Spotlight: Shelly Growden

Shelly Growden, State of Alaska Division of Elections Elections System Manager, poses in her office Wednesday morning, June 29, 2016. Growden, who retired last week(her last day was June 30), is the Spotlight for the week.

FAIRBANKS — If you’ve ever spent weeks planning and preparing to host a large party, you might have a fraction of an idea what it’s like to be Shelly Growden.

Growden worked as the regional election supervisor in Fairbanks for nearly 16 years and then as the statewide election systems manager for another nine years. 

On Thursday, she stepped out of her office at the Division of Elections office in Fairbanks and into retirement.

She started in elections after working for John Coghill Sr. When Coghill was elected lieutenant governor, he appointed Growden to lead elections in Interior Alaska.

For the last 25 years, Growden has been in charge of making sure elections run smoothly and without error. In many ways, her year builds up to a single day, on which the previous 364 days of work are all judged.

“You’ve done all this work. You’ve put in all this time and energy and effort. You hope people show up to it,” Growden said. “It’s like a party: You want people to show up to your party; we want people to show up to the polls.”

Growden and the other election officials perform a year of preparation, and then, on their biggest day, they hand the reins to several thousand temporary polling place employees. High-level election officials like Growden are working constantly throughout election day, but, since they can’t be everywhere at once, they have to resign themselves to a certain lack of control. 

When the success of your party is essential to the function of democracy, the pressure can be a bit high. 

The goal of the rest of the year, according to Growden, is to make sure things run smoothly enough on election day that no one has a reason to claim they were wronged.

“I tell staff, there’s always going to be a loser. Losers don’t like losing, and so our job is to make sure that they can’t identify anything we did that caused them to lose,” Growden said. “We have to uphold the public’s trust and confidence in our ability to conduct fair, impartial elections.”

Once public trust is lost, it can be hard to get back. Growden has helped guide the state through some of its most logistically difficult elections. 

In 1994, while she was regional supervisor in Fairbanks, the state undertook a recount election using punch-card ballots, the same kind that caused so much anxiety in Florida during the 2000 presidential election.

In 2010, as statewide election systems manager, Growden oversaw the counting of votes in the U.S. Senate race, in which Lisa Murkowski became just the second person in history to win a full Senate term via write-in.

Preparing for the coming year’s election isn’t the only thing Growden has done during her time at Elections. During her quarter-century with the division, she has not only witnessed but also helped oversee a dramatic evolution of election technology in Alaska. 

In 2015, Growden presided over the transfer of all the state’s voter registration records to a new system. Prior to the change, Department of Motor Vehicles locations accepted roughly 50,000 voter registration forms each year and had to print and mail them all to the Division of Elections.

Through this new system, Growden was also able to implement online voter registration in Alaska for the first time. That online voter registration went live in April.

She also oversaw the state’s push to interpret ballots into Alaska Native languages. Through this role, she helped create a Yup’ik translation panel to craft a glossary of election terms. The state now has audio translation ballots for multiple dialects of Yup’ik, Koyukon, Gwich’in and Inupiaq.

With these final projects completed, after years of protecting the public process, Growden said she now feels she can pass the torch to others: “I feel good about retiring now.”

The day after the election, all the work feels worth it, she said.

“It’s really rewarding at the end when you see everything you’ve gone through, and you know those voters had the opportunity to cast that ballot,” Growden said. 

After ending her career in elections after so many years, Growden said she plans to leave town for the weekend and relax, though it may not be long before she’s looking for the next opportunity to contribute.

“I’m waking up Friday, and I don’t have to go to work. It’s going to be very strange,” she said.

As for what might come next, that’s still to be determined.

“I’m wondering,” she said. “I’m wondering.”

Contact staff writer Weston Morrow at 459-7520. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMschools.

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