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S3E14 - A behind-the-scenes look of the private election industry with Matthew Fitch

In this episode, hosts Eric Fey and Brianna Lennon speak with Matthew Fitch. He’s the owner of Merriman River Group, a private election firm that works with organizations such as labor unions and, recently, the Missouri Democratic Party for the Presidential Preference Primary.

They spoke about how one manages a private election, including preparation for the ballot box, technology trends, and creating trust with voters.

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:

Matthew Fitch: I love technology, and I love how good those newer machines are on the ballot marking devices. I also know that that election is only as good as the trust people have it.

 [High Turnout Wide Margins Introduction]

Brianna Lennon: So today, we're going to be talking to Matthew Fitch, who is the owner and executive director of Merriman River Group, which is a private election firm. They handle the elections process, which can include election planning and printing mail services for a number of groups like labor unions, but most recently for Missouri. [They] ran the mail-in portion of the Missouri Democratic Party Presidential Preference Primary. So, we're going to be talking about how that process went and what it's like working in the private space of elections.

So first, we always ask – how did you get started in elections?

Matthew Fitch: Sure, you know, and I come from, you know, as many of us do a political family background. The first campaign I worked on was – I was 13 years old and a guy at my paper was running for mayor. But as far as election administration, I got hired as a temp right out of school in 1991. The Teamsters were having their first ever direct member election. It was a court ordered process, it was a settlement of a racketeering suit. And the crusading reformer US Attorney was Rudy Giuliani at the time. Things have changed a little bit, but he was the mob busting US Attorney. And the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, as part of the consent decree, set up a whole election office to take over the Teamster operation as far as elections, and they turned it into a mail ballot. Every member was entitled to vote and they needed a cast of 1000s. I got hired as a temp and 30 something years later, I am still doing it.

Eric Fey: So, I think most election administrators are probably I'm unfamiliar with – let's just call it a private election industry – at least I was. And so, you mentioned that you got started as a temp running a Teamster Union Election. Tell us more about that and how it evolved into what you do now?

Matthew Fitch: Yeah, absolutely – and obviously, you know, when I got hired as a temp, I wasn't running anything, I was making the coffee. Actually, I still generally make the coffee because, you know, I like to keep with tradition. But it's a similar process, but whereas you have the gold standard of law and regulation to follow, we have to create rules for it, because every election is a little bit different. So, in that way, it's kind of fulfilling because you can customize what you're doing to each specific election. But the process is very much the same – you set out rules and ballot security, obviously, is paramount. You make it as transparent as possible, as observer friendly as possible because the best run election in the world doesn't matter if people don't believe the results – as we've all learned. And so, that's something we've always tried to do. From the private sector standpoint, I think that is something that's really worked well for us, because with this – going back to that very first Teamster election – they had never had, the members have never had the right to directly elect their leadership. With a mail ballot election, you know, where they're putting their ballot in the mail – even though there's a secret ballot envelope, now a sleeve, there's a lot of mistrust. There's a lot of mistrust in the process. People would obliterate their information because they didn't really believe that their vote was anonymous. And over the years – and I know you've experienced this too, as people are getting more comfortable with it, they learn to trust the process. That, really, this is for their convenience, that their vote is secure, their vote is private. People aren't voting twice, you know, and that I think that's the really rewarding thing that I take out of a lot of these elections is when the observers walk away from it. The people that [are] actually there are saying, you know, “Win or lose, this was fair.” And I know – so, in that regard, I guess that's probably the best gratification you guys get as well, I imagine. Right?

Brianna Lennon: Yeah, and I think that that's something we're all trying to push back against right now is the mistrust and the misinformation. And since this episode is really specific to Missouri, I'm interested in what you heard and what you came into, and basically had to create an election where there had not been one before. We moved from a state run primary system to a caucus/in this case and mail in ballot and primary system. What did you hear about when you first came to Missouri? Is it pretty common for you to have to come in and do some education first with the group that you're doing the election for?

Matthew Fitch: You know, it's not that common because the trend is usually the other way. Oftentimes, states or counties will take over what used to have to be a private affair. It's rare that it goes the other way. And what we – we came in and, as you suggest, you have to start with a lot of listening. And there was a fair amount of chagrin because the feeling and from everything I've heard that the counties in the state in Missouri – when it comes to running elections – do it very well. So, having to do it themselves was a bit of a challenge. But, you know, we got sort of a great charge from party and Russ Carnahan, who just said, "Look, none of us want to do this. But let's, you know, let's make lemonade out of lemons." And so, the ability to sort of create a process collaboratively with the party, you know, through the various elections we've done over the years – I've been personally doing it for over 30 years, and our company has been around for 26 years now – we've done mail ballot elections a lot bigger than say this. So, we went into it saying, you know, “We’re real comfortable with the mail balloting program that we're going to do here, even though that's new to Missouri,” and, you know, it did confuse a few folks at the outset where we would get calls, "Why am I getting a ballot when they didn't ask for it?" Well, because these rules say, if you're enrolled as a Democrat, you automatically get a ballot, which was also a little bit confusing, because enrollment is a little bit new here, as well. It's in its second year, I guess, right?

So, it was a great partnership, though, because we're able to bring that mail ballot stuff to the table, and that, ultimately, about two thirds of the vote was mail balloting. The party was putting together the in-person locations, and they heavily rely on volunteers, and community-minded people who just wanted to let people have the opportunity to vote. Their goals and their expectations for how many regional locations they'd be able to put together astounded me. They were originally hoping for 25, then 40 – they ended up with almost 100. Not quite every county, but real close. And people that really care about their democracy rally together. Now, once the party put the locations in place, and came up with the volunteers to staff it, we then got involved again, because they needed sort of a mechanism to actually track people and get votes in. And so, in addition to using our ballots, we created an online database, very similar, I think, to the poll books that you use in a lot of counties. The electronic poll books in a lot of the counties. And had a – through just zooms and manuals, did a lot of training on “Here's how you log in, here's your password, you choose your location, here's how you do a voter search.” It tells you if, you know, if they're on the list or eligible, of course, which is one difference say from a union election, where you have to be current in your dues. If you're on the voter list, you're eligible. But it would tell you if they had voted at another location, if they had already voted by mail and we had received their mail ballot. Five people tried to – not tried to, but showed up in person and found out, "Hey, your mail ballots been received." And they said, "Okay." The other category of people who are not eligible would be registered Republicans because the rules say everybody but registered Republicans are eligible to vote. And the volunteers just did an amazing job.

Eric Fey: So, Matt, these presidential primaries which you have done some of, they come around, obviously, only once every four years. Can you give the folks listening a flavor of what other types of elections your company conducts and maybe like how many you expect in a typical year?

Matthew Fitch: Yeah, and every year is a little different. So, there's no typical year and that's what makes it fun. We started with labor unions – that's still our bread and butter. So, we do a lot of local labor union elections, but we also – we're the Senior Consultant to the Office of the Election Supervisor for the Teamsters. So, that temp job I got 30 something years ago, I'm – we're running the balloting portion of it now, which is really gratifying. And, as I mentioned, I still make the coffee there. We do a lot of homeowners associations and cooperatives and boards of directors, fraternity elections, you know, sometimes they're mail, sometimes they're in person. Occasionally, they're online. But I would still say our bread and butter is union elections.

Brianna Lennon: I really want to know more about the prep time that you need to put out an election. And obviously, I'm sure the size of the election is relevant, and all that, from start to finish. But, you know, when you need to run an election, what do you tell the group that you're working for? [What] is the lead up time that you need to prepare everything?

Matthew Fitch: And I bet this is the exact same way you do it, as well. I bet you start with Election Day and count backwards, right? Yeah, exactly.

So, the main thing is you lock in the relevant dates, which is:

Number one – the Election Day, if there has to be a nomination process. That's usually dictated by law or rule as to how far back you go, and from there, you know, one of the things we've all learned – especially with mail balloting – is you have to allow enough time. And I'm not taking a shot at the post office who actually did a pretty good job this time, but they're not as fast as they used to be. And that's by design, you know, used to be three to five business days. Now it's five to seven.

So, in a perfect world for a mail ballot election, you'd like to be mailing 30 to 42 days out to give everybody plenty of time to vote, and then if their ballot doesn't arrive or they spoil it, they'll have enough time to request a replacement.

From there, you know, the ballot creation itself – it doesn't take very long. You want to give, depending on the size of the election, the printer in the mailing house, a week or 10 days to do their job. So, you know, using Missouri as an example, the primary was March 23rd. The initial ballot mailing was February 23rd. And the ballot printing and mail house work began the week before February 23rd. So, I would say we maybe did the ballot design in the beginning of February. So, it was a relatively compressed schedule. We came on board in January.

[High Turnout Wide Margins Mid-break]

Eric Fey: Matt, you mentioned you use a printer and a mail house. That's something almost every election administrator in the United States does. We also have technology to help us tabulate ballots, at least initially. I know you do, as well. So, I know that [at] least people that listen to this podcast are going to be very interested to know, do you – how did you come to those decisions to use that technology and those vendors? I mean, do you and your team kind of read industry publications or attend conferences or anything? Or, you know, how did you build up to that?

Matthew Fitch: Yeah, that's a great question. I mean, because when we got started, you know, we were counting by hand, right? We were doing small elections and counting by hand. Our current vendor – when we do the tabulation ourselves – is Unisyn out of San Diego. We have a great relationship with them.

We were researching what we needed back in 2018, 2019 for our next generation of tabulation equipment – the system we had before that was getting old. It also wasn't being – it was also from a company that served us well, Avante, but they're getting out of the business. And, you know, they – their software was – didn't go past XP. So, it was time to move forward.

But those big tabulation companies are not, you know, competitors of ours. What they are really is our partners, often. So, for the elections where we do the tabulation ourselves, we have a licensing agreement with Unisyn. We're super happy with them. But on a lot of our bigger projects, where we're not doing the tabulation ourselves, we tend to partner with ES&S out of Omaha. But there's a lot of good companies out there. I think it's a really good industry. And I think these companies tend to build off each other. And I think each generation is a little bit better.

I will say this, and this is off topic a little bit. There is a little bit of divide in the industry. So, I actually want to throw a question back at you. Because there's sort of two basic styles of major – basic styles of tabulation now, right? One is the voter fills in a paper ballot and it gets tabulated. The other is sort of the higher end, which is maybe more ADA friendly, they go to a machine that's a ballot marking device and that creates the ballot for them. What are your thoughts on those? I have my opinion, but I'd like to hear what yours are.

Eric Fey: Well, I, you know, HAVA mandates at a minimum, fo, at least, for in-person voting, that an option like a ballot marking device will be available. You know, after HAVA you may remember, many states moved to DREs that, you know, we're just fully electronic voting machines and almost every state has moved away from that now with a couple of exceptions. So, it seems like most of the country is moving in the direction of most voters fill out a hand marked paper ballot. With any other voters – especially those with disabilities – would use a ballot marking device. Or as, you know, several states that every voter uses a ballot marking device. But again, it seems to me the trend is toward hand marked paper ballots at least for now, I mean –

Matthew Fitch: I love technology, and I love how good those newer machines are on the ballot marking devices. I also know that an election is only as good as the trust that people have in it. As much as I personally – like, if I was just doing my own thing – it's like, I'd love to vote on one of those, right? But I've sort of evolved on that thought. That's why I was curious what you thought because I kind of – even with errors in a voter marking their own ballot, it's their error, you know? It's a more understandable paper trail, I think, to people that are skeptical about results, which is why I have evolved in my thinking over the years to say that, "Okay, it's lower technology, but maybe lower technologies okay."

Brianna Lennon: And there's a whole conversation about auditing too. And I know, thankfully, I was only in the Secretary of State's office when this happened, so I didn't have to do the hand count myself. But in 2014, when we had a recount, there were so many IVotronics, which were touchscreen machines out in the field and nobody wanted to unroll the paper trail that went with them and look at all of that as auditing, so it'd be way easier to look at an actual ballot instead. So, even if people were doing the part with paper, part of it was really unwieldy.

Matthew Fitch: So, one of the things we used to do, you know, when we're – before we were just exclusively administration – but we use a lot of the software to do some polling. And one of the guys we used to poll for. It’s called Honolulu Civil Beat and the founder is a guy named Pierre Omidyar, who founded eBay. That was right about the time we had started our online voting for relatively small elections. He, being about the smartest person I knew electronically, I asked him if he would, you know, audit our site and see what he thought about it. And he did. He said to me, "It's great and you know what your best security measures is?" I said, "What?" He goes, "Nobody gives a s*** about what you're doing." He goes, "But if you try and do something more important things change." Which I've always kind of remembered and I appreciated his candor on that. And so, with that in mind, that's sort of how I view paper ballots, as well. Like, I don't think, you know – it doesn't matter whether anybody is tampering or even attempting to tamper as long as people don't, you know, as long as people don't trust it. So, trust with everything else is the most important thing.

And the other thing is, I think it's the shifting. As the post office has gotten slower, you know, you can order paper plates on Amazon and get them the next day. So, consumer delivery is faster than ever, and postal – and oftentimes, people are expecting their ballot before it's probably even left your office, right? And that's understandable. I'd probably be the same way. So, that is something we got to figure out a way to get Amazon to deliver the ballots for us collectively.

Eric Fey: I think tracking has also been a game changer for us that – because of the Amazonzation of, you know, delivery, people expect that tracking capability. And that's made a big difference with our ballots in the confidence there.

One question I'm really dying to ask, Matt, if you'll share with us maybe an anecdote or two of some really unique or interesting thing that's happened in one of these elections or for some very unique organization that you've run an election for. I know, all of us are just used to running our elections for, you know, state legislatures and county commissioners and things, but you get to do some really unique stuff.

Matthew Fitch: I do and, you know, and we've had a few interesting things. I've mentioned a couple of times, I started in 1991 as a temp, right? And, you know, so, my first day on the job was at a local vote count in Providence, Rhode Island, and [they say], "Oh you're the new guy. Okay, so stand out front and frisk the observers coming in for weapons." And I'm standing out front with the lawyer – still a dear friend of mine, my original mentor, Dave Riley, who is the lawyer from Rhode Island – they have us out there, and I said, "Dave, just one question?" He goes, "Yeah?." "What do I do if I find a weapon?" And he looks at me, he goes, "Kid, I have no idea. So don't look too close, you know."

But one interesting client – talking about timelines – We have an IBEW, an Electrical Workers Union. And I keep going back to Hawaii a lot. In reference, we do work all over the country, but Hawaii being so far away from the mainland always has its own set of challenges.

They have a permanent base of electricians in Guam, which is relatively easy. But they also have a base of electricians on Wake Island. And that is a really unusual challenge for mail balloting because they have one flight a week to Wake Island. It's called the “rotator,” it's a cargo flight. And so, when you're planning your schedule – and the postal service isn't always clear as to when it's [going to] go – but you have to make sure because you don't want to miss the rotator. Or otherwise your mail is stuck for a week. So, that's always been a little bit of a challenge. And it's also a challenge, because a lot of the guys are just temporarily based there. And on a mail ballot election, you know, their address may be on the mainland, it may be in Texas and all that, and it’s supposed to get forwarded. So, we have to reach out to that cohort on Wake Island to figure out who's actually working there at that time to make sure they get their ballots and make sure they participate if they choose to. So, that's kind of – that's a pretty unique one.

Brianna Lennon: I think the other thing a lot of election administrators, like governmental election administrators, we always talk about how collaborative and cooperative – how we steal ideas from each other – and I'm curious, you're in a private industry where I assume there's competition and you presumably have to earn contracts for things, so is there a culture of, like, well, you know, collaboration, or is it a little more like, you know, when you do something that creates a certain envelope design for mail-in voting, do other companies look at you and say, "Oh, I'm gonna do one better?" Or do they say, "Hey, that makes a lot of sense. I'll design mine like that, as well."

Matthew Fitch: It does. It's a relatively small universe of companies that do it. There are some that I like and respect more than others, you know? And especially among that universe because oftentimes, you know, with schedules, or you may have a conflict, you may have a client that you can't work with this particular time for whatever reason, but you still want to set them up with a good election, and you have to do a referral. And there's – within that universe – some companies that I'm very comfortable referring people to, and others that will refer conflicts back to me. And you do share.

The envelope is a perfect example. We use, you know, we've gotten away from secret ballot envelopes from back in, I would say 2011, I guess, where we use secrecy sleeves, and there's a little bit of a learning curve. “Why is my ballot secret?” Because there's a flap and you can't seal it, but it's still completely enclosed in there's a little thumb notch, right? And the value of that is that you can look at them, stack them up and see that nobody has accidentally left a ballot in the envelope, you know? And so, every change is greeted with a little bit of hesitation, right? As you go because people are very worried about security. And it's also great because you only have to cut the envelopes once instead of twice. You don't have to cut the secrecy sleeve and so you're far less likely to accidentally nick a ballot and have to remake it.

Eric Fey: I think the last question I might have is the future of this industry. Do you see it as a growing industry? Are more private organizations looking for election contractors?

Matthew Fitch: Yeah, I think it is. Because the liability and hassle of doing it yourself that – there's a lot of downsides to the business after 2020 and a lot of false narratives about election security. I suppose the one upside for business is that a lot of organizations that used to do it themselves say, “To hell with this, we don't want the liability." And I see that, you know, labor unions, labor isn't really growing in the United States. Or it's doing a little better now, but it's had its shrinkage over the years. But I see things like pension board elections. Now those are – that's an interesting thing, though, because they're often state pension board elections that are large. Whether they go and they end up – I'm sure they're not [going to] want to do it themselves – But as pensions become a bigger and bigger issue, the board elections, it's not just – people actually run, and now they're contested. What will be interesting is if they settle on, "Well, we've got this state infrastructure anyway. Let's make them do it." Or is it more cost effective to go third party? That I don't know? So, maybe we'll be competitors someday? Who knows? But I know if we are you'll do a great job.

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.