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S3E11 - Laying it on the electionline: covering local election news with Mindy Moretti

In this episode, hosts Eric Fey and Brianna Lennon speak with Mindy Moretti, the editor-in-chief of electionline, a news source and aggregator for local election administrators that sends out a daily newsletter on all things election news.

They spoke about how electionline has evolved over time, what it takes for Moretti to curate it each morning, and a very special partnership that’s coming soon.

You can learn more about electionline and sign up for the daily newsletter at https://electionline.org/

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:

Mindy Moretti: Just recently I added on I don't even notice on the email that goes, if you get the email, an email that goes out at the bottom of it. I've added in “electionline is human generated, human curated since 2001.” Just to sort of be like – especially now as AI is coming in more and more, I wanted it to be clear that there's a person who sees this. And that well, you know, it's also for that, again, to make sure that none of the bad actors in fringe media get through and everything like that.

 [High Turnout Wide Margins Introduction]

Brianna Lennon: Welcome back to another amazingly fun 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, Missouri.

Brianna Lennon: And today, we're really excited because we've got a few things to cover, but what we really want to talk about is an amazing resource for election officials called electionline, which is headed by –

Mindy Moretti: Hi, this is Mindy Moretti, and I am the chief bottle washer, I guess, editor-in-chief of electionline. I always feel that seems so – editor in chief it's very – I'm in charge of electionline. I am electionline.

Brianna Lennon: So, before we get too deep into electionline and all of the amazing, like content that it produces and disseminates to election officials all across the country. We'd love to know how you first got your start in elections. And what brought you to, you know, creating this resource.

Mindy Moretti: Sure. So, credit where credit's due – it was created by Doug Chapin in 2001 following – there was a little election that people might still be familiar with that happened in 2000 – and so, he created that in 2001, [that’s] sort of when it got off the ground. But for me, I had wanted to be a reporter. And that's sort of what I had done. I did some reporting. And my previous job was, I was working at the National Association of Counties working for county news. And you write about counties, counties do a lot. Counties do it all really. So, I had been writing about a variety of different things, but I wrote a lot about elections and meth interestingly enough. Then just the opportunity came along to join the electionline team in November of 2005. So, I'm on year 19 at this point in time. It was either that or you know, sort of go a different route with my meth background. And I chose elections over that. And so, that's how I am here today.

Brianna Lennon: I wonder if you can take us through what it takes to make electionline happen. Every day you're putting out stuff. What does a typical day look like for you to get it ready?

Mindy Moretti: Sure. So, every morning I send out an email. I post on the site and send out an email of the news stories for that day. Typically, I start at 4:50. And the reason it's 4:50 a.m. is because a lot of sites don't drop their news for the day until 5 a.m. So, to do it earlier, I'm going to miss some things, there's things that get dropped right at 5 a.m. You know, that's like when NPR goes live with their stories for the day at 5:00 a.m. So, we sort of found that 5:00 a.m. was the sweet spot. I do a story, it is not AI generated. There is no assistance. It is me. I like to joke and say that I'm a professional Googler. And so, I have a list of about 125 to 150 search terms that I essentially roll through every morning and find those stories and post them. I have some hard and fast rules. No Fox News, but also no MSNBC. So, I try and stay away from the two ends of the spectrum. [I] try and keep it as middle of the road as possible. I'm not perfect with that because people become exceedingly – it's become exceedingly easy to create websites that look very newsy. That if you actually sit down and drill down to it, they are definitely from one side or the other. So, I always welcome like, please if you see me posting a site that you’re like, “That's my local community and you should probably not be posting that.” I'm happy to not post that moving forward. I've talked to like – so, Tommy Gong was great about that in San Luis Obispo County. There was a site that looked pretty legit, but probably was not, more recently in Shasta County. There was a site that I was like, “Well, this seems legit, but I'm not sure.” So, I reached out to Cathy [Darling Allen]. And then she's like, “Yeah, oh, absolutely. They are a good legit news source.” So, yeah. So, every morning, I go through, and we do those. And I've gotten, you know, just been doing it for so long, that I've gotten pretty good about, you know, figuring that out and looking at a headline. I try not to post straight up press releases either because it's like, yeah, you know. And so, if I see a story about polling places being open, I'm like, I will click on that and look at that. Because if it's just the information was like the polling place hours, that's not really – if the County Clerk or an election official was quoted in it, absolutely I'm gonna post that. But if it's just, you know, here's how you find, you know, here's a link to how you find your polling place. These are the polling place hours, I'm like, that's not really it. So, it's been interesting. It's, you know, my search terms have grown over the years. I never had a separate sort of search for drop boxes and that became a thing. So, I have a separate like, I actually now search just for dropboxes. I actually now, due to some issues that have come up, I actually search specifically for election monitor. Because some counties and Bridgeport, Connecticut have gotten monitors put in to deal with things. So, yeah, so the terms have changed over the years, and increased over the years. But that's it – It takes me about an hour to do it and then I send it out. And then on Thursday, I do that – I sort of compile all of, you know, some of the legislation in legal news on Thursday mornings and usually a story that I've written or someone else has written, and then that's the weekly newsletter. So, that's my – yeah, so like I said, I'm a professional Googler that's my job. If you need to find something on the internet, send me a text, I'll find it.

Eric Fey: So, that was fascinating for me to learn. I had actually no idea how the daily email was compiled. It sounds like a lot more work than I think many people might envision – do you worry at all about, by excluding some of those outlets, you mentioned, that sometimes they are bringing up some of these conspiracy theories and things that eventually do impact election officials? I'm thinking of, for instance, the Gateway Pundit. You know, they have put out some very egregious things in recent years, but those things that they've peddled have eventually impacted election offices in real ways. And so, how do you manage that interplay?

Mindy Moretti: Yeah, you know, it's a really tough one, because I don't want to give them more voice. And I feel like they're, you know, without tooting my own horn, but I feel like electionline sort of has become like a source for actual news. And so, I don't want to give them the legitimacy of being posted somewhere. But I do, like, keep track of that. I do try and be aware of that. And sort of the minute, someone like an NPR, or an ABC, or CBS touches on, or the AP, Christina Cassidy, the Associated Press, she's great. So, as soon as one of them starts to touch on it, I absolutely will do it. But I just – I don't want to give them any more voice than what they're getting. And because I feel like electionline – well certainly we have, we have reporters, you know, elections officials and reporters and legal scholars and things like that, who are reading it. I mean, not exclusively, of course, but most of our folks are not the general public that are reading electionline. So, you know, these are the folks that are reading it, [they] are aware of sort of the world that we live in, as far as like elections go. And so, I don't want to give voice to either side of it.

Brianna Lennon: Has there always been a reporting side of things? Like I feel like the spotlights features and things like – was that something that existed when Doug had it? Or has that evolved over time?

Mindy Moretti: Yes, yes, it has. That has always been – the weekly on Thursday has always been part of it and the stories. It's interesting to, sort of how the stories on that have gone over the years because, as with – from fashion to elections to everything – old is new again. So, you know, we were writing voter ID stories 20 years ago, and now like, “Oh, now we have to start doing [it again].” And readership is different and new, but it just – voter ID is back and not that ever went away, but sort of there was a drumbeat of it for a very long time. That was sort of [what] everybody talk[ed] about was voter ID. And then we've sort of stepped back from that, and now it's sort of coming back into play and everything. So, yeah, so there's always been a weekly, and you know, election officials are also like super smart and super inventive. So, they're always coming up with new things to do and I'm like, you know, help me tell your story. Let me, you know, most recently was the ride along program, in California, where they essentially take people who have questions and they let them ride along with their staff to the drop boxes and watch them do their work. Which, I have to give those staff a lot of credit to have someone do that with them.

Eric Fey: I feel like electionline does several unique things that I think only exist in or on electionline, for instance, the daily aggregation of the state specific stories. Tammy kind of makes a joke out of it, but a lot of us, we look at that email to see are there any stories from our state today. And we look exactly, you know, right there immediately. But joking aside, it's really one of the best or only ways that a lot of us can see what's going on around our state. I found out that my colleagues around Missouri have, you know, are doing things that I wouldn't probably have learned about for a while, but not for electionline. And also on the weekly email, you've got the job postings, the event postings, the kind of in memoriam section of election officials that have passed away or moved on to other things. I don't know anywhere else where all these things happen, are aggregated. And I'm curious how each of those things kind of came about. I mean, you identified that need somehow.

Mindy Moretti: Yeah, you know, I, obviously, again, always giving credit where credit's due, which is Doug. This was his, I always like to joke, this was his baby, and it's become my unruly teenager. Although now it’s going into their – it's going into its 20. So, it's not so much a teenager anymore. It's an industry publication, it really is. I mean, it's a publication for the industry. Obviously, a lot of other people tap into it and read it. But it was really designed as like, here's what's happening in this industry. And it's very funny because I used to work – I used to write for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, before NACo [National Association of Counties]. So, I was like – I always like to joke with elections officials and like, “Do you think you have a preparedness plan? Let me tell you about the preparedness plans that a zoo or aquarium director has.” I feel like there's some sort of like meeting of the minds there. They could really come together on that. And everyone always jokes – the first two places people usually go are the personnel news to see who's left what job and so therefore, what job might be open. And also then going to the job listings, to see what jobs are available. And then I'll predate to like, you know, this current turnover of elections officials. It's, you know, the personnel news is a bit of a gossip column. Without being gossipy, it's just this person is no longer a job. Follow the link to find out why. And then the job posting is what you know, what's available. So, it's definitely changed. Doug used to joke that his goal was to have at least one new news story a day for the daily. But now there's never fewer than 25 stories and you know, once as we get moving into, you know, sort of than the next two weeks, because it's Super Tuesday, and then beyond that. I mean, oh my gosh, come September it's just – I can't. I weep a little bit when I think about what September, October, November are going to be like. Which is nothing like – you guys have to deal with. I mean, literally, all I'm doing is googling things and it's overwhelming. So, I can't even fathom what it's like for the elections officials. It's just but it's, you know, I have an idea, but I'm not in the weeds, so I don't know. I am up when you guys are up, so please take solace in that. Around November, I'm awake if you guys are awake.

[High Turnout Wide Margins Mid-break]

Brianna Lennon: I'm curious as you have – as it's been acquired now, or at least partnered with the Election Center. Does that give you more interface with election officials?

Mindy Moretti: I mean, I think everything is pretty consistent. I will say this, it makes it much easier for me to check on somebody's email address, because let me tell you, some of y'all don't make it easy and I understand why. I'm like, “Oh, now I have a database where I can go and see what somebody's email addresses without having to like Google it and send in a form and be like, alright, this is the rule for that one. So, clearly, this must be what their email address is.” But it's been great because I wasn't always funded to go to conferences. And so now as staff for Election Center, I'm able to go to conferences and so I hear about things and I actually, you know, get to meet people face to face. But it is really nice. Like I'm actually currently in Nashville for Election Center's February workshops. So, in these workshops, it's all like sort of the programs that won awards last year. So, it's listening to everybody talk about – and I'm like, “I'm gonna write a story about that. I'm gonna write a story about this.” So, it's been nice to have that access that I didn't. It wasn't like I was refused that access; it just was more difficult to have in the past. And now I sort of have it. It's easily accessible. And so, that's nice. So, I'm looking forward to being able to promote more of these, like amazing programs that counties have sort of had to figure out, you know, being the mother of invention, that I think a lot of elections officials are, that people just don't realize.

Eric Fey: So, you know, a lot of folks say conferences – I know Matt Masterson was kind of famous for saying, “He learned more at the hotel bar and a conference than anything else.” And that's where, you know, you hear all the war stories. So, now that you're at these conferences, Mindy, do people have to watch out for you like hanging around the bar, like getting the scoop on certain things?

Mindy Moretti: I'm media adjacent. I'm not the media. Because I am – that is not electionline’s goal. I will say this, if the – what is it? The Springfield News Leader, if that paper Missouri has written a story, because an election official has – there's been an issue. I'm not going to not publish that because that's bad news. But it is not my goal to ever write any story for electionline that's bad news. I mean, you know, when the ERIC stuff started sort of happening, I, you know, and personally, I think that story, all that sort of stunk and that's what it was. But I'm like, “I have to post it.” It is what it is. I mean, it's factual. And I have to post it. But no, like, as far as like, stories for, you know, things for electionline. And I always tell people, like I said, I'm media adjacent. People can still speak freely around me. I might be like, “Oh, that seems interesting. Can we talk about that? You know, would you be willing to talk about that?” And if they say, no, I'm like, that is what it is then.

Brianna Lennon: In your role, I assume that you get to see trends nationally that a lot of us that are just working in our own individual county, like Eric said, we find out about adjacent counties from electionline, because we're not following their local news. Can you prognosticate anything for the remainder of the year of what you think you're going to be seeing in the news? Or what we'll be seeing, you know, as national trends?

Mindy Moretti: You know, I mean, it's three stories make a trend. If you see three news stories about something like, oh, there's a trend. You know, I never thought when I started my career in journalism, and then subsequently became like– that I would be quoting and believing in the words of the former Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. But he was right. He's like, They're the known knowns. They're the unknown knowns. And they're the unknown unknowns.” And what those unknown unknowns are, I mean, they – it happens every year. There's literally no one going into 2020 – a pandemic was an unknown unknown, you know? And so, no, I honestly, I feel it's like since 2020 there's just been – I mean, certainly since 2016, but definitely since 2020, there's been so much I'm like, what could possibly be more? But something will happen that just no one is anticipating. I mean, you know, the known unknowns are when Virginia had an earthquake on election day. You’re like, maybe somewhere in the back of your mind, you were prepared for that, because you were prepared, they were prepared for something to happen. Something, you know, could have been a thunderstorm, could have been a tornado – happened to be an earthquake. So, you know, it's like in Virginia. Southern California, you're like, of course, we had an earthquake, Virginia, less so. So like, you know, we just moved the polling places, they moved to polling places outside. That was I mean – but that was like the same thing. They were prepared for that the same way they would have been prepared for power outage, a tornado, that sort of thing. No one was prepared for 2020 I mean, just literally it was an unknown unknown. And so what that will – if we have something like that, I, to be honest, also for the 2020 general election, I think the unknown unknown was how well it went there. There were like – I joke that Election Day 2020 was boring, because notice like it went, it went shockingly well. I mean, given what – how it could have gone, given everything that had led up to it. I mean, election day, I was like, I remember the typical there's always a car that drives into a polling place. That is my favorite, favorite elections trend is like every major election day someone will drive their car into a polling place. Fortunately, most of the time people don't get hurt. But, you know, it was such a typical sort of boring election, which is just, shocks me, given everything that's happened since and stuff like that. So, what I think could happen? I don't even know. I, honestly at this point, I don't even know what I think could happen more in the coming months. Something will happen, but what that would be – I, you know, I think it's how, you know, legislation is gonna play out. I think that's, you know – but that's normal. Could somebody come in at the last minute with some crazy legislation? Sure. We have no idea. But I am confident in the elections folks. You know, I think there's a lot of new people, and I think that's really probably going to be the biggest thing that comes into play is like, so many new people who are running an election that have never done one before. And, what a one to have to run for your first big one. So, I think that is probably going to be the biggest story. And it's not – I'm sure that the majority isn't – there's no malice in it – it's just, I'm new at my job. And this is an overwhelming job. And so, you know, I think that's going to be probably the biggest story coming out of this year. At an official level, you know, for an elections official, and then it will be something totally different and we'll look back at this and we'll laugh.

Eric Fey: Yeah, in my office, I always say, “It's never the same thing. But it's always something.” So, that's one of my personal favorite things on electionline is the end of the year, what's in what's out thing. And I never feel like I'm clever enough to submit anything for that. But there's some, what I consider, very clever things that people submit. And I'm just curious as the person who receives all these, have you ever been sitting there like reading somebody's email that they've submitted this, and you just spit your coffee out because it was so hilarious?

Mindy Moretti: Absolutely. People are so creative. And you know, not only just with elections officials, but the world in general, that's one of the blessings in the curse of the internet is you're like, wow, people are really smart and funny. And you get to learn that about people that you wouldn't know otherwise. So, sort of doing this list, you're like, “Huh, that is not what I expected for that person to say. And that person is really funny and really creative.” That's why no one ever wants their name actually attached to their submission. Or like, you can say I submitted something, but no one has to know it was me. Yeah, people are super creative and then sometimes they'll sometimes – people be like, “I have an idea, but I don't know how to like wordsmith it.” And then I always love that I get the emails from people that like, “I can't submit anything, because it has nothing but like four letters, you know, like four letter words.” I was like, “Send the idea and we'll see if we can figure out how to do it and keep it like, keep it G rated, PG rated, not necessarily G rated, but keep it PG rated.” So, people are really smart, and really creative. And that list has been super fun to do. You know, sort of, I feel like at some point in time, I need to go back and look at the old lists and see. I will say the one that I had on there every year for a very long time was – that were out – were lever voting machines in New York. Took a long time for that to come off the list and I think that it's finally there. There probably is a small town in New York State somewhere that's still using lever voting machines. But they were, you know, that finally, finally, after multiple years came off that list, because I think they finally did- the last small town stopped using them. But it would be fun at some point in time, you know, when it's quiet, and there's time to do it. So, who knows when that would be. To go back and sort of look at the list through the years and see what you know, what sort of came to fruition because some of it is very tongue in cheek. There's no, you know, there's no doubt about it. But ya know, it's a fun thing to do. And people are super creative. And that's the only time I'm willing to sort of be like, you can submit something. I know, it's you, but your name doesn't have to be, you know, an anonymous source. I'm fine with that as long as I know who submitted it.

Eric Fey: Well, I think we're getting close to time, Mindy. But are there any thing or things in particular, you see, as you know, what's next for electionline? Or things on the Mindy wish list? That kind of thing?

Mindy Moretti: I mean, maybe should I say now that apparently there's that we're about to become the new host for a certain podcast. It's big and important in the elections administration world, you're still gonna be working with your same studio, but you guys will be hosted on electionline now. So, everybody can come there and get it, which I'm super excited about. Because that's always been my thing. Look, electionline has not been, you know, the end all be all. I would love people to start at electionline and then we're going to send you on your way. We're gonna send you, you know, to your podcasts, we're gonna send you to this resource, but you know, come to us first and we'll sort of get you going and get you started is sort of always my hope. So, I'm super excited about you guys now. being posted on electionline, because I think that's, you know, just like electionline going to the national – going to the Election Center. It seems like it's an appropriate good fit for everybody to get that information. I would say to elections officials who are listening to this, and I know, this is like help me help you. If you're doing something that you think is cool, and you want your colleagues in, either throughout your state, or throughout the country. Let me know. I mean, because I don't, you know, while I do a lot of Googling, I don't see everything because you know what your local newspaper might not write about it. They just literally don't have the capacity to understand that it's a really cool thing that you are taking your people with you to watch you empty out the drop boxes or whatever. You know, whatever new program, it is that you do. It's not you know, some of it – it's amazing, incredible work, and for us, it's really cool and interesting but for the local reporter, it's not sexy. It's not, you know, it's not going to get clicks and that sort of thing, but within our industry, it will. So, if you're doing something new, please let me know. I'm happy to be your cheerleader and put stuff in an electionline. Because you guys, you know, like I said, I'm just here, you guys do the hard work and I'm just putting it out there.

Eric Fey: I think there are a whole bunch of folks in the elections community that are very thankful that you are willing to forgo some sleep to do this work, because electionline’s a resource I know so many people utilize in different ways. And it's now, I think, an indispensable part of the election administration community. So, thanks for what you do and hope you keep doing it.

Mindy Moretti: Yeah, absolutely. Looking forward to it, not looking forward to, but absolutely looking forward to the next, to the – especially this year.

Brianna Lennon: You've been listening to High Turnout Wide Margins, a podcast that explores local election administration. I'm your host, Brianna Lennon, alongside Eric Fey. A big thanks to KBIA and the Election Center for making this podcast possible. Our managing editor is Rebecca Smith, managing producer is Aaron Hay, our associate producer is Katie Quinn, and our digital producer is Mark Johnson. This has been High Turnout Wide Margins. Thanks for listening.

High Turnout Wide Margins Season 3
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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.