For nearly two decades, Gary Sims has overseen record-breaking elections in the most-populous, fastest-growing county in the heart of a crucial political battleground state, including staging one amid a global pandemic. This week, the veteran elections director announced he will be retiring after over 34 years of government service, 24 of which he spent ensuring safe and secure voting for the public.
“This is bittersweet,” said Wake County Elections Board Chair Erica Porter during the public Board meeting where they accepted his paperwork to retire. “Working alongside you, Gary, has had a huge impact on me professionally. You gave me confidence in elections and the confidence to sit in this chair. We can’t thank you enough for your commitment to Wake County.”
All of the bi-partisan Board members echoed that sentiment.
“I appreciate your kindness, courtesy and patience with me as I learned elections, and I’m still learning,” said Angela Hawkins, Secretary of the Wake County Board of Elections. “I have come to see, through Gary’s guidance, the difference between politics and elections…and there is a distinct difference.”
The Board then unanimously voted to appoint current Deputy Elections Director, Olivia McCall, to take over when Sims retires on May 31, 2023. McCall first joined Wake Elections in 2008 and has been serving as deputy since 2018. Porter, who is the first Black female to serve as Chair of the Wake County Board of Elections, shared her excitement to have a female Chair, a female Secretary and soon, a female Elections Director.
Sims agreed it has been an honor and challenge to work for such a large, diverse and progressive county. He came to Wake in 2007, after serving as Elections Director in rural Wayne County. He was Deputy for eight years and in 2015 was appointed Wake’s Director.
Under his leadership through six presidential elections, Sims earned the county a reputation of being one of the most respected and innovative elections departments in the state and country. He and his team took home three national Clearinghouse awards from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission for best practices in recruiting, retaining, and training poll workers and for innovations in elections.
Sims ushered in new voting equipment and successfully implemented efficiencies in training, storage and voting logistics. Sims also served on various steering committees to improve security efficiencies in elections.
With a registered voter base that is over 11% of the state’s entire voter population, Sims has had to contend with exponential population growth. He and his team reconfigured their elections headquarters numerous times to better serve the public, culminating in a state-of-the-art expansion at the operations center on New Hope Road in Raleigh.
But Sims’ greatest test and achievement was leading his team and thousands of volunteer poll workers through the COVID-19 pandemic during the biggest election in American history. While most people worked from home, he and his team never could – as they carefully and painstakingly created processes to not only ensure the safety of the election, but the safety of the voters and election officials.
Even after their success pulling off an unprecedented election, there was no rest. Just weeks later, Wake County stood up a mass COVID-19 vaccination effort at PNC Arena, and it was Sims and his elections team who answered the call to help run the enormous outdoor effort, winning them praise and respect from Emergency Management leaders for the team’s incredible operational efficiency.
Those who work for Sims have applauded his unwavering leadership and work ethic, but also his commitment to team building and simply having fun.
Sims, a U.S. Army combat veteran, with the 82nd Airborne Division, has always shared that working for elections is the closest thing to serving your country in the military. Having lived and breathed elections for nearly a quarter-century with many 23-hour days and sleepless nights, he says his departure is hard for him to even wrap his head around. But he says he’s reassured knowing that his passion for service, commitment to fairness, dedication to election law and sense of duty live on in his deputy and the entire Wake County Elections team.