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S2E1 - Crisis Management, Part 1: Bill Cowles and Meagan Wolfe

In the first of a two-part exploration, hosts Brianna Lennon and Eric Fey take a look at crisis management in local elections. They speak with Bill Cowles from Orange County, Florida, who lived through the 2000 Florida election, and Meagan Wolfe, the Wisconsin elections commission administrator, whose position was brought to center stage following the 2020 election.

High Turnout, Wide Margins Credits:
Managing Editor: Rebecca Smith
Managing Producer: Aaron Hay
Associate Producers: Katie Quinn, Abigail Ruhman

Transcription of the episode is as follows:

Eric Fey: Hello, I'm Eric Fey, Director of Elections in St. Louis County, Missouri.

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

Eric Fey: And you're listening to High Turnout Wide Margins, a podcast where we explore local election administration. Today we're going to take a look at crisis management and elections. We're going to start with one of the most memorable examples – Florida 2000. Then, after that we'll hear from Meagan Wolfe, who will share some more recent experiences from Wisconsin after the 2020 elections.

Brianna Lennon First, let's talk a little bit about crisis communications and crisis management, and elections. It's not a new thing. It's something that's happened over time. It also tends to inspire major election reforms. That's one of the things that we want to highlight in these conversations too. Florida's 2000 election led to major reforms with voting equipment, and with funding elections, and how election administration fundamentally happens at the local level.

Eric Fey: So, Bill, the reason we asked you to be on here today was with the current environment, with elections, everything that has been going on – the misinformation, the doubt, the threats, in some ways, that's not new to Florida election officials. It's wild for me to realize- I was talking to a group of high school students a few weeks ago, they weren't even alive for the election in 2000. So it might benefit the listenership just a little bit if you would give us a very brief recap of what happened in Florida in the year 2000. And kind of how you live through that.

Bill Cowles: I am a survivor of the 2000 presidential election. It was really interesting because we conducted the election. I know for a fact that here being in the eastern time zone, we had all of the ballots and all the stuff back into our building by 10:30/11:30 election night. I know I remember specifically that right after 11:30 I was driving home. All of us supervisors knew at that point, basically, that the election was over. The next thing I know, I'm home, unwinding, going to bed, and then suddenly at 4 AM in the morning I get a phone call.

The person says "Hi, this is the News Director at WFTV, Channel Nine, the ABC Affiliate. We want to patch you through to our anchors, and I want you to tell them what we're going to do about this recount. That Secretary of State Katherine Harris just called."

I said, "What are you talking about Florida's done?"

He goes, "Where have you been the last five hours?"

I said, "Trying to sleep."

So, I hung up and I said okay. I turned to my wife and said it's time for a shower, time to get to the office and start plotting out this recount. Then I came down here to the office to set up a plan on what we were going to do. Remember the thing about the recount obviously everybody knows about Palm Beach County punch cards. But Chad never came to Orange County. We never use punch cards here. We went from the old lever machines to the optical scan machines.

Brianna Lennon: You want to talk about butterfly ballots. I actually don't know how to explain butterfly ballots.

Eric Fey: Yeah, because we used them in St. Louis County.

Brianna Lennon: We did not.

Eric Fey: Alright, so a major issue with the 2000 presidential election in Florida was the confusing nature of the actual ballots that voters used. A number of Florida counties used punch card ballots, the way that voters would utilize a punch card ballot was by poking holes through a booklet type device to indicate their choices. So, if the listener can imagine like turning the pages of a book, and then seeing the choices on the left and right sides of the pages, and then poking in the middle, like in the spine of the book, what choices they want. What was confusing about the butterfly ballot is that there were choices for one office on the left and the right side. Especially in Palm Beach County, there was a lot of consternation and confusion over what voters' intent really was. That was a big impetus for some of the reforms in HAVA, the Help America Vote Act that outlawed the butterfly ballot and gave voters a second chance to understand what their choices were before casting their ballot.

Brianna Lennon: I think some of the other issues with ballots, not just butterfly ballots, but lots of folks might remember hanging chads, pregnant chads and things like that. They were all very mechanical ways for voters to be physically punching pieces of paper. Anytime you're doing that it's creating dust, it's creating little pieces of paper. It can jam the system. Coming out of the 2000 election, and with congressional and presidential focus on how elections were being run, people looked at those very mechanical ways of casting ballots and said, "Well, if we made them electronic, it will give us the ability to have voters be clear about what their intent is, it would help us count them better, and potentially would take away some of the problems that happened in 2000." That's part of the reason why the Help America Vote Act came about and also led to a funding mechanism that allowed counties to be able to upgrade their equipment and buy this electronic equipment. Much of which is still in use in some form or fashion today. That's why people see optical scan ballots or touchscreen ballots when they come to a polling place now instead of those manual ways of casting a ballot.

Eric Fey: Another seat change was the initiation of some voluntary federal standards for voting equipment and the establishment of the Election Assistance Commission. Now, since the implementation of HAVA, the Federal Election Assistance Commission establishes voluntary voting system guidelines that states can choose to abide by. Many states do. Prior to HAVA, there were not those federal standards for voting equipment that exists now.

Bill Cowles: So you know, at that point, Florida had different systems, a couple of counties were still on lever, you had those counties on punch, and then you had those transition to optical scan in its infancy. The recount procedures were totally different everywhere. The thing about it is the legal process moved forward. Then eventually, the United States Supreme Court got in it. Wrote back to the Florida Supreme Court, and they stopped the recount.

So, we never actually got through a full recount, because in the beginning, it was punch card counties had to do it because of Palm Beach County, the infamous butterfly ballot. All that said, what came from it was we now have uniformity in our procedures. We have a uniform recount. We have uniform voter intent rules, we have more streamlined timeframes. And then the next step out of it came the fact that Florida went from touchscreens then to an all paper based voting system. We were able to keep touchscreens for just a little longer for the disability side with the audio ballot.

But even now today, we're now to 100% paper ballots. I think the fact that Florida is paper all the time, and has been that way, as one of the things has kept us out of the spotlight going forward. Then also the uniformity of our procedures, so that it's the same whether it's a small jurisdiction or a very large county like Miami Dade. I guess the joke going forward is at the end of the 2022 election, and everybody was praising Florida. The joke was it only took us 20 years to get it right.

Brianna Lennon: I think a lot of the discussion about Florida and what we just talked about was how administration itself has changed. Lots of people talk about changing machines and the implementation of HAVA. How do you think it changed your relationship? Or how has it informed your relationship to educating the public about how elections work? Because I don't think a lot of people really understood why what happened happened. You obviously had to talk to a lot of national news very quickly. Was that something that you were prepared to do? And has that now become an ingrained part of your job?

Bill Cowles: Well, I think the 2000 presidential election changed completely how people see elections. Before 2000, it was – the polling places are open on election day, they count the ballots, here's the results. Nobody questioned. 2000 began to open that door for the academic world, and for the media, to start investigating further. And I think the other part is the changes in technology. We went from the very first optical scan to a newer optical scan and high speed counters for the vote by mail. But we've gone to electronic poll books. And again, you have to look at Florida, third largest state, high mobility within the state and to the state and out.

So, now you've got these groups like Defend Florida, and all who are out there knocking on doors, trying to validate our voter rolls, our records about who voted, and all that. This has brought a whole new layer of research. Our public records request has exploded because they're now demanding, and our voter roll is a public document that anybody can get. It's not restricted. So you have that. Our staff was just talking to me again this morning about how many more staff are we going to add on to do these things?

Those are things that are – I see have changed the environment that are hitting the misinformation, the disinformation, the fact checking. That's the thing that we are spending more time doing, whether it be in a public records request, or checking their stuff, or just checking the stuff that we're getting elsewhere. And as we all know, our goal is to have the best possible, clean voter fault rolls, but it's an active role. It's never going to be perfect.

Brianna Lennon: Do you have advice? I mean, Florida has really- everybody that has worked in elections, it means something to them when you hear Florida 2000. But people that are new to the profession, or that have not worked in a state that has had that kind of attention on it. Do you have advice for anybody that may be going through that in the future as we're going into 2022? Not that there has to be another Florida 2000. But if there is another thing that draws the attention in the national eye, what should those folks be thinking about?

Bill Cowles: The simple thought is: remember your Civics 101. The federal government only sets the first Tuesday after the first Monday. November is the federal election. After that, there are 50 different ways that our elections happen. Focus on what is yours. Spend the time educating the community and educating your voters on what it is for you. And I think that's the key thing.

Brianna Lennon: Hi, I’m Brianna Lennon, County Clerk for Boone County, Missouri, and you’re listening to High Turnout, Wide Margins – a podcast where we explore local election administration.

Today, we’re taking a look at crisis management in elections. That was Bill Cowles from Orange County, Florida, talking about living through the 2000 Florida elections.

We also sat down with Meagan Wolfe, the Wisconsin elections commission administrator, about the 2020 election and its potential impact on future elections in Wisconsin.

Meagan Wolfe: I started in 2011, and my first job in election administration was to implement the photo ID and to be our voter outreach coordinator. So I went around the state and I talked to voter groups. I talked to local election officials. I talked to political parties. I did hundreds, if not thousands of presentations, workshops with people, helping them understand the new photo ID law.

I would start every single presentation the same way, by saying that I’m not here to talk about if this is a good law or a bad law. I’m here to talk about the mechanics of how it works. And, as you might imagine, at the time, there were a lot of people who were very in favor of this law. They thought that it was a great law. They thought it was going to increase security. And then, the other half of the state was very against the law. They thought that it was something that was going to impede access to the ballot.

At the same time that we were implementing the photo ID law, we were actually going through a gubernatorial recall, as well as, a lot of members of our state senate. So every day, I would go out and implement the photo ID law, and then every night I would help with processing recall petitions, which was also a high-profile thing at the time. And we actually had to do that in sort of a secret location, so people didn’t know where we were, but we still wanted to have transparency. So we were on a live webcam processing recall petitions for months at a time.

And that was also a really interesting lesson in sort of transparency versus meaningful transparency in elections administration and how to sort of do a better job in that.

Brianna Lennon: There’s so much public information out there. There’s so much transparency into everything that’s happening. It feels sometimes like that doesn’t necessarily matter when you get the pushback that’s been happening over the last year and a half. Can you talk a little bit about what your office and you specifically have experienced especially in light of all of the education that you’ve been putting out there anyway? Has it made a difference, do you feel? Are there things that you wish you had done differently? Or, that you plan to do moving into 2022?

Meagan Wolfe: I have to believe, and I think we all have to believe as election officials that what we do matters and that continuing to get information out there matters. And, I still believe that.

I still try to keep the flame of optimism burning here despite a lot of the challenges, because with all the misinformation. It can feel like, every day, you know, a mountain of bad information, of badly intended information is thrown at us as election officials. Every day, we all try to overcome that mountain, and when we get to the other side we think, “Ok, you know, we’ve done it. We’ve put that information out there. We’ve helped somebody understand this thing that they have a question about.” Just to find that there’s another mountain that’s sprouted up in front of us.

And so, you know, that’s frustrating. I think that’s frustrating for all of us, but I truly believe it’s making a difference. I truly believe that people having access to information, access to understanding how elections are run — I think that, you know, they may be small changes, but I think that it is impactful. I think that we need to continue to figure out ways to create meaningful engagement in elections.

And, I know that you all do this so well, as local election officials. And, I think for us, the things that we try to do with our locals too, is to just empower them to tell their story, you know. They don’t need to be communication experts. They don’t need to do anything other than show people how it works, you know.

Sometimes instead of having a press conference, you make sure that when your public test is noticed before an election, you’re sort of narrating what’s happening or helping people understand what it is that they are seeing, or encouraging people within your community that maybe had questions about the security of the equipment to be there at the public test.

And, so, I think, you know, making sure that our clerks are able to, or provided sort of opportunities to show people what they do every day. Because I don’t think that a lot of people know what a local election official or a state election official really does.

My experience, once you’ve had those conversations with people, once you’ve shown them how elections work, they typically feel better about the process. And, you know, it might just be one person who you’ve helped understand the process, but I think if we all continue to do that, I really do think that people are thirsty for facts about elections. They want facts about elections. You know, they might not say that, you know, that you’ve changed their heart and their mind forever. They might not publicly state that, but maybe you have.

Eric Fey: From a faraway observer that wasn’t paying attention to Wisconsin every day, historically speaking, Wisconsin election administration, like, it was always regarded as nonpartisan, above the fray, just doing the day-to-day work of making the donuts, getting the elections run. People had confidence in it, and here comes 2020.

And, like so many other jurisdictions across the country, there’s all this doubt all of a sudden. How did the Wisconsin election deal with that? And, I think you’ve talked a little bit about how you plan to work through that going forward. But, if you’re willing to talk about it, how have you personally dealt with that? Do you have any guidance, suggestions, anecdotes for your colleagues across the country on, you know, kind of how to cope with some of the stuff that really comes out of left or right field?

You know, that’s what’s so hard for me to grasp that this stuff seems to come from nowhere, and boom it hits you: What do you do to get back up on your feet and get yourself and your agency on track to do what you need to do?

Meagan Wolfe: It’s really hard when you know that you did your work with integrity and it’s challenged sort of baselessly. A lot of times I feel like, I can take that, right. Like, I’m the administrator of the elections commission. I’m the chief election official. I guess in some ways that’s kind of what I’m here for, is when people have criticism or when people are upset about something, they want someone to be able to point to. I think navigating that, in a lot of ways, I feel that that’s part of my responsibility, and that’s part of my service to my state.

That being said, I think we’re seeing that that extends beyond to my staff or to the local election officials, and that’s a lot more troubling to me because I think that they have shown- I mean, when I say our election was secure, when I say that our election was accurate, I’m not guessing. I’m not speculating.

We’re not- none of us are speculating or guessing because we canvassed, we recounted, we audited, and all of these things showed us the data, showed us the process. I mean, during the recount, they’re looking at absentee envelopes and reanalyzing whether or not those ballots should have counted. And, so, we can say with confidence that we did our job well.

And, so to see the sacrifices that especially our local election officials made through 2020- there was a story, I think it was on NPR, where they followed a local election official as they were- in Wisconsin- as they were trying to ensure that one of their voters was able to vote. So, they had gotten an absentee ballot, something was wrong, they found-you know, the clerk found the voter. They made sure that they were able to fill it out correctly. They made sure that it made it back in time to be counted. Come hell or high water, they were going to help that voter be able to legally cast that ballot.

It’s remarkable to me what they do. And, so to see that work criticized, I think, is really really difficult, and I don’t have a good solution. I wish I did. All I can come up with is that we have to keep telling our story and keep showing people how it works.

It’s scary to continue to do my job, right? It's scary to continue to tell our story and to show people how elections work, but we have to. We have to. We can’t be intimidated out of telling the truth and out of showing people how elections work.

I don’t know. I recently had a renewed sort of desire to want to continue to show people how elections work, even if that means that I’ll continue to be criticized for it. I think continuing to show people how elections work is the right thing to do. We have an obligation to get good information about elections out there, to get non-partisan information about elections out there, so that as people are trying to navigate this fog of misinformation, they have somewhere to look to understand how elections work.

And, you know, I’ve had 11 years to practice making sure that the information that I provide doesn’t have a perceived sort of spin on it. And, not that I’m perfect, it is a skill I think we’ve all had to develop as election administrators because it’s almost like a mechanic and lifting the hood of the car and showing somebody how something works that is totally unfamiliar with the mechanics of that thing, and then letting them draw the conclusions about what that means for them or their experience as a voter. And to really rise above a lot of the politics that are involved in some of this.

You know, I think, our commission, it’s operated exactly as it was designed by law. By law, every time we have to make a decision, we have to have a public meeting, and six partisan appointees, an even three-three split, they’ve got to come to bipartisan decisions about election administration. I mean, I’m really proud of some of the decisions that they’ve made because there are very few examples of bipartisan election administration and policy being completed these days.

And, so, I think, as there are other models considered for the future, we also have to think about what we might lose in terms of that unique structure, that unique model, and do we want to watch how the decision-making process is done. Do we want to have those sort of bipartisan decisions or is there a different model that’s sort of desired?

Brianna: 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.

Thanks to KBIA for making this podcast possible. Our Managing Editor is Rebecca Smith. Our Managing Producer is Aaron Hay, and our Associate Producers are Abigail Ruhman and Katie Quinn.

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.