I don’t think anyone in Wyoming is more capable of supervising an election during the COVID-19 pandemic than Debra Lee. Not only does she understand how vital it is to protect people’s voting rights; she’s put her life on the line doing so.
“I’ve been shot at, evacuated and had the windows of my home blown out,” said Lee, the Laramie County clerk since 2016. “If I hadn’t made the decision one day to go to the bank instead of joining a group of election officials to look at some quarantined ballots, I would have been kidnapped in Afghanistan.”
Lee assisted and administered elections in many turbulent countries from 1996 to 2011 as a private contractor before returning to Cheyenne, where she worked for several years in the secretary of state’s elections division before being appointed Laramie County clerk in 2016 following the death of longtime clerk Debbye Lathrop. Lee won re-election in 2018.
In addition to Afghanistan, she served in Bosnia, Kosovo, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Lebanon and Sudan. It’s hardly a list of vacation destinations, but Lee described her work as “very enjoyable and challenging.”
“It was while doing that work that I became extremely passionate about elections, and recognizing and appreciating the power of the right to vote and the meaning it has,” Lee said.
After a stint in the Peace Corps, Lee earned a master’s degree in international administration. She got an opportunity to help run the first elections in Bosnia after its war ended 25 years ago, and that led her on a path of international election work.
The work entailed some harrowing experiences.
In East Timor — now officially the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste — Lee and another woman were helping people register to vote at a school compound when men wearing ski masks drove up and began firing weapons into the air.
“People [in line] were crying and screaming and hiding behind us,” she recalled. “That was an incident of voter intimidation. We closed registration for the day, then we opened it up the next day.
“Those people wanted their freedom so badly, and they took immense risks to be able to have the choice to be free, to be an independent country,” Lee added. “I was just so humbled by their bravery and commitment to do something that we take for granted here.”
I don’t think people in that East Timor line would be able to fathom why many Americans don’t even register to vote. In the 2016 presidential election, Lee noted, only 58% of Wyoming’s voting-age population cast a ballot.
She’s tackled tougher election challenges than American apathy, though. In Sudan, for example, Lee dealt with language barriers and enormous cultural hurdles.
“In Sudan, the concept of a secret ballot is unknown; no one had ever heard of that sort of thing,” she explained. “The Sudanese have an expression, ‘Your secret is in the well,’ so in the [election] graphics they used that symbolism, your ballot is like your secret in the well.”
“We used music, theatre, parables, all sorts of ways to communicate,” Lee added. “A lot of the population we were working with couldn’t read or write.”
In Afghanistan, Lee saw voting and registration sites segregated by gender. A bus with female registration workers was blown up, Lee said, and several women were killed.
“We wanted to call a halt to registration across the country for a while, because we feared there would be many more attacks at women’s sites,” Lee said. “But women were calling us up, saying, ‘We want to register, we’ve been waiting so long for this chance.’ It was awe-inspiring.”
Now, like Wyoming’s other 22 county clerks, Lee is trying to run an election during the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s challenging every day, because we don’t know what will happen,” she said. “We just pray for the safety of our election officials and try to do the best we can to make everyone as safe as possible.”
The number of Laramie County polling places has decreased from 13 two years ago to seven. While election officials will all wear face coverings, they will be encouraged but not required for voters. Masks, gloves and hand sanitizer will be made available.
“We’ve made it as touch-free an experience as we can for voters,” Lee said. “We’re providing disposable paper straws that voters can use to make their choices on the touch screen. It works fabulously.”
Many primary voters have decided to opt out of voting in person, most likely to protect their health. In the last two primary elections in Laramie County, an average of 1,600 registered voters requested absentee ballots. By last Friday, Lee said her office had sent out 10,658 ballots for the Aug. 18 election.
In all counties, absentee voters can mail in their ballots, deliver them to the local county clerk’s office or place them in a designated drop-box. Lee is confident all aspects of voting in Wyoming, either in person or absentee, are secure, she said.
President Trump can try all he wants to undermine faith in our elections with tweets alleging rampant vote-by-mail fraud. I’m putting my trust in true civil servants like Lee and her colleagues. I think we all know who the fraud is at this point.
As Federal Elections Commission member Ellen Weintraub wrote recently, “There’s simply no basis for the conspiracy theory that voting by mail causes fraud. None.”
Voting absentee was initiated during the Civil War as a way to allow soldiers to vote. Wyoming authorized absentee voting in 1931, and approved “no excuse” absentee voting 60 years later.
Lee’s parents in Cheyenne have voted absentee for many years, she said. “They love it,” she said. “They like to be able to sit at the kitchen table and put the newspaper out with the candidate interviews, and sit and discuss it as a family and think about it.”
Lee said educating younger voters about how to mail in an absentee ballot can be a challenge. In this digital communications age, many simply don’t use the mail or even know how to buy postage stamps.
So if you have a young person at home who can’t figure out how to vote by mail, send them Lee’s way. If she can teach a brand new Sudanese voter the meaning of a secret ballot, pointing the average 18-year-old Wyomingite in the direction of the post office should be a piece of cake.