Final vote Retiring county elections director has fought many election battles
For most of the year, Elections Director George Gilbert works behind the scenes preparing for democracy’s greatest show.
Most people saw the casually dressed and well-spoken Gilbert every two or four years on television explaining the details of voting.
After 25 years, Gilbert, 64, has seen his last show. He will retire March 1, ending a career in which he helped to bring local elections into the electronic age while also earning national recognition for his expertise.
“This is like show business, but you do not get a chance to rehearse,” Gilbert said. “There is no way to practice for an election. You are live on stage. The election just happens.”
Supervising local elections was not a job Gilbert trained to do. After earning economic degrees at the University of Florida and Florida State University, he worked for the Congressional Research Service in Washington, D.C., and then for six years for two U.S. senators. He also worked in a family business.
“Then I got married and moved to Greensboro and needed a job,” Gilbert recalled. “I was a house husband, but my wife did not want me in that role at that time.
Gilbert’s father-in-law sent him a newspaper clipping for the Guilford County job.
“So I applied for the job. I thought I was well-prepared with 15 years of work experience, but I did not know what I was prepared for,” he said.
Gilbert immediately jumped into a controversy left over from 1986. There was a recount in the District 6 Congressional race in which Republican U.S. Rep. Howard Coble defeated former Democratic Congressman Robin Britt in a rematch by 79 votes.
Gilbert soon saw the county did not have the equipment to get through the process easily.
“The county was still using punch cards for voting,” Gilbert said.
By the next election, the county had new electronic machines, and Gilbert has been at the cutting edge of electronic voting ever since.
“I came here as a result of the Coble-Britt election. I made most of my mistakes during the first year and learned a lot. We were changing voting systems and the staff helped me a lot,” Gilbert recalled.
The machines arrived when main frame computers dominated.
“There were a couple of desktops around, but no one knew how to use them for spreadsheets,” Gilbert said. “The typewriter was the main office machine. I knew what computers could do and how they could handle a database. But we had to learn to do that.”
Software advances have included mapping voters by address to draw precincts.
“We have used electronic voting in all the elections we’ve had since I have been here,” Gilbert said. “We are in the fourth generation now. We have always had high-tech elections for the voter and the voters have liked it.”
The changes came with some grumbles.
“In the early years, we did not have enough machines, and three- and four-hour voting lines were widespread. It took several years for us to build up enough machines to handle the volume,” Gilbert said. “By 2000, we were in good shape.”
Early voting solved many problems, Gilbert said.
“We can vote everybody in early voting on 400 machines with early voting,” Gilbert said. “On Election Day, you can get only 150 votes per machine, compared to 400 in early voting. Despite the cost, early voting has saved the county millions of dollars.”
Through those years, Gilbert became an electronic voting machine expert. He testified before the a U.S. Senate committee in 1987 defending the security of electronic voting and his comments have appeared in the press across the country.
Electronic voting complaints recycled in 2012 from 2008. Gilbert and other election officials came under fire after some votes came out wrong because of calibration errors. The error was easy one for voters to catch and was limited to a handful of machines.
While electronic voting progressed, there were some other bumps along the way. One of the most contentious election battles in Guilford County came in 2004 when former Republican Commissioner Trudy Wade, now a state senator, went up against former Democratic Commissioner John Parks of High Point for an at-large seat. The closely contested election battle dragged on for over a year before Parks was finally declared the winner.
“That protest was not that difficult for us,” Gilbert recalled. “It was time consuming and protracted in the courts. Our work here was finished fairly quickly. There were questions of which ballot to count. The Board of Elections decided which ballots to count and the courts upheld that 18 months later.”
That’s why many elections officials shun the drama of close elections and pray for landslide results.
“On election night, the opinions election officials have about candidates just don’t matter,” Gilbert said. “We just want the margins to be wide. Sometimes, we don’t care who wins. For us, a margin of a few hundred votes is not close anymore, or a double-digit lead. A close one is less than 10 votes. But we have never had an election overturned because of a count.”
If anyone has seen the flaws of democracy, it’s Gilbert.
“But I have an abiding respect for the political system and government,” he said. “It is ego-driven for politicians, but the process creates a balance. For all its flaws, our system is a good way to govern. We need to put on a good show, but we need to care, too. We are here for the people. Making sure no one cheated the process has been rewarding for me.”
Gilbert thinks of the end of his career as the end of a marathon.
“Think of the marathon runner,” Gilbert said. “You don’t see all the people who supported the runner, but they should get credit too.”
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