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S3E16 - Professionalizing the Election Field One OREO at a Time with Ohio’s Aaron Ockerman

 Ohio's Aaron Ockerman (right) with Eric Fey, joined by Brianna Lennon on Zoom
Aaron Ockerman, the Executive Director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials (right) with Eric Fey, Director of Elections in St. Louis County, Missouri joined by Brianna Lennon, County Clerk in Boone County, Missouri on Zoom.

The High Turnout Wide Margins team recently traveled to Portland, Oregon, for a special workshop on State Associations hosted by the Election Center. While there, we were able to have face-to-face conversations with people working in elections across the country.

In this episode, hosts Eric Fey and Brianna Lennon speak with Aaron Ockerman, the Executive Director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials.

They spoke about the importance – and power – of state associations, how having a non-election administrator in charge can strengthen an association, as well as the role a state association can play in better preparing election officials, both old and new, for the increasingly complex nature of their jobs.

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

Transcription of the episode is as follows:

Aaron Ockerman  I'm just kind of the glue that holds all that together, and I just kind of work with all those various committees to understand what their goals and objectives are, and I just tried to kind of implement whatever my board and those various committees needs to be done on a day-to-day basis, so that the election officials can focus on their real jobs – which is being, you know, an election professional and not an association manager or not having to manage committees or figure out if you're gonna have chicken or beef at your conference, you know? Those are details that they don't need to mess with really, they can make the decision and then we'll go implement it.

 [High Turnout Wide Margins Introduction]

Brianna Lennon: Welcome back to another exciting episode of High Turnout Wide Margins. This is one of your hosts, Brianna Lennon in Boone County, Missouri. And with me is –

Eric Fey: Eric Fey, Director of Elections in St. Louis County, Missouri.

Brianna Lennon: If you want to introduce yourself –

Aaron Ockerman: Aaron Ockerman, Executive Director, Ohio Association of Election Officials.

Brianna Lennon: So, our first question that we always ask people on the show is how you got involved in elections in the first place, and I know that you have an interesting story, but can you also talk a little bit about what it means to be the Executive Director of the Ohio Association?

Aaron Ockerman: Yeah, sure. Like most election officials, I fell into this through bad luck, I guess, right? So, I'm not an election official whatsoever. Probably, we’re at this conference and I'm surrounded by a bunch of election officials, and I'm not really one of you all, but I kind of am. I feel adopted.

I started off, I'm a professional lobbyist, that’s actually what I do. That’s my day job, but I do have the great privilege of working with the Ohio Association of Election Officials, and I started lobbying for them back in 2001 and for 10 years I was just their lobbyist, and I just did advocacy work for them. And then really got to know the great election officials in the state of Ohio, became really passionate – not just about advocating for them, but also kind of helping them navigate some of the other difficulties that they are encountering as they wanted to grow their presence and just be more present for – not just the legislature, but for the media and for their voters, and so that meant, you know, re-looking at their conferences and their training programs and all the things that make a good association strong. So, they asked me at that point to become their Executive Director. This was right around 2011, and that's what I've been doing ever since.

Eric Fey: So Aaron, before we jump more into the association work itself – could you explain to the folks listening, how election administration is structured in Ohio?

Aaron Ockerman: I don't know that we’re unique, but I think we're pretty cool in the way we do it. We have four board members. So, all 88 counties have four board members. There's two Republicans and two Democrats. They are nominated by their local political parties. So, the executive committees for both the Republicans and the Democrats nominate two individuals, and they send those names to the Secretary of State who appoints those four board members.

Then we have professional staff. We have, every county has at least a Director and Deputy Director – Republican, Democrat, Democrat, Republican, and then they build out a staff as they see necessary from there. But we're 100% bipartisan. So, I was just in a committee hearing yesterday with the Franklin County Board of Elections. They have 52 individuals that work at that board, there are 26 Rs and 26 Ds, and that's the way we kind of split things up in Ohio, and that's how we're structured.

Eric Fey: And is the Director always of the same party as the Governor, and the Deputy [is from] the opposite party or?

Aaron Ockerman: There used to be kind of this unwritten rule that whoever the Secretary of State was – if the Secretary of State was a Democrat, then the chair of the board would be a Democrat. That tradition has kind of gone by the wayside, but there is a law that says that whoever the, whichever party the board chair is, the Director has to be the opposite political party. So, if you have a Democrat who chairs the board, you have a Republican that's the Director of the Board of Elections, and we try to maintain the partisan balance that way.

Brianna Lennon: How do you think that that works for hiring people? Because if you've got people that are talented and trying to move around the states to maybe a larger jurisdiction, but are blocked because they're not the right political party?

Aaron Ockerman: It happens. It's a challenge. There's no doubt about that. I've seen a handful of people who have switched parties over the years, and as long as the person who's hiring you is cool with that – then that's cool, but that doesn't always work out. And it's interesting, right? As you as you both know – having a county-based system – every board is unique, and some boards, they, you know, the political people that run those boards, or the partisan people that run those boards really feel very strongly that they want a strong partisan person to direct or deputy direct their board. Others are like, “Eh, they're just there to kind of run elections, and I don't need them to be involved in party stuff,” and, “Yeah, maybe they're Democrat, but maybe they kind of are in the middle, and, you know, I just don't care. I want the person that's going to be the best to run the elections,” and it just varies pretty significantly from county to county.

Eric Fey: It is interesting how the political culture can change so much just within one state?

Aaron Ockerman: Yeah, within one –

Eric Fey/Aaron Ockerman: – from county to county, really.

Eric: Yeah.

Aaron Ockerman: Absolutely.

Eric Fey: So, in St. Louis County, we have a very similar structure, you know, bipartisan election board, and when I started working there, one of the main things, in my opinion, holding us back – or administrative impediments we had were that so many people who work there were related to each other, and they were, you know, kind of patronage hires, you know, partisan hacks kind of thing. And, frankly, in my opinion, it did not serve us well. And myself and my counterpart director, and our subsequent boards, have tried very hard to change that. But I'm wondering if you've seen that dynamic anywhere in Ohio? And if so, you know, has there been a movement away from it? It’s just hard, a hard thing to break sometimes.

Aaron Ockerman: Yeah, I'll name names. I'm not scared. I'll pick on Cuyahoga County – my friends up there. I pick on them only because if you were to ask anyone in the 1980s or 1990s, what board has the most challenges in the state of Ohio, it would have been Cuyahoga County. And they are one of the absolute best boards now. So, I can say, you know, that they have definitely evolved, but I always told people that in Cuyahoga County, the Board of Elections was the employer of first resort. So, it's like you had someone who needed a job, you didn't know where to put them – stick them at the board. And that, obviously, is not – to your point, Eric, it just doesn't serve anyone well. And I really feel like we had that kind of watershed moment in 2000 where everything changed, and it went from being, you know, this is a job you can kind of do in your sleep and you got punch cards and you've got your paper-based voter registration systems, and now, all of a sudden, we're dealing with computers and technology and we're under this microscope and we're being scrutinized and you just can't be a political hack and be in this job and be effective – without putting a lot of things in jeopardy.

And so, we have absolutely evolved, professionalized. I mean, that's the whole point of this conference, really – is talking about how we can continue to professionalize and train ourselves better. And yeah, we've absolutely seen that happen in the state of Ohio, not just in Cuyahoga County, but all across the state.

Eric Fey: So, moving from that question to the actual association in Ohio. I know this conference we're at, Aaron, is pretty much focused on election official associations. Ohio is one of the very few states that has an executive director for their association, and, frankly, was one of the models we used in Missouri to move to that executive director model. So, can you explain to everybody kind of how your association is structured and how it functions and why, and you mentioned a little bit, but why did they move to an executive director model?

Aaron Ockerman: Prior to 2000, in Ohio at least, our Secretary of State was actually the lobbyist for the local boards of elections, as well as the Secretary of State's office. And post-2000, there became a bit of a divergence in opinions on how legislation might move forward, and to their credit, at the time, our Secretary of State was Ken Blackwell, and his legislative director said, “This is creating conflicts. Candidly, I can't go in good faith and represent the viewpoints of local election officials and our Secretary of State at the same time,” and so they pushed to hire a lobbyist. And that's how I got involved back in 2001.

But we're structured – we have a Board of Trustees and Board of Directors, just like many associations do. They obviously make all the decisions about the direction that the association goes. We have a legislative committee. We have other various committees, subcommittees that help us do things like plan conferences and do our education courses and things like that, and I kind of say, “I'm just kind of the glue that holds all that together,” and I just kind of work with all those various committees to understand what their goals and objectives are, and I just try to kind of implement whatever my board and those various committees needs to be done on a day-to-day basis, so that the election officials can focus on their real jobs – which is being an election professional and not an association manager or not having to manage committees or figure out if you're gonna have chicken or beef at your conference, you know, those are details that they don't need to mess with really. They can make the decision and then we'll go implement it.

Brianna Lennon: And in that vein, too. How have you – if you have seen it change as we've had more turnover in the positions where people might not have a good baseline understanding anymore, they might be totally new to elections – has the association stepped in for those? And maybe it already existed? We don't have a manual yet. Maybe Ohio does?

Aaron Ockerman: Yeah, we did recognize that problem pretty early on. I don't know about other states, but I feel like we all kind of took this turn, you know, 2019, 2020, right? And obviously, a lot of that was pandemic-related and just pressure-related, but we actually started to see it in Ohio, maybe in 18 or 19, just a couple of years before I would say most people did. And so, we actually went to our Secretary of State and had a conversation because we felt like they were in a good position, as well. Again, they have that global viewpoint, right? And they have resources. So, what can we do to try to either, you know, stem the tide or recognize that this is going to be a pattern and not a one-time thing? And so how can we prepare our election officials, our new election officials better to do their jobs.

So, we created a really cool mentorship program that was actually another state, I think, mentioned that, Michigan, maybe mentioned that in the last panel – and we're really proud of that. It's really cool. We work with the Secretary of State's office to figure out all the new people that are coming in to the association, we partner them up with a seasoned professional that's kind of lived in your shoes and done your job and can speak kind of truth into the life of those new people, not just about this is how you do x, y and z function. But, you know, you're gonna have to deal with this, that, and the other and just be prepared. And here's some resources for you. And “Oh, by the way, if you need someone to go to the bar with you and cry in a beer with you, I'm your friend now. I'm your mentor, and I'm your friend, and I'm here for you.”

And so, we've really worked very hard to kind of forge that. That's a, I think, one really good example of what we've done in Ohio that I'm happy to hear other states are thinking about, as well. And then we've really bolstered our continuing education program and our certification program. We partner with the Ohio State University and just have a really cool – and I'm super proud of the work that our education committee does on that – and I think that's a huge value for both election officials who have been around for a while and new election officials to be able to kind of get in there and get their hands dirty, and get in some nitty gritty and do that separate aside from the learning that they obviously do day in and day out.

Eric Fey: Is that called the OREO?

Aaron Ockerman: It is the OREO, yes?


Eric Fey: Tell us about OREO.

Aaron Ockerman: Oh, thank you, Eric, I love talking about OREO – the Ohio Registered Election Official Program started back in, again, 2011. That was one of the reasons they wanted to bring me on as executive director was to really kind of put this program together. It's evolved a lot. In its most current iteration, which I think is a real winner, we partner, as I mentioned, with the Ohio State University. The thing I, you have to go through eight classes – there's four that are core classes that everybody has to take, you can take four elective classes. We've moved into this kind of new phase with the Ohio State, where we take advantage of the resources that, you know, this huge university brings to bear, and we have skills-based classes. Those can be, you know, soft skills like computer skills or whatever, or they can be more emotional wellbeing and topics like that, or how to manage angry people or deescalate – we literally have a training coming up at Summer Conference on de-escalation training, and how to kind of walk people back from those tense situations, and we're going to dedicate time to that.

But one of the things that I think is super cool about it is, from the very beginning, my board had this vision that these were going to be three-hour classes. So, they were going to be kind of manageable chunks – enough that you can be really good at and get into substance, but, you know, also, you didn't have to spend a week – which, again, not knocking the Election Center, there's tremendous value in coming out and spending time with your peers for a week and just re-immersing yourself in it – but these are designed to be a little bit different. But the cool part, that I'm really beating around the bush and I'm finally going to get to is – we co-teach each class. So, an hour and a half, roughly, is going to be taught by a professor from an Ohio State, an actual professor. They're gonna talk about the academics, the history, the law, whatever it might be. And then we have an election official – one of our own members – come in and teach the second half of the class and they're gonna say, “All right, I know they just told you about the law and the history of it. Now, here's how that really works.” And so, it's this very cool balance between kind of the academic and the practical, and we get feedback from our members all the time that they really, really love that. So, we're super proud of it.

[High Turnout Wide Margins Mid-break]

Eric Fey: How do you – since you're in this unique position of being a lobbyist for the association and also the executive director? How does your time breakdown between those two tasks?

Aaron Ockerman: I always feel like I'm doing both. Like, really, there's really not a time where I'm not feeling like I should be working on conference stuff or OREO stuff. And there's also not a time where I feel like the legislature ever gives us a break. Maybe not to answer your question directly, but my folks find it incredibly frustrating and sometimes infuriating that the legislature doesn't respect the elections calendar. We – because they're around, they've been around, you know. We were busy running the primary in March. They were in in January and February, and they dropped, you know, 10 elections bills, and I'm sending them out to my legislative committee saying, "We need to be ready to respond to this, because they're meeting and they're having hearings, and they're gonna, they're gonna want our input, which is a good thing." But when they come to me, I can't say, "Well, we're busy running the election, we haven't had time to look at it." Even though that's true. So, it does create an interesting dynamic, Eric, where, because our legislative calendar, we are running elections, and trying to juggle the ball of being proactive with our legislature – responsive to our legislature pretty much all the time.

Brianna Lennon: Are there things that we should be doing differently in the elections community that you saw be successful in other areas that we might think we're too unique to do but may actually be very helpful?

Aaron Ockerman: Absolutely. Yeah, I think election officials tend to make the mistake of thinking that they should not be involved in advocacy, or they don't have a right to be an advocacy. Or we're just here to administer the laws as the legislature gives them to us, so how dare us go and, you know, take a stand on a piece of legislation or whatever. And we have worked very hard in Ohio to, you know, to go against that grain and say, "No, we are the experts." In fact, our tagline is “The Ohio Association of Election Officials – the Elections Professionals” because we want everyone to know that if you have a question, if you're a legislator, and you think you have an idea about elections, you should be checking with us. And we will tell you, "This is a good idea or bad idea." But more importantly, we'll explain to you how what you're proposing is going to impact the administration elections and voters. And that is a huge win for everybody when election officials do that. It's a huge win for election administrators. It's a huge win for your voters. And it's a win for your legislators who are making informed decisions. They can't be an expert, despite the fact that they think they're an expert on elections. They can't be an expert in everything that they have to deal with. And so, we have to step into that gap, and be a provider of information to our policymakers, if we expect anything good to happen.

The other thing that I would – I think I've seen that election officials, even when they get into the advocacy world are hesitant to do, is to take a proactive approach to legislation. And say, "You know what, it's not sufficient for us to just sit here and react to the whim of the legislature. We have ideas for how we can do things better. And gosh darn it, we're going to find someone in the legislature that's like-minded, and we're going to ask them to advance our causes as well and we're gonna get proactive." And oh, by the way, and this is me speaking as lobbyists, sometimes the best defense is a good offense. And if you keep people busy working on the things you want them to work on, they don't have time to monkey around with you and muck things up. So, those are two mistakes, Brianna, that I think I've seen the elections community around the country make that I hope as we move these kinds of ideas forward about strong associations and getting involved in advocacy that we can rectify because it breaks my heart when I see what's going on around the country and how the legislature is just kicking the tar out of local election officials. That's not right. It's not the way it should be.

Eric Fey: I love that point because I know I don't love that, but I understand the necessity of it working with the legislature because I do just prefer to administer the elections. I don't want to be out in the front line, but it is what it is. So, along in that vein, I don't know what the experience has been in Ohio, but it seems like a number of states across the country we're in– I'll just use Missouri as an example where members of legislature, whether they be for or against us, generally are very good about at least hearing us out, especially if we're being proactive. We have a lobbyist ourselves. But now there is a, at least in our case, a small group of legislators that won't even listen, like won't even, you know, hear us out on some of these issues that want to hand count ballots and these kinds of things. So, I don't know if you have any insight into how to make inroads with those kinds of folks or not?

Aaron Ockerman: It's tough, and we probably don't have time to unpack a full strategy for how to get to those folks. But I do think that that's where, you know, you really need to understand the distinction between advocacy and education. And regardless, if they're gonna listen to your position on something, I think you still have an inherent responsibility to provide them with information. And it's, you know, we always say, "If the legislature makes a bad decision, and you have not provided them with information that would guide them in a different direction than shame on you." Now, to the extent that you – legislature wants to go in a direction or legislator wants to go in a direction, and you've provided information, and they make a bad decision anyway, then shame on them. But you can look yourself in the mirror at the end of the night and say, "I did what I was obligated to do. I did everything that I could. I was straight – you know, I was transparent. I was straightforward. I was honest, I provide information, and they went a different direction." And that's very frustrating, but I would say, we tend to get myopic in the elections world sometimes and forget that, you know? We're not the only one. The County Commissioners Association, they don't win every time they go to the legislature. The county engineers don't win every time. You know, I mean, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield doesn't win every time. Visa doesn't win every time. You know, Nationwide Insurance doesn't win every time. That's just the nature of the legislative process and that's not an excuse to stop going and doing your job just because you didn't you didn't get your way, I guess.

Eric Fey: Every county in Ohio has a Board of Elections. That's relatively unique. But in most states, the election officials have other duties, at least in a good number of states, maybe it's not most. And so, the question I have for you is, in the very smallest counties, those small rural counties, how do they have the wherewithal to have an election specific office and fund that and run it year-round?

Aaron Ockerman: I cannot tell you how much admiration I have for our small boards of elections. Obviously, there are some scale, you know, issues as you get bigger, your problems just get bigger. As you get smaller, you have less voters and less interactions and all that. But man, when you're doing it with two people – we have one county, it's a judge, actually, they couldn't get enough funding from their commissioners to run their office. And so, they sued, which they can do under Ohio law and the judge ruled against the board of elections. And as a result, they have two part time employees that are running the – now how do you do that? I – that office – and that is where I think the association and the Secretary of State, we really got to stand in that gap. I mean, we have to do everything we can to prop those two ladies up and to give them every resource that they need, and to say, "If their commissioners aren't going to do it, you know, and, or whatever we are, you know, we're not going to let them fail." Yeah, it's – I don't know how a lot of our boards do it. I think the statistic in Ohio at one point at least, in this may not be completely current was, that of our 88 counties 44 of them had four employees or less. And yeah, we're only doing elections, we're not doing register[ation]. You know, we're not doing the BMV stuff or the DMV stuff for some of the – I think in Arizona, they do, like absolutely everything in county government basically. So, we don't have that problem, but it's – just running an election is a lot. And we're, you know, a lot of our counties are doing it with very slim resources and even less people. So, yeah.

Eric Fey: We've had the conversation in Missouri a little bit that, you know, especially in the very small rural counties, that the county clerks – they have so many duties that it's difficult for them to have enough bandwidth to perform their election duties. But then those counties are so under-resourced, that they also cannot fund just an election-specific office so, you know, that it's a challenge, you know, everywhere, I guess.

Aaron Ockerman: We – so, in Ohio we do – our county boards of elections are one of only three entities at the local level at least that can sue their county commission for adequate funding. And that is not something we ever do lightly, and it's very rarely used, but that is a pretty big stick in our back pocket that we do carry on that does help from time to time and kind of getting people's attention. And look I, like, all due respect to my county commissioner friends, they, you know, they've got a fund police and they've got a fund sheriffs and they've got to build roads/ And, you know, "I'm sorry if your voting equipment is failing, but geez, I gotta fix this bridge or people are gonna die,” right? So, I don't – I'm not saying this to cast stones or whatever, but having that stick to be able to go to your commissioner and say, "Look, man, we are on a shoestring budget, and we can't do this. We just can't do this. And if you don't want to go along with it, then I'll see you in court." You know, that's, again, not something we take lightly, but it's something that we do from time to time.

We got to drive change from that local level and driving change from the local level means speaking with one voice and speaking with one voice means you have someone coordinating that voice and deciding what's important and that's where your associations come in. And so, again, really proud of the work we've done in Ohio, but I do think that it's worth local election officials' time in every state to give serious consideration and spend a little time thinking about “How can I strengthen my association? How can I get proactive in the legislature? How can I up my game when it comes to training? How can I put on great conferences where people come, and they learn from each other, and they share best practices? And yes, they go to the bar at six o'clock at night, and they just cry in each other's beers and hug each other,” you know, because that is such a big part of what has happened to us over the last four years. There's just so much inherent value, and all of that stuff, and it just doesn't happen in the way it should if your association isn't engaged in helping you do it. And, you know, and it never will be because, you know, that's not your – again, that's not your job. Your job is to run elections, and this is – it seems secondary, but I just think it's so fundamental too. You got to run elections, but you got to walk and chew bubblegum too. Someone in your association should step up. Someone in your state should step up and really say, “This is going to be a priority for us and we're going to make it happen." And if you have the resources and you can hire someone like me, either part-time or full-time I just think there's value in that too. Because, you know, the hardest – the bad thing about when you're all volunteers, you know, the bad thing about firing a volunteer is they probably want to get fired. You know, they don't – they're happy to be relieved of their obligations. But, you know, when you pay somebody, it takes on a whole new level of accountability. And so, to the extent that you can get someone who's willing to kind of step in and help you and be responsible and take the initiative to make sure things get done. It's just a good way to move.

Brianna Lennon: You've been listening to High Turnout Wide Margins, a podcast that explores local elections 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.