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S2E22 – HTWM Live: Discussing the Documentary ‘No Time to Fail’ with Rhode Island’s Rob Rock

Back in November, High Turnout Wide Margins hosted a film screening at Ragtag Cinema in Columbia, Missouri. The documentary called ‘No Time to Fail’ follows the work of numerous Rhode Island election administrators during the 2020 Presidential Election as they navigate their day-to-day work, the growing threat of disinformation and mistrust in elections and the global pandemic.

After the screening, hosts Brianna Lennon and Eric Fey spoke with one of the film’s protagonists, Rob Rock, the Director of Elections for the state of Rhode Island, about his experiences in elections.

You can learn more about the documentary at https://www.notimetofailfilm.com/

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:

[High Turnout Wide Margins Introduction]

Managing Producer Aaron Hay: You're listening to High Turnout Wide Margins, an insider's look at election administration hosted by Brianna Lennon and Eric Fey.

Back in November, High Turnout Wide Margins hosted a film screening – live – at Ragtag Cinema in Columbia, Missouri. The documentary called No Time to Fail follows the work of numerous Rhode Island election administrators during the 2020 Presidential Election as they navigate their day-to-day work, the growing threat of disinformation and mistrust in elections and the global pandemic.

Hosts Brianna Lennon and Eric Fey spoke live with one of the film’s protagonists, Rob Rock, the Director of Elections for the state of Rhode Island, about his experiences in elections after the screening of the film. That conversation and a short Q&A is what follows in this episode of High Turnout Wide Margins.

You can learn more about the documentary at https://www.notimetofailfilm.com/

Brianna Lennon: Can you hear us okay?

Rob Rock: I can hear great, yes.

Brianna Lennon: Thank you for joining us. This is really exciting for us.

Rob Rock: Oh, thanks for having me. Appreciate it.

Eric Fey: All right, we have to do an intro. So, this is another exciting episode of High Turnout Wide Margins. I'm Eric Fey, Director of Elections in St. Louis County, Missouri.

Brianna Lennon: And I'm Brianna Lennon. I'm the County Clerk in Boone County, Missouri.

Eric Fey: And on the screen is the now famous Rob Rock from where?

Rob Rock: From Rhode Island.

Eric Fey: Alright, so what are we going to talk about?

Brianna Lennon: So, we just finished the screening. I feel very intimidated to go after the screening. It was very emotional. And we wanted to do this episode today, I think because we wanted to reflect a little bit on the film. But we also wanted to talk to Rob is one of the subjects because he very – I think he was very authentic in what it was like to run elections in 2020.

But we wanted to hear from you as well, and a little bit about your background. We always ask in our episodes what – how you got started in elections? How you ended up in the field? Lots of people do not plan to work in elections. So, if you could start us off and talk a little bit about how you found your way into working in elections in Rhode Island, we'd love to hear that.

Rob Rock: Sure, and Eric, I'm sure when you asked where I was from you meant to say what office. My name is Rob Rock, and I'm the Director of Elections for the Secretary of State's office in in Rhode Island. So I think that's what you're looking for. I apologize for just giving you the state.

But I started in elections, you know, as most people did, by chance. I had just graduated college, and I didn't have a job, and so I applied for a couple internships. I had a degree in political science, and I landed an internship with the Secretary of State's office with the Press Director, which was really awesome. And so, the internship lasted for the summer – myself along with I think eight or nine other college students worked in the Secretary of State's office – and just as the internship was ending in August, all of my other fellow interns were going back to college, I had already graduated and the elections intern actually didn't finish a project that they were working on before they had finished for the internship, so they asked if I'd stay on for a few weeks and finish up the project. And I jumped at the chance because I didn't have a job. So,

I worked for a couple of weeks finishing that project. And then a couple of weeks turned into a few more weeks – project a little took a little bit longer. And then, by chance, and all of you got to meet her tonight, Kathy Placencia, who is the Director of Elections in in Providence now, she at the time was with the Secretary of State's office, and she left the office to take the job in Providence, and I kinda was in the right place at the right time, and was able to step into her role as one of the assistant election folks in the Secretary of State's office.

So completely by chance – it was luck, but I'm so fortunate to be in the field. I've never really looked back and love elections. It's in my blood, but it was it was really by chance that I got started and certainly happy I did.

Eric Fey: One thing that struck me immediately watching this film was – it was gutsy of you, I think, to do this in the first place. There's so much stuff that happens during an election that, frankly, as election administrators, we probably don't want the public to see.

And – so what was, how did you come to make this film and have enough faith in the filmmakers and everybody that you know, because I know we're always nervous, you know, “they're gonna make us look bad. This machine broke down. We don't want anybody to know we're gonna fix it, blah, blah, blah.” So how did this come about? And, you know, how did you – how did you get the nerve to do this?

Rob Rock: Yeah, well, I wish I could take credit for the one to say “yes,” but Sara Archambault, one of the filmmakers is actually from Rhode Island and Margo Guernsey is right outside of Boston, so not very far. So both are relatively homegrown and Sarah, who's from Providence, she has a good working relationship with one of our senior advisors for our office.

And so, Sarah approached Nicole in our office and said, "Hey, listen, there have been a ton of TV shows about politicians about candidates – House of Cards, Veep, Scandal, all the other shows about politicians and candidates – but there's been nothing about elections administration."

And so, Sarah pitched it to Nicole. Nicole in turn pitched it to the secretary, Secretary Nellie Gorbea, who is actually finishing up her second term, and is term limited. But one of the things that Secretary Gorbea has always been a fan of and a proponent of is transparency, and she know good and well, that elections aren't 100%. They're not perfect. And she – but she really likes to make sure that people know what's going on behind the scenes. We want to be transparent.

And so while it was a gutsy call, I think, initially, it didn't take long for us to realize that the filmmakers, they really had the best interests of the people in mind – wanting to make sure that people knew exactly what it took to run an election. And they had no idea really, but they wanted to make sure that it got out there because they knew that it wasn't something like we all probably hear, “Well, what do you do the other year and a half, that it's not election time.” And we all know that that's when we take our time to get things ready for the next election, but it was really a gutsy call on the Secretary's part, there's no question.

And then the Secretary approached our office and we've got a very small Elections Division in our office – we got four people. And it was one of those things where the Secretary said, "Well, you know, someone's got to be the one to be followed around” and the other three people in my office did like one of these, like, "I'm not doing it." So, I happily did it. I mean, it certainly it was it was a little bit risky, but I was really confident in the filmmakers and their desire to show exactly how it is to run an election.

Brianna Lennon: So one of the things that was kind of it was interesting to pick up on, but you all have to work very closely with local election officials all across Rhode Island and there were some parts where it was very obvious that that division of labor can cause some tension when machines are not working or, you know, when something goes wrong.

Do you feel like – I assume with Rhode Island being very small that you have a pretty good relationship with anybody that's working in elections – but do you feel like the film was a pretty honest representation of how closely you guys work together? Are there – did people kind of act more politely because they knew they were being filmed, than maybe you've experienced before in phone calls?

Rob Rock: That's a great question. I think one other thing to add, before I answer the question directly, is that not only do we have the Secretary of State's office and the 39 local Boards of Canvassers, cities and towns, there's also the State Board of Elections, which I know is very clearly, you know, shown in the film, and it's three completely separate offices.

And so, while we all work together, it is – the division of labor is, you know, set aside three ways. So yeah, we work very closely with the Board of Elections and the 39 cities and towns, you know, both physically and, you know, in practice. I mean, it doesn't take anyone more than 45 minutes to get to another town in Rhode Island. So, the furthest town away from Providence is Westerly, and it takes about 45 minutes to get to. So we're, we've been fortunate that we have a lot of in person meetings. It’s a very top-down state.

So, the cities and towns don't have a lot of autonomy or wiggle room when it comes to running elections. I mean, the state purchases the voting equipment., they purchase the e-poll books, we built the voter registration system, we proof and print all the ballots, we pay for all the ballots. The cities and towns are in charge of a lot of stuff, you know, at the local level, but it's really a top-down system.

So, by nature, we are very close with our cities and towns, and Secretary Gorbea has made it a point to make sure that no matter what we do – and I use the building of the voter registration system that we did in 2019. While we were responsible for it and we paid for it, the cities and towns had buy in of how the system was going to be developed. So, we've developed a really strong relationship with our cities and towns.

And it's not to say that it's perfect. In what's good for one city like Providence, our biggest city, it may not be the best for Central Falls or Hopkinton, or Richmond are smaller cities. So, by and large, we do work very closely with our towns and the Board of Elections, really, because we have to do it together and really to the voters and to the people, there's really no difference between the state and the locality. You expect to show up and get your ballot or your mail ballot or you vote early, whatever it is, and you're expected to have a smooth experience, and it doesn't really matter to the voter, how it gets done. So, our relationship, fortunately, is very strong between all three entities.

Eric Fey: And I think that's a fascinating juxtaposition with Missouri where I don't know if there's a state that's any more bottom up than Missouri where the counties have significant autonomy. But, Rob, the next question I have for you was – the legislative changes you experienced in 2020. Your state legislature and your governor implemented new laws, new guidelines for elections in 2020. What if any impact – what if any input did the Secretary of State's office, the Board of Elections and all the town clerks have in crafting that, if any?

Because, you know, it really varied across the country where some places – legislatures, and governors just made edicts and new laws and local election officials didn't have much input into and then just had – were left holding the bag. So what was the story like in Rhode Island?

Rob Rock: Similar, but – so, our governor did implement a few executive orders that altered the way elections were run in Rhode Island. First and foremost, we had to move our presidential primary. It was scheduled for April 28. We moved it to June 2, obvious reasons – for the pandemic.

But the biggest change that happened was, we were – before 2020, the most or the highest number of mail ballots we ever had in the state was 41,000, and our – while you apply with your city or town, the Secretary of State's office sends out all the mail ballots. And we did 41,000 in the presidential election in 2016 and we realized that our infrastructure was not made for much more than that, and so, when the governor said that we're going to do a pretty much all mail election, and by all mail – what that means in Rhode Island, anyway, was – we send applications to every voter in the state. So, the voter still had to fill out an application and send it back, but our infrastructure wasn't really built for that.

And so, we were able to get through barely, barely able to get through the presidential primary in June with that – we had over 100,000 mail ballots, which again, to a state like Missouri may not seem like a lot, but to us little old Rhode Island, it was a really a big change for us. And so the cities and towns barely were able to keep up with the processing.

And so, we had to work with the governor's office again, on how to do it for September and November, and we decided that we were going to send applications for November as well, but we changed our internal processes quite a bit, where we made it a lot easier for the cities and towns to process those applications.

So, that was really a big change, and that was only for 2020, though. That was just for 2020. It was nothing was in perpetuity. There was no law change. It was simply an executive order that got us through 2020.

The other major change was in Rhode Island – previous to 2020 – anytime you voted by mail, you had to have your ballot envelope either witnessed by two people or notarized, and so, the executive order in 2020 got rid of that because clearly, we didn't want to have people coming in contact with others due to the pandemic. So, that was waived for 2020, but again – only for 2020.

It wasn't until the last legislative session, really 2021 and 2022, where those items were codified in law, and so, it went through the normal General Assembly process. Where our State Senate and our State House of Representatives had to pass the bill just like any other bill, which it did receive input from local cities and towns, the Secretary of State's office, and the Board of Elections. And it certainly wasn't as smooth as I'm making it out to be, but the 2020 election was executive order and really, you know, the cities and towns – we really got together after the presidential primary and we said “how can we do this correctly for the November election? Because we really can't screw this up.”

And so the cities and towns did have input, but it wasn't until the last legislative session in 2022 where the big – it was called the “Let Rhode Island Vote Act” passed, which changed a number of laws that were implemented in 2020, but only for the 2020 election and now we've got them in perpetuity, and we're really excited about it.

So Eric, the short answer is, you know, the cities and towns did have some input, as did the state and we really work together to get to where I think is a pretty good place. We got a lot of work to do, but we've got ourselves in a good spot for 2022 and beyond.

[Mid-episode Break]

Eric Fey: Rob, just a quick follow up, can you – so, did I understand it correctly during the movie? In Rhode Island, you tabulate your mail ballots post-Election Day.

Rob Rock: So, that was one of the changes to the law. Where prior to 2020, the Board of Elections could start opening and tabulating mailed ballots 14 days before the election. The new law moved that out to 20 days before the election. So, the Board of Elections – that separate office than us who receives the mail ballots back – they can start opening and certifying and all of that 20 days before the election. The results button doesn't get pushed until election night, so there are no real results released until election night. But the processing of mail ballots can start 20 days before the election.

Brianna Lennon: So, one of the things that the movie focused on, I think, was interactions between election authorities and also voters. And voters obviously had different priorities when we were in 2020 and making sure that that safety was a concern and things like that. Now that you have some of that infrastructure from 2020 built into 2022, are you seeing changes in voter behaviors? Are you seeing more people wanting to vote by mail or is it going back to wanting to vote more in person? Or has some of that really just become ingrained in voter behavior?

Rob Rock: I think it's in the middle. So, we're not going to see – we had 175,000 people vote by mail in 2020 and that's because we sent applications with postage paid return envelopes, made it very, very easy for people to vote by mail. We can't afford to do that again. We used federal money to do that in 2020. So, we're not going to do that, again. Where – you can see a clear increase in mail ballots from like elections. So, I'm looking at 2022 and the last like election was 2018 and we see more mail ballots than 2018.

Early voting, which is another major change to Rhode Island law – which we never had before 2020 – and people can now go to their city or town hall in the 20 days before the election and they can vote into a voting machine, and we've seen a ton of people do that. I think as of right now, as of today, about 35,000 people have voted early in Rhode Island and I expect that number to grow to about 60,000 by 4:00 p.m. on Monday. Which means if you take the 35,000 people that requested a mail ballot and add that to the what I believe is going to be about 55,000 to 60,000 people voting by mail, that means you've got about 85,000 to 90,000 people voting before Election Day. And previous to 2020, that number was about 20,000. So a huge, huge increase in that in the amount of people voting before election day.

And I think bottom line is it comes to voting when it's convenient for people. That's been one of the things that Secretary Gorbea has championed is we want to make it as easy as possible for people to vote. And really today – in today's society, it's not, you know, the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. That's just not how we live our lives anymore. It's people voting when they can. They're taking kids to soccer practice and debate team. You've got people that have more than one job.

So, we're trying to make it as easy as possible for people to cast a ballot and it appears as though that early voting and mail ballots are going to continue to move forward and we're going to have, you know, certainly, I think more than not, people are going to be voting on Election Day, but a big chunk of people are voting before election day and I think that that's going to continue to grow.

Again, we're not seeing the numbers we saw in 2020 and we didn't expect it, but we're seeing a lot more than we ever did prior to 2020 and I think that that trajectory is going to continue to rise for early voting, especially here in Rhode Island.

Eric Fey: While we're passing the mic around, Rob, just one comment I want to make – one of the things I enjoyed most about the film was just kind of that real east coast attitude and mannerisms of your local election officials there and how they interact with the public. It really is different than kind of that Midwest nice way that a lot of us have here, and so, I just want to say while people are formulating their questions that was entertaining to watch for a Midwesterner.

So, alright, we have one back here, please go ahead.

Audience Member One: My name is Joe Benboydle and I'm a Boone County resident. And I really appreciated the film and your participation in it.

One of the things that was alluded to in the film was the duplicity or duplication of effort and the redundancy in some of the processes and steps because you always had a Republican and a Democrat doing every job and watching each other do every job in every critical point in the process.

And I was wondering if you could speak to that and how that adds to the difficulty in managing an election and if there is a failure at any point, be that a machine failure or a dispute about a signature or whatever it happens to be, there are at least four eyes on that situation at every juncture, so that if there is a dispute, there is a sort of an automatic impartiality that's imbued with the decisions that are made on the ground at the time during the election. They're not just, "Oh, those people did this" or "Oh, those people counted 1,000 ballots that weren't right."

It's – there's a lot of redundancy and checks and balances internal to every step. Could you speak to that a little bit?

Rob Rock: Sure, Joe, that's a great question. I think that's really the crux of what I hope people get out of this film is that for every process that we have – and by “we” I mean the elections community, I'm not talking about Rhode Island – but as election administrators, there are processes in place to make sure that we mitigate any issues, detect any issues, fix any issues, prevent any issues from happening, I think that's really important.

I'll talk a little bit about the – I think you're talking about the Republican and Democrat and eyes being on ballots. I mean, when we're talking about mail ballots certification, I know mail ballots, generally are brought up when we're talking about voter fraud and making sure that people are who they say they are. In Rhode Island, we've got a signature match on the front end before ballots are even sent to the voter, and then a signature match on the way back before the ballots are open and counted.

And that's because we want to make sure that the there's integrity in the process, and every little thing – I mean, when you watched what happened in Cranston with that early voting machine where no one ever realized that only 14,000 votes could fit on a USB drive. We didn't know that because we've never had that many people vote on one machine – But as you can see, there was a redundancy in place. When a machine breaks down, the emergency slot is open and voters can slide their ballot into emergency slot, and then at the end of the night, a Republican and a Democrat will take those ballots and feed them to the machines so that they're counted.

Every single issue that showed up – that issue in Central Falls. Same thing with the machines weren't reading the ballots, they go into a separate bag. They get brought to the Board of Elections under a police escort and they get fed through the machine at the Board of Elections to make sure that things are on the up. All of that's really important, I think, to make sure that people realize – I think, as election administrators over the next two, four, six, eight years, our biggest job, our biggest job is to make sure that people, you know, see this film I think would be great, but see the processes that every everyone has in place.

Because in Rhode Island, we're not the exception, we are the rule. Every – every county, every city, every state has processes in place to make sure that things are done properly and there are redundancies. When we when we send our results in to the – from the polling places to the Board of Elections, there's a paper tape that gets printed, there's a USB drive that comes out of the machine that gets compared to the tape, and then what gets sent to the Board of Elections on the website. That's also compared to the tape and to the USB drive. There are so many redundancies in place, and I think Joe, you hit it right on the head, that people – and a lot of this stuff, by the way, can be seen in public. So right now, the Board of Elections is going through mail ballots certification, and as a member of the public, you can go and watch them match signatures, so that you can see exactly what it's like for us to be able to make sure that a vote is counted the way it should be.

The risk limiting audit that you saw at the end of the film, that's open to the public. There are bipartisan teams. I think there were 10 teams around, you know, 10 different tables, looking at ballots – Republicans and Democrats making sure that they agree that a person that filled in the oval for Donald Trump or for Joe Biden was correct. Then, you run those ballots through the machine to make sure that they were read the way the voters intended them to.

All of these things are well thought out, and again, nothing is perfect. You saw in this film that elections are not perfect, but for every issue, there was a response, and there was a bipartisan response. And there was hopefully something that people can see that say, "Okay, yeah, there was an issue, but this is how it gets rectified, and I can be sure that my vote was cast."

So, I think, Joe, again, great question, and I hope that the film, you know, leads people to understand that there are processes in place to make sure that we mitigate, that we detect, that we prevent, and that we identify any issues that happen and then we rectify them, you know, on the spot or soon thereafter to make sure that the integrity of the election stays intact.

Managing Editor Rebecca Smith: I think we have time for one more question before we hand it back to Brianna and Eric.

Audience Member Two: This is directed at all three people – as far as we've spoken about the redundancies in the security of the vote, has any degree of security for election workers changed between 2020 and 2022?

Rob Rock: I'll start from Rhode Island, [indecipherable]. I can tell you that we've been very fortunate in Rhode Island, where we have not seen the level of harassment and intimidation and threats that many of our colleagues across the country have seen. And I'm sure that Eric and Brianna can talk a little bit about that from Missouri's end. We've been very fortunate that we've had, you know, our fair share of I call them threats, I guess. I mean, you saw some of the love notes that we got on those mail ballot applications that came through and I've got, you know, a stack, you know, this thick in the office of ones that were a lot worse than that.

But I can tell you that what has happened from the federal government's end, from the state governments end, is that there have been a lot of awareness that's been then placed on the security and the safety of election workers. And we've worked with the federal government, whether it's Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the EAC, our local state police, and our National Guard folks, and really have made sure that security of election officials is paramount.

And I know that while again in Rhode Island, we haven't seen some of the threats that others have seen. I'm sure that Eric and Brianna can speak a little bit more on that from their end, but certainly we've done quite a bit to make sure that our folks are as safe as possible, and, and our federal partners and state partners have been pivotal in making sure that that happens, as well.

Eric Fey: Yeah. It's been the same for us, luckily in St. Louis County, and I think frankly, like Rob said they've been lucky in Rhode Island – margins were wide. And that's, I think, the key. Where they've had problems is where they had close elections and, you know, people start to spin out of control with these conspiracies. For the first time in 2020, in our office, especially on Election Day, we brought in members of the St. Louis County Police Department and also members of the command staff of the St. Louis County Police Department, so we could more quickly respond to anything that would happen on Election Day, because we didn't know what to expect, we didn't know what was going to happen.

But on the other end, we have to be cognizant that elections are a public process, they're an open process, and they need to be accessible to the public, and so, we also make a very deliberate decision – we don't have police at every polling place. We don't have police out in front of our building because we want voters to feel like they can come in and vote, and that, you know, it's we're not in a police state. So, it's really a balancing act for election officials to make the process look and feel accessible and actually be accessible, but still have some security built in, and so, yeah, hopefully, you know, we continue to have wide margins.

So, Rob Rock, members of the audience – by the way, this is way more people than I thought would show up, so this is awesome.


To my co-host, Brandon Lennon, thanks everybody for being a part of this for coming out, and we hope you enjoyed it.

And if you haven't listened to High Turnout Wide Margins, you got a little taste tonight of the geekiness that it is and its very kind of, you know, down in the weeds. So, if you liked it, there's like, I don't know, 70 more episodes out there, just like it. So go, go take a listen. Anything else?

Rob Rock: Eric, if you don't mind, could I just finish up with one thought?

Eric Fey: Fine. Go ahead.


Rob Rock: I just want to say that I know that while this film was focused on Rhode Island, for those who are not election administrators in the audience and are voters and folks that just you know are there to watch a cool film – just know that you know, for every Kathy and Nick and Sonia that you saw on the film, I can guarantee that the election administrators in your county and your city, your town work just as hard for you to make sure that you can cast a ballot.

This wasn't a Rhode Island film. This is across the country, and I can assure you that the men and women that are working on your behalf to make sure that you can vote are top notch and the integrity is there. They're just as hard working as us in Rhode Island, and I can tell you that they do their job. They do it well and they devote their life to elections during election season. So, you can just sleep at night knowing that the men and women that are working on your behalf are our top notch and we're working really hard for you.

Eric Fey: Maybe Rob should be co-host, yeah.


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.

A big 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.