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S3E18 - A Tale of Two Cities with Michigan’s Jackie Beaudry and Melanie Ryska

Jackie Beaudry [left] and Melanie Ryska [right], Michigan local clerks and leaders of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks, with Eric Fey [center] and Brianna Lennon (on Zoom).
Jackie Beaudry [left] and Melanie Ryska [right], Michigan local clerks and leaders of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks, with Eric Fey [center] and Brianna Lennon (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 Jackie Beaudry and Melanie Ryska. They’re both local clerks in Michigan and leaders of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks.

They spoke about the implementation of some new election law in the state, how their association works alongside the Michigan Association of County Clerks, and how their association is trying to balance the needs of very large and very small municipalities.

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:

Melanie Ryska: I'm going to tell you a little story. So, when I first started in my municipality, I had a manager ask me a question of “what is the acceptable error rate in elections?” And I remember kind of – I was a little dumbfounded by that question because the answer is zero. You're not allowed to make a mistake.

[High Turnout Wide Margins Introduction]

Eric Fey: Hey, everybody. Welcome back everyone to another episode of High Turnout Wide Margins. 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 in Boone County, Missouri.

Eric Fey: And we have two guests today on this episode from Michigan. So ladies, why don't you go ahead and introduce yourselves –

Jackie Beaudry: Okay, hi. I'm Jackie Beaudry. I'm the Ann Arbor city clerk. And I'm also the President of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks.

Melanie Ryska: And I am Melanie Ryska. I am the city clerk for the city of Sterling Heights in Macomb County, Michigan. And I am also the First Vice President of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks.

Eric Fey: Awesome. Thank you so much, ladies, for joining us today. And as you know, the first question we always have on this podcast is how did you get involved in elections? So, maybe Melanie, you want to start with that one, and then we'll go Jackie.

Melanie Ryska: Sure. I started back in 2002. This was not my preferred career goal, but I started packing election supplies in the city of Hamtramck. And I just kind of got the election bug and I was interested in the democratic process. So, I stayed there for a while and then was appointed clerk there due to a vacancy, and then I moved from there and was the deputy clerk in the city of Grosse Pointe Woods, which is just a little northeast of Hamtramck, and then after that, I was the assistant director of elections for Wayne County, which is the largest county in the state of Michigan, until I finally came to the city of Sterling Heights in 2016, and that's where I've been since.

Jackie Beaudry: I went to Eastern Michigan University, which is in neighboring Ypsilanti, and I majored in public administration, and I didn't really know what that was going to mean. So, when I graduated, I – this will really date me – this is 1998, I found an ad in the newspaper for a deputy clerk in Superior Township, which is right outside Ypsilanti. I applied and I got the job. And the 2000 presidential was my first big election and I loved it. I've been in elections ever since.

Brianna Lennon: We've done episodes with a number of people from Michigan, but can you remind the listeners how the election infrastructure is in Michigan? Who's in charge of what and the decentralization of it?

Jackie Beaudry: So, Michigan elections are very decentralized, we’re run at the local level. So, I'm city of Ann Arbor and the city clerk's office runs – not just the municipal elections, but all state, federal, everything within our city limits. Same thing for Melanie in Sterling Heights. We also have township government and so, even the unincorporated areas – townships, also have a clerk who runs elections locally.

We do have county government and our county clerk is responsible for things like ballot printing, the canvas, some poll worker training for smaller jurisdictions, and then, of course, we have, at the state level, the Secretary of State's office and the Bureau of Elections oversees at the state level. But a very decentralized system. I think we have something like 1500 city and township clerks.

Brianna Lennon: So, in the context of having city election officials and county election officials – and I'm sure this was going to come up anyway, but associations. We have previously talked to people that have associations and they really only have to work directly with the Secretary of State's office when they're working on something, but you've got City Municipal Clerk Association and County Clerk Association, potentially? Can you talk a little bit about how that structure works as well?

Jackie Beaudry: Sure, so the Michigan clerks – MAMC. We represent city and township, and we do have village members, but they're not involved in elections. And then the 83 counties have their own association.

Where we really come together is on legislative issues and Melanie can talk about [that] cause she's chair of our council of election officials. That group brings the Michigan clerk's legislative committee and the county clerk's legislative committees together, and so, we do have mutual interest, but there are two associations, basically. And both have a lot of interest in elections.

Eric Fey: Melanie - maybe talk a little bit about that council, if you would.

Melanie Ryska: Yeah, so we partner – MAMC partners with MACC to hire a lobbyist, and our lobbyist pays attention to all of the new election legislation that is out there. So, we review all that legislation individually – MAMC with their legislative body, and then MACC with their legislative body. Then when we meet for CEO, which is the Council of Election Officials, the leads of those legislative committees will sit down and kind of go through and figure out what our priorities are as a whole. Because sometimes local clerks have a different perspective than county clerks do, but in order to have a bigger impact on any legislative changes, and for our lobbyists to be able to go and lobby on our behalf, we like to be sort of on the same page. And so, we talk things through and then, hopefully, we can come to some agreement and then go as a united front in front of the legislature.

Eric Fey: And I'm sure a united front is ideal – and I'm not asking, with this question, I'm not asking you to air any dirty laundry – but have there been times when the municipal clerks and the county clerks aren't seeing eye to eye? And, if so, how have you managed that dynamic?

Melanie Ryska: There have been times where we don't necessarily see eye to eye, but I think what we've established over the years is a very good relationship in that if it affects you as a county clerk then – and it does not affect us as local clerks – we will back off and kind of let you take the lead, and vice versa. So, while I don't know that we've had anything of recent where there's a really big, contentious item, you know what I mean? We kind of – we understand that, you know, what county clerk's go through, locals don't. And, you know, we hope that they understand the same.

Jackie Beaudry: Eric, if I could add something? Sometimes, I think, we also, before we even get to our CEO level – at the local legislative committee, we're dealing with large cities, we have city township, and then we have urban and rural, and so, sometimes we have to get, you know, kind of our ducks all in a row before we even get to CEO. And we don't always agree, with 1500 members, sometimes what's best for Detroit. The UP’s not necessarily, that's not something of their interest, or, you know, Ann Arbor is a college town, and so, sometimes I feel like my interests are different than everyone's. So, we even sometimes, I think it's the MAMC that we have to get an alignment at our level, you know, not just agreeing with the counties.

Eric Fey: Yeah, I know, in Missouri with 116 election authorities, it's hard enough getting everybody on the same page. I can't imagine 1,600. Is that what you said? So.

Brianna Lennon: I was wondering how that interplay of having the different associations and everything – with things working so well, legislatively. I know Michigan also had a very big election reform package that came through initiative petition. How did the association – or did the two associations work together to figure out how to implement it? Because I know that it impacted both sides of responsibilities.

Melanie Ryska: So which package are you – cause we've had a lot – which package are you particularly –

Brianna Lennon: The most recent one that included early voting and all of the things that didn't exist before 2020.

Jackie Beaudry: Yeah, we had – well, 2018 3, we had same day registration, which was a big change for us. But then 22-2 is what you're referring to with early voting, and that I would say was interesting in Michigan because the law allows locals to have an agreement with the county and the county can actually run early voting on behalf of one or more jurisdictions within their county. Some of the larger cities like Ann Arbor, Sterling Heights, we've all taken that responsibility ourselves. So, we're running our own early voting in addition to vote by mail and Election Day, we still have Election Day precincts.

For some of the rural small townships, they might have one or two precincts – it actually really made sense that they've collaborated. They can either join, you know, maybe it's five or six townships all get together – they don't have to include the county. They could do it as a collaboration of small jurisdictions, or they can go to their county. In my county in Washtenaw, I think, city of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti Township is one of our biggest townships. We are both separate, and then the county coordinates for, I believe, the rest of the county.

Melanie Ryska: And I think, if I could just add to that, I think, you know, the passage of early voting and all of these different coordinated efforts has just complicated things a little further because some counties are not interested in running early voting, whereas other counties are like, “we will run the entire early voting,” and then, obviously, Jackie said, you know, some larger communities – even some smaller communities are like, "No, we're gonna keep it with ourselves in our own community." But I think it just makes it very – it's complex, at this point. So, we just added another layer of complexity to our election process.

Eric Fey: So, I'm trying to understand kind of administratively how this can work with, you know, several municipalities or towns coming together, or the county doing it on behalf of several. So, does this mean people from different towns maybe – and I'm using the word town, I don't know if that's the right word – different jurisdictions can come to one early voting site and cast ballots? And if so, how did those votes get attributed back to the correct township or city or whatever the case may be?

Melanie Ryska: I can speak on that briefly. So, while I am like the fourth largest city in the state, we have a local city who borders us – who is very small, they just did not have the resources to do early voting, so we actually partnered with them, and Sterling Heights absorbed their voters. So, their voters come to our early vote site. They have a separate tabulator that their ballots go into. We use one poll book because it's connected to our statewide qualified voter file, but at the end of the night, that flash drive with those results on it gets sent down to the county, and then it's uploaded as their results.

So, we kind of made it so that their voters have their own tabulator, if you will. But we haven't had too much of an issue with people – their voters, Utica voters – coming to Sterling Heights because geographically they're relatively close, but I know that some communities in more – there are some townships in more rural areas, you know, that's it's a problem. When, you know, you're asking your voters to go to a separate township, which could be, you know, a 30-minute drive just to cast your early vote. But, you know, for cost saving purposes, I think it still is beneficial for them.

Jackie Beaudry: So, I had misspoke when I said Melanie, like Ann Arbor was on her own, so she has a partner.

Eric, if I can add – so, in Washtenaw County, I know that they don't have the separate tabulators. The early vote sites that the county runs – other than Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti Township – any voter can go to any site and the equipment is programmed to accept all the different ballot styles. But then when the results are uploaded, they're separated out into the various jurisdictions.

And then one other interesting thing that's come out of this is, I think that other states, it's like number of voters or maybe it's like per jurisdiction or so many miles – basically, we're left to our own decision making for how many sites that we choose to have and that's something that's coming out of our first statewide implementation, which was our February presidential primary – that you have counties that have maybe one site and then like in the city of Ann Arbor, I have six sites just for Ann Arbor voters, and the county has another five or six sites for the rest of the county. So, it varies greatly depending on what individual communities chose to do.

[High Turnout Wide Margins Mid-break]

Eric Fey: Talking about the dynamic within your state association, you have so many members, perhaps the most of any association in the country, as far as election officials go. Obviously, a very large discrepancy between cities like yours that are relatively large and you have a plethora of very small jurisdictions. How do you manage, if at all, kind of the onboarding of new folks in those really small jurisdictions and, you know, training and things like that?

Jackie Beaudry: I think our friends in Wisconsin –

Eric Fey: They have more?

Jackie Beaudry: – will clarify that they have more jurisdictions.

Eric Fey: I said perhaps.

Jackie Beaudry: But we're number two.

Eric Fey: Okay.

Laughter

Jackie Beaudry: So, it's interesting, and I'll let Melanie talk about it because she was previously education chair for MAMC, but as President – coming from a bigger city and then also a college town that's a lot different than all the other cities and towns in Michigan – I often find myself saying, "Well, this is like do I have my Ann Arbor city clerk hat on or am I MAMC president." And so, trying to be sensitive to the vast majority of our members come from very small communities, but I'll let Melanie answer about what we do to onboard a lot of our new clerks.

Melanie Ryska: Yeah, our membership has grown. We have nearly 12 – probably are now over 1200 members – and I did find out yesterday that that represents 600 and, I'm sorry, 765 local communities because some communities have multiple members. We've had about a 40, I think we were told yesterday, about a 42% turnover since 2019. And that's, you know, due to people not wanting to get into the industry or retirements or after 2020 they're like, "I am done. I can't do this anymore. " And then, not only that, but all the legislation that has come down, you know, Prep 3 of 2018, Prep 2 of 2022, which has basically fundamentally changed how we run elections and all the options that voters have.

So, with that comes this influx of all of these green, you know, minds that are coming in that they have no idea what they're doing, and they need some support. So, MAMC – we try to meet those needs for our new clerks, you know, through our institute, through our conference, through our member education days, through the newly deemed “lunch and learns” from our president from, you know, we have all of these different training sessions. And we're also kicking off a mentorship program where we're partnering seasoned clerks from like communities – so, if you're a large community, you get a large mentee. If you're a small one, you get a small mentee. That sort of thing, geographical, you know, because somebody in the UP, in the Upper Peninsula, doesn't have the same needs or same questions as somebody in southeastern Michigan. So, what makes sense for me to mentor somebody in the UP necessarily, right?

And then a lot of it's just word of mouth. When people come to – when our members come to our education sessions, I mean, we've had reviews, saying this was literally life changing for us, you know, I don't know what I would do without MAMC and without these education opportunities. Then they go out, and they talk to new clerks, and I think that's kind of part of the reason why our membership has grown.

But it's a challenge. It's a challenge, you know, a lot of rural, small townships, you know, they're one person offices. They don't have funding to be members of MAMC. They don't have, you know, the resources to be able to travel to go to training sessions. So, we're still trying to figure out how to incorporate those communities, as well – because they are a vast majority of our communities. So, it's a challenge, but I think, our current board and our current membership, we do a good job at that outreach to those new members because there's a lot to know. And, I mean, it's taken, you know, Jackie and I over 20 years to hone our experience and our knowledge base, you know, you learn a lot just through experience, which I'm sure you're aware of.

Eric Fey: Just a real quick follow up – one thing we've seen kind of seen, maybe for the first time in Missouri, is some of these folks ran for county clerk from a very different background that had nothing to do with the government or elections or anything, and they come to the first training and they're like, "Whoa, I had no idea this was involved." We even have people be like, "Peace out. That's not my thing."

Laughter

Eric Fey: So, have you experienced that at all in Michigan?

Melanie Ryska: I'm sure we have. I know that when I sit in institute classes with new clerks and they're like, "I just got on the job, you know, three months ago." And I'm like, "So what do you think of it?" And they're like, "I never knew how much was entailed in elections, just because of the complexity alone, right?" Have we had people, you know, come get elected and be like, "No, I'm not doing this anymore?” We probably have, I mean, I'm not familiar with any particular person, but I think I would run.

Jackie Beaudry: I think some people come in and they're shocked.

Melanie Ryska: Absolutely.

Jackie Beaudry: Whether they, you know, stick it out. But they – the elected township clerks have to have a deputy, and so, sometimes, they're smart enough, like, that deputy has been there, and they keep them on board, because, you know, they might be the one that has all that institutional knowledge and can help them get up to speed because you're right, they – there's no qualification to run for the office. So, a lot of new clerks come in and it's overwhelming.

Melanie Ryska: I do have to say, too. While MAMC provides a lot of educational opportunities, I think our state Bureau of Elections does a pretty good job. I mean, and they're short staffed, too, but I think they do a pretty good job at getting out to our events, putting out information to clerks, you know, and helping. We do have a state accreditation program, which in my opinion, could probably be more robust than it is now, but at least it's something. Technically, you do have to be accredited to run elections in Michigan, but – so, I think there's a lot of opportunities. I think one of the problems, though, is a new clerk comes into office, and they don't know what they don't know. So, unless they have, like Jackie said, that deputy there or unless they know another clerk in a local municipal, in a neighboring municipality, they don't know where to go and get those resources. So, you know, we want to try to reach out to all of those individuals, too, that don't even know what resources they have.

Jackie Beaudry: And I will say that MAMC – we have our own certification separate from the state, but as Melanie said, there is a partnership with Bureau of Elections. Almost every event we have, we have Bureau of Elections as a session because we know – especially with the way Michigan, the constitutional amendments are coming at us, then the implementation laws that our members are wanting to know, "How do I implement early voting? You know, what is the poll book look like?” – and so, they're eager for those opportunities. Bureau of Elections does have a good partnership with us on training.

Brianna Lennon: Sometimes it's not just the overwhelmingness of the job, sometimes it's the scrutiny of the job that has been scaring people out of office, and I know that we've talked about turnover before, but how are both of you feeling about, I guess, the state of Michigan elections? And how, like, what are you worried about the most with the roles that you're in at the association level?

Jackie Beaudry: That's interesting, and I don't remember who I was speaking to at this conference that made a comment about, like, looking statewide, if you have one mishap, even if you're like, "Oh, I'm so glad that wasn't Ann Arbor." But that they were really like pulling in everybody, like I have to help all of my, you know, fellow clerks or county directors – that it's a reflection on the whole state. So, I thought that was really interesting, and I do feel like MAMC does that with all of our training, and we have opportunities to ask questions and network, but –

Melanie Ryska: I think the more educated we can have our clerks be to administer elections, the less, I guess, mistakes, if you will, will happen, which will prevent some of that scrutiny. Because – I am going to tell you a little story – so, when I first started in my municipality, I had a manager ask me a question of, "What is the acceptable error rate in elections?" And I remember kind of – I was a little dumbfounded by that question because the answer is "zero." You're not allowed to make a mistake. So, you have to be an expert in cybersecurity, in physical security, in communications, in ballot prepping, in all of these things, right?

Eric Fey: Postal regulations.

Melanie Ryska: Yeah, postal regulations and project management and interpersonal communication skills. All of this litany list of things, right? You're required to be an expert in all of those things and if you make a mistake, automatically, you either have disenfranchised voters, or there's fraud in your system, right? So, you're not allowed to make a mistake and it's unfortunate, because we are all human, right? And I try to remind people that we're all here trying to do the best job that we possibly can, you know, you make mistakes, too. And are they intentional? No. And are they fixable? Yes. So. kind of a long story to kind of circle back around, but I think the more that election administrators – I think the more knowledge they have and the more trained they are, the less likely they are to make a just a simple mistake. Which it's simple mistakes that throw you, you know, above the fold on the front page of, you know, your local paper, or you end up on, you know, Fox News, CNN.

Eric Fey: What keeps you two ladies coming back to this job? In light of everything that has happened since 2020?

Melanie Ryska: That's a fantastic question. I ask myself that every single day. I think what keeps me coming back, in all honesty, are my team and my voters. I know that I know what I'm doing. I know that I'm following the laws. I know that there isn't fraud in our system. I know that we check everything with a fine-tooth comb, and I know that I do a good job. I work for my voters. I work – my team is phenomenal – there's no way I could be here today without the team that we have in Sterling Heights. So, I come back, I keep doing it for them, in all honesty.

Jackie Beaudry: I would say like two answers.

Professionally, as MAMC president, I didn't like really see myself doing this, and there was a vacancy – I was on the board, there was a vacancy in the Vice President role and I was asked to do it, and then you know where that's leading – you're moving up third, second, first vice president. And being president has been a real career highlight. I've really enjoyed it. And so, the network of clerks really, you know, there's a sense of pride, and we have each other to rely on.

Within Ann Arbor, same as Melanie, my team and my voters, and anytime I'm feeling like kind of beat down at City Hall, you go to campus and it's just full of energy and excitement. So, what we do at our satellite offices at the University of Michigan and our UMICH Votes makes it even bigger team that I have. Really makes you feel good.

Melanie Ryska: If I could just piggyback on the – because Jackie touched on being the president of MAMC. I don't know that I ever – I don't think I ever had intentions of being on MAMC and then there was a vacancy, and somebody said, "Hey, well you should apply." And I did. So, I actually got appointed and then was elected and then there was a vacancy in what we call the chute, right? Which is the president, first vice, second vice, third vice. And, I don't know, somebody was like, "Well, you know, you should put your thing in for that." And I'm like, "Oh, okay." And so, then when I looked at the, like, the calendar and the succession, and saw that I was actually going to be president during 2024 – I was like, "I don't know, maybe I should switch spots with somebody."

But what I can say is my experience being on the board is – it really did open my eyes to the variety of clerks that we have, and I really – I was on education for four years – there is something completely satisfying and gratifying about being able to talk to other clerks and somewhat mentor them through, you know, all of the opportunities they have and mentor them through their jobs, and I've gotten so many like, you know, thank yous and emails and stuff, saying, you know, "You really inspired me," and stuff. That's pretty powerful to me.

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.