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S2E21 – Preventing Physical Harassment & Violence Against Election Officials with Kathy Boockvar

In this episode, hosts Eric Fey and Brianna Lennon speak with Kathy Boockvar. She’s the former Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from 2019- 2021 and a member of the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections, which works to protect election officials from physical threats, violence, and intimidation through coordination with law enforcement.

They spoke about some of her own experiences working with law enforcement for protection during her time as Pennsylvania Secretary of state, as well as about how local election officials can start working now to ensure the physical safety of their staff and their office during the 2024 election cycle.

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:

Kathy Boockvar : Suddenly, there was this direction of threats and intimidation and harassment at election officials and their families. And, and it was it was shocking, and upsetting and worrisome on so many levels. And, unfortunately, it hasn't, it hasn't gone away.

[High Turnout Wide Margins Introduction]

Eric Fey: Hey, everyone, this is another episode of High Turnout Wide Margins. This is Eric Fey, the Director of Elections in St. Louis County with my co-host –

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

Eric Fey: And today, our guest is Kathy Boockvar. And Kathy, you're from where?

Kathy Boockvar: I'm from Pennsylvania, and I am President of Athena Strategies.

Brianna Lennon: But before that – she was the Pennsylvania Secretary of State.

Kathy Boockvar: That's correct.

Brianna Lennon: And one of the other things that she’s doing right now – in addition to being the president of Athena Strategies – is that she’s one of the founding members of the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections, and that’s kind of dovetailed into work she’s done with the EI-ISAC [Elections Infrastructure Information Sharing & Analysis Center], which was an elections infrastructure and information sharing network that was set up for cyber security. And she’s worked on an array of different things, but before we jump into your history and all of that, can you give a little overview of the Committee’s work and why you think it’s important that it exists and why you joined.

Kathy Boockvar: Sure. Yeah. So the committee for safe and secure elections, is one of those things that we wished didn't have to exist. But unfortunately, it does, and it does great work. So, it's a cross partisan, cross sector committee made up of election officials, law enforcement officials – both current and former of both, as well as federal agencies and other partners who touch election security in some fashion.

So, you know, we've got, for example, CISA [Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency] from the Department of Homeland Security is on there. The EAC [Elections Assistance Commission] is on there. CIS [Center for Internet Security] EI-ISAC folks have been on there. But then we also have election officials at the local and state level, as well as police officers, sheriffs, and so forth across the country, and the goal is working together to make sure that election officials and the election infrastructure and operations are safe and secure.

Brianna Lennon: One of the other things that is striking to me is, you know, this committee didn't exist five years ago, I don't think there were very many people that really anticipated the need for it to exist five years ago, and you had your own personal experiences in Pennsylvania. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about what you experienced as Secretary of State and kind of how it ties together with the work that you’re doing now.

Kathy Boockvar: Sure. Yeah. So I joined the Department of State in 2018, and so, it was really right in the moment where election security was sort of, you know, it blew up in, you know, in a topic of interest kind of way. And initially, a lot of what we were talking about with election security was, you know, mostly in the cyber realm, and it was largely focused on foreign adversaries, and so forth. And the goal of making sure that our security and the strength of the walls protecting our election infrastructure was stronger than those that were trying to tear it down.

But none of us were talking really at all – at that point 2018, 2019– about physical security so much, you know, here and there know, but not in any significant way, and then, I think it started becoming more of an issue really in 2020. And I think a lot of it started, frankly, I think, in the spring, when we started hearing about, you know, there were the issues of the police killings, and there was, you know, great civil unrest on the streets.

And so the physical security was sort of first focused on, you know, I think, larger social issues that then would impact every component of our society, right? But it certainly also impacted concerns about the safety of voters going to vote.

And of course, combined at the same time was COVID-19, right? We had had all the shutdowns. Stress was incredibly high, and so, it – we were concerned about what I'll refer to, as you know, on the ground security and physical security, but in a larger societal way. And then as time went on with 2020, we saw, of course, disinformation just expand exponentially, and that coincided and caused anger – which then was encouraged to be to be taken out in ways that had, you know, I think, never really happened before.

So suddenly, there was this direction of threats and intimidation and harassment at election officials and their families. And it was shocking and upsetting and worrisome on so many levels, and unfortunately, it hasn't, it hasn't gone away, right? It’s continued to go.

So it's why really that CSSE – the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections – represents such a critical effort, because – for example, and I'm happy to talk about my experiences – the role of law enforcement, and the partnerships between law enforcement and Election Officials is critical in this.

And this is across the board with election security – the more cross sector collaboration we have, and the increased communication and the breaking down of silos – the safer we all are.

Fey: Since this organization has been formed, and you know, it's become more robust – have you seen a change in the way law enforcement has dealt with some of the harassment of election officials and things like that, because my impression was, at least, you know, back in 2020, when it became really thrust into the forefront that, in many ways, law enforcement was kind of unprepared or didn't quite know how to react to these kind of situations.

Kathy Boockvar: Yeah, that's a that's a great point, Eric.

Yeah, you know, I think because it sort of blew up – by “it” I mean this sort of threats to physical security – because it sort of blew up in such an unexpected way in 2020, we weren't prepared, and by “we,” I mean, any of us.

And so, for example, one of the things that that I found was even just knowing what branch or level of law enforcement was prepared for, responsible for, ready to handle any aspect of it – it just wasn't something that had to be determined before.

So, if you think about sort of my personal example. I worked in Harrisburg, which is one county. I live two hours away in a different county. [I] travel through multiple counties on the way, you know, between them. So, I have a residence in my home county, I had an apartment in my work county, I have family in other states, and threats happened in all of those places.

So, there was a period of time where I was advised not to be driving myself and not to be in my apartment, and there were times that family members got threats, and it was kind of all new – figuring out who's going to handle any of these things, right?

And I will say that the law enforcement in Pennsylvania were fantastic, and I was very fortunate. I had local law enforcement who were patrolling my neighborhood, I had, you know, [the] county sheriff left a car in my driveway for a period of time. I had the Capitol Police were driving me when I was in Harrisburg.

But not everybody was as fortunate to have that level of responsiveness, and it was so disparate, the folks that were involved, that it took a lot of conversations to even get that all happening.

So, I think to your question about how it's changed – I think that it has gotten better, in part, so, you know, the federal efforts, as you know, after President Biden got into office, the Department of Justice, you know, formed its task force to increase, you know – I'm not actually sure what the exact language of their scope is – but basically to address these issues and hopefully lend some support to preventing and resolving these issues.

And so, you know, that's been a challenge, but I have noticed that the FBI has been playing a much more significantly proactive role than I think they had been, and they were also, I didn't mention them earlier, they were also involved with me in 2020 and were responsive and, you know, and were good, but what I have heard is some elections have said – I was talking to one election official at the local level, who said, I was asking her if she had contacted her police, her local police about the threat she had gotten, and she said, the FBI contacted her proactively. They had tracked it and reached out to her, which I thought that was new, and that's what we need, but so – I'm sorry that this, this is a bit of a windy conversation. But maybe that's reflective of the of the issue, right? – but I want to really key in on the communication and cross sector collaboration, because what I love about what CSSE is doing, and what I think is a model that we need to be doing everywhere – is really encouraging the introduction.

I'm sure you guys have done endless tabletop exercises, right? Over the last couple of years. And we did in Pennsylvania, as well. Starting in 2019, I guess. And so, we tried to get in the room in these tabletop exercises – not just the election officials, but also the emergency management folks and the lawyers and the communications people and law enforcement – and we sometimes found that the election officials would be meeting some of these other folks for the first time in the tabletop exercise.

So the, like, that's what you want – is for the people to meet and to talk about their processes, talk about what's normal, what's not normal, talk about who the key players are in every aspect of it, do it before there's a problem. What to be looking for what to be thinking about, do it ahead of election day ahead of any incidents, and that way, when the incident happens or election day gets crazy, you know who to call already, you know what the process is.

And that's what CSSE is all about. Is really incident planning ahead of time, relationship planning, communications planning ahead of time. So that you know you're not dealing with it for the first time should an incident occur.

[HTWM Mid-break]

Eric Fey: Maybe it's a good time. Kathy, if you don't mind talking about how you came to be in election administration? And what motivated you to work in this space?

Kathy Boockvar  Sure. There's a fair number of us, I've discovered who, it’s probably a very high percentage, I'd be interested to know what the percentage is – of us who talk about being accidental election professionals. So, I – my first job in elections was as poll worker. So, I was a regular voter, and you know, at some point, the folks who were poll workers in my precinct said, “We could really use a poll worker.” They did convince me to try being a poll worker at the next election., and I sort of started as a clerk and then I ended up being a minority inspector. And I fell in love with elections through being a poll worker.

Eric Fey: So, real quick – just to jump in – in Pennsylvania, at least some level or some type of poll worker is actually elected. Is that correct?

Kathy Boockvar :Yes. So are you elected to be –

Eric Fey: So, were you elected to be –

Kathy Boockvar: I was.

Eric Fey: Okay.

Kathy Boockvar: I was elected, and so like, initially, I was just a Clerk, which is not elected, but then I did, I was Minority Inspector, which just means that I was the minority party. My precinct. was a Republican precinct. So, the Judge of Elections is elected. The Majority, Minority Inspectors are elected, and there's a balance of parties.

So, I, yah, and I just felt like you were like – for the first time, I realized that you never feel more like you're part of the wheel of democracy as you do when you are literally helping people vote, and, you know, it's sitting there and, at the time, you know, we counted absentee ballots in the precincts, and so, you know, we'd be there till whatever – one in the morning with the tally sheets, and that, you know, it was so, it was, it was just, it was such a great experience.

And so, then the few years later, a position arose with Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization. They were looking for a voting rights lawyer. So, I was a practicing lawyer, and had just started, I had actually, I guess, between the two I had pro bono supported low-income minority community in my county whose polling place had been changed to, you know, to a really bad place, after having been in their community for a million years. So, I had supported them in their effort to try to get the polling placement back, and then this job came up with Advancement Project.

And I had been in a law practice with my husband for 11 years. But it was such a great opportunity, and he was, we were at a good point professionally, where we were looking for merging with a firm or hiring – so it ended up being a great time.

I worked for the Advancement Project as the Pennsylvania voting rights lawyer. Initially, it was all Pennsylvania and then I also did work in Florida and Texas in 2009, 2010. And so then, I was really hooked on elections.

But in Pennsylvania – and it was also the first I ever knew, I ever heard of state Secretaries of State, right? You know, it was least known, you know, very unknown – not to mention county level election officials, how important was. And through that job, I got to work with a bunch of county level folks, as well as the Department of State.

And Secretary of State is not an elected position in Pennsylvania, but there was a vacancy on the Commonwealth Court in Pennsylvania in 2011, which I was recruited to run for – which is the court that hears voting rights cases. So, I ran from that and lost in a close race in 2011 and then was recruited to run for Congress, which was not on my bucket list, but so, I've been – so I was a poll worker, I was a voting rights lawyer, I was a candidate – then I had a few other professional, you know, pathways that I was taken.

But when there was a vacancy in the Secretary of State's office in 2017, the end of 2017, the governor interviewed me and asked me to serve as Secretary of State and Chief Election Official. So, you know, and then after that, I was, I've been working at the federal level. So, I was vice president of election operations at the Center for Internet security. And now I'm doing a broader scope of voting rights and election security work at the federal level.

So, I feel incredibly fortunate to have seen the most, to have worked in the most local precinct level, and then also work with county, state and federal. And I will say this, and I am sure, I hope you hear this all the time, but, you know, there's – hands down election officials at every level are the hardest working, most dedicated individuals I have ever met, who just really, you know, what motivates them more than anything in the world is to make sure that all of us can exercise our fundamental right to vote. And what is more important than that? Than that?

Brianna Lennon: So, we’ve talked about the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections and things like that, but that’s just one of the many things that I know you’re working after you left the State Department and you were doing the EI-ISAC work, which is elections, but really more related to cybersecurity – what was driving you and what’s motivating you now to keep working in elections and continue on, but not in not in an appointed or an elected kind of level?

Kathy Boockvar:  So I'm working with a mix of diverse national organizations, academic institutions and election officials and other government officials across the country on a broader range of issues. So, as you said, you know, the EI-ISAC, you know largely cybersecurity-focused support, which is fantastic and very important.

So the, the work I'm doing now, as we’ve discussed here today – there's a lot of different ways that we need to be doing better at supporting election officials and government officials across the country and the cybersecurity is piece of that, but so is all this physical security pieces, disinformation and the things that come from disinformation, right? If disinformation somehow was contained, it would be less of an issue, but of course, it causes all kinds of other effects. And when you look at the litigation, and the challenges and the endless record requests that you are all getting, and then you look at the people on the ground – like our communities are yearning to understand all these competing messages that they're hearing.

So I'm working with a broad base of folks to:

A – make sure that we're spreading accurate information about election. Like we need to be going to the people where they are, we need to be on TikTok, we need to be in the libraries, in the barber shops, in, you know, in our in our schools. Really making sure that – we talked about those of us who are accidental election professionals – [we] want to make sure that just the base level of what people know, is higher than what it is now.

Because right now, it ends up people with knowledge about elections, you sort of have to be self-selecting, and if you never had exposure to really understanding or integrating kids into the process, right? Getting folks to be poll workers earlier, but really at any stage.

So I want to be, so I want to be expanding the information sharing and discourse about elections and then supporting a broader set of election security. So everything from risk limiting audits, to physical security like the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections. I want to make sure that we are making your job as election officials as smooth and easy and without fear, and with, you know, without threats, as possible.

Eric Fey: I've been lucky. I haven't had the kind of protesters outside my office and things that a lot of other election administrators have experienced, but, you know, I've dealt with over the years, even prior to 2020, a number of very angry people, you know, right up in your face about one thing or another. And all of our backgrounds are somewhat similar to yours, and in that, we all came to this because we cared about public service or public administration, and we want to make the process work for everybody who's qualified to vote.

And so it's, like there's part of me that, you know, when these people are all upset, or they think you've done something nefarious – I just want to talk to him and explain it, you know, like, “Don't you know who I am?” You know, “I'm not working with the Venezuelans, you know, to fix this election.”

So, did you have that compulsion at any point to just like, try to engage with any of these people and just talk to him? And if so, how did that go?

Kathy Boockvar: Eric, I mean, that is a huge part of it. I mean, honestly – and it doesn’t always work. I get that. But the transparency and the answering of questions is a critical piece of this because, and again, it doesn't always work and I know plenty of election officials who have welcomed folks in, but the questions still get asked even when they have been answered a lot of times – but I think we have to still keep doing it, and that's part of where – I want more funding for election infrastructure so you can be hiring more staff and hiring all the equipment you need and hiring all the communications you need and all that, but I also want us to support you in these roles.

So, I want to be developing templates, really simple templates, in all forms, right? Like one pagers are great, but not everybody's going to pick up a one pager. That's why I want to be on TikTok. I want to be online. I want to make sure that will give you the support that then you can take and tailor to your own jurisdiction.

But yeah, I think to some degree, talking to the people that are asking the questions – at least to a reasonable point at the beginning, again, at some point if it keeps going and going and going, you know, I don't know how many times you have the same conversation. That's not a good use of your time or anybody's time – but I think when we shut the door and refused to have the conversation, that certainly doesn't help. So, I would always give it a try.

But again, I would love to hear from you and others across the country – like aside from funding and those kinds of things, right? – how else can we help you? We've got CSSE who will come help forge those connections between you and law enforcement partners and make sure that you're incident planning. But what else would be helpful for you? What could people on the outside organizations, agencies be doing to help make your job easier? So next time, I'd like to interview you?


Brianna Lennon: Well, we really appreciate your time, and we just want to make sure we close by asking if there’s anything that you want local election officials to know as they are preparing for the 2024 election season?

Kathy Boockvar: What I'd love for every election official to know is that you should now – because it's going to take some time and you don't want to wait till 2024 – you should reach out to CISA. Find out who your protective services advisor is, your local regional CISA person who can come to your office is, identify how they think your physical security is, identify any gaps, and then they can put you in touch with other CISA resources or you can also reach out to the EI-ISAC who could put you in touch, who could help you identify where are the gaps, what funding is available, what you need to do to get that funding, and then how to make those changes long before 2024.

So, I urge everybody to start with – ask CISA who your physical security adviser is and check out the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections – those two should be done soon to get the process started, and then we can help plot forward the best path to get you the protection that you need, that you and your staff need.

Eric Fey: You've been listening to High Turnout Wide Margins, a podcast that explores local election administration. I'm your host, Eric Fey, alongside Brianna Lennon, 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, and 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.