It’s a busy time at the Washoe County Registrar of Voters office on Ninth Street and Oddie Boulevard during the two-week window (May 6-20) for candidates to file to run for public office in Washoe County. Overseeing elections is Dan Burk, Washoe County’s Registrar of Voters since December 1998. Before that, Burk spent 17 years as the director of records and elections in Corvallis, Ore. Burk believes in democracy—despite the changes he’s seen over the years in voter participation (it’s down) and common courtesy among candidates for political office (it’s down, too). Check out candidate info online at www.co.washoe.nv.us/voters.
What brought you to Reno?
I got tired of the wet in Oregon—you don’t tan there, you rust. I decided I’d rather live someplace beautiful—with better weather.
What changes have you seen in the election process over the years?
Technology has changed tremendously. When I started doing this, everyone voted using punch cards. Now, in the next two years, no one in the nation will be using punch cards.
There’s been a downside, too. A certain gentlemanliness, or respect among the candidates, has gone out the door. Before, people went back to being friends after an election. Two people ran for office and when it was over, they shook hands and said, “See you in two years.” Now, there’s so much rancor associated with election. One side gets their lawyers; the other side gets their lawyers. Campaigns are often negative nowadays. Some people believe that’s the only way to run a campaign.
The other thing is the tremendous influence of money. Money has come to define who can run and who can’t run. My hope is that the bills coming down, the campaign finance reform legislation, will curtail some of that. Then good people who may not have a large amount of money will feel like they can run for office.
What’s up with voter participation?
Today we give so many opportunities for people to participate in the process. In Nevada, we have early voting for two weeks prior to the election. We have absentee voting. We make it easy to register. You can register at the Department of Motor Vehicles, or you can come into our office. You can fill out a form at a post office and mail it in. We have all this, but we don’t seem to be boosting the participation rate. … 35 percent turnout is good for a primary, and 65 percent in a general election.
To what do you attribute this?
People’s lives are different. They have many more things on their plate than they did. It’s simple demographics—more women working outside the home. It’s harder to find time to reflect on who are these people and what are the issues. Look at the way campaigns are represented on television: They’re little more than sound bites. A little more depth on issues and candidates would be helpful to everyone, but where do you carve out the time for that? One other thing, I don’t think we teach our children at a young age that it really matters that we need to be involved in political process. It’s disheartening.
How does the future of democracy look to you?
In my years of experience, I’ve seen that people who are elected to public office really try to do their very best if they know how. Do they make mistakes? Well yes, they do. … We need to trust our leaders and accept their decisions even if they’re difficult. Our leaders must decide when we need to take a step forward and then convince people that this is a necessity, that this is good for the community.
So what about that trench vote?
I’d love to talk about it. But given the nature of the office … This is an issue that’s tearing up the city. I don’t think that, since I’m the one conducting the election, that it’d be right [to comment]. It’s my job to count every vote as honestly as I can.