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S3E12 - Putting the Face in… Personalizing the Need for Congressional Elections Funding with Issue One’s Gideon Cohn-Postar

In this episode, hosts Eric Fey and Brianna Lennon speak with Gideon Cohn-Postar. He’s the Legislative Director from Issue One, an organization that advocates for cross partisan political reform at the Congressional level – on issues such as social media reform, protecting the safety of election officials and consistent federal funding for elections throughout the country.

They spoke a little about the current status of congressional funding for elections, as well as how projects, like “Faces of Democracy,” can help personalize these issues for members of Congress.

To learn more about and read previous “Faces of Democracy articles,” visit https://issueone.org/projects/facesofdemocracy/.

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:

Gideon Cohn-Postar: We've also taken pretty seriously members of Congress who speak about election security and election integrity, and often those terms are interchangeable, but sometimes they aren't. And so figuring out what someone means by “election integrity” and what they mean by “election security,” and then trying to bring them back towards this perspective of, “Okay, if this is what you believe in, if you believe in keeping our elections strong, safe, secure, and of the highest integrity, then funding is the way you do that.”

 [High Turnout Wide Margins Introduction]

Eric Fey: Welcome to High Turnout Wide Margins. It's another exciting episode. I'm Eric Fey, Director of Elections in St. Louis County, Missouri, and I'm here with my co-host –

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

Eric Fey: And today our guest is – go ahead and introduce yourself.

Gideon Cohn-Postar: Gideon Cohn-Postar, Legislative Director from Issue One.

Eric Fey: And Gideon, I guess it's a two-parter first question, one – talk a little bit about what Issue One is? And probably, maybe before that, tell us a little bit about how you got involved in the election space in the first place?

Gideon Cohn-Postar:  Absolutely. Well, both can be long stories, but I'll keep them short. I started off in the election space as an academic. I was really interested in voting and elections in the 19th century and did my PhD research on voter intimidation and election law changes in the 1870s and 80s. So, anytime you want to talk about Benjamin Harrison – I'm here for it. And I have spent a lot of time focused in archives on what voting looked like in that time and how it shifted and how different forms of dependence and threat and coercion overlapped in American politics and just got more and more interested in how those elements still persist today. How, you know, seemingly very small changes in voting laws could have really outsize effects on who's able to vote.

So, after graduate school and after teaching for a little while, I got more involved in the policy side. [I] ended up working for the House Oversight Committee on Voting Rights Investigations and then came to Issue One almost, about a year and a half ago now, working on legislative policy.

And so, that'd be a good transition to the Issue One side of that question, which is – Issue One 's been around for a little over 10 years, started off focused mostly on money and politics and ways to improve our election and democracy systems and also our government – always from a bipartisan perspective, always trying to find those few avenues that in the money and politics and election policy world that are bipartisan, and that can advance. We've now kind of expanded to focus on everything from social media regulation to try to improve our information landscape and to election production – helping election workers be able to administer elections as well as they can and with as many resources and protections as they can. So, we do a lot focused on federal policy, in particular, and also work really closely with local election officials.

Brianna Lennon: I think one of the things that Issue One has been working on pretty fervently, especially as we've been getting closer to the 2024 presidential cycle, is the Faces of Democracy project, and I was hoping you could talk a little bit about what that is, what the goals are and how it's been going.

Gideon Cohn-Postar: Absolutely. Well, as a Faces of Democracy member yourself, Brianna, I know that you know about how this works. The Faces of Democracy program was created about two years ago now, with the emphasis on ensuring that ordinary Americans, people who often don't think too much about how their elections are run – to help them learn a little bit more about the people who are running those elections, to try to connect the job that they do to the people that they are. Give more of a sense of election officials as ordinary Americans just doing an important job, and then also giving election workers an opportunity and a voice to speak out more on the issues that they see. To talk about how they're doing their jobs, what resources they need, both what is going well and what could be improved. And we saw faces of democracy as a campaign to try to empower election officials to try to give them resources and voices on federal policy, on these issues. It was kind of surprising to us when this program started up how infrequently federal policy makers would consult election officials when they made policy, and so, making sure that election officials are able to speak to the people who are making that policy and kind of emphasize that election officials are doing their jobs in a nonpartisan way and are carrying out all of their duties in a way that is always aboveboard and always thoughtful – was really important to us, and making sure that they have the ability to connect with federal policymakers as they do that. So, that any laws that are passed, any funding that is appropriated for elections is done so with the people who are going to kind of have to abide by those laws and use those funds in mind.

Eric Fey: Gideon, I think you alluded to this, but can you be perhaps a little more explicit as to what the impetus for this Faces of Democracy program was? I mean, why now essentially?

Gideon Cohn-Postar: Yeah, and I think, and I know, you've talked about this on the podcast in the past that, you know, since the 2020 election and the spread of falsehoods about election administration – election officials are suddenly in the in the limelight a lot, and a lot has been said, you know, most of it false about election officials and election officials have often not had the opportunity to speak out against those falsehoods, to kind of lay out who they are and what they do.

So, the 2020 election – the threats and harassment and death threats and doxing of election workers was a huge impetus of this program, to make sure that election officials are able to speak out and say, “This is where we are,” you know, “we are indeed ordinary Americans, your neighbors and your friends who are here to do this job and to keep democracy functioning.” And so, ensuring that you're kind of pushing back against threats to election workers, against the kind of the culture of harassment that is developed was a huge part of it, and then having a proactive focus on enacting protections against those kinds of threats – giving election workers more resources to respond and to better protect themselves, and then also to expand resources like federal election funds that election officials can use to better secure and improve election processes. So, those were kind of the main impetuses.

Brianna Lennon: This is not, this is more of a little tangent, but it's just something that I was curious about. Knowing some of the other local election officials and Secretaries of State that are part of the Issue One Faces program, I'm curious, you've been at Issue One for over a year, but you studied a lot of election processes – what have you learned from election officials themselves that you maybe thought that you had a good handle on, but now have had to like reassess the way that maybe Issue One is talking about it or how you think about the election process?

Gideon Cohn-Postar: Great question, because I think especially learning about the 19th century puts you in the moment of thinking about election day as a single day, and kind of my terminology when I joined Issue One was so focused on, you know, the process of voting as a single day that takes place every two years, and I kept making that mistake. Referring to elections as, you know, kind of a discrete thing that took place on one day or maybe just a few days. And I think, you know, maybe this, I should have done this before, but working with election officials so closely in the Face of Democracy program has really gotten across to me just how many elections are operating on any given day in the US, but also kind of the process of running an election and how it takes weeks to prepare, how there are deadlines and processes that election officials are meeting months ahead of when most people began to think about casting their vote.

Eric Fey: Hey Gideon, I'm curious in the time that the Faces of Democracy program has been active, have you, personally, or Issue One, more globally, been able to measure either quantitatively or qualitatively the impact of this program so far?

Gideon Cohn-Postar: Yeah. So, quantitatively – not as much aside from, especially on the election funding issue. This is one that had kind of often been left out of conversations on Capitol Hill. The federal government provides a very small amount of funding for election offices. It's irregular and it often fluctuates somewhat wildly, and that's been a big focus for us for the last two appropriations cycles. Unfortunately, the current cycle is still ongoing.

But trying to secure a regular appropriation – however large it is, and obviously, election officials need more support than less – but for the last several years, the appropriation has been $75 million, which spread across the country doesn't go that far, but a huge effect, I think, of the Faces of Democracy campaign is making a regular pitch for this funding, making it – Every year this needs to be include. Every year, no matter what the amount, and, again, we push for higher amounts, this is something that Congress needs to take seriously. And so, this year, we do expect that Congress will again appropriate, probably around 75 million, again, in election security funding. And so, bringing our Faces of Democracy members back to the Hill year after year, we've done fly-ins targeted in June to bring election officials there to have that conversation about funding and other issues, too, I think is one of the big successes. It kind of hasn't allowed the funding issue to slip out of the minds of appropriators.

Brianna Lennon: Have you found – like what's been the messaging to Congress that you found to be most helpful? And have you been able to leverage some of the stuff that you've learned from local election officials to like… I know that this, I feel like this is a tricky way of saying, like, “Tell us more about the fly-in program.” It's not about the fly-in program. I actually want to know about like Issue One’s talking points that they've been using when local election officials are not in the room.

Gideon Cohn-Postar: Absolutely. So, yeah, a decent portion of my day is speaking to members of Congress and to congressional staffers – mostly staffers because they run Congress about these issues, and one of the things that I found most effective is being able to tell them, “Here is what this money has meant for your district or for your state.” And so, election officials are able to kind of, you know, prime me with that information, kind of provide that information – very specific information often. But also, a lot of it is publicly reportable. The Election Assistance Commission requires states to file updates on how they've spent the funds. So, being able to go into an office with, “Here is what your state has done with this money to make sure these elections are secure and accessible, and don't you think that this is a program that should continue” has been one of the main approaches we've used. We've also taken pretty seriously members of Congress who speak about election security and election integrity, and often those terms are interchangeable, but sometimes they aren't. And so figuring out what someone means by “election integrity” and what they mean by “election security,” and then trying to bring them back towards this perspective of, “Okay, if this is what you believe in, if you believe in keeping our elections, strong, safe, secure, and the highest integrity, then funding is the way you do that.” And I think that that has been very effective, as well, but at the end of the day, we're in a really tough fiscal environment, kind of an artificially constrained fiscal environment at the federal level. And so, you know, fighting for consistent funding, is, I think, where we're able to have the most wins right now. Fighting for more robust funding is something we continue to do but expect more success going forward.

[High Turnout Wide Margins Mid-break]

Eric Fey: I’m glad you touched on this point or difference between consistent and robust funding. As you know, and as most people who listen this podcast know, there have been large – I don't know if it's called dumps for lack of a better term of federal funding into elections, but it's been irregular, as you mentioned. It has not been consistent, and so, as this has happened in the past, you know, states receive this funding. And I'll definitely have to point out – it's always the states that receive it and whether or not it gets down to the locals is a whole ‘nother issue. But, you know, as an election administrator who has received some of this funding in the past, I tend to use it for more one-off things. And my, at least in my case, my needs are more ongoing. They're not the kind of thing that I can use a one-time infusion of cash for in – at least in a responsible way. So, do you have concern at all about, you know, election administrators, even if there is more funding allocated, that they're going to either sit on it or use it for certain things that are not the things that are of the most urgent need?

Gideon Cohn-Postar: I think that's a key question – kind of the scarcity mindset when funds are inconsistent, and you don't know when the next infusion will come from? Absolutely. One of the things that we've done over the past year is tried to analyze, as best as we can, where funds aren't being spent. So, there are some states that have not spent large percentages of their funds for the past few years. In some cases, well over 50% of the funds remain unspent. But as we looked into it more, of doing research through EAC filings, speaking with Secretaries of State – we found that in many cases, those funds are segmented, they know where they're going to use those funds, but because they don't know when the next infusion is coming, they're apportioning them out over several years. Illinois is a good example where their Cyber Navigator Program, they want to make sure that they can fund that over several years, so it looks like they haven't spent those funds down. And so, trying to get that across to Congress, we've kind of been able to bring those numbers with us and say, “Look it says the state hasn't spent their funds, but here's what they're planning, here's what they've explicitly said they're going to do with it,” you know, like “this shouldn't be as much of a problem.” That's been a big focus for us. And we also think that one way to encourage states to spend those funds is to mandate that some percentage of those funds make it to the local level, and this would have to look different in some states. In states like Maine, where they have more of a top-down funding approach than others, we'd have to make sure that any federal legislation, that any language attached to the funding – took those local situations into account, but making sure that that funding gets back to the locals, so that you can spend it. So that those who have the highest need can spend it is really important.

Brianna Lennon: Do you want to talk a little bit about how Issue One has made relationships specifically with election officials to get the stories out of them to talk about what those needs are? Because I feel like so many places, especially, like from the academic side – there's a lot of surveys, there's a lot of things that, you know, try to aggregate information. But I feel like Issue One is trying to strike a balance between having that good research and aggregated information but punctuating it with anecdotal stories. And how is that, how is that relationship then created and maintain?

Gideon Cohn-Postar: Absolutely. Well, as a good historian, I think anec-data [anecdotal data] is data. So, I'm always a fan. But, in particular, we've tried to always, you know, in the name of the program, Faces of Democracy – to put a human face on election officials and the work they do. And so, we have monthly Q&A series that are published in The Fulcrum, where a member of Faces of Democracy is interviewed and kind of is able to explain their background, how they got into elections, what they see as the challenges and give a little bit more information and personal touch as well as kind of a policy explanation, and, in addition to that, in any report that we put out – and we put out a report on election official turnover in the western US just a few months ago tracking election officials leaving their positions and why that – and, you know, we put numbers on that. We talked to the counties, made sure that we had as firm data as we could, but then we also went back and tried to intersperse those with quotes and examples from people who had left and also people who were joining the election field about why they were doing that – what were the pressures, what were the polls – and try to build that out more because we think that having those numbers is a good start to the conversation, but it's only a start.

Eric Fey: So far, and this might be a different answer depending on the member of Congress or staff you're speaking with, but what has been the most salient message or argument or point that you all have used with them?

Gideon Cohn-Postar: I think the thing that hits most with members of Congress is political violence and the threat of political violence. In part, that's because members of Congress themselves have been the focus of threats, harassment, doxing – pretty much everything under the sun that election officials have faced has also been happening to members of Congress and other elected officials. This is a wider problem of political threats of violence in the United States. And so, I think, making that connection of, you know – just because you're an elected official versus an election official, many of whom are also, of course, elected, doesn't mean that you're immune from the same threats that other people are getting. And so, being able to talk about that as a crisis, a true problem has been really important with members of Congress. And then, also, emphasizing that every year is an election year and that this is a matter of infrastructure, and this is a matter of kind of building up the barriers to prevent problems has been very effective. Members of Congress, as much as many of them are flashy politicians, most of them care about the details, and so, if you're able to make the case that this is a really serious matter, this is something that we should take seriously and here you are a public servant, “Let's get into the details.” They often appreciate being kind of approached on that level of detail because they often don't have the opportunity to engage on that level.

Eric Fey: That’s interesting you mentioned the political violence issue. That's probably one of the very few bipartisan things that members of Congress of all stripes have been subjected to that kind of intimidation and threats and doxing and so forth. So, yeah, that's, it's interesting, you make that point.

Gideon Cohn-Postar: And we're hopeful that kind of building on that concern could lead to bipartisan legislation – even if it's just narrowly focused on addressing doxing and harassment of election workers. That kind of legislation can really help send a message and also give election officials practical tools to be able to remove their information from public sources of data, and kind of, you know, narrow the avenues that people who are trying to threaten them can take.

Brianna Lennon: I think you've mentioned a couple good talking points sort of already, but for any local election officials, state election officials that are listening to this conversation – what would you advise them or recommend that they do if they want to, if they have feedback, if they've been following what's happening at the federal level, and they want to make their voice heard, what would be your advice?

Gideon Cohn-Postar: I think the first thing if you want to make your voice heard, please feel free to join Faces of Democracy, we'd be happy to have you. Please do reach out to our office, and, you know, we'd be happy to help uplift your voice. But speaking individually with, you know, a Congressional staffer or a member of Congress is probably the best way to get your voice across, and also building on that – if you can start a conversation, ending it with an ask is always the best approach. If you go to a member of Congress, a state legislator, anyone and give them information, they'll always be grateful for it, but they won't write down at the end of their notes, “and now I have to do X.” So, having an ask at the end, and it could be, you know, “Please, you know, support election funding in the appropriations process, please support anti-doxing protections or election worker protections.” But it can also be, “Please come visit, come to our election office, take a tour, learn a little bit more about what we're doing.”

Congressional staff, legislative staff have visited many election offices. Their members of Congress and senators have done, as well, and they come away from that visit with a far deeper appreciation of the work that election officials do. And it also gives election officials the ability to kind of have that moment of interchange, that moment where they say, “Here is the thing that we need the funds to fix” or “Here is the security gap I'm concerned about,” and that, again, makes it more human, makes it more real for them. So, I'd argue for, you know, doing proactive outreach to your members of Congress, your legislators – come with a story, talk about the things that you're concerned about, make sure to connect it to the level of government that they are able, that they're at. The easiest meeting in the world for a member of Congress to forget about is one in which someone says, “And the state needs to do this,” you know, if that's where you end up – you can talk about problems at the state level, that's great – but if you end up with “This is a state level problem,” they will happily move on to their next concern. They have five or six meetings that day, and, you know, they can write that one off then. But if you're able to say, “And this is why it's your problem,” and then here's the ask – here's the one or two things I want you to come away with, you know, leading off with a big ask like election funding, and then following it with a smaller ask, like, “Now come visit, meet my election workers,” you know, “see what our system is like,” can be a great pairing.

I think the key takeaway for me in a lot of this is that whenever I tell people the work that I do, or kind of gesture towards if people say, “Oh my gosh, like this is so important, like so glad that you're working on democracy and elections right now,” and I do think that, you know, like, I'm really glad to be able to do this work, excited and proud to work with election officials. It's really remarkable every time I get to speak to local or state election official to learn about what their day is like, and then kind of bring that to Congress is a really fun and wonderful thing to do, something I'm very proud to do, but it also really does hit home to me that we're treating this as a crisis now. And we also need to think about building us a kind of more long-standing structural approach to protecting democracy, keeping election officials safe. We can't treat this as a crisis that then gets solved and then we don't turn back to it. So, finding a way to make sure that we're able to both hit that high level of, “Hey, this is a problem. We need to really take this seriously and act on it now.” While also not treating it as a time that will end. Protecting election officials, ensuring that election officials have the money and resources and tools they need to do their jobs isn't something that we declare victory on. It's kind of a forever project. So, as I'm sure you and many of your listeners already know.

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.

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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.