Summary

  • WHAT: Washington Foreign Press Center On Deep Background Briefing

  • WHEN: Tuesday, February 25, 2020, at 11:00 a.m.

  • WHERE: National Press Building, 529 14th Street, NW, Suite 800

THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.

MODERATOR:  All right.  Good morning.  Welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center.  I’m [Moderator].  We’re very pleased to have you and our special guests here for our briefing entitled “Tips for Access to State Election Officials and Polling Locations.”  So this is really more of a technical briefing and – but rather than do it off the record, we decided to do it on deep background, so let me read those ground rules for you.

The speakers cannot be quoted or identified in any manner, not even as an unnamed source.  The information is usually couched in such phrases as “It is understood that” or “It has been learned.”  The information may be used in the reporting to help present or gain a better understanding of the subject, but the knowledge is that of the reporter, not the source.  So it’s kind of like when the New York Times says “The Times has learned that blah-blah-blah-blah-blah.”  And that’s – yes, those are the ground rules.  And just want to remind you that non-government guests invited to address FPC member journalists offer their views in a personal or organizational capacity and do not represent the official policy views of the U.S. Government.

So as many of you know, elections in the U.S. are largely decentralized.  Secretaries of State or State Boards of Elections oversee elections in each of the states of the U.S., and they coordinate with county governments or towns that independently conduct our elections.

(The speakers were introduced.)

With that, I’ll turn it over to each of you for a brief opening and then we’ll take it from there.

ANSWER:  Sure.  Do you want me to go first?

ANSWER:  Yeah.

ANSWER:  Is this on?  Even though I can speak loudly enough.  So as [Moderator] said, I am [Speaker].  I’ve been doing this job for 20 years this year.  So we are a nonpartisan organization made up of bipartisan officials.  So 40 of my members are their state’s chief election official.  Secretaries of State have a different job description in pretty much every state, so while some of them share responsibilities, many of them have unique, weird job responsibilities as well.  They cover elections, they cover registering corporations and businesses in their state, they handle state archives.  The term “secretary,” sort of going back in time in the U.S., is a term for a record keeper.  And so basically, the Secretaries of State are the chief record keepers for their states.  So they’re the filing cabinet for a lot of the processes that happen in a state – so state archiving, business services, elections, securities regulation.

Basically what we do as an organization is we help to facilitate communication between the secretaries.  They share practices between one another.  We have a couple of conferences every year where we bring the secretaries together and they share best practices.  We bring members of Congress and congressional staff to come and talk about federal legislation that may be impacting the states, and we spend a lot of time sharing information with Congress and federal agencies about what the states are doing in relation to some of the issues under their jurisdiction.

The – as you well know, I’m sure, the elections process in the United States is very decentralized.  And so state and local election officials have the majority of responsibility when it comes to administering elections.  The federal government has really a very small role.  And so we spend a lot of time trying to maintain that decentralized nature by promoting what the states and localities are doing so that we don’t get a lot of federal pushback.

So [Speaker], you want to (inaudible)?

ANSWER:  Thank you guys for being here and for having us.  [The organization] serves, like [Speaker], as a professional association for state election directors.  So in the 40 states where the secretary of state is the chief election official, my member reports to the secretary of state.  In the other 16 states and territories, my member is the chief election official.  And election directors are really focused on implementing policies, implementing technologies, training local election officials, things like that.  And so they’re sort of focused less on the – what the policy is and sort of how to make it happen.

I think [Speaker] gave a really good sort of summary, but the thing I’ll say is that election directors are all elections, all the time.  So we also do two conferences a year.  We co-locate with [organization] very frequently because there is so much sort of overlap, but we do all elections, all the time, which can be both a blessing and a curse in a year like 2020.  The thing I’ll add about, sort of, elections being highly decentralized – and [Moderator] mentioned this also – is that in some states, elections are run at the county level, and then there’s about 12 or 13 states where they’re administered at the township level.  So my favorite example of that is Wisconsin, where they have 1,853 townships which are all individual election jurisdictions, and then the counties also have some responsibilities also, so it winds up being over 1,900.

And so that’s an important thing to keep in mind because elections vary from state to state, they vary pretty widely from state to state, but also when you think about how many local election jurisdictions there are, I think the sort of scale and challenges of election administration and election security really become clear.  In a lot of states, the state can advise local election officials on best practices or sort of good ideas, or we recommend you do things this way, but there’s not a lot of ability to require local election officials to do things a certain way.

So there are 56 states and territories, but there’s between 8,000 and 10,000 local election jurisdictions, and all of them at the state level are sort of governed by the same state laws but maybe do things a little bit differently.  And I think that’s an important thing for you to remember as you’re covering elections:  it’s that not only are things different from state to state, but you’re going to see things implemented a little bit differently from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

So I think I’ll probably stop there.

MODERATOR:  Okay, great.  So I wonder if you guys would like to just give a little bit of kind of Elections 101 information on maybe what happens on, say, a primary Election Day or a general Election Day.  Kind of – what’s the flow of work or – and how does the state – how do the states and the counties communicate and get the results and so forth.  That might be interesting.

ANSWER:  Sure.

ANSWER:  Do you want to start?

ANSWER:  Yeah.  So basically, when we think about elections, we think about pre-election processes, Election Day processes, and post-election processes.  We break it up that way.  Pre-election processes are voter registration, whether it’s online voter registration or automatic voter registration.  There’s a multitude of different ways that people can register to vote in the states, and it’s not the same in every state.  There’s the preparation of the poll books for when you’re checking in voters on Election Day.  There’s poll worker recruitment and poll worker training, which is a huge and challenging issue in the United States.  It’s very difficult for the jurisdictions to get all the poll workers that they need, and that’s something that we hope to help to educate and get the general public more involved in.

Then when you have – and you also have early voting pre-Election Day, so there are a number of states that allow for “no-excuse” absentee voting, vote by mail, and in-person early voting.  Those are sort of the processes that take place prior to Election Day.  Then on Election Day you have poll workers who need to show up at their polling place, who need to set up the equipment and set up the room so that the vote – and that usually is about 4:30, 5 o’clock in the morning, because a lot of polls will open between 6:00 and 7:00 a.m. around the country.  And then you have those same poll workers in there all day processing voters as they come through.  They check them in, they give them their correct ballot, they help them to process the ballot through the tabulators, and then they address any issues that come up – somebody’s not on the voter registration, not on the poll book; somebody has messed up their ballot and they need a new one.  There’s a host of various issues, and the local jurisdictions work very closely with the poll workers on Election Day to help address any issues.

Post-election, you have processing of ballots, you have processing of any provisional ballots.  Somebody shows up at the polling place and they’re not on the voter registration list, they can vote a provisional ballot that will then be verified later with databases and other information at the state and local level to ensure that they should have been on the list and they just weren’t.  And so you have the provisional ballot processing, you have the certification that takes place at the local level and the certification that takes place at the state level, you have post-election audit processes.  And so all of those things – it’s – people think that election officials work on one day a year, and it’s really a very long and drawn-out process.

ANSWER:  I’ll add that on Election Day things go wrong – and it’s not a cyber incident, it’s not evidence of some, like, widespread conspiracy or problem.  This – elections are sort of at heart a people process, and things happen.  So every Election Day, for example, we see poll workers oversleep, and if they oversleep, then they don’t open the polls on time and then there’s a line, maybe, or whatever.  That happens.  Every Election Day, we see cars drive into polling places because apparently people drive into buildings all the time, right?  (Laughter.)  And it happens – it happens to happen on Election Day.  When it rains, like today, paper swells, and when you’re working with old technology, sometimes swollen ballots don’t go through the scanner as neatly as they’re supposed to, and things jam.  None of these things are evidence of, like, a wide-scale problem.  These are just problems that happen.  And so every election official that you talk to will say yeah, sometimes just, like, things go wrong.  And so that’s an important thing to keep in mind also when you’re sort of looking at coverage coming out of primary elections or general elections is that, like, people processes are subject to people mistakes, and that’s a thing.

The other thing I’ll add to what [Speaker] said about certification of election results, so the results that are reported on Election Night and that the Associated Press and other outlets use to call winners and losers, those are not official results.  Those are based on what is being tabulated that day.  And in states that have a lot of vote-by-mail – so California is a good one where they have a significant percentage of their ballots are vote-by-mail, and then their state law allows for ballots that are postmarked on Election Day to be received up to three days after.  So if it gets the stamp on Election Day and then is received a couple days later, that – those ballots can still be counted.  But there are millions and millions and millions of vote-by-mail ballots to be counted in California, and so that’s why you see the numbers change so much.

And so it’s just – it’s an important thing to keep in mind when you’re covering elections – is that the results on Election Night both are unofficial, but also are…we expect them to keep changing.  And depending on the state, we potentially expect them to keep changing a lot because of things like postmark deadlines and things like that.  So–

ANSWER:  I will say, too, that the – there’s a big push across the country, really, to get people voting by mail more than showing up at the polling place, and so there are going to be a lot of states where the ballots are not going to be all counted on Election Night.  And we’re trying to push out the narrative that it’s important that the accurate – that the results are accurate, not necessarily done quickly.

And so that – that is why – and I think that people are – there are a lot of organizations that are promoting absentee ballot, vote at home, that type of thing, to – I think there are a couple of reasons.  One, the convenience of it.  Two, for people who have concerns about long lines at the polling place.  And three, just they have more time to sort of process and discuss who they’re going to vote for with their family members or friends and that sort of thing.

So I think more and more people are moving to absentee balloting or vote-by-mail, and so you are going to have election results that come in later.

MODERATOR:  That’s a very interesting point, thank you.  So let’s – let me just ask you one – to address one more thing, which is we have approximately 2,000 members of the Foreign Press Centers, and many of them will be covering Election Days.  Many of them have already been covering caucuses or primaries, but we have Super Tuesday coming up, and so looking ahead towards Super Tuesday and the general election – the rest of the primaries and the general – what tips do you have?  Because I know our journalists will be trying to get access to polling places, possibly talking to election officials.  Many of them will spread out throughout the U.S. for those primaries and general elections.  Many will be looking for opportunities here around the D.C. area.  So what tips do you have for approaching the officials and asking for access and so forth?

ANSWER:  So I would say in general don’t reach out for the first time on Super Tuesday or on Election Day.  Don’t reach out for the first time the night before.  Do a little bit of legwork in advance, and do that kind of – and build that relationship.  I mean, I think the reality of the world that we live in right now is that people are – election officials are sort of inherently more suspicious because of the critical infrastructure designation that sort of makes elections sort of a critical infrastructure.  And so reaching out in advance and building a relationship so that you’re not just showing up, or just showing up in their inbox on Election Day, is important.

And also, remembering that the rules vary from state to state about who is allowed to be in a polling place.  And that’s not sort of symptomatic of there’s something to hide or anything like that.  It’s just that that’s what the laws are.  And so if somebody says unfortunately we can’t let you do X, Y, or Z, that’s got nothing to do with you and everything to do with what the law is.

ANSWER:  So yeah, I would – a couple of things that I would add onto that.  In some jurisdictions – well, there are a number of jurisdictions where cameras are not allowed in the polling place.  And so while a reporter may be allowed in the polling place, they’re not allowed to bring cameras in.  That varies state by state, so – and we do have information on our website on what the state laws for access to polling places.

What I would say, though, is this is an opportunity for you to take advantage of other aspects of the elections process, right?  So there’s poll worker training going on all over the country prior to elections.  So that’s something that you may want to pursue, and if you’ve got cameras that you need – or even just if you’re going in without a camera to talk to poll workers, to talk to election officials.

Early voting is another thing where you might be able to be allowed to have cameras, because it’s generally a government facility that’s larger than a polling place.  A lot of times the issues with polling places are – election officials have to get polling places where they can, right?  They’ve got to find polling places that have parking and that are accessible for people with disabilities, and so sometimes they just aren’t necessarily big enough to accommodate voters and everybody else that wants to get inside.  And so oftentimes the early voting locations are government facilities that you might be able to access if you have a camera crew or something along those lines.

But there are other processes that they – whether it’s – if they’re going through the canvassing, which is where they go through and sort of look at the statement of results at the end of the night from the polling place, and matching those up with how many voters checked in – is that the same number of ballots that were cast?  Those canvassing processes often are also public events.

Testing the equipment before it’s sent out on Election Day – they do “logic and accuracy tests” with the equipment – that’s also something that’s public.  And so there’s a lot of things, if you maybe can’t get access to a polling place on Election Day that there are things that you could cover with cameras and things of that nature.

ANSWER:  And I’ll put in a plug for logic and accuracy testing, especially for those of you who are more interested in the cyber security angle for things.  In 2018 we heard from – obviously, there was a lot around cyber security, and in talking to local election officials what I heard was, “Well, no one came to our logic and accuracy testing, and it’s public.”  And that’s a good way to see the level of care and the way that local election officials approached securing their equipment.

I’ll also say that in many jurisdictions they are doing things like livestreaming [logic and accuracy testing], like on Facebook Live or Twitter or Instagram Live, because they’re trying to make it more public.  And so looking for those kinds of avenues as well I think is really good, but logic and accuracy testing is a great way to really see sort of the nuts and bolts.

MODERATOR:  How far in advance do they normally do that logic and accuracy testing?  Is it the day before or a week before?

ANSWER:  Oh, it’s usually a couple weeks.

MODERATOR:  A couple weeks before?

ANSWER:  Yeah.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  Great, all right.  Well, with that, do you have anything to add before we open it up to questions?  Okay.  So we’ll open it up to questions.  We’re going to be using the floor mics.  So if my colleagues can turn the mics on, and we’ll start passing them around.  And I saw Nirmal’s hand up first in the back.

QUESTION:  Hi, thank you.  This is Nirmal Ghosh from The Straits Times.  How dependent is this process in terms of counting, collating, and reporting on apps?  I mean, we saw this problem in Iowa which the DNC had with an untested app.  Is there a tendency to use more of this tech and —

MODERATOR:  And real quick, I forgot to mention, please state your name, outlet, and country.  Nirmal is from Singapore.

ANSWER:  So first of all, caucuses are not run by election officials.  So whatever apps or technology they used in Iowa, Nevada, and any future caucuses, that’s not election technology.  For the most part, given the sort of numbers of ballots that are cast, election officials use tabulators, which are like sort of the scantron [machine], if you’ve taken a standardized test or something like that.  They use that kind of equipment.  But it’s dedicated election technology.  It’s tested, it’s secured.

If there is any sort of discrepancy or anything like that, most election jurisdictions at this point are using paper ballots, so they do have that as a backup that they can either manually recount or things like that.  But that – those kinds of apps are specific to political parties.

ANSWER:  I would also – so there is online technology that is used during an election process, right?  So you’ve got online voter registration.  It’s not an app, but it is – they’re used to – no, it’s not an app.  Anyway.  There’s Election Night reporting, right?  And those are results that are entered into the state’s system.  Those are – as [Speaker] said earlier, those are unofficial results.  They don’t include the state going through and canvassing and checking the process.  They don’t include the ballots that haven’t been counted yet.  So there is technology that is used.  I’m not aware of any apps.

MODERATOR:  Great.  Yes, here.

QUESTION:  Yeah.  Hi, my name is Can Merey.  I’m with the German Press Agency, so Germany’s news agency.  I know you said that results will change and final results take their time, but would you have any estimate for Super Tuesday when we can expect the first results, especially from California and Texas?  I know it’s difficult, but my clients keep on asking me this question, so I’m hoping you can help me there.  Thank you.

ANSWER:  I would estimate Texas would be sooner than California, but I honestly – like [Speaker] said, the ballots only have to be postmarked by Election Night.  They don’t have to be delivered by Election Night.

QUESTION:  The first results, I meant, so not the final.

ANSWER:  Yeah, but the first results don’t – like – you’ll get unofficial results on Election Night, but it’s not going to be – it’s not going to include a lot of the – a lot of the ballot counting.  You will also get exit poll results that CNN is going to announce or NBC or whomever is – they’ll all be announcing their exit polls, but – so they’ll be projecting winners, but it’s going to be – if you remember 2018, it’s going to be a while for California.

MODERATOR:  Can you —

ANSWER:  I was just going to add also that there are varying state laws about when election officials can even open ballots to begin counting.

ANSWER:  Right.

ANSWER:  So we’ll use California as an example because they have so many ballots that vote by mail.  Ballots are being returned, but there are state laws about what can be done with those ballots that have been received now and what the difference between processing a ballot – so like scanning it so that you can do signature comparison to make sure that – to maintain the integrity of the election, they do signature comparison – when signature comparison can be done versus when that ballot can actually be tabulated.  And so all of these different state laws play into things exactly like what you’re asking.  If we knew the answer, I think we would be millionaires.

ANSWER:  And not working at these jobs.

MODERATOR:  [Speaker], I was wondering if you could speak just a teeny bit more about what the news outlets base projections on.

ANSWER:  On exit polling.

MODERATOR:  It’s mainly exit polling?  Okay.

ANSWER:  And a lot – I don’t know if there’s anyone affiliated with the Associated Press in the room, but the Associated Press has stringers, where they like send people out to local election offices, precincts, to collect results.  And so those are sort of manually – often manually collected and then aggregated at a county or a state level to make those decisions.  But that’s also why sometimes you see those numbers vary widely, because if your sevens look like nines and somebody manually enters it incorrectly, that can change sort of the numbers.

There are states who work more directly with media outlets to provide different sources, but on the whole, that’s where those election night results are coming from is sort of the AP and the way that they collect results.  That’s also why they’re not official, because they’re coming from a media outlet and not directly from an election official.

MODERATOR:  Great.  Okay.  Yes, ma’am.  In the back.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  My name is Greta De Keyser.  I work for VTM, Belgian television news.  I was wondering, because you said like if you want to go to a polling place, then please establish a relationship with the precinct captain or whoever is responsible.  But my experience here is that it’s very hard to find who that is, a phone number way ahead of time.  If you go to the polling station and you politely ask before you start working for – to see someone, precinct captain or the one that is responsible, that worked.

But I tried very, very often – and if you could get me like a real good – California, for example, I probably will go to Sacramento.  When I want to go to a polling place, my first live shot will be 4:00 in the morning California time.  So what I’m looking for then is a polling station that starts working to set up their gear around 4:00, so I can show some activity already.  But that is really hard to find if you don’t know Sacramento, you don’t know the city.

ANSWER:  So precinct captains generally are volunteer poll workers.  So you’re not going to necessarily know – so I’m a poll worker in Arlington, Virginia.  My precinct captain has been the same old guy for 20 years.  But the local election official there is – that’s their job, right.  The precinct captain is a volunteer.  So the local election official is the person that you should be reaching out to.  On our website, there’s a – we have a site called CanIVote.org.  And it has a listing of all the local election officials around the country.  So you can plug your – where you want to go, and it has the name of the person, telephone number, email address.

ANSWER:  So yeah, reaching out to Sacramento County or L.A. County or whatever county, they can help you – that’s the relationship we’re talking about building, not with the individual precincts.  Because the county is the one who will be able to say, “This is the location that will be able to best accommodate you,” “It will look the best,” whatever X, Y, or Z.

ANSWER:  And if you’re going to a state capital, reaching out to the chief state election official, whether it’s the secretary of state or the head of the state board of elections, because frequently they have a site that is perfect for cameras or whatever.

MODERATOR:  That’s great.  That was – www.CanIVote.org was the website?

ANSWER:  Yes, yes.

MODERATOR:  Great.  All right.  Next question.  Yes, here in the front.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Yanina Slyesarchuk, 1+1 Media, Ukraine.  So my question is what are the biggest difference you can name in between the different jurisdictions?  I mean, what – the funniest one maybe.  So in between states and in between jurisdiction in one state.  Like what are we looking for?  What can we report?

ANSWER:  There’s nothing funny about elections.  (Laughter.)

ANSWER:  I mean, so the – within a state, a way to think about this is – California is a great example.  They – some states are – or pardon me – some counties are implementing the Voter’s Choice Act this year, which is a set of laws in the way that they’re administering elections, and some are doing it, I think, in two years.  So that – what that means is like some jurisdictions in California, counties are vote-by-mail, all vote-by-mail or have all vote-by-mail elections.  Some don’t.  That’s not funny, though.  (Laughter.)

ANSWER:  So I think the best way to explain this is:  We talk about the decentralized nature of the elections process, right, and I think that it’s important to understand trust in government is a very big issue.  And the closer the citizen is to their government, the more trust they have in that process, right.  So it’s important that local election officials have the biggest responsibility when it comes to administering elections, because the people that come into my polling place on election day feel very comfortable about the processes because they’ve seen them, they’ve participated in them, they know us, we’re their neighbors.

ANSWER:  What’s not to trust?

ANSWER:  What’s not to trust?  (Laughter.)  But when you have – but if you ask, they’ll be like, “Oh my God, those crazy elections in Chicago” or the – they trust where they are.  They don’t trust what’s happening someplace else.  That’s okay, because that – they need to trust in their own process.

The challenge comes when you have to educate people on the elections process, right, because say you’re in California and you’ve got one jurisdiction that’s implementing a law now and another jurisdiction that’s not going to implement it for two years.  So education is really important, and what – so our organization started something just after the November election called #TrustedInfo2020, and for us it’s that we want people to get their information from their state and local election officials.  Don’t take information from some third party.  Don’t take information from some ranter on social media.  Get it from your state and local election officials, because then you can be sure that the information that you’re getting is accurate about where you need to go vote, how the process works, what you need to bring with you, where your polling place is, that sort of thing.  It’s not sexy; it’s not funny.  It’s just reality.

MODERATOR:  All right, another question?  Anyone?  Yes, Andrej.

QUESTION:  Hi, my name is Andrej Stopar.  I’m from the Slovenian public radio and television.  My question is a bit different.  Perhaps it’s a cultural thing.  I haven’t been here for a long time.  But why on earth wouldn’t you speak publicly?  Why it’s even off – it’s not even off-the-record, our meeting today.  I mean, you’re very interesting.  Are you accessible for tete-a-tete interview or not?

ANSWER:  Why on earth? (laughter).  Because I represent 50 public officials, and generally they are the ones that you should be asking these questions.  I am perfectly comfortable providing background information, but my bosses are the ones who are the true experts.  And so I’m happy to help you to understand the U.S. election process, but specific – if you want quotes and things like that, my bosses are the people that you need to talk to.

ANSWER:  Yeah, and I’ll echo that.  There are a lot of domestic reporters – and I’m happy to make the same offer to you – I answer questions about how elections work and is this a thing all the time, right, because nobody wants to write a story that can be sort of easily proven.  Like, that’s not a story.  So examples of things I’ve – that people have come to me with are, well this voter was asked for ID.  Okay, that state requires voter ID, so like try again.  But – so that’s like a very basic kind of example, but the same thing applies to all of you.

As you’re covering elections, if you have questions, like is this a thing; is there a “there there,” don’t hesitate to ask.  I’m always happy to talk about “nerd stuff” and really go into the weeds.  But again, like [Speaker], like – the experts on the states are the states themselves, and I’m always happy to point you in the right direction and inform you behind the scenes and then pass you off to someone whose name is more meaningful in the press than mine is.

ANSWER:  Right.  (Laughter.)

MODERATOR:  And is your contact info on the website?  Can they reach you through the website?

ANSWER:  Yes.

ANSWER:  Yes, and —

MODERATOR:  Okay.  If not, we’ll talk about it after the briefing.

ANSWER:  Yeah, and I’m happy if you want to provide my contact information and I have cards, too.

ANSWER:  And I have cards.

MODERATOR:  Okay, wonderful.  Any other questions on covering the polls, getting access, county elections, state – the role of the state?  All right.  Well if there’s nothing else, thank you so much for coming today and being with us.  We really appreciate it.

ANSWER:  Sure.  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  And with that, the briefing is concluded.

U.S. Department of State

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