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S3E1 - HTWM Live at NCSL: How Local Election Officials and State Legislators Can Work Together with Ruth Hardy and Carlton Wing

This past August, the High Turnout Wide Margins team headed to Indianapolis for the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Legislative Summit, which brings together lawmakers from all across the country.

Hosts Brianna Lennon and Eric Fey did a live taping at the event where – for the first time – they spoke with state legislators. They spoke about how state legislators and local election administrators can work together to foster trust and confidence in American elections.

High Turnout, Wide Margins Credits:
Managing Editor: Rebecca Smith
Managing Producer: Aaron Hay

Transcription of the episode is as follows:

Carlton Wing: And so, this is one policy, this is one issue that should be able to bring us all together because we all want accurate elections. That's what we all want. That’s our goal.

Managing Producer Aaron Hay: This past August, the High Turnout Wide Margins team headed to Indianapolis for the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Legislative Summit, which brings together lawmakers from all across the country.

Hosts Brianna Lennon and Eric Fey did a live taping at the event where – for the first time – they spoke with state legislators.

They spoke about how state legislators and local election administrators can work together to foster trust and confidence in American elections.

Brianna Lennon: Let's do it.

Eric Fey: Alright.

Brianna Lennon: Eric and I are sharing a mic, so we have to move it back and forth, but we’re really excited. Thanks to NCSL for this opportunity. We will start – as we do in all of our episodes – and just move right into questions.

So, welcome to another exciting episode of High Turnout Wide Margins. My name is Brianna Lennon. I'm the county clerk for Boone County, Missouri, and with me is my co-host –

Eric Fey: Eric Fey. Director of elections in St. Louis County.

Brianna Lennon: And today, we're really excited to talk to two legislators with elections experience that can help us kind of dive into the relationships between election officials and policymakers.

Ruth Hardy: Great. Thanks, Brianna, and Eric, it's great to be here. My name is Ruth Hardy. I'm a state senator from Vermont. I represent the Addison District, which is right along Lake Champlain – beautiful farm country – and I come from the town of Middlebury, which is where Middlebury College is, and I chair the Government Operations Committee, which oversees elections policy among other things. And I'm in my third session in the Senate.

Carlton Wing: Great to be here, as well. My name is Carlton Wing, I'm from North Little Rock, Arkansas. I have fished Lake Champlain several times – fabulous smallmouth bass fishing there. In my private side, I produce outdoors television, and so that gives me the opportunity to visit wonderful states like yours, as well.

Eric Fey: All right, well –for full disclosure – this is the first time, I think, we've interviewed legislators because when Brianna and I formulated the idea for this podcast and everything, it was really, “for us, by us” thing for local election administrators.

And we haven't even interviewed too many state level election officials either. It's really, it's really focused on that.

And so, both of you mentioned to me before the podcast that, as you just mentioned, Senator, you serve on the committee or you chair the committee, actually, that has purview over elections in Vermont. And Representative Wing, you mentioned you've been working on a caucus, committee in Arkansas that is working on election integrity issues.

So from our perspective, as local election administrators, we'd love to know, how in your respective positions, have you been engaging with the election administrators from your respective states? And how has that informed your policymaking decisions?

Ruth Hardy: Should I go first?

Carlton Wing: Go ahead.

Ruth Hardy: Okay, so I think it's really important, first of all, to understand the Vermont context because we are a tiny, tiny little state. Vermont has 626,000ish people, so we're the size of a small city or a big town in many of your states. So, kind of we know everybody, and when you're in politics – I would say one of, if not the most important person for somebody who's in elected office, or who wants to be in elected office, to get to know is their local clerk.

So, I always go in and say “Hi” to all my clerks. I represent 26 towns. That means I represent actually 25 clerks because one town is actually not a town. It's a gore, which is a weird Vermont thing, and they don't have a clerk. They share a clerk with the actual town. So, I know all 25 of my clerks. I know where all of their offices are, and I visited with all of them.

And in my job as a legislator doing legislation about elections, the first two people that I ever bring in to testify on elections bills are our Secretary of State's office – our Director of Elections, who's an excellent director of elections and the chair of our Clerks Association. And I think it's safe to say that if they are not supportive of an elections bill, it's very unlikely that that bill would move out of committee.

Carlton Wing: And the context of Arkansas is fairly unique in that we have 75 counties, and each county has three election commissioners. There's a process of determining which party has the two and which party has the one, and that is with regards to our state constitutional officers. So, in Arkansas we have three election commissioners – the two are Republican and the one is a Democrat in each of our 75 counties based on that formula of constitutional officers.

But what's unique is there's only three of them per county, so they have to rely on the manpower supplied by the county clerk's offices to be able to perform their duties. However, at the end of the day, the people who sign off on that election – that it was done correctly, and these results are accurate – are those three election commissioners.

And so, that was one of the things that we had to address two terms ago – this would have been in our January of 2021 term or session – was to address that relationship, because the responsibility had naturally shifted over to the group that had the most labor in doing this job, but the ultimate responsibility – constitutionally – for those three election commissioners. So, we were able to streamline that, but that's something that's kind of unique to Arkansas.

So, how we work with them is we have put forth – just our committee – has put forth 41 bills in the last two sessions, 2021 and 2023, to address election integrity. But we would not have been successful had we not talked extensively with not only the county clerks, but each of the election commissioners as well.

Brianna Lennon: I think one of the things that comes to mind for election officials – we spend a lot of time watching legislation and trying to figure out the most effective ways of bringing concerns to the ears of policymakers. Have there been – when alarm bells are going off for election authorities, how do you recommend that they get that information to you?

Ruth Hardy: Yeah, that's a great question. In Vermont, legislators are really accessible. There are 180 of us in our tiny state, and we all answer our emails personally and our phone – literally, this is my office.

So, I think that all of my clerks know how to get ahold of me if they have concerns or should know how to get ahold of me if they have concerns, and I really encourage them to do that. I reach out to them if we're doing a bill that I think they might be concerned about, and then the clerk's association is very active in the statehouse, and very well respected. So, they can also reach out through the Clerk's Association.

Carlton Wing: I think the number one job of anybody in public service is to listen, and so we've got to be able to listen to what is being said from the people who have boots on the ground, who are on the front lines of this, but also for anybody who has any concerns – one of the number one things that they need to do is develop that relationship with their elected representatives before a crisis happens.

So that way, there's a rapport there, there's a level of trust there, and so when an issue comes up a lot of those filters that normally might say, “well, maybe they're coming at it from this way” or whatnot and we don't exactly know where each other is coming from, that relationship is there and it's built and it's strong. So somebody can say, if there is an immediate concern, “Hey, we've got a problem, and it needs to be addressed right now.” And you're going to be much more likely to be able to get the response that you need because you've developed that relationship prior to.

Eric Fey: So speaking of relationships, one common refrain I hear from other local election officials when I'm at national conferences and things like that are, you know, they've just come out of the legislative session, and quite often, there are new requirements for election official – new job duties, new things that have to do – and I often hear from election officials, “Well, we have a good relationship with our legislators. We went to them. We explained what the issue was. But at the end of the day, the legislator thought, you know, their party wanted this or it was best for their political base to do this.” And the concerns of the election administrators were kind of overruled or overlooked.

From your experience, should election administrators maybe stop being so pollyannaish about the process and just understand that legislators are there to be elected, they're political animals, and they should address election policy from that perspective, or should they try to keep it within the four corners of, you know, their official duties and what works best, you know, administratively.

Ruth Hardy: Ooh.

Carlton Wing: I think I'll reject the notion that elected officials are there to be elected. We're here to serve the people. And so, it's the people who we answer to, and so when they bring about concerns, we need to listen to those concerns. And so, I think a good public servant is not just trying to get reelected, a good public servant is trying to do good policy for the people that they represent.

And so, what happens is in these environments – especially from the 2016 presidential election, 2020 presidential election – we have had both major parties with very vocal concerns about the integrity of whichever election. And so this is one policy, this is one issue that should be able to bring us all together because we all want accurate elections. That's what we all want. That's our goal.

Ruth Hardy: I think one of the things you were asking was should local election officials sort of throw in the towel about trying to make the argument for the best way to administer elections in a nonpartisan arena, and I don't think you should throw in the towel. I think local election officials should continue to talk about the most effective, accurate, efficient, fair, accessible, transparent – all those words that we love to talk about – I think you are right on the front lines of elections. And it's really important that you speak to us about what works and what doesn’t and keep at it if we're not listening because you're right, our job is to listen because I don't run the elections, I just make the policy about the elections, and when I sit down with my election officials and hear “Oh, that's how that thing actually works in practice.” It's really helpful.

I think elections policy, unfortunately, gets really political really fast, and this was my first term chairing the government operations committee, so I was actually surprised at how fast things got political. But I was really, really grateful for our clerks and our election administrators who were not making the political arguments, they were making the administrative arguments for how to run a really good election and keep it fair and accurate and transparent.

[High Turnout Wide Margins Mid-break]

Eric Fey: I have a question about the interplay between state and local election officials in your respective states. It's already been alluded to or talked about somewhat, but there are times in some states across the country – Missouri being one recently – where the County Clerk's Association or the Association of local election officials does not agree with the chief state election officials over – that might be the secretary of state or lieutenant governor in some cases.

Brianna Lennon: That never happens.

 Okay. Well, that never happens, so never mind. But theoretically – if it did happen – how do you as state legislators try to balance those competing interests between the state election official and the local election officials, which by the way, are the people who actually run the elections – but just wanted to ask that question.

Carlton Wing: We've got our kind of our two silos in that the constitutional responsibility and authority relies on our state or county election commissioners, but yet they have to use the clerk's office personnel to be able to perform those duties because there's only three of them. And so there is a balance there, but the constitutional authority relies on and goes with those county boards, that funnels all the way up to the Secretary of State.

And so, one of our bills in 2021 addressed that – so that it was clear and distinct that the people who are in charge are the county boards, not the clerk's office – they are just providing the personnel and the staff. We've got 75 counties in Arkansas and in probably 73 of them it works perfectly.

Ruth Hardy: What about those other two though?

Carlton Wing:  That's the pause.

Ruth Hardy: So, I guess there are times when the state election officials and the county clerks – they're not county clerk's, they’re town clerks in Vermont – don't see eye to eye. And the Clerk’s Association and the clerks that are vocal at the statehouse, you know, there are 250 clerks, I think, in Vermont, and there are some that are not as vocal or don't show up as much. And they're often the ones that are the more disgruntled or whatever, don't agree with the things that whatever's happening. So, it's hard for me to generalize, I think, but the Secretary of State's office has a clerk's advisory group that they work closely with to try to prevent that kind of disagreement. And I don't – I guess I haven't been doing it long enough to really know what happens when there's a huge disagreement.

The closest thing I can think of was the sort of concerns around rolling out mail in ballots during the pandemic, but I think everybody knew we kind of had to do it. So, even though there was a lot of fear and worry about it, it was sort of, “Okay, we're gonna do it, even if it's not, you know, even if we don't feel like we're ready, we have to do it.”

Eric Fey: Han counting of ballots – that's been an issue in our state legislature to some degree this past legislative session. So speaking of things and legislative sessions, I’d like to give you both an opportunity to talk about – whenever your next legislative session begins, or perhaps you're in the middle of one now, I don't know – what are your personal legislative priorities in terms of elections? And what do you foresee being the hot election related issues in your respective bodies?

Ruth Hardy: As you may have heard in the news, Vermont just experienced a bunch of flooding. Our entire state capitol was underwater, and the entire downtown, including our Secretary of State's office, were flooded, and they haven't yet been able to move back in. So.

And I think 32 town offices were also flooded. So, what's top of my mind right now is flood recovery and that includes elections, administration, and flood recovery. So, I've been talking to our election officials, both at the state and local level about, you know, disaster planning and disaster recovery during elections.

We just, you know, I've mentioned COVID a bunch of times – that's a disaster of a different kind than a flood – but still, how do we make sure that our elections process is resilient to these types of things and so that isn't something that I've personally worked on yet, but that's top of mind for next session.

And next year is a presidential election – 2024 we go into session in January, so I'm really reluctant to put forward changes to our election laws in an election year. Unless there's some really compelling reason why we need to, but we will probably continue some discussions for, you know, the longer term about some of the things that came up this past session and didn't end up passing – rank choice voting has been an issue that we've been discussing, electronic ballot return for overseas voters [has] been a thing we've discussed a lot, certain procedures that the clerk's would like to see that, unfortunately, became controversial last session. So, there are some issues that we'll come back to but making major policy changes in election year, I think is not a good idea, but rather thinking more about planning for the future of elections in case of emergencies.

Eric Fey: I want to make sure the people from Missouri in the room heard the point about not changing rules next year, so…


Carlton Wing: Yeah, That’s right. Can't change the rules of the game once the game has begun.

We actually don't go into session until January of 2025, so it'll be after the presidential election, and that's the beauty of self-government – we'll adjust to whatever thing needs to be adjusted to, if needed, as we move forward.

But I think one of the concerns that we have as elected officials and also as election officials is to be able to speak to the public in a way so that they have confidence in this process. That, to me, is essential as we move into 2024 because there’s going to be a lot of information out there, and not all of it will be accurate. And so it's important that our election officials and the people who are involved with the elections are able to portray the truth of what they do in a way that brings confidence to the process.

Brianna Lennon: So, speaking of that, I am curious – what, if any, role you think policymakers could have in either elevating local election authority voices in trying to boost confidence, voters’ confidence when they have questions about the ways that policies are being portrayed in their states, you know, do you think there's a role that legislators can play in trying to support local election officials in that?

Carlton Wing: Yeah. We can be vocal. We have a mouthpiece, and we need to be more vocal in that regard, to be able to exude that confidence in the process.

I think when you were looking at – the first part of your question was dealing with paper ballots, and there's this question for that – the number one reason why we would get an inaccurate result is not fraud, it's mistake. It's just human error.

And so, if you're going to go to hand counted paper ballots, you are going to increase the potential – greatly – for human error to affect an outcome, and it's not by any partisanship or anything like that. It's just gonna be a mistake, and that's what humans do.

If you handed 1000 ballots to the four of us right here and asked us to count – what are the odds that we're going to come up with the same number? And it's not just one ballot initiative by the way? It's one piece of paper that might have 20 ballots on it – and then what do you do when we have a different number? How many recounts would we have to go through before we all got the same number? And would that, in essence, would that really be the accurate number? Or did we just give up because we're very, very tired.

And so those are the kinds of things that machines, and yeah – we have laws in the state of Arkansas, none of our tabulators can be connected to the internet, and, you know, we've got all of that – and I would assume that's probably fairly universal throughout the country – and we also have the ability to do the post-election audit and the hand count audit, as well. So, we can have confidence in those machines.

So, all of that information needs to go out to people who have concerns because they're being told that these machines have a great potential to be tampered with, and then there's all kinds of stories about some WIFI signal emanating from a machine, and all of these things that theoretically could happen in a Hollywood movie script. But it's not happening. I can only speak for Arkansas. It's not happening in Arkansas. That kind of information needs to get out so that people can have confidence that what's happening is real and true with regard to this process.

Ruth Hardy: So, your question was – how can we as state officials help local officials get the word out about how things work? So, I think we can, yes, be vocal and echo a lot of the things that you and your colleagues around the country at the local level are saying and needing to ensure that voters hear the message that elections are well run and accurate, etc.

I also would love to see, you know, I mentioned that we have high turnout in Vermont. We have high turnout in presidential elections and most of our state elections, but there are some local elections where we have, like, abysmal turnout, like, you know, I don't know, 5 percent or something. Really low. And I think that people don't understand that some of the elections that impact them the most are local elections – their local ballot initiatives, local school budget votes, local election official contests – and I would love to work with local election officials to try to get turnout better at the local elections.

We have our local elections in March. Next year is a presidential primary for us in March at the same time, and it's also our town meeting day, which is a quaint little thing that we still do in Vermont. Where we actually meet in person and talk about our town and our town budget and most of our towns still do it. It's a lot about snowplows.

And so, I would love to see more people involved at the local level – at these really local elections, and I think that that will help build confidence up the election chain for lack of a better word. If you see your neighbor being involved in something and getting elected to something or running something, there's going to be more confidence because you know, and maybe this is just speaking like a Vermonter, I don't know, but I would love to work with the local election officials on that.

Eric Fey: Cool.

Ruth Hardy: Thank you, everybody.

Eric Fey: Yeah, just well we want to thank Wendy and NCSL for having us here. This has been fun and if you're a big enough geek to actually have enjoyed what you just listened to, there's like 80 more episodes online you can listen to, so go check it out.

Carlton Wing: Put it on the playlist.

Ruth Hardy: Thank you both for having us. This was really fun.

Carlton Wing: Lots of fun. Thank you very much.

Brianna Lennon: Thank you.

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. 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.