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S3E10 - Brewing up Election Security with Scott McDonell in Dane County, Wisconsin

In this episode, hosts Eric Fey and Brianna Lennon speak with Scott McDonell in Dane County, Wisconsin. After a number of threats and attempted break-ins, McDonell decided that election officials needed a safer and larger space for election processes.

So, after traveling around the country to look at other election offices, McDonell chose the new space at an unexpected location- a local brewery. They spoke about how a County Clerk embarks on a project of this size, keeping election workers safe, and maintaining trust with other clerks across the state.

High Turnout, Wide Margins Credits:
Managing Editor: Rebecca Smith
Managing Producer: Aaron Hay
Producer: Katie Quinn
Digital Producer: Mark Johnson

Transcription of the episode is as follows:

Scott McDonell: We also had Homeland Security do a review of our facilities, and, you guys, you know what I'm talking about with that. So they came through, and we're like, “This is a disaster.” In fact, on election day – I had them come on election day – it was a quiet election, but they were here, and some guy was trying to – dressed in camo face to toe, you couldn't see his face – was trying to get into our office. So, the report ended up saying, “We really need a new facility. We need a secure facility with one entrance [and] you know who's coming in and out.” So, that's when we started to go, the County Board was like, “Yes, you need a new building.”

 [High Turnout Wide Margins Introduction]

Eric Fey: [We’re] back at another exciting episode of High Turnout Wide Margins. I'm Eric Fey, Director of Elections in St. Louis County, Missouri with my co host –

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

Eric Fey: And today, our guest is –

Scott McDonell: Scott McDonell, Dane County Clerk. Dane County is Madison, Wisconsin.

Eric Fey: Scott, thanks so much for being our guest on this episode, and as we kick off pretty much every episode – tell the listeners how you came about to be in elections? What's your election origin story?

Scott McDonell: Yeah, mine's a little different, I think. I started out running for County Board when I was still in college. So, don't ask me why I decided to do that, but I ran. I won by six votes in a recount and it was a good race, it was close – basically campus area, if you think of Madison, Wisconsin. And proceeded to serve on the county board for like 20 years, and that – our County Board is a large county board, we have 37 members and it's part time. So, I had another job working for the state in IT. After a time, I moved up to different spots in the County Board and became County Board Chair. I did that for eight years. That's sort of where I came from was the County Board, not from municipal clerk or something else, and when the County Clerk position opened up here, a lot of the duties of the County Clerk are in service to the County Board, there's a huge amount of overlap on that – as you guys know, County Clerk's do all kinds of stuff, not just elections. That's kind of how I got into it. I knew a fair amount about elections, but I hadn't been an election official other than being a poll worker. So, that was the part I had to learn. Now I've been Clerk for 12 years, and I'm the only one to do two presidential recounts.

Eric Fey: I do want to back up just a little bit and give you a chance to tell us a little bit about your county and your role in it. And, in particular, Wisconsin and your neighboring state, Michigan, like to run elections at the kind of hyper local level. So, can you explain to the people listening – do you run the elections for everything in the county? Or do you have to work with all these smaller municipal clerks? Or how does that work?

Scott McDonell: Yeah, that's a good question because you're right, Michigan, Wisconsin – if you could have an org chart and you would push it down as far as possible so it's almost flat, that would be Wisconsin, but the County Clerk sets up the party, and then the municipal clerk throws the party, and then we clean up the party, you know, we do all the coding, we purchase the ballots, we get the election media out. Then the municipalities are the ones who are hiring the poll workers and running it on election day. And then we get the results, we post the results, we do canvas, we store the ballots. So, it's just sort of like a check and balance, it goes back and forth.

Brianna Lennon: I know we're jumping around, but I really wanted to talk about the brewery. So, people that have not been following Dane County news – I'm sure everybody has – you're in the process of moving election facilities into this space that was previously used as a brewery, but can you talk a little bit about how that process worked and how you came to the conclusion that you would need this space for upcoming elections?

Scott McDonell: Yeah, so I'll back up a little bit. Right now both, the city of Madison is like half of the population of Dane County, and we share a building called the City/County building here, where my office and the City Clerk are in it, and above us are hundreds of beds – jail beds. We've had water come down here multiple times. The building is a sieve as far as people coming in and out of it. It's not ideal. The courthouse is separate, so that has weapon screening, this doesn't. So, this is just not the best setup for any of us election-wise. It's just a big county building with a lot of different offices in it.

In fact, Madison's stored their DS200s, their [election] equipment, all of their AutoMARKS, and now, their ExpressVotes, in a basement of a strip mall in probably the lowest part of the city, and amazingly – it flooded out. And then they put them back in there and they flooded out again. That is like half the county's equipment keeps getting flooded out, in part because people around here really didn't take it very seriously. So between, having a building that wasn't terribly safe and equipment getting flooded and then we started getting, after 2020, a lot of threats – the city of Madison clerks got very specific death threats. So, that led me to create a task force on election security to look at our needs. We were able to bring the Sheriff, local clerks, the University Wisconsin has a department that studies elections. So, one of their professors chaired the committee, and then, as part of that, we also had Homeland Security do a review of our facilities, and, you guys, you know what I'm talking about with that. So they came through, and we're like, “This is a disaster.” In fact, on election day – I had them come on election day – it was a quiet election, but they were here, and some guy was trying to – dressed in camo face to toe, you couldn't see his face – was trying to get into our office. So, the report ended up saying, “We really need a new facility. We need a secure facility with one entrance [and] you know who's coming in and out.”

So, that's when we started to go, the county board was like, “Yes, you need a new building,” and with that, all of our equipment is all over the place right now. I mean a small town hall with one room has got their DS200 and ballots and poll books and everything in there. It's not what you would have. Anyone can go in and out of there from the town board and everyone else. So, that was the idea behind let's get a central building. I know we are a very decentralized kind of government here in Wisconsin, but we can do it cooperatively and create that setup. I mean, Madison's loading their ballots in the rain, right now. They can't pull a truck into anywhere. So, then we started looking at new build construction and the costs were crazy for that. I mean, new construction right now, at least in Wisconsin, is not good. So, we took a shot at trying to find some buildings that might match, you know, finding a 45,000 square foot building, which is what our architect identified – not the simplest thing, but there was a brewery that was only like, I want to say old brewery, is was only like 11 years old. We have a lot of breweries around here, and it was a really nice space. I remember going there when it opened, and we were lucky and we were able to get a good price.

Eric Fey: So, moving the election office, or at least part of it, to a brewery seems like that's peak Wisconsin, right there, doing something like that. So, are you going to maintain any kind of brewing operations for the benefit of the poll workers or anything like that? Or are you just abandoning it completely?

Scott McDonell: Well, actually, when I got there we did a press conference there. In my memory, the bar was still there, and maybe I just put it in my mind because I've been there before. I get there and it's gone, and part of me is like, “Oh, man, I thought this was still here.” Because I thought after 2024, we're gonna want to have a bar in there or leave a bar in there, but someone took it and sold it off or whatever. But that also meant I had no podium because that was gonna be my podium for this press conference. There was nowhere to put a microphone. So, we literally went there into the warehouse and brought three empty kegs out and stacked them for our podium, like that was our podium just because that was it, and I was like, “Oh, that's what, that's what clerks do. We just make it work. Figure it out.”

Brianna Lennon: So – and Eric may have his own thoughts on this too because Eric's office is in an old mall, so I feel like he probably can resonate a lot with that – but for a lot of us that are in smaller counties that we don't always have support or, like you said, people weren't taking it seriously – you created the task force to do those things. What do you find was the most compelling to get people on board with understanding the needs for your department?

Scott McDonell: Yeah, I think it was when I engaged my sheriff and actually the previous sheriff and now the current sheriff have both been really good, but the previous sheriff I had known, Mahoney, for a long time, and I brought him – sort of the kickstart of it is I did a few security improvements on my own – we put up some plexiglass, we put some cameras up, things that were inexpensive like that, some panic buttons and things, but then when I was talking to the sheriff about it and he walked through, when he was in our server room, he was like, “This should be at an evidence locker level of security instead of whatever you have right now,” and he was kind of appalled by where things stood. We sort of looked at some of the city of Madison's problems too, and I think he was a really strong advocate that helped everyone realize, “Okay, we need to take this seriously,” and also just the attacks in general that we're going on – especially at Madison, but around the state, you know, some things that were going on in Milwaukee and Green Bay. The residents in this county were kind of – I've never had any pushback, but that's reflective of the fact that the residents here feel very strongly about protecting election workers, they just do.

So, in smaller rural counties whatI would think – and Dane County's is 600,000, it's kind of urban, it's got some rural to it – but, you know, they're like, “Yes, that happens, but that's in the big city, like, you guys are fine, like no one, we're small enough, everyone knows each other.” But that's not how it works. It's lightning. You don't know where it's gonna hit. You don't know where the Gateway Pundit article is gonna land. You have no idea, and that's what I try to tell clerks around the state in Wisconsin, you know, “Don't think this just happened to Dane County.” The things that happen – the whole Dominion conspiracy theory started in a rural county in Michigan.

Eric Fey: I think you mentioned your new building, you might be allowing some of the municipalities to use it as well for some of their things, did I understand that correctly? So, how did that come about? Is there cost sharing involved? And then maybe you could explain a little bit more about what all the hoped for uses of this building will be once you're in there and you got everything going?

Scott McDonell: Yeah, I mean, first and foremost, it would protect the city of Madison election staff and the county election staff, so they have a safe work environment. I think we don't feel that way now. So, that's kind of the number one thing. Two, we’d have a climate controlled, modern warehouse where we can store all the equipment, all the things that go into election day, you guys know what I'm talking about, which we don't have right now. I think initially, all of Madison will be there and then the electronic equipment – maybe not every single DS200, but the vast majority of them – it's easier to service them, it's easier to do everything in one location. Then having that modern fire suppression and everything as part of that. So, thinking of like half the county will probably just have their equipment there and then the other half, Madison, will have everything there. But, you know, just the ability to have the ballots delivered directly to our warehouse, sort them, and then, you know, we start to do some planning about how we're going to get things out. We're probably going to have to hire – we'll figure out how to do forklifts and trucks, all these things we don't really do now, we will have to do. Like the regular counties around the country do, but we're so decentralized, we haven't.

As far as charging – we'll charge Madison for having their actual employees working out there and work out the square footage, which we do all the time. I think we have formulas for that and I’m not too worried about that, but, otherwise, I'm going to try to avoid chargeback because otherwise the incentive is to not use it. And we don't want that incentive. We want the incentive to be, “Sure you can bring all your stuff in here, we'll put it on a cart, we'll lock the cart, you'll have a cage, you can pick it up, or we can deliver it and it's all easy peasy.” You don't want to create a new burden. For us, we have clerks who work 15 hours a week and they have a whole nother full time job, and you can't be giving them more stuff to do. It won't work.

[High Turnout Wide Margins Mid-break]

Brianna Lennon: I’ve never even embarked upon an office restructure to like change walls in my office. What has it been like to try and figure out, for a project this big, how’s it been working with an architect? What have you been finding to be the biggest challenge?

Scott McDonell: We hired Wold Architects [& Engineers] out of Chicago. Initially, we were very much like, “We want to hire an architect who's done an election facility somewhere before.” One thing I will say is all of us – there are similarities everywhere obviously, but there's a lot of things that are not similar. We do not do signature verification – which is a big deal. It's a big process – not there. Equipment – not there. So, there's things that are pretty different about Wisconsin. We ended up hiring someone who hadn't really done any, but they've been great, they’d done government [work]. So, they had done a lot of different government projects where they were reimagining a Clerk of Courts or whatever, different projects like that, and we found they've been great. Part of it is just spending the time comparing – we went on visits to Tampa to Maricopa to Cook County, just to see their layouts, tried to learn from what mistakes they made, pick up little, you know, it's funny, you try to focus in on little things. Like how are they storing their sticks? Or what kind of card are they using? How much is that? Where'd you get it? And just those kind of little details.

But trying to get the workflow down and the – we're actually not even there yet. So, it is daunting even to this point, but we still – it's going to be another two years of this where we are remodeling and trying to figure out the workflow. We plan on using the floor as our recount. So, we also want to look at how we can structure a recount where the ballot and the poll books and the flow goes, and we could allow the public in for that. So, that's a whole nother process, gotta figure out how to do that safely and efficiently.

Brianna Lennon: I just am constantly trying to figure out how to embark on a project like that without having guaranteed funds for each of those years and everything else?

Scott McDonell: Yeah, I mean, the money was approved. Fortunately, it looks like the whole project will fit in the money that was allocated last year because we're remodeling instead of building new, and in some ways we look great, because everyone else's projects are way over. But, you know, part of that is getting the help that you need as far as the architects, setting up a clerk committee to try to help you think through problems, and then visiting other places because there's nothing better than that, I mean, it takes time, it costs a little money. Take a lot of pictures. Delete them when you're done, you know? I don't know, it makes the job interesting, and you know how it goes, I mean, we'll have – this year is gonna be bad, but then the year after that, there's no fall election, we'll have time to work on it.

Eric Fey: I really thought it was a great idea that you went to different places around the country to check out their facilities and take inspiration from that. I think that's something many, if not, most election offices would like to do. I'm curious, did you already have money in your budget to do that? How did you accomplish it? And if you were talking to – if there's somebody listening that was like, “Oh, I can't afford to go to Tampa and look at their warehouse” – how would you persuade them to maybe move resources around to do something like that?

Scott McDonell: Yeah, I think it's really important to do that because you really don't know what you don't know. Honestly, that's, it’s important. I guess if I were thinking, “Okay,” you know – I try to sympathize, like our economy is growing, we have money coming in unlike a lot of places – so, I think of a county that maybe has a flat levy and they really don't have money and people are getting laid off, and so, it's a big ask to say,”Oh, I want to go to Tampa.” “Oh, sure, you want to go to Tampa.” I actually, at one point, I was looking at, “Well, where can I drive to?” So Cook County was drivable, Hennepin County, there are places that we were going to – we went to Cook, we ended up not going to Hennepin – can you find places where you can just load a van and learn from that?

There are, like Hillsborough County where Tampa is, the clerk there actually does a video tour on his website. I used that. I'm like, “See! Look at that! Look at those cages and look at the electrical running down where he can plug in all his machines at once and all of his poll books are all lined up perfectly and everything off the ground, and I'm like, ‘This is what I'm talking about.’” So, there may be things you can find online that can be helpful too, but just walking through and seeing it and getting a sense and also seeing like, “Okay then, they had” – I mean like some place, like Tampa, they built it then they had to add on, and so, can try to get ahead of the layout and what would happen if you had to expand it., so you're not screwing some future county clerk really bad. [That’s] what I worry about.

Eric Fey: So, when it comes to a recount – and you, as the county official, you're kind of left holding the bag in those situations where the legislature is so contentious – do you approach that situation any differently than you may have in the past? I mean, do you make an extra effort to be more transparent? Or have more observers there? Or perhaps less because they're going to be confrontational, like you mentioned at the outset.

Scott McDonell: Yeah, I mean, once we get going on the recounts, I mean, we try to include everybody in explaining how it works and accommodating them. I know in the 2020 recount, we had it at Monona Terrace, this large convention center, and we spent the money to have a large area for observers to be able to go and just get briefed by their own side and get water and get instructions. Then we tried to accommodate people's schedules, and once you get – the first day or two are not great, but then when you get into this, well, you start to trust each other. It went okay after that. And we try to, you know, we do a good job and so people can see that. They can see. They hear things and then they come in and it's not true, you know, “We won't be able to see the ballots. We're too far away,” and then they get there and say, “Actually, I can see them. It's fine.” Or they'll hear something and then you explain it to them. Like I remember one, we were looking at an envelope, and it was clear, it was very clear – they objected to an envelope, they said “this ballot should get tossed,” and when I said, “see, you can tell that this person is really old and that ‘x’ is just all they can write probably because of arthritis,” and I started showing them all the like hints that that's probably it, and they just withdrew their objection. Once it becomes small and they can see it and it's a little more personal – it changes people's attitude.

Brianna Lennon: So, this goes back to something else that you were saying, but I thought it was really interesting how you were characterizing using the space – kind of subsidizing some of the smaller cities and towns that need to use it because like the greater good is that the space needs to be used, it benefits everybody, and you should be doing it. Have you seen any of your relationships with the cities and towns change as some of the political nature that you were just talking about has changed? Have you had any – the most blunt way of saying it is has any election deniers taken any of those positions and made your job harder?

Scott McDonell: Oh, yeah, no, that's not happened. Actually not a single county clerk in Wisconsin – 72 – are election deniers. No one in my county. So, that hasn't happened. I think there can be tension because all these municipalities have a relationship with the county and not all the time is it positive – like you guys know what I'm talking about – so, that can play like, “Oh, sure you're not charging us for this. Just wait two years,” and I've been like, “No, we're not. No.” And I went to the town's association meeting and I've known some of these people there for 30 years. I'm like, “No one's gonna charge you for this. You guys know me and before I told you – when we did the interoperable radio that we're gonna charge you and we did and it's the same amount it is now – now we're not.” So, you try to leverage the relationships you've had in the past and explain your rationale because sometimes they'll say, “You're just saying that.” I'm like, “Well, no, here's the motive. The motive is it's not in our interest for you guys to bail, so trust that.” But yeah, I think it's more wrapped up in the relationships that already exist – good and bad.

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 Producer is Katie Quinn. This has been High Turnout Wide Margins. Thanks for listening.

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