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S2E15 – Reflecting on an Elections-Focused Career with Missouri Senator Roy Blunt

In this episode, hosts Brianna Lennon and Eric Fey speak with Missouri Senator Roy Blunt and reflect on his 26 years in Congress and his previous careers in local election administration – as both the County Clerk in Greene County, Missouri, and the Missouri Secretary of State.

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:

Roy Blunt: I do recall understanding the importance [of] if there was an answer, and you knew the answer as Secretary of State, give it and give it quickly to the county official that's calling you... and I think it was really a pretty smooth time in that relationship between us and them, you know, the county clerks understood as I did by then, and hopefully always did, that it's a unique job where you're both a participant as an elected official, but you're also the umpire.

[Podcast Intro]

Eric Fey: Well, this is another episode of High Turnout Wide Margins. I'm Eric Fey from St. Louis County, and my co-host is Brianna Lennon –

Brianna Lennon: – County Clerk for Boone County, Missouri.

Eric Fey: And today we're with Senator Roy Blunt, one of our senators from the state of Missouri. Normally we don't have elected officials on this podcast, but Senator Blunt is not just our senator, US senator from Missouri, he's also a former local election official, and that's really why we wanted him to be on the podcast to talk about election administration. So, Senator, thank you so much for being here, and the first thing we always start off asking our guests is – how did you get involved in election administration?

Roy Blunt: Well, you know, I was a County Clerk in Greene County when I was 23. So, I didn't have much time to get involved in anything before that, and I loved it. I've always enjoyed politics – the process of politics and elections are, I think, very interesting. And it's really – the confidence in what happens on election day, is really the fabric of what holds the democracy together.

And for all of us who have done this – like the two of you are working right now to be sure that we come to a conclusion that people have confidence in. It's so incredibly important that people understand the safeguards, that the law actually provides the right safeguards, and that people turn out and vote. You don't want people not voting because somehow, they think it's not fair or what they do really doesn't count.

There are all kinds of great stories about how many decisions are made by just a few voters that determine a significant moment in somebody's career – where they move forward because of a handful of votes and do other things – or a significant ballot issue decision. It does matter, it matters that people participate, and the more people have confidence in the system – I think even beyond whether the ease of voting, I think confidence in the system is a greater encourager than ease of voting in terms of having the kind of turnouts we'd all like to have.

And I think your moniker here was High Turnout, Big Margin. Of course, what every election authority wants is an election that clearly is decided in a way that people don't have to be concerned about that.

The first year, I conducted elections in Springfield and Greene County in the General, we actually wound up, after a recount that was still largely paper ballot – we certified a tie to the Missouri General Assembly. The Democrat controlled House Election Committee gave the Democrat, I think, one more vote than the recount had given the Democrat, and the Speaker of the House was having none of that.

So, actually, they referred it to the Committee of the Whole. I was 25, I guess, at the time. I’d just turned 25, and I testified for four hours before the entire Missouri House going through all of these ballots that had been challenged. A wide margin would have been better, but I will admit, it gave me a level of recognition with Missouri legislators that I couldn't have gotten any other way.

And generally good, though probably not all good, but wide margins are a good thing, but participation, big turnout is a better thing.

Brianna Lennon: So, I have to ask if that was your first experience in general elections, what made you stick around in wanting to operate local elections?

Roy Blunt: Well, you know, we changed, actually, we changed to a punch card system after that, and Brianna, I came to your office before we did that – where Boone County was already using punch cards. You weren't the county clerk at the time, obviously. It was right before Chris Kelly became the county clerk and [we] looked at how the system was working there, and we did about 14, I think, of our 100 plus precincts, we did about 14 of them with punch card ballots that first time I was in charge of the General.

Which is also a pretty – you might not do that if you were more seasoned than I was at the time, but the only precinct that counted out exactly like the election night count in that state representative race was the one punch card precinct in that district, and we counted all those, of course, by looking at where the holes were punched, but I stuck with it and liked doing it, and still am very interested in what the two of you are doing and all your colleagues around the state are doing right now.

Eric Fey: So, Senator, I know after your time as County Clerk in Greene County, you became Secretary of State of Missouri in the 1980s, and I remember when I became Director of Elections, the first county clerk's conference I went to, I met Wendy Noren – who you know very well – and had dinner with her and I had just been at a session where she was up in front of everybody, screaming and yelling at the Secretary of State's representative there about everything that, you know, they needed to be doing, and she said, “Oh, yeah, it's just it's like that all the time. We haven't had a good Secretary of State since Roy Blunt. He really knew what the clerk's wanted because he was a clerk.”

And so, I would hope you – could you talk a little bit about your time as Secretary of State, and you were a Republican – you are a Republican – probably most of the county clerks, I'm guessing, in Missouri were Democrats at the time.

Roy Blunt: Right.

Eric Fey: Wendy, of course, was a Democrat. How did you manage that? And what was it like at that time running elections in Missouri?

Roy Blunt: Well, that does sound like the Wendy Noren that I was so fond of – yelling at the whole group and not much yelling, I think, actually, one of the things I did was put Wendy on our advisory committee – which I set up as Secretary of State – of county clerks and likely county clerks who are about two to one Democratic at the time. That committee was about the same, and I don't recall having those kinds of challenges.

I think, while my predecessor had done a great job – Mr. Kirkpatrick been there 20 years. One, I got to be the first new person in 20 years, and that allows you to do things that otherwise maybe had just kind of fallen into the way things had always been done. And two, we looked for lots of outside assistance. My Deputy Secretary of State for Elections was Paul Block, who’d been the County Clerk in California, Missouri, and so, between the two of us we had had great relationships for about a decade each with Secretaries of State who stayed even longer in those jobs then than I think they do now.

One of the things I'm concerned about right now is the significant number of county clerks, I think I said Secretary of States who stay longer, county clerks who stay longer – the significant number of county clerks who are leaving, many of them, even a few of them after their very first term. But, you know, understanding that you're in this together.

I know when I used to do election training sessions, I did them every major election, I’d tell our workers, “There are two of you doing every job for two different reasons. One is it to watch each other, but the other one is to protect each other.” Don't think you're doing a favor to somebody by asking them to, “you can stay. I'll take the ballots in or go ahead and take a break, we'll count this group without you.” You know, part of what you're doing there is protecting that other person to be sure that when this is all over, everybody knows that the strategy was followed, and while I was glad to hear Wendy’s statement about me as Secretary of State, my son Matt, who was Secretary of State ten years later or so, probably wouldn't have been as fond of that. But let's assume that Wendy's comment was in the middle somehow of the two Blunts who were Secretary of State.

Brianna Lennon: Was there anything that surprised you when you became Secretary of State – relationships that change with county clerks that you were surprised about?

Roy Blunt: I think it was pretty good, Brianna. I don't recall having those challenges. I do recall understanding the importance [of] if there was an answer, and you knew the answer as Secretary of State, give it and give it quickly to the county official that's calling you. Don't think well, “I need to run”… don't let your staff think you need to run this by the council for your office or even more troublesome, “Oh, we have to run that by the Attorney General.”

We had minimum times when we couldn't just immediately help a county official understand either the specific law or any court determinations on that law, and I think it was really a pretty smooth time in that relationship between us and them, you know, the county clerks understood as I did by then, and hopefully always did, that it's a unique job where you're both a participant as an elected official, but you're also the umpire, and helping them, you know, with that umpire relationship, and, frankly, as the chief election official of the state, understanding that that was also a critically important part of what you had to do – is on those questions that related to elections or conduct of elections, that all of your advice was the same no matter who was calling. That you were just as helpful and responsive, no matter who was calling, and what you were telling them was absolutely for sure what you’d tell the local newspaper, if they called the office and asked, “What should the County Clerk be doing about that?”

And so, I think it was a really good relationship where we all benefited from the – the whole was greater than some of the parts – we all benefited from working together. Something Mr. Kirkpatrick had late in his career, [he] started putting out of either an annual or a quarterly publication, “Kirkpatrick’s Ballot Banter.” I changed that dramatically to where it was then “Blunt’s Ballot Banter,” and you know, every quarter we were – I think it was four times a year – and I looked at these the other day, as I was getting ready to send things to the State Historical Society, I still had a notebook that had all of the “Blunt’s Ballot Banters” for that eight years in it.

On the first “Blunt’s Ballot Banter,” somebody had given me a huge tennis shoe from the Bass Pro Shops. Whenever I left the County Clerk's Office – “the big shoes to fill” thing, and I took it to the first Missouri Press Association I was at honoring Mr. Kirkpatrick and at the end of my speech, I took out this like five foot tennis shoe and said, “I found this in the office,” and, of course, that was the first picture on the cover of the first “Blunt’s Ballot Banter” of me giving Jim Kirkpatrick his “lost” tennis shoe.

I think things either were more fun than or we just had more fun making the whole process work, and people expected it to work – they trusted it to work, and it was the rare exception where somebody thought that part of Election Day somehow wasn't exactly what you would hope that it would be.

[Mid-episode Break]

Eric Fey: Just as a quick side note, I can't believe you brought up that newsletter, Senator, because when I became Director of Elections, several of the clerks who had been around since the 80s still remember that newsletter and would bring it up. So, it lives on in the hearts of a number of former county clerks in Missouri.

Roy Blunt: Exactly. I'm glad to hear that. I'm glad to hear that. I looked at the other day, and I thought “Those were great times.”

Another thing I thought our Legislature did pretty well is create a lot of flexibility in the pandemic with the understanding that this is for this unique situation and later we'll come back and look at what we need to do next. But a lot of places where they changed the law, then when they changed it back – they got a lot of criticism, but I thought our local election officials really stepped up in the pandemic and took advantage of the flexibility they had, and then were able to share that when it was over. “This is what was really good,” and “This was what was maybe more difficult for voters and us both,” and, you know, having the election work its way out.

And then, I'm a big advocate for having the most information you can also at the end of the election day, and I'm glad we – I think we still count all of our absentee ballots that are available on election day on election day. And is that deadline? What is that deadline, Brianna? Is it still –

Brianna Lennon: – it's still by the close of polls on election day, so that, by the time that we start counting everything, when polls close, we have every ballot that we would need to have with the exception of some military ballots. That does have an extended deadline. We can accept military ballots late, which is great for anybody that's overseas and mailing their ballot back.

Roy Blunt: The more you can produce a result when people are eager to hear that result, I think that's something you don't want to give away easily, and a lot of states have where they – I think in Maryland this year, they couldn't even count any absentee ballot[s] until the day after the election, and the more people that were voting early, the more likely that would be to make a big difference in the election returns. It's like two weeks after the election before these elections could be decided, and even elections that had a pretty good margin, you didn't know for a couple of weeks – how that that worked out. And I think one of the things election authorities should always want to argue for is “Give us the tools we need to do our job in the most accurate right way, but also in a timely way.”

Eric Fey: Senator, I would be remiss if in this conversation, if we didn't bring up HAVA – The Help America Vote Act. We have interviewed a few people on our podcast over the last couple of years to talk about HAVA, and I think in every conversation, your name always comes up in the context of – after Florida in 2000, Congress realized they needed to do something, and people were scurrying around trying to figure things out, and they all, at least the folks we talked to, said well, “We quickly figured out that the only member of Congress that knew anything about how local elections work is Roy Blunt,” and so, you came to the center of the discussion around HAVA. So, I was hoping you could describe for everybody who listens – how HAVA came together and what that whole process was like in an era where Congress had not really addressed much in the realm of local and state election administration prior to that?

Roy Blunt: I remember that much like you do. That I had been a local election authority. There weren't that many people that had any of that experience – only a couple that had been the statewide election authority at the time.

The jurisdiction for the Help America Vote Act is currently in the Rules Committee where I was chairman for six years, and now, in an equally divided committee, Senator Klobuchar is the chairman and I'm the top Republican on that committee.

And the principal determining guideline for HAVA in 2001 and 2002, when we put that together – after the contested election in Florida in 2000 – was that we were going to provide money, and we would try to develop some model ways to do things, but this is an important area of responsibility to leave to the states. Every state is different. Every state's political tradition and election tradition may be slightly different from even their next-door neighboring states, and we decided to do that.

And one of the things I've really worked for, for local officials, as well as starting principally with the chief election official of the state, is to be sure that they have all the information that you need to have to make the decisions you need to make – particularly on cyber questions and being sure: One if there's a cyberattack, how could it occur, and Two – it's more likely to occur in your registration systems than it is your election day system – because your election day systems are not, they're not set up in a way that you can get to them through the internet, but your registration systems almost by definition, for most places, are, and then to understand if there are registration problems, that doesn't mean they necessarily have to – that hasn't jeopardized or necessarily impacted the whole election system itself. It's only created a problem that election officials need to work hard: One to prevent and Two when it does happen, to have a way to quickly work it out.

And so, lots of money. We're continuing to distribute money. I do think there's a tendency, Eric and Brianna, I think there's a tendency to have a future goal and hold on to as much of the Help America Vote Act money that gets allocated to you, and then there's always a question about should that be allocated directly to – more of it directly to you and less of it to just to the state? I'm sure that continues to be an important question. But either case, you know, there's things you probably could do with HAVA money, that you often, that local election officials often don't do or state election officials, because they're putting money aside for a total change of the state voting system and states that do it that way, or the county system.

But it was really the first time that the federal government ever stepped in and says “Maybe there's a role to play here, but we still think it should be a limited role – that states know better how to conduct elections in their states with the input of local election officials than anybody in Washington DC could figure out,” and I continue to think that's the best place for us to be on this issue.

Brianna Lennon: And I know we're coming up to a half an hour, the question that I would really like to know, especially based on your response to HAVA, is what do you hope that your legacy in elections is?

As you are – we haven't even mentioned you are retiring this year, as our US senator, and you leave behind years of elections experience and a wealth of information – what do you hope that local election authorities glean from your time? And, I guess, how do you hope to be remembered? I know Eric has already said a few ways that we continue thinking about your time in office.

Roy Blunt: Well, I think, you know, one of the things is one I've already mentioned is that that whole idea in election administration, that certainly there's some adversarial responsibility, but there's also some required team responsibility, and understanding how big it is that people have confidence in what happens on election day. If we didn't know that before the last 10 years, we should know it now.

2020 was a wakeup call of one kind and many states begin to look for new systems, and, in some cases, they discarded paper when they were doing that, and then after 2016, it became very evident once again, that some way to recreate what happened on Election Day was very important if people ever did challenge what happened there, and always thinking about the integrity of the system.

I’d also say to our election officials that are listening to this from around the state or whoever listens, I do think in my case, having that 12 years’ experience as a county official has been very helpful to the way I've always approached government. If you're a county official, state official, member of Congress for 26 years – if you want to get a problem solved, it's hard to find a place where there's more willingness to try to solve it and eagerness try to solve it than a county courthouse or the county government center where there's still that clear understanding that your job here is to make the government work for the people you work for, if you could do that at all.

And within the restrictions of the law, what can we do in elections – I may be a little more restrictive than other things, but if you go to the courthouse with a problem, you've got a whole group of people there who usually work for somebody who is very interested in you helping them solve that problem, or very interested in helping solve that problem themselves. I think people who have been county officials take that with them in a positive way, whether they go from government to the private sector or to another level of government.

And for me, at least, important – I loved being Secretary of State. I love the things we did in the office, and in January when I leave, I will have been in the Congress for 26 years, and, you know, here we are – I'm leaving with some things done I'm really proud of. Last week, Senator Stabenow from Michigan and I spent a lot of time talking about a piece of legislation we got done this year, that really will allow all 50 states to have some federal assistance in moving toward treating mental health like all other health, and I hope we've done things to make it clear that democracy is important, and democracy works.

On January the sixth, I left the building at four o'clock, the Capitol at four o'clock that morning, but I left it with our work done. The counting group for the election were Senator Klobuchar and I and two House members and the Vice President. And democracy matters. We send one of our strongest messages to the world every four years, when we have a peaceful transfer of power.

I got to chair – I chaired two of those conventions, two of those inaugurations, the one in 2017 and the one in 2021, and in both cases, there's a message sent – that while one side is always happier than another, at that moment or at the end of most elections, frankly, democracy goes on because people accept the results right back to the topic of our conversation – the importance of doing everything we can so that people have confidence that what they tried to do collectively on election day, is exactly what was reflected in the results from that election. And I'm grateful to both of you and all your colleagues in our state for sure and all over the country, but particularly in our state who make this system work.

Eric Fey: We're very grateful for you taking the time with us today, and it sounds to me like the secret for Congress getting things done is to have more local election officials serve in Congress.

Roy Blunt: It very well might be.

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.

High Turnout Wide Margins Season 2 Senator Roy Blunt
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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.