CHEYENNE – Plodding through miles of beheaded cattle, poisoned wells and charred remains of the village she temporarily called home just weeks before, Debra Lee weighed her options.
Graffiti on a nearby building read, in English, “With freedom, comes fire.”
“Those people knew they might pay a price for their freedom,” Lee said. “And they were willing to do that.”
Lee was sworn in as Laramie County Clerk on June 8, 2016. Before that, she worked with the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Elections Division, collecting county election results to tabulate and release to media outlets.
But in 1999, she was in Southeast Asia, establishing a fair election for East Timor’s independence referendum, part of a two-decade fight for independence from Indonesia.
“They walked for miles and carried their children with them,” she said. “They came, and they voted.”
Lee worked for the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division during what is now known as the East Timorese crisis. Years of illness and starvation under Indonesian rule had come to a head and, in a landslide, they voted in favor of independence.
The results announcement incited days of bloody combat. Anti-independence militants attacked civilians, burned infrastructure and ravaged communities. More than 1,400 civilians died in the small country.
Lee was evacuated to Australia during the heart of the violence, but returned after peacekeepers restored some order in the country.
It was clear her work was just beginning.
“They were starting from scratch with everything,” she said.
Reconstructing schools in the region alongside international peacekeeping groups, she assessed damage and provided cost estimates to UNICEF. Her district became the first in the region to reopen its schools, although the work was often dispiriting. When locals were burning Indonesian textbooks in protest, believing that the Portuguese would re-supply them, she physically pulled them from the fire.
“I said, ‘You may not get new books, or it may take a long time,’” she said. “I was literally pulling books out of the fire and saving them. Education provided a sense of normalcy in the community, which is a reoccurring theme in my work. When I was in Liberia, one of the most profound things I saw was small children carrying their chairs on their heads and walking miles to have schools under a tree.”
In her time working toward credible elections with the United Nations, Lee has administered and supervised in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. She spent six years in Africa, working in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Sudan, as well as more than a year in Afghanistan with the United Nations Assistance Mission.
Lee’s father, who was in the Air Force for 30 years, exposed her to different cultures and lifestyles at an early age, often relocating every few years. She lived in England, Germany and a handful of other domestic and international destinations.
“I learned to appreciate the values we have in America,” she said. “I became very flexible and adaptable.”
She carries these perspectives with her throughout the work she does as county clerk in Laramie County. She designed Laramie County Community College’s first English as a Second Language program, and taught courses in English conversation, reading, writing and American cultures.
The Laramie County Clerk’s Office continues to better educate voters and increase turnout in the county. Improving online presence, using social media and holding more community meetings are all a part of that.
Lee believes voting is an inalienable right of passage. Her office is lined with ballots from Liberia, East Timor, Bosnia, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq.
“We have so many opportunities to exercise our vote,” she said. “On tax measures, for example. We have the sixth-penny and LCCC bond elections, where people can decide where their money goes. I have seen people sacrifice their lives to vote; it’s just a treasured right we have.”
One of the most profound elections Lee assisted in was Afghanistan’s 2004 presidential election. The country enjoyed more than one million registered voters and a 70 percent voter turnout.
Women were anxious to vote in the election, Lee said.
“Hundreds of women threw up their burqas and registered to vote,” she said. “It was a sea of blue burqas, voter registration cards and men looking at them in astonishment.”
Lee suggests anyone interested in advocacy do some traveling, make friends and volunteer.
She said her work is not for the faint of heart, as she and her colleagues often came into contact with rockets, landmines, disease and venomous snakes.
Her chief advice, though, is much simpler.
“Learn how to drive a manual transmission car,” she said. “It saved me, because many places don’t have automatic transmission vehicles.”