Alamance County’s longtime elections director set to retire

The political winds have changed more than once since Kathy Holland first joined Alamance County’s elections office as a voter registration coordinator in June of 1990.

Over the coming 31 years, Holland would outlast five Presidential administrations and watch an equivalent number of governors leave office in Raleigh. She would also witness a veritable cascade of local officials come and go as well as countless swings in the balance of power at all levels of government.

Outgoing Alamance County elections director Kathy Holland in one of her last days in the office before retirement after 31 years at the board of elections, 18 as its director.

But, through it all, Holland has remained committed to her role as a neutral administrator of the electoral process – both in her initial capacity as a voter registration coordinator and in her subsequent post as the head of the elections office in Alamance County.

“I became elections director on June 1, 2003,” Holland goes on to recall, “and of all the department heads who worked for the county back then, I think I’m the only one still standing.”

Since 2003, Holland has served at the head of the professional staff that handles all aspects of the electoral process within the county’s borders. During her 18 years at the helm, this lifelong Alamance County resident has been tasked with everything from the procurement of voting equipment and the maintenance of voter registration records to enumeration of ballots after area residents go to the polls. She has also witnessed quite a few controversies, ranging from allegations of voter fraud by convicted felons to a recent claim of malfeasance against the chairman of Alamance County’s board of elections.

Now, as Holland prepares to hang up her lanyard after more than 30 years on the job, she is the first to admit just how much the profession has changed through the years.

“When I first came here, we had about 40,000 registered voters; now, we have over 110,000,” she observes. “Election security has also become much more serious during my tenure. I never would have thought, 20 years ago, that Homeland Security would one day come to my office to review our facilities.”

Yet, the ongoing War on Terrorism has, indeed, seen federal agents pay a call at the local elections office. Holland recalls that these visiting G-men helpfully pointed out some potential security hazards to her and her staff, such as a large trashcan outside the front door that they figured could serve as a receptacle for a well-hidden explosive device.

Holland’s experiences with interjurisdictional relations haven’t always been as benign as this courtesy visit from the friendly folks at Homeland Security. More of often than not, the intervention of higher-ranking officials has been a source of aggravation for her and her colleagues – as was the case earlier this month when the state supreme court cancelled next spring’s primaries in light of a legal challenge to North Carolina’s new Congressional and legislative districts.

Holland and her staff have also struggled at times to meet the ever-changing rules and requirements that govern the electoral process in North Carolina. This game of regulatory Whack-a-Mole has been particularly dizzying in the case of voter IDs, which have been alternatively ratified, postponed, approved by the state’s voters, and overturned by the courts since they were first broached in the General Assembly in 2013.

Another set of vertigo-inducing regs has governed the state’s standards for voting equipment. Over the years, these fluctuating restrictions have seen Alamance County go from machine-scanned paper ballots to electronic voting machines to electronic machines with paper receipts and finally back to paper ballots.

The rules that regulate voting may be something of a moving target. But there is one principle that seems to inevitably creep into the conduct of elections in Alamance County – and so far, no court has been able to prevent Murphy’s Law from intervening in the electoral process.

Even Holland concedes that things can, and do, go wrong in spite of the best efforts of her and her colleagues. It is here, however, that the county’s outgoing elections director has made what could be her greatest contribution to elections in North Carolina.

Holland recalls that, in response to the inevitable glitches that occur after voters go to the polls, she made it her mission to extend the window of time that local elections officials have to process ballots from early voting.

Originally, each county’s elections office was required to wait until the polls closed on Election Day before its staff could even unbox the ballots cast before the date of the vote. In order to reduce the consequent bottlenecks, Holland teamed up with the late state representative Cary Allred to rewrite the rules so that elections officials can now process the ballots beforehand, even if they’re still prohibited from posting any returns before the polls have officially closed.

Holland acknowledges that she has also taken the initiative to implement other protocols to ensure that election results in Alamance County are as timely and accurate as possible. She noted that, in response to a snafu with electronic memory cards in 2006, she instituted a series of checks to ensure that precinct officials don’t inadvertently fail to pass information along to the county’s elections office. Holland also recalls other procedures that she has developed to safeguard the integrity of ballots and elections equipment.

“We have so many checks and balances,” she added. “Even in the equipment warehouse, we have three factor authentication. If somebody wanted to get in there, they’d need my key, my code, and my fob.”

In addition to bringing these innovations to Alamance County, Holland has also been able to make a considerable impact at the state level thanks to her work with the N.C. Board of Elections as well as her long-time involvement with the N.C. Association of Elections Directors. In fact, the Alamance County native is not only a member of the latter organization; she also presently serves as its president.

[Story continues below photos from December 17 retirement reception.]

Kathy and Monte Holland with Karen Brinson Bell, the executive director of the state board of elections, and state representative Dennis Riddell and his wife Polly; in the center of the table is the UNC football signed by football coach Mack Brown.
Kathy Holland inspects the UNC football signed by UNC coach Mack Brown. Former board of elections chairman Ben Ansbacher is standing in the background.
Current county commissioner chairman John Paisley, Jr. recalled that while he was the chairman of the board of elections 18 years ago, his board had promoted Holland to her current position as director of elections for Alamance County
Current elections board chairman Dorothy Yarborough; Dawn Hurdle, who has been designated by the local board as Holland’s successor; Kathy Holland; and her husband Monte Holland, a retired sheriff’s deputy.

Holland nevertheless admits that even her best efforts to improve statewide protocols haven’t banished the gremlin of human error from the electoral process – particularly when that error comes from a candidate or a member of the general public. The county’s outgoing elections director insists that the best policy in these cases is to be as courteous as possible while ensuring that the misguided interlocuter receives the correct information.

“We once had an uncontested candidate come into the office after the election,” Holland went on to recount one particularly memorable misunderstanding, “and they said “Kathy, I think something is wrong with the votes. The number of people who said they were voting for me in one of the precincts does not equal the number of people that you reported.’ I just told them to go to Raleigh, and tell them the same thing they told me.”

With her retirement set to begin at the end of the month, Holland will soon get a reprieve from the delicate and messy situations that have preoccupied her as the county’s elections director.

Now, for the first time in more than three decades, Holland will be able to rest and relax with her husband Monty, who retired from the local sheriff’s department several years ago. She’ll also be able to dedicate herself more fully to her congregational duties at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, where she has held a number of posts in the past ranging from financial secretary to a vacation Bible school teacher.

In the meantime, Holland hopes to indulge some of the extracurricular interests that she has put off due to the pressures of her career. Among other things, she plans to resume her one-time involvement with Meals on Wheels and the local United Way and resume tutoring elementary school students in reading and math. An avid fan of Carolina football, Holland will also have more opportunities to see the Tar Heels in action – not to mention a football signed by UNC’s coach Mack Brown that she received at her retirement gala earlier this month.

Yet, in the final tally, Holland insists that she doesn’t have any regrets about the time and effort she has previously dedicated to the voting public of Alamance County.

“It’s a time-consuming career,” she confessed. “It’s one where you have to love what you do and be devoted to it.

“It’s been an adventure,” she added, “and I appreciate the opportunity I have had to serve the voters of this county.”