‘I have something to give back:’ How Washoe County’s interim registrar went from ice cream to elections
Cari-Ann Burgess’ favorite ice cream is vanilla soft serve mixed with a blue raspberry slushie, a concoction she consumed nearly every day while managing an ice cream shop in Ocean Isle Beach, a seaside town in North Carolina.
This idyllic moment provides a stark contrast to her new reality: elections. Burgess was appointed to the interim registrar position by the Washoe County commissioners on a 3-2 vote — with Republican Commissioners Jeanne Herman and Mike Clark in opposition — after former Registrar Jamie Rodriguez announced her resignation Jan. 2.
However, this isn’t Burgess’ first time working in elections and it isn’t even her first time following a predecessor who left as a result of the difficult working conditions registrars and clerks have faced since the Big Lie — the baseless conspiracy theory that the 2020 election was stolen thanks to massive voter fraud.
The Big Lie resulted not only in an attempted insurrection in the Capitol, but major turnover in the election workforce across the country, as registrars and clerks face increased threats and harassment.
Nevada is no exception. Ninety-eight percent of Nevadans will see their elections run by a different person this election compared to 2020, the year Burgess began her role as the Itasca County elections administrator in Minnesota, where she is originally from.
“I stepped into the election in September of 2020 after my predecessor had a few issues,” Burgess said in an interview with The Nevada Independent. “She felt the pressure. She felt she was starting to get a little bit more harassment in the 2020 election. And my boss at the time asked me if I could do it.”
Burgess accepted, citing her experience in elections since 2017 holding positions from poll worker to head election worker before taking on more administrative duties. But after five years working in elections in Minnesota and a year and a half as elections administrator, she left because of work-related stress.
“My two daughters, their jobs were to make sure I … had clothes, clean clothes, and make sure I ate,” Burgess said. “And they were teenagers. Leaving was the best thing I could have done emotionally and physically. I was sick. I was stressed like crazy.”
A family friend invited her to work at an ice cream parlor at Ocean Isle Beach where she worked as a store manager for a year and a half. Her time in North Carolina allowed Burgess the opportunity to reflect on what she wanted to do with the rest of her life, ultimately deciding she wanted to go back into elections.
“It was the civil service that always pulled me back,” Burgess said. “I have this knowledge, I have something to give back.”
Three registrars in four years
Rodriguez, the county’s former registrar, also noted long hours as one of her reasons for leaving the position of registrar after little more than a year full-time in the position.
“I have given everything to this position and felt that I needed to leave to allow myself a work/life balance and to be able to see family and friends again, which I have had little ability to do over the last 2 years,” Rodriguez wrote to The Nevada Independent in an email shortly after her resignation.
Rodriguez herself was an interim registrar, filling in for her predecessor, Deanna Spikula, who also noted the lack of work-life balance and increased harassment as her reasons for leaving the role after 15 years.
Mistrust in the elections process still runs rampant in Nevada.
At the Washoe County Commission in January where Burgess was appointed interim registrar, attendees sat through hours of individuals during public comment questioning her qualifications.
Many of those commenting recommended that Washoe County Commission District 4 candidate Tracey Hilton-Thomas be appointed as interim registrar. That group included Robert Beadles — a prominent Republican donor and conspiracy theorist active in state and county politics and who has filed multiple lawsuits against the county and state citing fantastical allegations of massive voter fraud.
Hilton-Thomas is the vice chair of the Washoe County Republican Party, which recently voted to oust Commissioner Clara Andriola, a Republican who voted in favor of appointing Burgess as interim registrar.
Andriola is also set to run against Hilton-Thomas in the upcoming primary election for a full term on the commission. Hilton-Thomas was praised by Beadles (himself an executive member of the county party) and others in public comment for her questioning of the county’s handling of the 2020 election.
Secretary of State Cisco Aguilar, a Democrat, told The Nevada Independent his office is working to increase transparency and trust in elections while ensuring election workers are safe and taking care of their mental health. Part of that is reaching out to clerks and registrars on an individual level.
“We're not just a regulatory agency that's constantly on them, but also to being a good partner through this,“ Aguilar said. “It's only going to benefit the voter, and that's what we're trying to do.”
For Burgess, she looks back to her time as an ice cream store manager when things get hectic, keeping a close eye on people to ensure they are doing OK mentally.
“Had I not done the ice cream shop in North Carolina, I would have never learned that,” Burgess said about the people skills she gained outside of election work. “It was a huge growth opportunity and one that I absolutely cherish.”
She moved to Nevada to get back into elections, working in Douglas County before moving to Washoe County to be the deputy registrar. Now, she said she is working to ensure she can retire from Washoe County without burning out and wants to help her staff do the same.
To accomplish this, she said she talks with her staff every day, asking them how they are doing and requiring them to take time off outside of election crunch time. She also makes sure there is constant communication between her staff, fellow clerks and the state.
“I like her thoughtfulness,” Aguilar said about Burgess. “She listens to what people are saying and figuring out how we can be better.”
Although it’s not legally required, Washoe County is taking an extra transparency step by launching a livestream of the ballot room during the election with multiple connectivity backups, after there were several in 2022.
During a public tour of the ballot room on Jan. 23 with Aguilar and Burgess, one observer said she was concerned that nonelection workers were not allowed on the floor.
“There's things that they honestly can't see [to ensure privacy]. One is the signature and two is the ballot,” Burgess said. “I can honestly tell you that if you're going to walk around the room I can guarantee that you're going to start looking at ballots and you're gonna start tabulating things in your head.”
Burgess said she encourages people to talk to her about their concerns with elections and are welcome to observe certain parts of the process, excluding the actual voter signatures and ballots.
“Observe the rest of it. Absolutely. I want you to, I want you here. But just be respectful. Be respectful and be kind. We're here doing a job, we're under scrutiny and having that kind of disruption and rudeness is not called for,” Burgess said.
Citizens can also go directly to the secretary of state’s office, which has hired additional investigators to ensure the election process is secure, if they have election concerns.
How election officials are feeling going into 2024
Nevada officials are still adjusting to the post-2020 new normal. So much so that government officials have seen a need to take action. During the 2023 legislative session, Gov. Joe Lombardo passed SB406, which made threats and force against election workers illegal. Aguilar said during a phone interview with The Nevada Independent that he is grateful to the current crop of election officials as well as those who have recently left the field.
“You are unsung heroes of democracy and we could not be where we are without you,” he said.
Aguilar said he wants additional investments to ensure greater retention among election workers and is considering establishing a career pipeline to develop future election leaders.
Burgess said she is focused on the upcoming election, protecting her team and, when things get rough, remembering the skills she gained through election work and scooping sweet treats.
“I got this,” Burgess said.
David Calvert contributed to this story.