Meet the Faces of Democracy: Wesley Wilcox
Florida Republican talks about his love of running elections, tackling cybersecurity challenges, and solving Rubik’s Cubes
Beckel is the research director for Issue One, a crosspartisan political reform group. He is an intern for Issue One.
More than 10,000 officials across the country run U.S. elections. This interview is part of a series highlighting the election heroes who are the faces of democracy.
Wesley Wilcox, a registered Republican, has more than 32 years of experience in election administration. Since his successful election in November 2012, he has served as the supervisor of elections for Marion County, Fla., though he began working in Marion County in 2001, when he was hired as the systems administrator.
The fifth-largest county in Florida by area, Marion is in the northern part of the state. The county seat is Ocala, which is home to more than 400 thoroughbred horse farms and equestrian training centers, leading some to call the city the "Horse Capital of the World."
Wilcox excels at leveraging his computer science background to strengthen elections infrastructure. He is a member — and past president — of the Florida Supervisors of Elections, which represents the state's 67 election supervisors at the state capital in Tallahassee. He is a member of the board of directors of the Election Center (also known as the National Association of Election Officials), an organization that inducted him into its hall of fame last year. He also currently serves as chair of the Elections Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center, a nationwide partnership for election officials focused on cybersecurity issues that was created after elections were deemed “critical infrastructure” by the federal government in the wake of the 2016 election.
A father of three sons, Wilcox describes himself as "highly competitive" and enjoyed helping his boys make prize-winning pinewood derby cars during their Cub Scout years. He can also solve a Rubik's Cube in under three minutes.
Since 2022, he has been part of Issue One’s Faces of Democracy campaign advocating for protections for election workers and for regular, predictable and sufficient federal funding of elections.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Issue One: How did you end up in this profession?
Wesley Wilcox: I have a bachelor's in computer science. I was hired by a guy in 1990 as a Cobalt programmer. It was all election-related stuff. We wrote a software package. It got very popular, and I was traveling quite a bit. As I was starting a young family, we decided that maybe I didn’t need to travel so much. One of my former customers actually called me out of the blue and said, “Hey, do you want to come to Florida and be our systems administrator?” And so I did that. And then the supervisor here in Marion County called me and basically did the same thing, in 2001, right after the 2000 presidential election. I just kept working at it and became the assistant supervisor, and then when she retired, I decided to run for the position myself and was fortunate to win.
IO: What part of the election administration story in your area do you think is not told enough or is not widely understood enough?
WW: First off, how accurate the tabulation systems actually are. To be certified for use in the state of Florida, one tabulator has to do what is called a mass ballot count, and it’s got to be flawless. So the tabulation systems are extremely accurate, better than any human could ever even contemplate doing.
People also do not understand that we do not discuss party stuff, whether it be a candidate or an issue. Politics never creeps into the conversation. The general public just cannot understand that.
IO: How many voters are on the rolls in your jurisdiction and what are the main challenges of a jurisdiction of that size?
Wesley Wilcox: We are just under 250,000 registered voters. One of the biggest challenges for a jurisdiction my size is we are a large geographical area. We are larger than the state of Rhode Island — but not nearly as dense. The logistics of servicing an area of that size is difficult. We’ve got 105 polling places spread throughout the county, and getting enough locations that are ADA compliant, that have the necessary parking, that are available on a random Tuesday in November — and August and this March — is a challenge.
IO: Many people are surprised to learn that the federal government does not routinely fund election administration. Why do you think the federal government should regularly fund elections?
WW: They have the prime real estate on the ballot!
Elections in the state of Florida are funded at the local jurisdiction level, so the county general fund is the entity that actually pays for the ballot and the election process, and therefore, in my opinion, the county should get top billing.
There have been multiple studies about ballot fatigue. Whatever is first on the ballot is going to have your highest number of votes cast, and the last thing on the ballot is going to have the fewest. I recognize that in a certain percentage of people's minds, the only thing they ever vote for is president. I get that, but for the vast majority of us, that’s not true.
IO: What is the typical price tag for running an election in Marion County?
WW: Probably just under $500,000, and the vast majority of that cost is personnel — meaning election workers, whether they be for early voting or Election Day. Over half of the cost is purely personnel.
IO: You have served as the chair of the Elections Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center, or EI-ISAC, which provides cybersecurity resources and best practices to election officials. How has the conversation around cybersecurity changed since you first started administering elections?
WW: If I go multi-decades, since I first started administering elections back in 1990, it is light years different than where we were back then.
Back then, they were DOS-based machines, and the only security you had was physical security. If you could get in the building or into the room, whether it be on the registration side or the tabulation side, you could control everything you wanted. There wasn’t a password when you turned your computer on.
Fast forward to 2017, when elections were deemed critical infrastructure. The conversation has greatly increased since then. Florida is a leader in the U.S. in cybersecurity protocols and processes, as it relates to elections. When the EI-ISAC was formed, it helped continue to push the rest of the country to get that same type of education about cybersecurity issues — you know, explaining what phishing is, why you should not click on attachments. And now it’s evolved into artificial intelligence, AI, and what does that mean coming at us?
The famous line with cybersecurity is, we are in a race with no finish line. As long as we continue to do this, we need to continue to do it and get better at it. What is good enough today will not be good enough for tomorrow.
IO: Can you please say more about what makes Florida a leader on the cybersecurity front?
WW: We were first in the nation to have 100 percent membership in the EI-ISAC. We were the first state in the nation to install an Albert sensor at every elections office and the secretary of state's office. We have been doing cybersecurity trainings of some sort for more than a decade. I’ve got a certification here in the state of Florida called the Florida Certified Election Professional, and there are classes focused on cybersecurity issues, including ensuring that your password policies are updated and that you have a decent cyber hygiene program. Several years ago, the state of Florida hired “cyber navigators” at the Department of State, and they would come in and do evaluations from a cybersecurity perspective.
These are the things that we have done here that, unfortunately, not every state in the country has been able to do — sometimes for valid reasons. In Michigan and Wisconsin, elections are run at a much lower level than the county level. Each little town has its own election department. There are thousands of jurisdictions in Michigan and Wisconsin, as opposed to 67 here in Florida.
IO: Over the past few years, the federal government has given states some funding to shore up cybersecurity efforts, but that funding has not been consistent. Why is that a challenge from an election administrator's perspective?
WW: It is an extreme challenge because it limits your ability to do anything except for single-item-type purchases. I could go buy a printer, but I cannot buy a software subscription for an antivirus program because next year, there is going to be another charge. If I spent $1,000 on an antivirus program this year, well, guess what? Next year, it is going to be $1,000 too. If I paid for that with federal funds, next year I am going to have to try to figure out how to pay for it with our own funds. That’s the problem that a lot of jurisdictions get into.
IO: Florida has been called a leader when it comes to the pre-processing of vote-by-mail ballots. In 2020, across the country, there were issues with a record number of absentee and mail ballots coming into some states, and some jurisdictions were not used to dealing with that magnitude of ballots coming in — or some places, like Pennsylvania, the law prohibited election officials from even opening ballots until Election Day. What would you say are the merits of pre-processing prior to Election Day?
WW: There are several things the state of Florida does well and being able to pre-process vote-by-mail ballots is one of the best things that we do. It not only allows us to post basically 100 percent of the results on election night, but it also allows us to work through challenges earlier in the process, in a much less high-intensity environment.
Think about election night. In Pennsylvania, they couldn’t start opening vote-by-mail ballots until the polls closed. All the personnel there, they have probably been in the office for 15 hours or more, and now you are going to ask somebody to make good sound decisions after being in the office 15, 16, 1, or more hours straight. I am sorry, at a certain point, there is a diminishment of return. You just don’t make the best decisions after working 18 hours.
And the biggest thing that leads to voter confidence is us being able to publish results basically when the polls close. Polls close in the state of Florida at 7:00, and every election that I have been a part of here in Marion County, over 20 years, we have posted vote-by-mail results by 7:30 pm, basically 100 percent done. You can still do cures [when voters can fix issues with their ballots], and [Uniformed And Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act] ballots have 10 days to be counted, but every ballot that is legally cast as of election night has been processed, and we are virtually done with vote-by-mail.
IO: Different states have different rules about what election-specific transparency measures are utilized, such as what gets live-streamed or broadcast on YouTube for people to follow along. Could you briefly clarify what the rules are in Florida?
WW: We are government in the sunshine, so basically anything a government agency does is open for inspection. Any document that we have that does not have an explicit exemption in the statute is open for inspection.
Also, pretty much everything we do is open for people to come watch. Because of the unfortunate environment that we are in, physical security is much more prevalent in our mindset than it was six or eight years ago.
Six or eight years ago, if you wanted to attend a canvassing board meeting, you would come into the same room that the canvassing board was in. Three of us would be sitting at a table, and the audience was basically just five feet away from us, a plastic stanchion between us, you know, little plastic ropes. Anybody could have stepped across them, and people we knew, they would step across, and we would talk.
But unfortunately, in today's world, physical security is heightened, and so everything we have to do, especially as it relates to ballots, has to be a digital representation. We have to get video cameras and display monitors. And you can’t just view it from one angle. If the room is large, you’ve got to get two different spots.
IO: Are physical security concerns an issue in all counties in Florida?
WW: Yes, even in the smallest jurisdictions. Just because you are in a small county doesn’t mean you don’t have to be concerned about security issues. There could still be somebody who may have mental health issues or attempts to do somebody harm or do the election harm.
IO: Outside of being passionate about running safe and secure elections, what are your hobbies, or what is a fun fact about you that most people might not know?
WW: I have three sons — my three sons, for those of you of a certain age. From the time they were born until the youngest one left home, my life outside of work was basically consumed by them, by family stuff. I would get home in the evenings and throw a football back and forth for an hour. That’s just what we did all the time.
We also did all the Cub Scout stuff, with the little pinewood derby cars. I’m a highly competitive person. I will race you at darn near anything. We built pinewood derby cars for the eight-year span or whatever it was that all three sons were in Cub Scouts. Every year, at least one of them won the overall championship. I’ve still got all those cars at home.
Another little-known and useless fact is I love the Rubik's Cube, and I can do it consistently in under three minutes. I have done it on stage before. They did not believe me at a state conference. So they introduced me first, handed me a cube, and said, “Here you go.” And by the time they got the other folks introduced, I was done.
IO: What is your favorite book or movie?
WW: My oldest son is an avid reader. He got me to read the Harry Potter books, and I think the entire Harry Potter series is a wonderful read.
IO: Which historical figure would you have most liked to have had an opportunity to meet?
WW: Any of the people who put together the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and founded this country, I would go to dinner or lunch with any of them. I mean, the amount of forethought that went into building those documents almost 250 years ago — I guess that’s why they call them forefathers! I have seen the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in D.C., and I still get goosebumps just looking at them.
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