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S2E13 – When Observation Becomes an Obstacle With California Election Officials Joanna Francescut and Natalie Adona

In this episode, hosts Eric Fey and Brianna Lennon speak with Joanna Francescut in Shasta County, California, and Natalie Adona in Nevada County, California, about how interactions with the public have changed since 2020 and about how the new demands of educating skeptical voters and people wanting to observe the election process can make it hard to get the day-to-day work of local election administration done.

High Turnout, Wide Margins Credits:
Managing Editor: Rebecca Smith
Managing Producer: Aaron Hay
Associate Producers: Katie Quinn, Abigail Ruhman

Transcription of the episode is as follows:
Natalie Adona: Some people, even the ones that you love, might not understand what you're going through. You know, I had someone tell me, well, why don't you just take some karate lessons? Like okay, not helpful. I mean, what do you think this is Cobra Kai? No. I'm not gonna go beating up people.

Eric Fey: Hey, this is Eric Fey. Director of elections in St. Louis County, Missouri, and I'm here with my co-host –

Brianna Lennon: Brianna Lennon. County Clerk in Boone County, Missouri.

Eric Fey: And we're here at the Election Center Annual conference in Denver, Colorado.

And this episode we're sitting down with a couple of local election administrators from two very different parts of California. First, Joanna Francescut in Shasta County, and then Natalie Adona from Nevada County – about how interactions with the public have really changed since 2020, and about how, in many cases, that is making it difficult for the work of local election administrators to get done.

And, up first, we'll be talking to –

Joanna Francescut: Joanna Francescut. Assistant County Clerk/Registrar of Voters for Shasta County in California.

Brianna Lennon: We've talked to a couple other jurisdictions in California before. Specifically about some of the threats and voter attitudes towards election officials right now. What does it look like for you right now? And what are you preparing for? Like – what do you expect to happen in the coming months leading up to 2022?

Joanna Francescut: So, we've been – in Shasta County, it's been, I wouldn’t say chaotic, but it's been chaotic. There's been a lot of strong opinions. In 2020, we had our primary election in March versus June.

So, our nonpartisan offices, which are our supervisors, they were up for election in March of 2022. Two of the candidates – one ran unopposed, one ran opposed. They actually run their primary outright, and so they didn't go on to the November election.

Ten days after that election, the counties started shutting down. Our constituents were really angry and upset, and they wanted to recall everybody on our board. Well, those people were just elected in March, and it was a lower turnout. People were frustrated because they didn't vote on that election, and they felt they didn't have their full rights when it came out because they didn't understand that process.

So, in 2021 – not only were we dealing with dealing with the gubernatorial recall, we were also dealing with local recalls, as well. So, they were trying to recall three of our supervisors – that two of them won the election in 2020.

So, as soon as that time period was up, they said, “we're doing a recall,” and so, we were dealing with that group of people. And then they also put a group of people on ballot, and it was a really heated contest, which led to intense election night when most of the countywide contests – they lost outright to those – no one won of their group. They were down in our office and chilling with us for a little bit while we're trying to get work done, and it was an experience that I never want to experience again.

We've had to completely mitigate our office and change procedures when it comes to observers. I just expect people to be watching and asking us questions, and then telling us they don't believe us.

Eric Fey: You mentioned that you're kind of reevaluating how you handle those observers. Can you be specific about that? Because I think that's something many, many election administrators are facing, and they probably all would like some input on what other people are doing to prepare for that in the future.

Joanna Francescut: Yeah, so we were really blessed in the past where we would maybe have one or two observers that would show up the entire process. We would give them a tour of the office and we had time to spend with them, and we would answer all their questions. They would go out saying, “Oh, you guys are doing such an amazing job.” I mean, that was the reaction we would get every single time. Or if someone was having a hard time with our processes or didn't understand – “Come on down. We have time for you. Let's take care of this.”

In the gubernatorial recall, it started to get to the point where I was doing tours, like every 20 minutes. Or, it was – there was no boundaries. I like to call them boundaries. So, set boundaries of when we're doing this work and what we're doing. And then never knowing, if they were asking my staff questions – my staff that's not experienced or they're just here for this one job, they don't know the big picture – and my staff giving the wrong answer. Unintentionally giving the wrong answer. I mean, even some of our big supervisors, they didn't know that something changed on the other side of things. And she was like, “I'm so sorry, I didn't realize I told them the wrong thing.”

It just got to be a little rough. Again, I was up until two o'clock morning doing my work, because I was a lot of it dealing with observers. We attempted to establish some boundaries in June of 2022, and to make it a little bit clearer of what our expectations were, and we still struggled with that.

There's some videos online somewhere that you can look, and you can see people just walking into our back door and confronting our County Clerk because the results are not what they wanted them to be. That is not okay. At any time.

They were intentionally trying to intimidate us while we're completing the most crucial point of work throughout the process. I had observers trying to talk to me at 7:30 p.m., as I'm preparing reports to go live at 8:00 p.m. Making sure everything is in place and our voting system and it looks as perfect as we needed to look. Intentionally trying to inhibit our processes and have us feel like they don't trust us. That was intentional, I believe. So we're working closely with our county council just to establish base procedures that everybody has to follow.

One of the biggest changes we made is we're only doing observable tasks between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., and we take a half an hour lunch break. So, my staff have to take a half an hour lunch break at the same time, every single day, because they can't do any observable tasks. So, it’s slowing down our cameras process, however, it's creating a baseline for a staff – that they know that they can check their emails from eight to nine in the morning. Then they can check their emails from four to five in the [evening] and get their day-to-day work done.

Because not only do we have elections, we have other tasks that we have to do. So, it's just establishing boundaries and setting expectations within the staff. Empowering the staff to say, “Hey, will you please move? If you stand right there, I can't do my job.” They get two times and then they're gone. So, it's just establishing those procedures and boundaries and making sure we're training our staff appropriately. Those are the big changes that we've had to make.

Brianna Lennon: It's almost like the places that you least expect these things to be happening is where they're happening. I mean, I don't think California has a reputation for being like, “oh, everything's liberal, and everything is like, so open,” and all this stuff is happening. And Missouri has a reputation for not being that and none of us are dealing with any of this kind of pushback on things. It blows my mind why these things are happening in the places that they are. I don't know if you have any opinion about why you think that it is happening there, but like – it just boggles my mind that there's no rhyme or reason to the places that are being hit hardest with a lot of these. I don't know if it's a – we talked some about vote culture and the kind of expectations that people have when they go to vote and things like that. Is that part of it? Why do you think that it's happening?

Joanna Francescut: I feel like my constituents don't feel like their voices being heard at all. So, we're a very Republican County in a Democratic state, and when the laws that they're having to follow are not the beliefs that they have, it's really hard to continuously have to deal with that. So, I feel like our constituents are not being heard in the way that they feel they deserve to be heard. And that's really hard to take. It's at the point now, where they think the president in 2020 – like they think he actually won the election and that it was stolen from him. I'd be pretty angry too if – I've watched some of the videos I've watched.

I used to be really angry about it. Now, I've kind of turned to be more empathetic towards them. Knowing that if I didn't work where I worked and know the steps that we have to do to make sure someone's ballot is counted, that I would be really upset and angry watching those videos. And I would really believe them because they're a lot more believable than the work that I can produce at my office. We just don't have the team that can – [that] really has a strong communications [background].

Finally I got a community education specialist. I mean, it'll be months before I get this person in and then four years to train them. So, just getting that in there. It just takes time to build that. When you have a president telling us that elections officials are bad. I mean, who are they going to believe? Are they going to believe me, or someone that they really fully for some reason trust?

I don’t know. I say this often, but it'd be easier for me to try to change their religion than it is to change their trust in elections right now. I can't change that trust. I don't have their ears. They're not coming in with the humble attitude and willing to listen. And they're angry about the laws we have to follow. They're angry they have to vote by mail. They're just angry right now. They're angry that our county had to be shut down for COVID. They're angry that they have lost money. There's a lot of anger that's been built up and they're feeding off of each other. I can't solve that for them, they're gonna have to figure that out. I can only control what's happening in my office and the procedures that we're doing and the steps we're following. Making sure we're following the rules as best as we can and supporting them as best as we can within those rules and laws.

Brianna Lennon: Why do you continue doing what you're doing? Like – why do you show up for work every day?

Joanna Francescut: I've had to ask myself that a lot lately. I started it because I loved it, and I still love the work we do – I enjoy going through an election cycle and seeing that growth that we've had as a department. Looking through and problem solving these issues that we have. How we can improve our processes and make voting easier for our constituents. More transparent and more open – but I show up because I need to show up right now. It's hard sometimes. There's times where I don't want to get up and go, but I just get up and drink my Mountain Dews and go. I mean, that's where I'm at. It’s – I get up and I do this because if I don't do it, then the people that I don't trust will be doing it. And that's a tough pill to swallow. So, I'm in there because I have experience. I have knowledge and knowledge that's different than my boss because she's elected. I've worked my way up. I've had my hands in every process and procedure within our office. And I know it. So, I can't explain why I show up. I just do because I need to be there. It's a need. It's hard not working sometimes too, so it's hard to shut it off and walk away.

Brianna Lennon: Hi, this is Brianna Lennon, County Clerk for Boone County, Missouri, and you're listening to High Turnout Wide Margins – a podcast where we explore local election administration.

Today we're talking about how interactions with the public have changed since 2020 – especially when it comes to things like election observation and voter education – in ways that are making it more difficult to balance having the time to do our day-to-day work as local election authorities with continuing to provide necessary information and education to the public.

You just heard from Joanna Francescut in Shasta County, California, and up next is Natalie Adona in Nevada County, California.

Eric Fey: All right, so Natalie Adona who are you? What do you do?

Natalie Adona: That is the question, isn't it? Who is she? I'm Natalie Adona. I am from Nevada County, California. I'm currently the Assistant County Clerk-Recorder, but I am also the Clerk-Recorder Elect. I was elected in June of this year. I will take office in January. I think on my birthday actually.

Eric Fey: How long were you the assistant or deputy?

Natalie Adona: Three years.

Eric Fey: And what made you want to run for this and be the main person?

Brianna Lennon: The face of the county

Eric Fey: The face of the county.

Natalie Adona: Yeah, yeah. Well, when I was interviewed by the current office holder, his name's Greg Diaz. He said, “You know, one of the things I want you to consider, if you want to work with me is that I'm looking for a successor,” and I went, “Oh, well, I don't know about that, Greg. That sounds like a lot.” I don't really consider myself to be a politician. I consider myself to be a researcher. Most of my background is in research and keep my head down and do my stuff. I don't know about campaigning. He's like, you know, “Well think about it.”

But there were a lot of factors that led me to that job – mostly because I wanted to come back home to California. So I said, “I'll just figure it out” and “maybe he'll change his mind and he'll go run again.” But he didn't.

What really sort of set it for me was going through the November 2020 experience, and then the fallout from all of the election lies and the grift, quite frankly. I could not just leave that county to whoever was going to run, you know, I come in with some experience. So, I thought, “If I don't do this I will wonder for the rest of my life, how things would have turned out.” So, I'm just going to do it, and if I fall flat on my face, then so be it.

Brianna Lennon: When you made the leap to run, did you expect even after watching what everybody went through in 2020 and being part of 2020 – was it an experience that you knew when you signed up? It would be as contentious as it has been? Or can you talk a little bit about how the campaign has been?

Natalie Adona: COVID-19 really, sort of, changed, I think, a lot of people's behavior – not only being out of necessity, but it was just sort of misinformation and disinformation about public health, about whether wearing a mask was okay or not okay, whether vaccines were safe or not safe. And a lot of voters, I think, had very strong opinions about what counties did to try to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, and our county was no different.

So, we had a small group of people who initiated a recall of all five of our board of supervisors in the county because they were unhappy about COVID protocols. They were unhappy that the public health officer would not authorize ivermectin as a way to treat and COVID. They were worried about all kinds of things related to COVID. And it was a real struggle, I think, for our county to sort of get that under control. So, fast forward to the beginning of 2022 – this was sort of shortly after these folks had said, “We're going to recall all these supervisors and here's why” – we were having a surge in the Delta variant, and my staff were really concerned specifically about the recall proponents who came in big groups, were pretty demanding, and did not wear masks. Basically filming their whole journey with this whole recall thing. And, you know, my staff were pretty sensitive about being filmed.

So, I said, “Okay, well, what would you like to do about it?” And they wanted to sort of revert back to a stricter COVID protocol. We had sort of gotten relaxed. So I said, “Okay, I'm going to talk to county council, I'm going to talk to our risk manager, all these people and just see what we can do.” They said, “Absolutely, you can initiate a stronger protocol.”

Well, these people didn't like it, and it really got tense. I ended up and it's probably something I should not have done, but, you know, I lost my temper a little bit with one of the proponents and, of course, they got it all on their iPhone. I said, “Well, there's signs everywhere, I've offered to serve you outside of this office.” They refused. I eventually served them. They left. And we sort of further restricted movement inside of the office, and they did not like that – ended up pushing their way through our office. The door that they pushed through struck one of my staff members, and it really freaked people out. One of the proponents actually threatened me. My staff sort of ran down the hall into the non-public area of my office.

And I was thinking two thoughts. One – my staff look incredibly scared. Two – what am I going to do? There is an open office plan, really. The only thing that separates that public from the private area is this swing door that maybe comes up just past my knee. So, you can easily step over this thing if you wanted to and sort of do anything you want, and it really made me think about safety, the physical safety of people in my office.

And ever since then, the campaign became very fraught because not only was I seen as an extension of my boss's term, but also somebody who enforces unconstitutional rules like mask wearing and all of this stuff. So, I basically was the subject of stories every week in our local newspaper. Anytime there was any sort of effort to educate voters and my name was attached to it, they said that I broke state campaign finance rules. I didn't by the way. Someone tried to disqualify me. Yeah, even after the election – even though I won by 14,957 votes, somebody wanted a recount on behalf of second place, and it was a random guy from Southern California who was one of the people who was on the recall Gavin Newsom campaign. Gavin Newsom, for those of you who don't know, is my governor. I [he] could not understand why my boss would tell anybody. Why he would share the letter saying that he wanted to recount. But he was like, “Buddy, you want transparency. This is what that is. I have to tell my constituents what's going on.”

I am now also going back to court because, apparently, according to some people, I have violated our public records act request. By the way I didn't. But I've got to spend time and money going to court anyway. So, yeah, that's fun. All of that said, I have the best job in the world. I would not change it for anything. And I'm not going to let some people try to bully me out of my job when I know what I'm doing, and I think this occupies some sort of small chunk of my life, even though it didn't feel like it for a long time. I love elections. I love making sure that people have the right to vote. I have a lot of fun at the county, you know, me and my staff, we have a great time doing what we do. I know sometimes people try to make us not have a good time, but they're not in there every day. Not yet.

Eric Fey: So, one thing I'm curious about, having been through this experience, do you think it's a good idea to have the chief election official elected? In this case?

Natalie Adona: That's something I've thought about a lot, actually. Some officials in my state are appointed. It's usually in the bigger cities and counties, but most of the rest of us are elected. And on the one hand, I think that there's potentially a sort of weird conflict, when you have someone who's running elections being on the ballot – one of the things that sort of drove me nuts about the campaign as I took myself away from a lot of those processes even with none of this other stuff happening, I would have done that, but, you know, I also think that you're only accountable to a handful of people if you're appointed. There is sort of something to be said about being accountable directly to voters and not to a county board. There's a little bit more freedom, I think, when you are elected. I mean, when I take office, I won't have a boss. Or I should say my boss will be the people. And I'll have to be accountable to them. So, I mean, which one's better or not better? I mean, I don't know, I guess it's a matter of perspective.

Brianna Lennon: So, going into 2022's midterms and really, I feel like a lot of the conversation has even gone beyond that. We're just kind of focused on what to expect in 2024 now. Your experience having so much animosity thrown at you is, unfortunately, not considered an outlier anymore. There's a lot of states that have had similar issues. You're extremely resilient. You can talk about it very easily. I know that there's a lot of people that have been scared away from it, as well. What have you been able to do to, you know, kind of keep spirits high with your staff? Keep going? Then do you have any advice for anybody that's going through it right now?

Natalie Adona: Well, I'll answer that, but I will say that I always haven't felt resilient. There were many moments – especially near that time where looking at my staff and they're just so frightened by these people, and, you know, I had to go to court to get a restraining order against one of our citizens. I mean, that was really intense – there were a lot of moments where I have told people, it was hard for me to even get up off of my kitchen floor because I could not breathe. I was just so worried about the unknown. I mean, I never had panic attacks before in my life until then. So, with that I do try to focus on the positive stuff about coming to work. I mean we get to help voters., and some of these people – they don't know the rules, they just want to vote. So. there's a great joy and fulfillment in that, and my staff love doing that.

I mean, yeah, people are shitty sometimes but what can you do about that? Can I say shitty?

Brianna Lennon: Yeah.

Natalie Adona: I just said it. I just said it twice. Cool. With them, I do try to remind them that their job is important to, you know, not only the county, but to me. That we all have an important role to play, and they're vital to everything that we do. I would say for others who just kind of don't want to sort of talk to these issues. I mean, I get it. I mean, who wants to relive trauma? There were times when I had the media calling me, and they're like, “Oh, something crappy happened to you. How does that make you feel?” And I didn't want to talk to them. In my head, I'm like, “Well, how the hell do you think it makes me feel?” But it was the last thing that that I wanted to do.

I think that it's sort of personal choice if you want to share your story with others. I would say it's been really great for me to have people in my life who I know love me very much, who will just like sort of sit there and listen to all of my garbage.

You know, I do understand that impulse – the need to try to be helpful. I have talked to certain colleagues who have talked about what it would mean to get like a concealed carry. That's crossed my mind, as well. I have not gone there yet. I don't know anyone who's really gone there yet. Or at least I don't know anyone personally who's gone there yet. I'm sure some have. Yeah, I would say do what's practical. Do what's right for you. Have a support system and, you know, focus on the things that matter and why you were there to begin with.

Brianna Lennon: You've been listening to High Turnout Wide Margins, a podcast that explores local election administration. I'm your host, Brianna Lennon – alongside Eric Fey. Thanks to KBIA for making this podcast possible. Our Managing Editor is Rebecca Smith. Our Managing Producer is Aaron Hay, and our Associate Producers are Abigail Ruhman and Katie Quinn. This has been High Turnout Wide Margins. Thanks for listening.

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After serving as Assistant Attorney General in the Missouri attorney general's office and as Deputy Director of Elections in the Missouri secretary of state's office, Brianna Lennon made the decision to pursue election administration at the local level. She was elected county clerk in Boone, Missouri, in 2018, making her responsible for conducting elections for more than 120,000 registered voters.
Eric Fey is a lifelong resident of St. Louis County, Missouri, who fell in love with election administration as a teenage poll worker. He has worked in the field for a decade, and became director of elections in 2015. He’s on the executive board of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities, and has observed elections in twelve countries, including Ukraine, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan.