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S3E15 – Investment, Representation and Reflection in North Carolina with Derek Bowens in Durham County, NC

In this episode, hosts Eric Fey and Brianna Lennon speak with Derek Bowens, the Elections Director in Durham County, North Carolina.

They spoke about crafting narratives to help election administrators share and showcase the need for local investment in elections and about the importance of having election administrators that represent and reflect the voters they serve.

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:

Derek Bowens: There needs to be assistance with helping localities and crafting narratives to present to their local funders because most jurisdictions, I don't know how it works in Missouri, you go to your County Board of Commissioners or Board of Canvassers or whomever and they provide the funding.

So, what I would say is start documenting the struggle: take pictures, incident reports from your poll workers of complaints about how things are set up, concerns from your workers about, you know, safety.

 [High Turnout Wide Margins Introduction]

Eric Fey : Hey, everybody. This is another exciting episode of High Turnout Wide Margins. I am Eric Fey, Director of Elections in St. Louis County, Missouri, here with my co-host –

Brianna Lennon: Brianna Lennon. I'm the County Clerk for Boone County, Missouri.

Eric Fey: And today our willing guest is – introduce yourself.

Derek Bowens: Derek Bowens. Elections Director. Durham County, North Carolina.

Eric Fey: So, as you may know, Derek, the way we start these episodes off, always, is asking the guest, how did you get involved in elections?

Derek Bowens: That’s a question I've answered a lot. So, graduated from college, looking for a job – got a degree in political science. What do you do with that except, you know, go to graduate school? Decided not to, and I was in New Hanover County, North Carolina, at the time, and looked at the county's website and there was an election specialist job open for the New Hanover County Board of Elections. And I had no clue what that was. I just knew I liked elections and didn't think it would be full time. And it was. So, I got the job, started doing campaign finance and just have fell in love and have been doing it ever since.

Eric Fey: How long were you in your first county before you went to Durham.

Derek Bowens: So, I was in New Hanover County beginning in 2012 and I stayed there until 2017. And I had, you know, was Director there before I left and then transitioned over to Durham after a very tumultuous period in the county. So, it was a great opportunity to kind of move over there.

Brianna Lennon: Can you give a little bit of background about Durham, how many voters you have there and kind of the overview of the process – if you have early voting, all those different types of things?

Derek Bowens: Durham County has about 235,000 registered voters. It fluctuates to 240 depending on the election year. And we are the fifth largest jurisdiction in the state of North Carolina, and we are the proud home of the Duke Blue Devils, which we are huge supporters of and there will be no negative talk about Duke.

So, in North Carolina, we have, of course, absentee by mail. In our general elections, it begins 60 days prior to the election. I think we're the first in the country. And then we have up to 17 days of early voting beginning that third Thursday prior to the election, and then, of course, full Election Day. So, that's in a nutshell.

Eric Fey: That's a lot of all that. Sixty days for mail, and then you said 17 days for in person early voting – up to? So, how do you manage that in Durham in terms of number of sites, and so forth.

Derek Bowens: There's a lot of focus on voting and access to the ballot box. So, there's options in terms of – limited options in how many days that you have. There's a standard requirement – you at least have to have the county Board of Elections office open during regular business hours. If you go beyond that, then you get into what's called “An early voting implementation plan.” So, Durham County wants the full 17 days, the maximum number of hours and the highest number of sites that we can have. So, for us, depending on the election, we range anywhere from five to 14 early voting sites throughout the county. We might be the fifth largest in terms of population or registered voters, but we're pretty small geographically. So, that can be challenging. And we can have anywhere from 14 workers, as we have our upcoming second primary, all the way up to a 1000 – depending on the type of event. So, it's a lot and then with absentee by mail and general elections being 60 days prior, we, you know, we begin gearing up for all that beginning in August. So, it's a whirlwind. And it kind of just happens.

Eric Fey: Derek, I want to back up just a little bit from the nuts and bolts of running elections to talk a little bit about how election administration is structured in North Carolina. I think it's a relatively unique concept, and maybe could you just explain a little bit – I mean, you're appointed, obviously you're hired or whatever it's called. So, that's relatively unique. I think that's the case in every county. So, nobody's elected to run elections, which is unique. So, yeah, explain that for everybody.

Derek Bowens: So, North Carolina, which is I think probably somewhat unique. We have a State Board of Elections that is not run by the Secretary of State, they're an administrative unit. Well, they will be if – there's a pending law that could pass that would put them as a unit under. It's kind of a mess in North Carolina right now. But there's a State Board of Elections that oversees 100 county boards of elections. So, each county has a Board of Elections comprised of five members, and, generally, the majority members is the party of the governor. So, we have three Dems and two Reps as the Board in every county. That Board appoints a Director of Elections that has to be confirmed by the State Elections Director. And then that's a permanent appointment unless the board petitions the state to terminate the director. So, it can be a difficult job to be removed from. You got to kind of mess up pretty bad, I think, in North Carolina. The executive director can also initiate termination, but that board has all quasi-judicial policymaking authority. So, they have a duty under law to delegate responsibilities to us, and we can only work within the scope of what they give us the right to do. So, it is an interesting structure, but it works pretty well, I think, for consistency.

Eric Fey: Yeah, that's interesting. So, how – well, first of all, my question is about funding – does the county fund it in each case or what?

Derek Bowens: Under the law, the counties, and all counties have, what the statute says is having the requirement to fund the legal responsibilities of the board of elections. And, of course, perspective on what that means varies depending on where you are. Very, you know, depending on how the political perspective leans – that that can be high or low, but they have a responsibility to fund. So, in our county, we have commissioners that are willing to give us a lot because they went through a lot in 2016.

I don't know if you're familiar with Durham County. So, we had, on election night in 2016, and I was not there – I always like to preface it with that. I was not Director of Elections in 2016 – there was an issue with the upload of results in our county, and so, the county ended up having to manually upload or manually enter all of the results into our tabulation software. We had some poll book failure state – not statewide – countywide. And the incumbent Governor was winning towards the end of the night, and then Durham uploaded 90,000 votes from early voting, and it flipped the race completely and the non-incumbent won by 10,000 votes. So, Durham County had a – there was a perspective – false, that we were vote rigging and we manipulated results and did all this craziness. So, since then, the commissioners are like, “okay,” and they spent a lot of money dealing with investigations on what happened. They've been really open to funding, but it still can be a struggle without telling the story in a right way as to what you need.

Brianna Lennon: You brought up funding, and I thought that that was a good segue into, you've built a new facility as well. Can you talk a little bit about what it took to do that and why it was necessary at this point?

Derek Bowens: Sure, well, people see the nice big, nice pictures we put up and you know, kind of where we're going and in terms of moving into that new space, but it's been a long ride. We first made our request to the commissioners probably in 2017, soon after I arrived, about wanting to be in a consolidated space, we were pretty bifurcated. So, we had a rented warehouse and admin office downtown and then we use several county buildings to kind of execute other administrative procedures where we didn't have enough space. So, when we made the initial request, we're like, “Okay, we'll put you in an old fire station that we don't use anymore at the butt of the county” and, you know, “make it work.” So, we made it work. It was more space. But then in 2018, I think soon after elections had been designated as critical infrastructure, DHS started authorizing physical security assessments or offering that to counties or localities, and so, we took that up, had then come do an assessment – it was bad. And so, we went to the commissioners and we were like, “You should be nervous about this,” and they started listening more and rented us a better, larger warehouse that was closer to our central office. But that still wasn't good enough because we're still bifurcated, we're still driving all over the place, and so, then the CISA [Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency] assessments came down, and we just told a really good narrative and they authorized the purchase of a $24 million facility for us – centrally located in the in the county. But it was a long process, a lot of storytelling, a lot of petitioning, a lot of politicking behind the scenes to get unanimous consent on, you know, investing in that in that capital.

[High Turnout Wide Margins Mid-break]

Eric Fey: Are you willing, Derek, to talk a little bit more about the politicking, as you call it, that, you know, in our roles as election administrators, we try to act, I think, in a nonpartisan way when we're doing our job, but, of course, we exist in a political environment. So, did you have a role to play in kind of advocating for this? And what role did your board play and things like that?

Derek Bowens: Yeah. So, I was the “Chief Politicker” and let me – that’s not a word, but we, so we're nonpartisan, in North Carolina – nonpartisan election officials, or at least we're supposed to operate as such. And so, in our case, I was responsible for putting together documentation, a chronology of all of our requests over time, the DHS assessment, the CISA assessment. We took commissioners – I think the biggest thing, the biggest politicking opportunity we had is we took them on a tour of our warehouse, and we left it really messy after the election, and so, the commissioners literally could not, they had to walk around things, and it was dangerous, and I think after they left that, it was like, “Whoa, okay, we really need to do something.” And they also had 2016 as a reference point of what can happen when things go wrong.

So, a lot of individual meetings with commissioners, going to a lot of formal Commissioner meetings. Our board chair is very, she's very tough. She's actually the public defender for the county, and she doesn't mince words, and so, she was very direct with the commissioners. And I think some – I mean, we were able to put some healthy fear in them without obviously, you know, making them look bad publicly or look like we're being partisan or taking sides. But it was a lot, it was a lot of conversations with the commissioners about our concerns, and, and ultimately, it won. But yeah, I would say I was the main one kind of pushing those efforts as directed by the board.

Brianna Lennon: Do you have, I mean, I imagine a lot of election officials are in a similar or will be in a similar position. Do you have advice for ways to, like you said you were able to craft the narrative and really communicate those needs? What do you think helped the most? What advice would you give to somebody else who was trying to do the same thing?

Derek Bowens: Yeah, I think there's like great emphasis on, you know, federal funding and the need for that, and I think the advocacy for that should certainly continue. It's very important. But one of the things I've been kind of pushing for in various groups that I've been, you know, working with and providing perspective to is – there needs to be assistance with helping localities and crafting narratives to present to their local funders because most jurisdictions – I don't know how it works in Missouri – you go to your County Board of Commissioners or Board of Canvassers or whomever and they and they provide the funding. So, what I would say is start documenting the struggle: take pictures, incident reports from your poll workers of complaints about how things are set up, concerns from your workers about, you know, safety. That was a big one for us. We were – for our absentee mailing in 2020, we had to go to a different building because we had so many ballots to mail out because of COVID. We would have to take balloting materials across the street, and there were concerns there. “What if somebody who's politically engaged and angry decides to intercept us and do something foolish?” So, take pictures, create the story, and then, you know, craft a message, and we didn't do anything sophisticated. We just wrote them a letter, provided a chronology of events, used the CISA and DHS assessments, and that was enough to really put healthy fear in them about what could happen if these issues weren't addressed. So, that's what I'd say.

Eric Fey: I think election administration, we're often caught in this trap of “We can't fail.” I mean, you can't fail in any profession, but I mean, we really can't fail. And because elections generally run pretty well across the country, when we have needs, it's hard to illustrate the need because there haven't been catastrophic failures, but in your case in Durham, you mentioned in 2016, that that actually, in a strange way, kind of helped in persuading the commissioners to, what I would argue, is the right thing. And I don't even know that this is a question, but it's just, I mean, your scenario there, your example is, is a great illustration of, I think, the challenge we all face in election administration.

Derek Bowens: And I think, too, you know, 2016 actually was kind of, got far away from their minds, right? And so, we had to – not necessarily bring it back up, but it was still a lot of work, I mean, we had that, but we got away from that, and so, we had to start telling the story, again, with that as a reference point. And I think about some of the other counties in North Carolina we've spoken to and sent documentation to, and they're dealing with the same things, but it's crafting the message depending on who you're dealing with, and, you know, depending on where you are – they can not care.

Eric Fey: Derek, I want to ask you a workforce question, frankly, about race of election administrators. When I came into this profession, started going to conferences – overwhelmingly white, I mean, very few minorities represented in the top levels of election administration. I don't know why that is necessarily – you may have ideas on why that is – and, you know, I know you have, in the last couple years, come into leadership at the Election Center, you're on the board here at the Election Center. Do you see that dynamic changing at all recently or into the future? You know, what, what are your thoughts on that?

Derek Bowens: It's a really good question, and I appreciate you asking that question, you know, that's kind of been a concern of mine for some time. When I first came into the Election Center, probably 2017, maybe. That’s when I first came to one of these events, 2017 or 2018 – I thought the same thing. It's like, I'm a Director of Elections, I'm Black, and most of the Black people are – and I'm speaking Black, because I'm Black and that's what I was looking for – or minorities, were not in leadership roles. Were line staff and it didn't seem as if there was a great voice or perspective with regard to what those individuals may deal with in their capacity where they are given their race.

And while I think strides have been made, I think there's a lot of work to be done – regardless of whether the industry is made up of a you know, the majority of the industry is a certain race – there's a lot of voters out there who look like me, ad that perspective matters whether you're white or black in a jurisdiction where you have a mixed makeup racially and or close to even makeup racially, depending on what side you're looking at, and so, I think there's a lot of work to be done to get people into the industry. No one thinks about elections. I mean, I don't even know if white people think about getting into elections, or Hispanic people think about, “Oh, I want to be at elections when I grow up. Or if I'm gonna take this once I get this degree.” Nope, nobody thinks that way, but part of the reason I do it or join these groups and get on these boards is because I don't care about the attention, I'm an introvert, I'd much rather sit in the back of a room and not do much talking at all – but there needs to be visibility that there are other people that do this too. And they have perspective that isn't, may not necessarily be presented that needs to be, that affects election administrators, but also voters so. So, it's a really good question, and I think there's work to be done, but progress is being made.

Eric Fey: So, real quick follow up. Are you the only Black election director in North Carolina?

Derek Bowens: No, I am one of two. No, one of three now. One of three Black males. Certainly in the larger counties, absolutely. I'm the only. But we do have some where you would expect African Americans or Blacks to be in leadership roles. In Durham or when I was in New Hanover County, I literally was one of two department heads in the whole county that was Black. A position that I probably shouldn't have been in – I was 27, and people were like, “Who is this punk? And he's too young to be here. And he's black. Wow, I’ve never experienced this before.” Durham – very progressive community, almost split racially – so, make sense. But yeah, it's a one of two, one of three now Black males, and then we do have some, some African American female women that operate as directors in places where you would typically expect that to happen, given the demographics, and there's a couple of outliers, but not a lot.

Eric Fey: Do you think the amount of minority election directors in North Carolina has anything to do with the fact that you're all appointed rather than elected?

Derek Bowens: I think I think that could have something to do with it.

Eric Fey: Because I'll just say this – in Missouri, we’re all pretty much all elected, they're all white, and in a couple places where they're appointed, there are some, there have been minorities in those spots. So, I'm just, I was curious if you had noticed it, or if you think it makes any difference, but maybe it doesn't?

Derek Bowens: I remember when I was – quick story. Quick, quick story. I was a, I think it was “Election Supervisor” in New Hanover County before I became Director and I thought, “Okay, I'm doing my, pretty much doing my boss's job, and I'm not getting paid, so I need to go look and see if I can be a director somewhere.” So, I went and applied to be, to a vacancy in Duplin County, North Carolina, which is like really country, really white and really Republican, and I went in, applied for the job and a great interview – they even had the director on the panel. I thought for sure I'd have this job and didn't know if I was going to take it because I didn't want to live there, and the compensation wasn't that much more than I was making where I was. And, again, Boards in North Carolina appoint the Director, and there's not necessarily a qualifications, and they selected a pickle farmer that lived in Duplin County, I believe, who had zero elections experience, but he was a good ol’ boy, and I think the Executive Director ended up like, rejecting that, because it's like – “you have someone who is clearly qualified and you have a pickle farmer, and you chose a pickle farmer over this guy that's Black and qualified.”

So, that's gonna segue into your question. I think, I think maybe if you had an elected kind of system in North Carolina, as opposed to an appointed system, that you might see more African Americans in these roles, but actually, I'm not sure that's the case because where there's a high concentration of African Americans, you do see Black election administrators. In my case, where it's almost, you know, a 50-50 split or close to, that's less common, but if you go somewhere like Mecklenburg, where there's a lot of African Americans, we have a, you know, white leader there. Great guy, Michael, totally qualified, has been there for a long time, but you could potentially see a change in a place like that if you were dealing on an elected basis, but I'm not sure that it has a huge impact on how the makeup might change.

Brianna Lennon:Well, specific to North Carolina because I know that – I've talked to somebody that works at the state level and have met some other folks from different other different counties who are very, very concerned about the amount of scrutiny that is coming for the November election. What kind of sense do you get right now in North Carolina about how local election officials are feeling?

Derek Bowens: We've had, North Carolina has had a huge – and I don't know the exact figures – but a huge reduction in top level executives in each county, and some of that is, you know, retirement, some of it is concerns about election security and how the ecosystem has wildly expanded, you know, and went from what most election administrators in North Carolina, at least – clerk work to cybersecurity to being security experts to, [in] some instance, having to had personal security. So, I think there's a lot of concern and kind of trepidation about the 2024 general election, but I think a lot of the administrators I've talked to, they're in it for democracy. They, you know, they’re gonna keep pushing just because it's critical, I think, for the continued existence of our country with regard to how our political system is set up. But there's definitely fear and concern, and I think the state is doing what they can, but, you know, third party support and resources is critical in all of this because I had a conversation with someone the other day, and COOP planning – continuity of operations planning, I mean, in 2016, 2015 – it sat in a drawer, you had it in, you work with emergency management to put it together, but, at least in my case, you didn't really use it. Now, you're referencing it all the time, and you're adding to it based on what's happening – mean, fentanyl laced letters. You know, in our new facility, we're actually putting together a negative pressure room and we're hiring security vendors to develop a policy on how we open mail. So, the ecosystem has changed a lot, and we really need third party support and just all the things that these groups are doing to really – from Election Assistance Commission, the US Postal Service – to kind of help us close the gap on these things that are new and just not have been focused on in our careers is critical in North Carolina, and I would imagine in the country.

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 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.