These days, the Gaston County Board of Elections is like a speeding train getting a little bit faster.
With his hand on the throttle, engineer Adam Ragan keeps things on track. He guides with precision – and joy. Elections are his passion.
The next one on his list is the general election Nov. 6. This will be No. 5 since Ragan became Gaston’s new elections director in May 2011.
I’ve talked with him many times on the phone, but we’d never met until I recently visited his office.
Things were busy. One-stop voting for the McAdenville ABC election was taking place. Workers were processing new applications or changes; testing equipment; and taking care of all the details that need attention before voters go to the polls.
At the time, Gaston had 131,000 registered voters. But that number constantly changes. By Nov. 6, Ragan estimated registered voters will be in the 135,000 to 137,000 range.
He wants to make sure things run smoothly for them on Election Day.
That takes work – lots of it.
Ragan, 38, told me he’s “pretty much of a perfectionist.”
“I hate I’m like that,” he said. “But I believe in preparation. I like to be prepared.”
He knows all the scenarios – everything that could go wrong – and gets ready in case it does happen. Staff training is a top priority. So is keeping current on rules and regulations.
I noticed a copy of the state election laws on his desk: he reads that like some people devour mystery novels.
Ragan, 38, came to Gaston County from the State Board of Elections in Raleigh, where he was a compliance specialist in the campaign finance division. His job was to make sure committees and candidates filed campaign finance reports on time.
Before that, he was a political consultant with a firm in Tampa, Fla., a job he took after working as a campaign finance analyst with the Federal Election Commission in Washington.
Ragan knows elections inside and out.
When we talked about how he got into this kind of work, he took me back to his days as an Army brat.
Seeing the U.S.
The story actually starts in Watauga County, where his father, Bob, and mother, Glenda, are from. They married in 1959 and a few years later, Bob Ragan joined the Army.
Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Gordon, Ga.; Fort Lewis, Wash.; Fort Richardson, Alaska: they lived all over.
Adam Ragan’s earliest memories go back to Alaska. Coming and going to school in the dark; watching moose or bears wander onto the school playground, and being herded inside by teachers; spectacular views of the mountains.
He loved Alaska and wants to go back someday.
Army families lead transient lives, but Ragan enjoyed his. Since his dad had a fear of flying, the family traveled by car, always taking different routes so they could see the country.
Sitting in the back seat, Ragan and his older sister watched changing landscapes; the Midwest, the salt flats of Utah, rugged Wyoming.
Along the way, they did things together, stopping at such places at Mount Rushmore; they were, and remain, close.
As Ragan saw the country, he began reading about it, inspired by his mother, who was a voracious reader.
Looking back, Ragan thinks he was younger than 10 years old when he decided he wanted to do government work when he grew up.
“To me, government was one big thing – I didn’t have any idea of how it worked,” he said. “But I wanted to do something to help people.”
Ragan was 14 when his father retired from the Army and moved the family back to Watauga County. After graduating from Watauga High, Ragan entered Western Carolina University, majoring in political science with a minor in American history. He also attended graduate school there.
After college, he landed the job in Washington, working across from the FBI building on the same block as Ford’s Theater.
During 7 1/2 years there, Ragan soaked up a lot of history.
On Sept. 11, 2001, he witnessed history in the making. After hearing about the terrorist attacks, “there was stunned silence in the office,” he said. Sent home early, he rode the metro and saw flames shooting out of the Pentagon. The smell still haunts him: burning embers, like a campfire except “it didn’t have the joy of a campfire.”
When I asked Ragan why he wanted to be a county elections director, he answered: “the challenge.”
He came to Gaston a little naïve – not knowing, for example, that you had to order ballots instead of having them arrive as if by magic. But he’s learning – and he’s had the advantage of working with what he calls a “great staff.”
“They’re steering me in the right direction,” Ragan said.
Meanwhile, another Election Day is around the corner, and there’s much work to do. Ragan’s goal to register everybody who’s eligible and then get a 100 percent voter turnout.
He knows that won’t happen. But he won’t stop urging folks to come out. What candidate you vote for isn’t his concern; he just wants you to vote.