Vote of Confidence

Registrar of voters makes sure elections run smoothly

By Jessica Laskey
November 2020

By the end of this month, Courtney Bailey-Kanelos is going to be ready for one epic nap. As the Sacramento County registrar of voters, Bailey-Kanelos is in charge of making sure elections go as smoothly as possible—and the preparation for this year’s presidential election Nov. 3 has been a doozy.

“Preparing for an election is like planning a wedding—but for 800,000 people,” says Bailey-Kanelos, who, at 36, is one of the youngest registrars in the state. “I’m so impressed with everyone who works elections. I’ve never met a more dedicated group of individuals. When I was younger and I’d go to my polling place, I took for granted how much work had gone into it. It’s not just an 8-to-5 job. During big elections like this one, it’s not unusual for us to be here until midnight entering registration forms. We spend so much time together, we become like a tightknit family.”

Bailey-Kanelos’ office is responsible not just for the visible aspects of an election, such as setting up polling places and recruiting and training poll workers, but also for ensuring people know where they can vote and making sure the election equipment is ready to process hundreds of thousands of ballots. In her former job as election manager for precinct operations, she helped the county transition from polling places to vote centers as part of the Voter’s Choice Act in 2018.

In non-election years, the registrar’s office is also responsible for maintaining voter files, making sure procedural updates are implemented in accordance with legislative changes, proofing and translating all instructions and signage into 13 languages as required by state law, processing initiative petitions from the community, and maintaining outreach and education programs to keep the public informed and engaged.

“It’s a big job,” Bailey-Kanelos admits, though she was certainly prepared for it. The Woodland native grew up in a family of public servants—her dad worked for the state Legislature and her mom worked for the Woodland Police Department. She moved to Sacramento to attend City College with plans to become a history teacher. In 2004, she saw a notice that the county elections office was hiring temporary workers for the upcoming presidential election, so she signed up—and never left.

During the next 16 years, Courtney Bailey-Kanelos moved up the ranks, serving first as an election clerk, then election assistant, then election supervisor, then election manager for precinct operations, until she was hired as the county registrar of voters in 2018.

“I didn’t initially apply (for the position) because I thought, ‘That’s a crazy job, I don’t want that,’” the Midtown resident recalls. “But I met with other election officials throughout the state and they were so supportive that it made the idea less scary.

After I got a second interview, I called my mom and started crying. She asked if it hadn’t gone well and I said, ‘No, it went really well, and now I’m scared.’ But I got so much support from my peers at the county and state level that I decided to give it a go.”

Two years into the job, Courtney Bailey-Kanelos is hitting her stride and making her mark. One of the issues that drives her most is access: making sure everyone in the community, regardless of physical ability or native language, can have their voices heard.

“We all have the same goal in mind regardless of how you get there,” Bailey-Kanelos says of her Voter Registration and Elections colleagues. “We’re public servants, so we try to be as transparent as possible. Anyone should be able to watch what we do, ask questions and get the correct information to cast an educated ballot.

“This is a stressful time and it can be challenging, but at end of the day, if we can help people understand what we do to maintain the security and integrity of our elections—that’s what keeps me going.”

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Jessica Laskey can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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