As unusual as it may sound, Ottawa County Elections Coordinator Katie Sims grew up in a household that highly valued prison ministry. But that’s what led to her working as a voting advocate for those who are incarcerated.
“My mom worked for a children’s ministry that had an inmate outreach program. It connected inmates with their children to help break the cycle of intergenerational incarceration,” says Sims. “Having grown up in that environment, I often think of inmates and how frequently they are discounted from society. Since Michigan law allows inmates who are in jail but not yet sentenced to vote, our office partnered with the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office to provide information to eligible inmates. Inmates can then request paper documents that are sent to us and distributed to the correct local clerk’s office.”
This is one of Sims’ many accomplishments with the Ottawa County Clerk’s (OCC) office, which led to her being honored by the Ottawa County Diversity Forum with the Excellence in Equity Award. The award bestowed by event organizers recognizes public-sector employees in Ottawa County who implement equity within their practices, programs, policies, and decision-making.
Sims grew up in Illinois and moved to Michigan to attend Grand Valley State University (GVSU), where she became the elections intern with the OCC office in October 2016.
“I learned a lot during my internship, and that’s really where my love for this work began,” explains Sims. “I had always known that I wanted to work in public service but wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do and what work I’d be passionate about.”
Passion and accomplishments
The running joke in the election administrator’s world, she says, is that those in it just fall into the work and then realize that they’re passionate about it.
“I can honestly say that’s exactly what happened with me, and I couldn’t be happier to be doing this work, especially in the environment that we’re in today,” Sims says.
Sims, who has a bachelor’s degree in international relations with minors in business and Spanish, as well as a master’s degree in public administration, was promoted to Elections Coordinator in 2021. In this role, her list of accomplishments is growing. In addition to ensuring inmates’ rights to vote, she also:
Voter accessibility devices
- Is a pioneer in securing and publicizing Ottawa County's accessible voting machines, known as voter assist terminals.
- Educates voters about their options for casting a secret ballot.
- Uses her bilingual capabilities to provide Spanish-speaking candidates and voters with the election resources they need.
- Serves as the president of GVSU’s Young Alumni Council.
The voter assist terminal is an especially exciting tool to help those with certain disabilities cast their votes.
“The voter assist terminal is a device in every precinct that allows someone with a disability or inability to cast a ballot in secret,” explains Sims. “Ottawa County has a contract with Hart InterCivic for election equipment, and our voter assist terminals are called the Touch Writer. The devices can accommodate many different needs but, unfortunately, aren't used often. My part is ensuring that everyone knows the device is available so they can make a decision about voting in person or by mail.”
These devices can make the font size larger for voters who have difficulty reading the text on a paper ballot and have a touchscreen for voters who have difficulty holding a pen to mark a paper ballot. They also have Braille guides and headphones so a voter with a visual impairment can have the ballot read to them and vote as they wish. Additionally, the Touch Writer has a port for a sip-and-puff device for voters with mobility impairments. Once a voter completes their ballot, the machine prints a paper ballot, which is placed through the tabulator with all other ballots.
“I truly believe that the more information that we share about this device, voters with disabilities will feel more empowered and comfortable going to the polls to vote in person rather than vote an absentee ballot,” Sims says.
The OCC office and team work hard every day to ensure that all people are heard, empowered, and able to cast a ballot.
“We’re here to work for you, no matter your political party affiliation, upbringing, or any other factor,” Sims says. “We prepare for every election months in advance and care about the process being as accurate and secure as possible. We’re also happy to answer any question about how to exercise your right to vote or how our office ensures the integrity of our elections process. We work for the people and we’re happy to do that every day.”