An interview with Gilberto Zelaya, Community Engagement/Public Information Officer for Montgomery County, Maryland (USA) BOE.
With years working in elections, Gilberto Zelaya has now – after a pandemic election – seen just about everything. Dr. Z, as he’s called by many in Montgomery County, Maryland where he serves, sees communication as the lynchpin to successful elections and high voter turnout. Asked for his top three communication topics for administrators ahead of an election, Zelaya focuses on core messages.
“They need to clearly inform voters about the different ways to vote, and how to vote on their system. For in-person voting, paper vs. ballot marking device, and alternatives such as vote by mail or via ballot drop box. It is also critical to explain the different redundancies and security systems in place to secure every vote as intended by each voter.”
Zelaya also recognizes that engaged, informed voters help make administrators’ jobs easier. “They should teach voters how to leverage their online voter registration system to review/update their voter registration or to register to vote, and then encourage them to do so. This strengthens the franchise by enabling local boards to work off of up-to-date voter rolls to coordinate early voting, day-of voting, and vote-by-mail deliverables. EVERYTHING is based off the rolls: allocation of equipment, resources, election poll workers, supplies – everything.”
From Zelaya’s perspective, election technology isn’t just voting machines, but the whole of tools that can be used to help voters. The biggest impact of technology on elections? Providing “…access to valuable information in an expeditious manner to facilitate voter access to the franchise.”
In his role as an election judge, technology is an important tool for smooth elections. “The three P’s of project management are key: people, process, and performance. These things are enhanced by technology through things like chain of custody, recruitment & training. They are all key elements to serving the electorate.”
When asked what he would like to see get better in elections processes, Dr. Z is clear: teamwork makes the dream work, but you still have to let the professionals do their job. “I’d like to widen the communication bandwidth between all parties in the election process: state delegations, elected officials, and voters alike. It’s a team effort. At the end of the day local board officials and staff will get the work done while preforming admirably. Don’t forget…not all ideas are good ideas… “WE DO ELECTIONS!”
Coming to elections from a prior career in public health (that’s where he got his Ph.D., and thus the Dr. Z nickname), Zelaya is particularly focused on voting blocs that are often disenfranchised. “It’s paramount local boards build community inroads through effective and consistent engagement to foster deep ties with voters with disabilities and non-native English speakers. We aim to “encourage” our voters, not “entice” them to serve and/or to vote in greater numbers. Trust is not key, it’s EVERYTHING!”
For administrators and officials to gain that trust, he says, it really boils down to three things: “Transparency, access to information, and consistent voter engagement.”