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S2E3 - The US Alliance for Election Excellence with Whitney May

In this episode, hosts Brianna Lennon and Eric Fey speak with Whitney May, the Director of Government Services at the Center for Tech and Civic Life about the recently announced US Alliance for Election Excellence. This is a “nonpartisan collaborative of election officials, technologists, designers and other experts, working across all 50 states to improve the performance of systems serving 240 million voters.”

You can learn more about the US Alliance for Election Excellence by listening to the TED Talk, “An election redesign to restore trust in US democracy” given by Tiana Epps-Johnson, the founder and executive director of the Center for Tech and Civic Life


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:

Brianna Lennon: Today we are talking to the co-founder and director of government services with Center for Tech and Civic Life, Whitney May. We're really excited to delve into the new US Alliance for Election Excellence, and see how local election officials can benefit from this new program and learn a little bit more about it. So thank you very much, Whitney for coming on the show. First, we always ask our first question of our guests is, can you tell us a little bit about your role at the Center for Tech and Civic Life and with the Alliance and also how you got into elections in the first place?

Whitney May: Yeah, thanks for having me, Brianna, and Eric, so excited to be here. I got pulled into election administration in 2007. At that point in my life, I was living in North Carolina. I was working on a goat farm, milking goats, making cheese and was living in Durham County. The goat farm was a couple counties over in Chatham County. As you might guess, income as a farmer is not the greatest, it's very rewarding work, but doesn't pay a lot. So there was a job opening at the local board of elections, the Durham County Board of Elections. The responsibilities were like two hats. So it was a job where the person was responsible for managing the department's budget and managing poll workers. At that point in my life, I had a college degree in business administration. So I was like, I can manage the budget. At that point, I had been working on the goat farm for a number of years, getting 60 goats in and out of a milking parlor twice a day. And I was like, I can manage poll workers. This was like a really good job. Honestly, like this was a good job, for me a good paying job, I had insurance. I was excited about it. Excited about working in my community, getting to help my neighbors. I applied and got that job that was 2007 and caught the bug. So that was like North Carolina in 2007, you can imagine was like a really exciting place to be in election administration. Lots of adrenaline, and so I caught the bug in 2007, haven't turned back. Now my role at the Center for Tech and Civic Life as the director of government services really reflects on my experience at the local level, working in Durham County. And thinking about ways that we can support local election officials with tools, training, best practices, so they can better serve voters in their community. That's what I get to do every day at CTCL when I've got a great team that supports that work.

Eric Fey: So what knew what was more difficult herding goats or herding poll workers?

Whitney May: I think poll workers, for sure. When I think about elections, and I think this is probably true, with other fields as well, like the human element is the hardest part. We are complicated. We're like the most complicated creatures. What motivates us, how we learn. It's just complicated. And so I think goats are a lot more straightforward then we are.

Brianna Lennon: I did want to talk a little bit about one of the things that I know that you have worked on specifically is supporting local election authorities in trying to do things like recruiting, retaining training poll workers, and the new Alliance for Elections Excellence. Does some of that build on the work that you have already been doing? Or is this a brand new type of thing that is born out of a different need that you've found?

Whitney May: So when I think about the Alliance, to me, it is a natural evolution and a natural expansion of CTCL's work. When you look at the origins of our organization, I think we've been consistent over the years. And continue to be consistent through our vision of the Alliance. Two things come to mind for me and that I want to think about the consistency in our approach. The first one is from the beginning. We've always centered election officials. How can we support election officials especially at the local level, with tools training, best practices. In 2020, it was funding.

So, really thinking about how are we listening to election officials, listening to what they need, and seeing in what ways that we could address those needs and fill gaps. We've done that from the beginning, we continue to do that. I think the other thing that comes to mind for me with our approach and how we've been consistent, and how the Alliance is an extension of that is how we do the work. We do that in deep collaboration with partners and experts. What comes to mind is our partnership with the Center for Civic design, some of our favorite partners. I affectionately call the other Whitney. And so when I look back, our very first partnership, was working with CCD. Thinking about how we could take their field guide number seven, which was really beautiful research on how to design an election department website, how we can take that, sort of operationalize it, bake it into a website template.

So, when the election department, regardless of the technology that they had, and house could easily take this template plug and play and have a mobile friendly, voter facing website. That was like 2000. And no, when was that? In 2013 2014? When we started to like think through ways that we could lean on partners and other people's expertise in the field. And collaborate in a way that together, produces something really rich and really useful for election officials. And so fast forward to the Alliance. Our vision is to continue to bring together really smart people in a nonpartisan collaborative, alongside election officials, to think about ways that we can improve the voter experience. Because ultimately, this is about how election officials and teams of election officials in your departments are better serving voters.

Brianna Lennon: So really briefly, just because I don't think that we went into this, but the US Alliance for Election Excellence, it's more than just the Center for Tech and Civic Life. You mentioned it's the Center for Civic design. It's also the Center for Secure and Modern Elections. The elections group, which is full of former election officials. It's people that have done the work before. The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, the prototyping systems lab at UC Davis and US Digital Response. This really does go all across the board and tries to -Is it fair to say that it tries to kind of leverage all of the work that these organizations have been doing for the benefit of local election offices? And through that the voting experience?

Whitney May: That's right, that's right. So the idea here is that we have designers, technologist, policy experts, former election officials, training professionals all coming together to work alongside election officials to sort of level up their skills, level of competencies, all pointing towards an improved voter experience. I mentioned CCD is one of the partners, I think, when folks thinking about CCD, or at least when I think about CCD, it's like the gold standard for design in elections here in the US. So thinking about ballot design, form design, envelope design. Our partners at US digital response, are awesome in supporting government and local election departments specifically thinking about technology solutions for maybe administrative tasks that are repetitive and like looking at ways to automate things that might be taking up a lot of election administrators time. One example that was their poll worker management tool that they built in 2020. And continue to deploy to election departments across the country.

Eric Fey: So Whitney, what is this thing the Alliance? Actually I mean, it if one looks at the website that looks like a local election office would apply. To be what is it called the Center for Election Excellence. I mean, the Alliance sounds like it's from Star Wars. So if an election office signs up is there some rebel base you go to, to learn, get training on how to be a great election officer something.

Whitney May: So the vision is in the first phase of this five year strategy, we'll be inviting election departments to become Centers for Election Excellence. So that's what you see when you visit the website. The idea is that we'll have a cohort of let's say, 10, to 15 centers, who are diverse and representative of the universe of election departments in the US. Diverse in the sense of geography, in the sense of size, diverse, along a dimension of structure. Is the election official appointed? Are they elected? Does the election department have other responsibilities like a clerk or an auditor? Or are they just focused on elections like a supervisor in Florida? So thinking about a nice mix of departments in this first cohort of centers. And the idea here is, the Alliance partners will work with these 10 to 15 centers over a two year engagement period. Thinking about what's possible, really like a blue sky approach to setting goals for the election department, looking at what are the blockers to achieving those goals, and tapping in resources to make sure that these election departments can overcome those challenges. The idea here is that when we've got this diverse cohort, any election department in the country should be able to look at a center and find, like a colleague, department, someone that they have a lot in common with that they could look to to be like, if they could do it there, then like we could do it in our office. That's really how we see over the long term, the possibility of scaling. If we're able to find a solution, a technology solution, for example, a piece of software that works across these 10 to 15, diverse offices, then the hypothesis is that it could work really anywhere. Right? If this intervention, this improvement that we make, that is successful across these 10 to 15, diverse election departments, that in theory, it could really scale to any election department. That's sort of the vision of like bringing these 10 to 15 departments together, that's a diverse cohort, engaging with them over a two year period, providing support from expert partners, providing funding, if folks need funding. To really envision what's possible. What is possible when an election department has the support that they need to serve their community? And how can we scale that beyond just these 10 to 15 centers?

Eric Fey: This, to me seems like a very unique idea. I'm wondering if the inspiration for it came from some other sector, private or public? Or is it kind of a first time thing?

Whitney May: That's a good question. I mean, part of this, Eric came from our experience and reflecting on the work that we did in 2020. If you recall, 2020 was wild. This was the presidential election colliding with a pandemic. What we saw were heroic efforts from so many Americans coming off the sidelines to be poll workers for the first time. From election officials making sure that voters didn't have to choose between their health and safety and casting a ballot in the presidential election. Corporations and other nonprofits stepping up and contributing in whatever way they could to keep people safe, so they could cast their ballot in November. I'm really proud of all the work that happened in 2020 to make that possible. I think everyone should be really proud of that. One of the lessons that we took away from that was, we provided the funds to election departments in the election department that applied. That was verified as legitimate, receive funding from us to administer safe, secure elections in their community. A handful of election departments also received technical assistance from us and some of our partners. What we heard was like that was a huge help, like funding is funding only get you like so far? What I think we heard from folks is they're really hungry for being connected to other election officials. So having this learning community and being connected to other experts outside of election administration. There's just this huge appetite for that. The Alliance is really sort of a response to what we heard from election officials based on the experience in 2020. I'm not sure if it's been tried in other industries? I think that's a great question. But it's certainly like something that came out of our experience in 2020. And again, what we heard election officials were hungry for moving forward.

Eric Fey: Whitney I would like to get into what might be the potentially controversial aspect of this program. You all, pretty much address it up front on your website. I mean, in the in the FAQ section, there's one there that says, "What if an election office receives backlash by participating in this program, what support can the Alliance provide?" I assume that's prompted by the backlash following the grants that CTCL gave to election offices in 2020.

Eric Fey: Yeah, so there, there may be some reticence amongst some election administrators to sign on with this new US center for Election Excellence. Because the Center for Tech and Civic Life is a big part of it. And CTCL - Center for Tech and Civic Life, administered this very large grant from the Zuckerbergs in 2020. And that grant became controversial in a number of places across the country. So out of an abundance of caution or wanting to just avoid you know, any more controversy or questions. There may be some election ministers that avoided altogether.

Brianna Lennon: The increasing amount of politicization of elections administration, a lot of it can be tied to when election administrators started taking grant money. In 2020, there was a huge need for resources. Because we didn't have PPE, we didn't have the basics that we needed to run an election with the increased cost of having to prepare for COVID. The organizations that had the ability to step in one of them was CTCL. There were some others that provided resources and grant money to both Secretary State offices and local election administrators. It allowed us all to be able to pay for the things that we needed to do to make the election function. But as a result of it in the ensuing 2020 controversy, they became kind of wrapped up as collateral damage. They continue to put out good information. I mean, a lot of the organizations within the Alliance are still putting out really helpful primers on cybersecurity and on navigating social media and all kinds of really useful things. They're stepping now into this role of trying to provide support systems from direct feedback they've gotten from local election administrators. So well, it might still be seen as controversial if you don't know all of the details of the work that's being done and the benefits that a lot of our offices have had from them. It can kind of be a shadow over what's happening so that I guess it's kind of why.

Eric Fey: And in various state legislatures across the country, those type of grants are being banned, and in the future, in kind supports being being prohibited in the future. public information requests of election departments about the CTCL grants have have been common throughout the country. So in addition to what's on the website, how do folks at the Alliance respond to the concerns of election administrators that go something like, "Boy, this sounds like a really good program? I my office could really benefit from it. But I don't know if I want all the other stuff for lack of a better term that might come along with it." What do you say to that?

Whitney May: Unfortunately, we are in a moment in US history where election officials are under attack for simply doing their job. What I've observed is, regardless of whether or not an election department is engaged with CTCL, or other nonprofits, the field is under attack. Our response to that is an alternative path forward to say, when you're under attack, how can we support election officials, and that is building a community that encourages and celebrates hard work, rather than vilifying it. That's sort of the ethos of the Alliance, we are coming together as a community to say this is what we stand for. We have each other's back no matter what comes next. I just know, it sucks. It just sucks. The moment we're in. Our responses to say we're sticking together, we have each other's back. This work is important. And we will continue to support it and each other. SO when I think about the some of the support that we can offer election departments who are centers, I think about comms training. So sort of press releases that we can provide, ways that they might combat misleading information about the Alliance, specifically. Security resources that we can provide digital and physical security resources. Those are kind of the ways that we could imagine the center specifically getting support from us if they anticipate backlash in their communities.

Brianna Lennon: You don't necessarily have to answer this question, but I'm just curious, given the groups that are involved. They're not ones that you would traditionally think, not all of them would be elections focused. Design departments of union or cities are not what I would first think of being interested in helping out with elections. How and why, if you know, did some of these organizations decide to get involved in the Alliance? And kind of commit their talent and resources to this project?

Whitney May:Yeah, when I look at the, so for example, the prototyping systems lab at UC Davis, the D school at Stanford. I think, in a post 2020 world, we have folks from all different sectors coming off the sidelines, who want to help. My hunch is that designers and like systems thinkers, can really get engaged with any challenge, right? In the industry, a design thinker can come in and start to like, map things out, test assumptions, brainstorm solutions, go into a prototyping phase iterate. I wasn't surprised to see, these two specific organizations indicate that they're interested in continuing this work.

Brianna Lennon: I mean, is there anything that we missed that you want us to make sure it gets covered?

Whitney May: I want every election department to know that they are invited to join the Alliance. There's an opportunity to be a center. In addition to that, there's an opportunity to test drive some of the resources that get developed in collaboration with the centers. To offer advice, offer your expertise, be part of this learning community as we grow, to speak on the record about your experience, your challenges, whether that's related to operations or funding. And also offer notes of gratitude. So I just would encourage every election department to visit election excellence.org and explore ways that you can get involved with the Alliance. American democracy is a group project. We want you on our team.

Brianna Lennon: 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.