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S2E4 - Tale of Two Election Jurisdictions, Part 1: East St. Louis Board of Elections with Kandrise Mosby and Joe Lewis

In the first of a two-part exploration, hosts Brianna Lennon and Eric Fey take a look at resource allocation and how that differs between cities of different sizes. In this episode, they speak with Kandrise Mosby and Joe Lewis with the East St. Louis Board of Elections about funding and how elections that feel like family reunions can overcome challenges and obstacles.

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: So we're here at the East St. Louis Board of Elections. Eric Fey, with my co host, Brianna Lennon. We're really extremely excited to have Kandrise Mosby and Joe Lewis, from the East St. Louis Board of Elections, as our guests today. We want to learn everything about East St. Louis, and how elections run over here and about you guys and how you got into it.

Brianna Lennon: One of the big differences, I think, is the size of the voting population. It's one of the reasons we wanted to talk to East St. Louis, because it's not something that we have direct experience with. We're really interested in hearing the challenges and the issues that you have to handle. But also, you're in a different state from us as well, which we don't have an opportunity to talk to neighboring states as much. I'd like to touch on as much of that as we can. Also, the funding mechanisms, because in Missouri, we're all county funded. That seems to be generally the case. But I don't know how elections are funded in Illinois and so I would like to learn that too. First, we always ask about the actual people that were interviewing. So, you want to talk a little bit about how you ended up working in elections. I don't know who wants to go first.

Kandrise Mosby: I am Kandrise Mosby. The Executive Director here of the East St. Louis. Election Board. Started here in 1992 and have been here ever since. I started as a temporary employee. I went to the University of Illinois, after leaving the university, I majored in Political Science. I was, of course, looking for work. Then there was an opportunity that Mr. James Lewis, the former Executive Director, gave me. I started as a temporary employee, helping out doing administrative work, coding, the voter registration applications, and you know, just those things. And then an opportunity came where one of the staff persons retired. I started full time and started as an election specialist. After that became the Assistant Executive Director. And then Mr. Lewis retired. I've been in this position since 2014.

Brianna Lennon: What keeps you here? Why do you keep working in elections?

Kandrise Mosby: I like what I do. I like serving people. As a little girl, I'm an only child for one. As a little girl, my mother always kept me active in quite a bit of organizations, candy striper at the hospital. I've always served at church usher, choir. I've always been in a position to serve people. With that, as a little girl, it's always stuck with me. That is what I truly enjoy, here at the election board. Because sometimes, it's not even a matter of helping someone in election matters. But whatever that person needs, I try my best. We're like a family here. There's four of us. We try our best to help the citizens here in whatever manner they need. That's what I truly love about this job. It is so fulfilling when you can help someone and then they remember that. And it can be years later and they will come in. You may not remember them, but they remember you because of what you help them with. So that is what's fulfilling to me,

Joe Lewis Jr.: My name is Joe Lewis Jr. and I have been here about five, six years. I am Deputy Director of the Board of Elections. I come with a little bit of knowledge of elections because my uncle, James Lewis, was the prior director. So, I step in as Assistant Deputy Director. It has been a learning experience for me, the staff is very well knowledged. So much of what I do is to help on every aspect throughout our city, and throughout our staff. One of the things that I love about the position is that virtually everyone that comes in, we know. We have seen their voting history. We have been able to help them, their kids, their mothers, their fathers, and that is so gratifying. Some may not look toward elections. We look at it as almost a family reunion, in that we have so much interaction with our citizens, those that are elected, those that are seeking election. It's long days, long nights, and weekends. But when you look at elections, from our standpoint, I think we look at it just a little bit differently. Just because we have so much interaction throughout our lives with those that actually come and vote.

Eric Fey: I really love that, how you describe elections as kind of a family reunion. East St. Louis is population wise, relatively small. You said about 16,000 voters.

Kandrise Mosby: The population after this last census has actually decreased to like 18,000. Our total registered voter count is at 16,000. However, we have not had our purging, our canvass. I'm sure that number will go down.

Eric Fey: Decrease somewhat.

Kandrise Mosby: Exactly.

Eric Fey: It's an intimate setting where you all know, like you said, a lot of the people. Now of course, people listening to this may have heard of East St. Louis. They may have some conceptions about East St. Louis. Would you all share with whoever's listening to this, a little bit about East St. Louis. What would you like for people to know about East St. Louis? It's a very historic community. A lot of famous people have come from East St. Louis. And like you said, elections here are kind of like a family reunion. What else would you like people to know?

Kandrise Mosby: The city in general is like a family reunion. The mayors's motto is we are the city of champions. And I like it, because when you think about it, we are. I mean, like you just stated. There are a lot of famous people, I don't know if that's the word we should use or celebrities that come out of East St. Louis. Jackie Joyner Kersee. Her brother, Al Joiner. You know, Miles Davis. They have refurbished his home, his childhood home. Beautiful. People are able to go there and see some of the artifacts and just to browse the home. There's just a lot here in the city that is, like you said, it's just a lot of history. I'll have Mr. Lewis to talk about it a little more, because he's a little more familiar and knowledgeable on that.

Joe Lewis Jr.: I think that easily we get to speak on the positive aspects of the city. Depending on if you listen to the media, every now and then we have more of a slant on the negative side. I almost think that is media. On the positive side, I think it's a jewel, and not only the state, but I also say, a jewel in the United States. When I always describe East St. Louis, I say it's a combination of heaven and Wakanda. Just because of the things that we have experienced here. I like the analogy of family reunion toward election time. Because so many get to interact with so many. Sometimes when you have family reunions, it's a good time. Sometimes you have reunions during a funeral. I kind of think of our elections as more of the good time. We get to really reflect not only what has been done, maybe what should be done. That is always interaction with the two that are running on what could be done better, and what has not been done. We just somewhat sit back and listen and help voters.

Kandrise Mosby: Right. And I just want to add with that, because of the negative publicity that the city gets. I always, even when we have our judges of election training, I always tell our judges that everything that we do from this office is in a spirit of excellence. They represent this office when they're at the polls on election day, and I tell the staff that all the time. He knows that I tell the staff that all the time. We may not get it right, each and every time but anytime that you do anything in a spirit of excellence. Then, that's your best. That's all that we ask of anyone, is their best.

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. I'm looking at your memo, dates of importance for your upcoming election. There's extended hours, there's extended early voting hours. Those are all things we don't have in Missouri. We don't have early voting, we have absentee voting, it's very limited. But you're asked to do a lot with very little. Can you speak to how you pull these off, when you're looking at, you know, I'm looking at six different Saturday's of early voting hours. And making sure that the election day also happens and all of the voter registration and everything else. What kind of budget do you have to do all of this with?

Joe Lewis Jr: Tight budget.

Kandrise Mosby: It's tight, but you manage what you're handed. We try to do our best with what we're handed. The hours that you see on our dates of importance. Those extended Saturday hours, that's in our election code. So before the last day of registration, you have to be open four Saturday's prior to the last day of voter registration. So those hours are mandated by law from the state election code. Then actually, those extended early voting hours are pretty much mandated as well from the election code. So have to do what you got in, the hours, because of our population here in the city. Our hours are not mandatory. We were like a temporary early voting site. We don't have a vote center here in the in the city, but our office here is considered our vote center. Because anyone in the city can come to our office and early vote. That's pretty much what those vote centers entail. So because of the size, we're not mandated to have a vote center. But our office is open to any citizen in the city to come and early vote.

Brianna Lennon: When you know you've got a big expense, like let's say you need to buy new voting equipment, or you need to replace something that has broken that's really expensive. What's the process for getting that into your budget? Do you just buy it and then do a warranty? Do you have to notify all of the people that are funding things that you're expecting to make a large purchase in the future?

Kandrise Mosby: We really haven't had a large cost. The equipment. we have election systems and software provides our equipment, which are thee M 100 machines and the AutoMARK machine. We purchased those in 2006 and that was with HAVA funds. I'm sure you guys are familiar with the HAVA funds. So that was like the last time that we had a major purchase like that. Also the Illinois State Board Board of Election, they have grants that they provide. We submit the paperwork for those grants for our needs, like the maintenance of our voter registration database. We submit the paperwork for grants, and then we are reimbursed. We have to pay those in advance, then we submit the paperwork along with any documentation that we have, copies of checks and things like that to the state board, and then they reimburse us for those expenses. So, like I said, the major expenses that we had were our equipment, which we are in need of more equipment. Like I stated, we purchased that in 2006. Now, we have our maintenance, our annual maintenance on that equipment. It's been hanging in there. We had a little hiccup, the last election where for some reason, we kept getting calls from our judges, "Hey, this machine is not working." And I'm like what is going on? I may have even called you Eric, I'm not even for sure. We managed to call Madison County. They were so helpful. I had one of the police officers drive me there. We got to Madison County, he provided us with four machines. That is another aspect that I love about this job. Forming relationships with individuals that can assist you. It's all about servanthood. It is all about servanthood here in the city of East St. Louis for us. Even though we are a small community, it is so gratifying to be able to help people. That's what we look forward to every day that we come into this office. Helping people. That's what we do.

Joe Lewis Jr: We had some challenges last election that we had not had. Even the judges, as you heard, the director say, Miss Kandrise, when we had issues with our machines voting did not stop. That I think is the best part about how everyone is trained. The contingencies that we have in place. You almost say, well, if there's no electricity, how can voting keep going? Well, we have contingencies for that. It was not a power outage, we just had equipment that went down. All of our safeguards, even having it updated and serviced right before the election, still went down. What did we do in that situation? We still allow voters to continue to vote.

Kandrise Mosby: Absolutely.

Joe Lewis Jr.: That's one of the benefits, I think that the outside community may never see. But the inside community, those that are part of, as we said earlier, the family reunion saw the efforts that were taking place. That's one of the things I think that you can't put a price tag on. You can't say, well, other than just thank you and we'll see you guys tomorrow.

Brianna Lennon: I'm stuck on resource allocation. If COVID wasn't a factor, I know that there were operational changes that have to happen when COVID and things like that. But if somebody were to come to you and say, I'm gonna give you a million dollars. What would you change? Right now? Do you have a wish list of things that you would want to do?

Kandrise Mosby: Equipment would be the first thing that we would purchase. That's it. I mean, of course, there will be other things. But that would be the first thing that we would look into purchasing new equipment. Technology is advancing. Equipment is changing daily. Our equipment is old and has gotten us thus far. We appreciate it and it will have to continue to get us where we need to be. However, yeah, voting equipment would definitely be the first purchase that we would use those funds for.

Eric Fey: I think that's interesting, because people have heard, Congress has tried to allocate money. Certainly in Missouri, that money hasn't flowed down to the counties to a great degree. Has that also kind of been the case in Illinois? I mean, I think some people might be surprised to know, these Congress people think they're allocating millions of dollars for this kind of thing and it's not here in East St. Louis.

Kandrise Mosby: There are some jurisdictions that are able to purchase equipment based off of the funding that they receive from their counties. Some counties are doing much better than others, but here in the city of East St. Louis, we do what we can with what we have.

Joe Lewis Jr.: We are not the counties that receive the funding that are able to buy and purchase new equipment. We are able to have our equipment serviced. And for the most part, it's worked out fine. The last election where we had two machines that went down completely. That has never happened that I can remember. But we were able to go a few miles over and get four machines, that we were able to immediately have the two that went down replaced. Then we had two as a backup to get us through just in case we had that go down. I think that the wish list, we know exactly what we would do. It wouldn't really affect the voters as much as it would the flow of our office with how we're able to just get some things done. Instead of it taking a 10 hour day, maybe we could get in an eight hour day, or something like that. As it relates to the voters, I think they would still be serviced the same way. The best thing that we had, that we purchased, I think, was the ink pen disinfectants.

Kandrise Mosby: The voters thought so.

Joe Lewis Jr.: Well, even today, if you go into places, they're still wiping down individual pins. That was one of the best investments we made. Where they just slide through and you just put them in and you don't have to wipe them down. It does it basically.

Kandrise Mosby: They thought it was the best thing.

Joe Lewis Jr.: It really helped. It's the interaction that we really enjoy. That's what I think makes the long hours not as bad. But you know, you have that one or two voters that it doesn't matter. Oh, my goodness. They are just unhappy with having to come up on an elevator or it's always a challenge. Then we had some voters that wanted to come in and vote that had COVID. That actually had it then.

Kandrise Mosby: And people don't. All they want to do is just vote . They don't see, like, here you go. You keep the pen.

Joe Lewis Jr.: All of this is yours to have. Compliments of the state. We just need back the ballot. You almost want to to say, this is an excellent opportunity for you to have used absentee or the mail. Plain and simple. But they were on the premises.

Kandrise Mosby: Don't come into the office. We took everything out to their car.

Joe Lewis Jr.: We did. We could have had hazmat suits. Yeah. That would be another thing in the budget.

Eric Fey: We've heard that from people all across the country. Election officials that really in many cases put their own health at risk to help the voters vote. That's been the same all across the country, the dedication people have to this profession.

Joe Lewis Jr.: What happens in the course of a busy day, in the course of a busy election, you somewhat forget those individual challenges. Because the day in some respects is a challenge. But the individual challenges are sometimes even more of a challenge. Then you look at all of those that could have been affected from your family to your friends. You almost say that hazmat suit may need to be more of a priority. It goes back to how we started the conversation with truly enjoying what we do. And trying to obtain a commitment of excellence every day for every thing that we do. I think it shows with our voters, and I think it shows throughout the state because we are truly proud of our office and how we operate it.

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.