned out in November, more than any of the other biggest counties in the state. Despite that turnout, we had an average wait time of 0 minutes, and we finished counting 99% of our ballots on election night. We also won a national award for election innovation.
As any organization with a culture of constant improvement should, we crave feedback, and we receive it from hundreds of customers each week. While it has lately been overwhelmingly positive, we read the constructive ones even more closely, looking for the next great idea. Hop on over to our site and tell us how we're doing at any time.
CP: You’re the first Democratic clerk in Jeffco in decades. How are you operating your office differently than your Republican predecessors? You ran as a Democrat in a partisan election. There’s a lot of talk that election officials should be nonpartisan. Do you agree?
Stern: While I am indeed an elected Democrat, one of the great aspects of this job is that politics could not be further removed from my daily duties. We don't check your party affiliation before we process your DMV paperwork, and we intentionally run our elections with bi-partisan staff and judges.
As one of the most public-facing offices in Colorado government, direct accountability to constituents is critical. So, while I sympathize with those who argue clerks should be non-partisan, I've yet to hear a proposal that gives more accountability than our current one of making clerks run for election every four years. When someone has such a proposal, I'm all ears. In the meantime, I say: Expect your clerks to lead in a non-partisan way, no matter what letter they have after their names, and vote them out if they don't!
CP: Six months after the 2020 election, there’s still a significant portion of the electorate under the misimpression that there was something hinky about it, all the way from former President Trump and his most ardent supporters claiming it was stolen to Jeffco Republicans who wouldn’t sign off on the canvass for less specified reasons. How big of a problem is this going forward? What can local election officials — from both parties — do to rebuild trust in the system?
Stern: Colorado has been called one of the safest states in the country to cast a ballot by experts on both the right and the left. Indeed, President Trump's Homeland Security secretary called Colorado's election security the "best case-example of what other states can adopt."
My fellow election officials and I did everything we could to make sure Colorado voters understood our system and why it has such acclaim. From penning an op-ed with my Republican counterpart in El Paso on election security before the election, to giving a live tour of our processes during the election, to participating in a statewide, bipartisan audit of our elections after the fact, I have tried to increase the transparency around our election integrity from start to finish.
When one of those with a misimpression, to use your term, told me in a written complaint letter that our audit with a 96% confidence level was insufficient, and we must conduct an audit with a 90% confidence level, I realized that if we couldn't agree that 96 was greater than 90, we might never be able to agree on election integrity in general. But whether we can convince everyone or not, my fellow election officials and I will not stop rigorously defending the integrity of our elections and making those efforts transparent to the public.
As I have in every past election I have run, I will again host a tour this November, and will again answer every question that comes up — so, if you have questions or concerns, join us, and see the process with your own eyes, not how you read about it on social media. We will again run our elections with bipartisan staff and judges, and under the observation of bipartisan watchers. My fellow clerks and I will of course audit our election after the fact, as we have every election for years. We will continue to partner with the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, and National Guard on cyber and physical security. And most importantly, we will continue to ensure that all eligible citizens — and only eligible citizens — have easy access to vote.
CP: Are there things other counties or states are doing that you think Jeffco and Colorado should be doing? Any big innovations on the horizon?
Stern: We're looking not just at other counties and states, but at the best private sector companies, too, to figure out how to better serve our constituents. In the 21st-century, people expect to be able to do whatever they need to do on their smartphone, while sitting on their couch on a Sunday evening. We will continue to expand online services and remote help options so our customers can receive accessible, efficient, and transparent service at any time and from anywhere. Some changes take longer than others — and especially those that rely on statewide software system upgrades — but we're not taking our foot off of the gas. And as I said above, if you have feedback, please let me know!
CP: What do you do to stay sane?
Stern: When I'm not clerking and recording, I spend more than 500 hours a year serving as a firefighter in Golden. I've responded to 911 calls for everything from structure and wildland fires to overturned cars, injured hikers and cardiac arrests. Still waiting for my first cat in a tree, though! To take a break from the figurative firefighting of my day job and literal firefighting of my volunteer job, I love being outside with my wife, son, and dog — backpacking, backcountry skiing and mountain biking.
• George Stern, 33, was elected clerk and recorder in Jefferson County in 2018, the first Democrat to hold the office since 1998.
• Running three major elections — presidential primary, state-level primary and general election — in eight months last year amid a global pandemic and what Stern termed "absurd claims and threats from conspiracy theorists," the office set voter turnout records, processed 99% of ballots by election night, launched a mobile vote center and signed up hundreds of thousands of voters for a ballot-tracking text service.
• Last month, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission awarded Stern's office a 2020 Clearinghouse award — a "Clearie" — in the outstanding innovation in election category for the county's online chat service.
• Stern has a bachelor's degree in U.S. history from Columbia University and a law degree from Harvard.
• After teaching high school math at Harrison High School in Colorado Springs for two years, Stern worked at then-Gov. John Hickenlooper's Office of Legal Counsel and the White House Office of Legal Counsel, before working as a management consultant for McKinsey & Company.
• Stern is a volunteer firefighter for the city of Golden and was included in the Denver Business Journal's 2021 40 Under 40 class.
• Stern and his wife, Pam, live in Golden with their newborn son and a large dog named Huckleberry Finn. She's a leadership consultant for corporate clients and is head coach of the Colorado School of Mines cycling team.