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Longtime OC Registrar Of Voters Neal Kelley — Known For Making Major Changes In How Orange County Votes — Is Set To Retire In March

Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley holds a large election ballot for the 2020 election while standing in an office with dark wood furniture. He has glasses and gray hair and wears a dark suit with a blue shirt and green striped tie.
Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley in 2020.
(Libby Denkmann
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Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley will retire next month. He has overseen OC’s election system for the past 17 years.

Kelley is known for making some major changes to the way OC handled voting on his watch, including becoming the first county in California to fully shift from electronic voting to a paper system.

“The best thing you can do is to create paper ballots that are much more auditable than electronic systems,” Kelley said on our newsroom’s public affairs program, AirTalk. “So even if you have people that may not trust the system going into it, post-election, we're running audits and tests on our systems that aren't even required by law. So it's those kinds of things that can add to the confidence level for voters.”

At the moment, Kelley said he’s unable to share who will be taking his top spot at the Registrar’s office, but that he’s “looking forward to working with him on a smooth transition."

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Six people stand on the sidewalk outside a tan building with a white sign with red lettering that reads "Vote" with a blue arrow pointing toward the building's entrance in Orange County, California. Three voters are visible, one with long blonde hair wearing a black top and tan paints, one with short light brown hair wearing all black, then a third wearing a dark blue checkered shirt with light blue shorts and black shoes.
Drive-through ballot drop-off and voting underway at the Orange County Registrar's Office on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Kelley's time at the helm of the sixth-largest voting district in the nation was especially eventful in recent years. OC flipped from red to blue in the 2016 presidential election, congressional seats then flipped from red to blue in 2018, then, two years later, the county had record-breaking voter turnout for the 2020 election.

"We have just passed the total turnout for the 2008 presidential general election,”Kelley told LAist in 2020. “But if you look at 2016, we have hit the total number of ballots cast in that election as well. And then just recently, in 2012, we hit that number last night also. So far, [we are seeing] historic numbers going back to '08."

The American electoral system’s storied history is not lost on Kelley. On KPCC's AirTalk, he referenced the writings of Ben Franklin, which hammered home the need to monitor the people counting the votes, a process that took the spotlight at districts the whole country over during the 2020 election.

The role itself has evolved greatly over the past two decades, Kelley went on to tell AirTalk.

“It changed from sort of this quiet, sleepy little job … [where] you … print[ed] ballots and … count[ed] votes, to handling all sorts of other issues like the public and the media and the scrutiny that comes with that. So it really has changed.”

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