Polls close for long-time San Juan County election’s office employee

San Juan County hasn’t had an election without Doris Schaller’s help in 13 years.

“We have the best voters,” said Schaller. “We always have high turnouts.”

Schaller started work in the still two-person county election’s office in 2004. Friday, June 23 officially marked her retirement.

She joined the Friday Harbor office a year before the county switched to vote-by-mail elections and three years before the state. This was a good decision, explained Schaller; before that about 60 percent of voters who received ballots by mail voted, compared to 40 percent of voters who chose not to receive ballots and vote at the polls.

“It makes it extremely easy for people to vote,” she said. “Who knows what will happen on a random Tuesday — life happens. But if you get your ballot 18 days before the election in the mail, you have plenty of time.”

That wasn’t the only change in her tenure. Today, registered state voters receive the same ballot regardless of party affiliation, whereas, before 2005, ballots were distributed by party affiliation. New software also cuts down time to compare ballot signatures to those on file.

Schaller moved to San Juan in 2002, after her husband was hired by the county, and left her banking career to cover elections.

She started in a support role in the county election’s office but leaves as the manager. She helped candidates file for office, swore them into office, and monitored elected officials’ terms.

It was her senior year of high school in 1971 when elections first made an impression on the Wenatchee, Washington native. That was the year Congress changed the voting age from 21 to 18.

“Fellows in my class didn’t have the right the vote but were fighting for our country,” said Schaller.

She and her classmates wrote letters to congressmen and articles in the local paper to encourage the law’s adoption.

“We knew this was really unjust and the world needed to change,” said Schaller. “Our right to vote became very important to me.”

She’s seen some controversy during her term, too. Voters seemed the most upset during the 2004 election, she said, which was the year before the state moved to an open primary.

The same year, a tight governor’s race called for a machine recount, putting Dino Rossi in the lead both times, but the second recount by hand named Christine Gregoire the winner. The decision was upheld in court.

“It became the election that just wouldn’t end,” said Schaller.

What she’ll miss most about her job is the people she works with — from the treasurer’s office employees, who determine taxing districts, to GIS coordinators, who design voting district maps.

Now, Schaller will have free summers on the island for her children and grandchildren to visit, instead of preparing for the Aug. 1 primaries.

She’ll return, though, as an elections volunteer in the roughly 12-person group called the A-Team. They help feed ballots into machines to tally votes.

Camolyn Armstrong, from the San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney’s office, has been training to replace Schaller since May. And Schaller’s advice for her replacement?

“Just stay calm.”

For more information on the San Juan County Election’s Office, visit www.sanjuanco.com/1221/Elections-Office.