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S2E2 - Crisis Management, Part 2: Maricopa County with Stephen Richer

In the second of their two-part exploration on crisis management in local elections, Brianna Lennon and Eric Fey spoke with Stephen Richer from Maricopa County, Arizona. Maricopa County was the national center of attention following the 2020 election for its multiple recounts.

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:

Stephen Richer: It's taking this previously obscure and, I don't know, glorified bean-counting position and removing the curtain and showing a little bit about how it happens and such that people understand that.

High Turnout, Wide Margins Title Card: Franklin D. Roosevelt speaking. “The full and free exercise of our sacred right and duty to vote is more important in the long run than the personal hopes or ambitions of any candidate for any office in the land.”

You’re listening to High Turnout, Wide Margins - an insider’s look at election administration hosted by Brianna Lennon and Eric Fey.

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

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

Lennon: 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. Maricopa County in Arizona has been in an environment of intense scrutiny and had to learn really quickly how to effectively respond and diffuse election misinformation. So today we're talking with our county recorder, Stephen Richer about that experience in his office and his plans for 2022.

Fey: All right, and we always like to ask people, how they got involved in election administration, or how they got to where they are now. So, why don't we start with that?

Richer: I won an election. I won the very election that I've been talking about ever since taking office.

So, I've been tangentially involved in politics for a good number of years. I worked in the policy community for a little while at two different think tanks in Washington, D.C. I liked politics, but I didn't- wasn't sure if I wanted to make it my profession. But what I really liked was more administration and management.

And, so, I got involved in the local Republican Party in Arizona. And, I became familiar with this office, and there were some questions regarding this office and some things that the Republican Party thought could be improved.

And I just thought, 'Wow, this literally looks like something that I would truly enjoy because it's part political, it's part administrative, and it's part legal.' And those combined my three different backgrounds, because I'm a lawyer by training, and I practice mergers and acquisitions at two large law firms for a while. I'm a business person, and so I like administration. And at the end of the day, this is the nuts-and-bolts office where we're supposed to execute the law and hopefully serve the 4.6 million customers of Maricopa County very capably. And then you know, it's inherently political in the sense that, you know, you're elected as a partisan for this position, and then we preside over obviously a political subject matter.

You know, for better or for worse — for better actually, and absolutely, for better, I won the primary in 2020 of August, or August 2020. And then I won the general election in November 2020.

Fey: So to follow up, you're elected in November of 2020. The election in Arizona and Maricopa County, in particular, is contentious, at least the results are immediately contentious. You walk into this operation, not only are you- are you brand new to the people there and kind of how things work, but you have to devise kind of a communication strategy, I assume, kind of on the fly.

Can you take the listeners through what- what your mental steps and physical steps were in trying to formulate a response to what was happening at that point?

Richer: Learn, learn, learn. The first few months, I tried really to learn as much as I possibly could, because I felt that I couldn't be a capable ambassador of this office if I didn't fully understand it. And I don't pretend to fully understand it even now, but I certainly know a heck of a lot more than I did a year and a half ago.

And I think, as you know very well, and as any elections professional knows, this is not a simple operation. A lot has to happen. A lot is built into the process. And so, you know, really talking with as many people within our staff and understanding the 2020 election as best as I possibly could.

For me, writing things down is a very helpful process. And so, I wrote a few reports throughout this time period that helped me fully force myself to learn the process and then be able to articulate it, but it was a – it was a rough transition.

In an ideal world. I was imagining winning on November 3, and you know, COVID would have gone away, and I would have had a wonderful celebration with all my friends and family. And then, I would have, I don't know, taken off on some exotic vacation for two weeks. Well, as it actually happened, on the evening of November 3, I was down something like 85,000 votes, and so you know, I had closure in my life. And I woke up the next morning and went to breakfast with my wife, and I said, 'Well, do I go back to the law firm.'

And, as Brianna can attest, undoubtedly, in all effect, that has its benefits, but it's not necessarily the most fun, not as fun as election administration. And then as more results petered out, I got closer and closer. So, I waited a little bit longer before pulling the decals off my car, and then I got closer and closer. And then I was gonna say, 'Oh my goodness, you know, here we are again. And now it's a real election again."

And I thought, you know what, there was going to be a terrible circumstance in which I was going to have to have the sentiment of losing twice. And that, I was going to, you know, lose on election night, and then come very close to coming back, but not quite get there.

And so, I experimented with a lot of sleep medicines during this time period — I don't recommend that—read a lot of fantasy books. But eventually, I won. But at the same time that I won, and you know, you, you sort of accept the idea that you're going to be stepping into this office was the same time that all of this was starting to become part of the public discourse, and part of the- all the online videos, all the conjecture online.

And so, here I am wrapping my head around the fact that I have to wind up my legal practice, that I have to learn the office, that I have to speak with as many of the 160 some employees as I possibly can, that I have to really dig into- I have to think about who I want to hire, etc., etc., while simultaneously watching all these different videos and different podcasts alleging different things.

And I tried to understand the claims as much as I could, because the people who had elected me, the Republican Party, and especially the grassroots Republican Party, were the very people who were asking a lot of these questions, and were, you know, listening to a lot of the same things that I was listening to. And so, you didn't really know what was what for a few weeks there. And so, when I took office, it was really a learning experience, and then we didn't start to get very vocal until a few months into the office.

Lennon: So, I'm curious – not to cut you off Eric – In the context of everything that was happening, and as you started to realize that Maricopa was going to be the eye of the storm, how did you first start going about crafting what kind of communication you wanted to have coming out of your office?

Did you think about, 'I need to push back on this?' Did you think about 'Let's just see how this plays out?' And what was, kind of, the timeline of those things?

Richer: I think, the elections community, and certainly the elections community of Arizona, which is what I know best, and so what I will speak to, would have appreciated a little notice that we were going to become a really, really, really hot topic, because communication wasn't our bailiwick as an industry necessarily prior to especially about 2018, but certainly prior to 2020. And so, it was something that we had to invent, and it was very challenging for us to get ahead of this as an industry, in that, you know, many of our elections offices throughout the state, barely had a communications person on staff, and now communications has become such an important part of the process.

And so, we were playing catch up a little bit in the 2020 context, and that was unfortunate. In an ideal world, we would have been out there sowing the seeds of positive information, explaining how the process works, such that it wouldn't have been such fertile ground for disinformation when that erupted after the November 2020 election.

Lennon: So, was there a turning point when you decided, you know, 'we really need to push back?' I remember the sense from seeing on Twitter, when your full defensive, everything dropped in it, kind of, you know, shook the elections community because nobody had ever really done this full-throated defense of everything that had happened in this detailed way. What made you do that?

Richer: There were two points in particular that made us rethink the notion that we could quietly get by, just go about our business, and that this storm would just blow over.

The first was in March and was the- the great chicken burning incident of 2021. It was alleged that we had taken ballots from the 2020 election, fed them to chickens, and then incinerated them. This was a real notion that was actually published on a website, and you can still go and find it and I was just, you know, 'Hahaha' sort of thing. But then, people actually subscribe to this notion. And it dawned on me that there was no real limitation as to what people were willing to believe in this 2020 election context.

And I started getting voice messages, text messages, you know. 'Are you shredding ballots?' And I, you know, I- Why on earth would I do that? I wasn't even in there. I have no incentive, not to mention it's unlawful and immoral, but this was just spun out of almost entirely whole cloth to- and taken to the most outlandish ends. And so, that made us start rethinking it.

And then, in May of 2021, when this Cyber Ninjas review of the 2020 election process, had started, an anonymously run Twitter account that was serving as the spokesperson for the Cyber Ninjas review, made an allegation that members of my team had deleted files relating to the 2020 election. And that was just patently untrue, it was immediately falsifiable. We still have every single election file from the 2020 election, we can produce election data from any single day of the November 2020 election.

And at that point, when it's me, it's one thing. You can say in a sense that I signed up for this as being an elected politician. But for the rank-and-file staff who were increasingly subjected to allegations of lawbreaking, it reached a level of seriousness, and it reached a month. And it had an official outlet in that this was sanctioned activity by the Arizona Senate that we thought as a county, it was appropriate time for us to start really pushing back and that this wasn't just going to wither on the vine as we had hoped.

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.

So not that you are out of it now- I mean, things are still ongoing. And, you know, communications have ramped up in a number of ways, but looking back at 2020, 2021, what do you reflect on the most and think that was something that you had done really well? Something that you had needed to improve upon that you're planning to do moving into 2022?

Richer: I think, in our response, we were incredibly thorough. We thought for the importance of history and for posterity, it was important that we researched the main thrust of the allegations, the allegations that were put forward by the Arizona Senate's contractor, and thoroughly respond to those. And we just thought it was important that good information be out there such that if anyone wanted to find out what actually happened, find out the answers, that that would be available. And, I think, we worked really hard to do that.

You know, now we're trying to do more tours. We're trying to do more educational events. We're trying to reach people before the 2022 midterm elections, such that we can develop those relationships, we can develop those understandings.

So again, we're not painting from a blank canvas, but we're giving people an understanding who wished to have it of how elections generally work. And why, when somebody says, 'Well, they just send out ballots willy nilly, and I can yank one out of the post office box, or I can just print one on my own computer paper and send back a sheet of paper that says, I vote for, you know, this candidate,' why that wouldn't corrupt the system, why that wouldn't be problematic.

And so again, has there been good that has come out of this? Yeah. For those who are willing to process it, I think, it's taught everyone in Maricopa County a lot more about the election system. It has certainly taught me a lot more about all the safeguards that are built into it.

And hopefully, people will be more skeptical of claims moving forward knowing that, 'Wait, wouldn't the mandatory hand count audit after the election have caught that?' Or 'wouldn't the pre-election logic and accuracy tests have caught that?' Or 'Doesn't the ballot need to be formatted in a certain way, such that you couldn't just insert any- a random stack of ballots?' Or 'Doesn't every vote have to be tied to a voter registration profile within the system?'

So hopefully, people are more familiar with those questions. Hopefully, people see us increasingly as real human beings whom they've met, such that it's not nefarious, faceless, government bureaucrats as, maybe I- hopefully neither of you have been characterized as ever, but who are real human beings and increasingly, your neighbors, people who participate in this system on a limited basis are a part of. And so, we, you know, we have a real face.

And that's one- another thing that we've been really interested in, is just getting more people involved. Whether it's working as a poll worker or working as a central count tabulator, or observing the process, or coming to one of our events. We feel that that, again, builds up a bulwark against the disinformation that will undoubtedly be out there.

And then, we've been sharpening our communication skills, we have now a robust communications team. That's the team that's grown the most. We're redesigning our website, we've built out our increasingly- our Deputy Registrar program, which is a program of volunteers who are trained in the basics of voter registration and are given other election administration information to go out into the community and to evangelize, if you will, and to offer good information.

So, these are the whole things that hopefully will be successful, and I'm hoping that there's a certain amount of fatigue too, that sets in in 2022 that hopefully, people will think twice about, you know, just making all these allegations that- I don't know if anyone really wants to go down this road again. Hopefully not.

Fey: Well, never say never. But I think I- you really made a great point about putting a human face on- on your office and what you all did. Can you talk a little bit more in detail about how, especially now, you and your office are trying to tell your story and put a human face on what you do?

Richer: Absolutely. It's videos. It's tours. It's Zoom calls. It's going out into the community. I'm very active in going out to speaking engagements. You know, I hate to use it as an excuse, but I think it was the perfect storm in the 2020 elections context, which, you know, wasn't under my administration. But, you know, you had COVID, at the same time, as you had- there was such a heightened need to actually be showing people processes be interacting personally. But, you know, that was exactly when they couldn't be doing that. And so, we're coming out of that environment, and so we hope to be engaging face to face with the community more in the coming months.

Fey: Could you- could you talk a little bit more about the firm, you're bringing on board to develop a communication strategy? I mean, not the firm in particular, but why you did do that, and what do you hope to achieve with it?

Richer: Election administrators are experts in election administration. We're trying to bring some of those communication talents in-house. But the reality is, is that for the vast majority of us, that's not our eight-to-five. Well, certainly, we work longer than eight to five, but that's not our eight-to-five. And so, there are people who are experts in this, and we want to tap into those resources.

And, just as we ask election officials, and just as we asked the general consuming public when they want to know about how elections are administered, please come to us. When you want to be really, really good at communicating a message, hopefully, you know, these people are particularly good at it.

I think another important part has been working with our media contacts, and the media world has become more familiar with elections through all this. And so, they're more readily able to write stories and form stories about this. They're able to debunk some of the wildest allegations right from the get-go because they have become educated in the process. And, importantly, we've developed relationships with both local and national media, who can help us broadcast this message, who, I think, have really learned that we are responsible, reliable purveyors of truth. And they also appreciate just how important it is to the success of the system writ large.

Fey: You know, I still on almost a daily basis, read stories about in someplace in the United States there are these election conspiracy theorists, and, you know, questioning this or that, but I don't think it's obviously not a majority of the people.

In some places. It's a significant minority of- of the citizens and which is concerning. But to what extent do you have to kind of remind yourself of that to go about your daily tasks? Because I'm sure when, at the height of all the Cyber Ninja audit craziness that was going on, it probably felt like the whole world was doubting your- you and your operation and everything that was going on in Maricopa County. But there are still probably a lot of people, obviously, all-around in your jurisdiction that believe in what you do and trust the result, and is it important to remind yourself of that from time to time? I find myself doing that, I guess.

Richer: I encourage all of your listeners to send nice notes to Eric on a regular basis, just to remind him that there are people outside of those who send angry tweets or angry emails, or randomly have your phone number and feel it incumbent upon them to tell you that you should be hung as a traitor.

So yeah, I do think that we academically understand that that is not a reflective sample of the population. But when it is the- you're a victim of your circumstances. And when that's coming in, it is easy to feel that the entire world is against you.

And so, you know, I- somebody out there, a secret friend, organized a postcard campaign, just to write nice things to me. And so, within a two-week span, I probably got 250 postcards that were all handwritten, by mostly women, so maybe the League of Women Voters, from around the country, that we're just saying, 'Hey, we appreciate you- what you're doing. We appreciate you standing up for truth, we appreciate you standing up for democracy.' And so, I think efforts like that, while they might seem superficial, are actually- they were appreciated by me. I'm sure they would be appreciated by other elections officials. There is a sentiment that the industry is under siege, and, you know, for what, for just trying to do our jobs.

And more broadly, I think that the social media environment, and maybe the feedback loop in society, generally has-

You know, think of a restaurant. If they have a comment card box, you're probably only going to use that if you had a very negative experience. And, while that might be helpful to the restaurant, it's probably not indicative of the average consumer's perspective on the restaurant. And so, if you want to help, you know, leave a note. Leave a note saying my voting experience was positive.

And it's probably more effective if you really want to change the process because of saying- You know, in Toastmasters, the speaking organization, they teach people to give constructive feedback by first saying, 'Oh, here's two things I thought you did really well. And here's two things that I thought you can improve.'

And I think that you, you afford yourself purchase with the listener, if you are willing to show that, you know, you're approaching this thing rationally. If it's just, you know, well, I think you should burn down your restaurant. And I think you should never work again because you're an incompetent buffoon. Like, you know, that's probably not a viable option for the restaurateur, and is probably not terribly digestible and probably wouldn't lead to him making sure that he has appropriately stocked ketchup bottles on the table, which was your real concern.

You know, and I think, throughout all of this is that you have to remind yourself that we are in the fortunate position where we really can walk away anytime. Anyone on my team can walk away at any time. And so, you know, I think you have to continue to do what is right. You have to continue to do what is moral. You have to continue to do what, what, what you are you're personally comfortable with. And, if it ever gets to be too much, then you know, at least you have comported yourself well, and that's ultimately the thing you're responsible for. And if we have created a system in which people don't want to work in a democracy, well then shame on us. But we can't control all those things. We can just control what we do.

Fey: Okay, 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 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.