I. In Focus This Week
Seven Habits of effective election administrators
Telling your story
By Dave Ammons
I retired on New Year’s Day after having a front row seat for 46 years as an Associated Press political writer, public television host, and communications director and policy adviser for the Washington Secretary of State.
A common thread for me during those enjoyable, challenging, dynamic years was the task of relating the drama of campaigns and elections, the mysterious world of politics, and my personal mission of promoting civility, civics education, and connecting people with their government.
Much has been written about voters’ disconnect with government and politics, the incivility and coarseness of our time, and distrust in our leaders and the process by which we elect them. Restoring that faith and confidence, and re-engaging people in self-government will certainly be no easy task. The time to begin is now.
Some thoughts for a kickstarter:
1. Tell your story. For all too many election professionals, having an effective communications strategy is often an afterthought, if that. Public understanding of what you do –and the values and professionalism you hold dear – are a mystery to many. My recommendation is to engage the public early and often, and not just in the heat of the fray or controversy du jour – the media, editorial pages, opinion leaders, state and local legislators and executives, and regular voters. Take a reporter or ed board director to coffee, even when you don’t need something! Most don’t bite. Answer media calls quickly and strategically. Have a crisis communications plan ready as part of your COOP plan.
2. Civics education needs to be your middle name. Work with the schools, promote registration events like the National Voter Registration Day. Be cool with social media. Give lunch TED talks to your local service club or chamber. Do outreach and listening tours. Invite folks to the Capitol or county courthouse – from scout troops to senior citizens. (Test drive some of your messaging!).
3. Explain your setup. In Washington, state and county election departments invite state legislators and staff, commissioners and regular folks to watch initiative signature checks, ballot preparation, tabulation, etc. It’s cool for people to see with their own eyes, and effectively shows cybersecurity and checks-and- balances at work. Some counties even have a live ballot cam online so people can watch ballot processing! Won’t win in the ratings, but, boy, it’s great transparency!
4. Follow the headlines and seize on opportunities to present your side. Yes, I’m remembering “rigging’ and “Russian hackers” of just a few short months ago, and people in both parties ragging on the fundamentals. Voter confidence in our election process went all wobbly. But I did see some great op-eds and smart radio, VTV and print comments from our Secretaries of State and election officials. It was no time to hunker down! Yes, the election came off “without a hitch” for most of us. Teachable moment: public education has to be an every year, every day thing. Sorry, no rest!
5. Anticipate. A corollary to previous point. Good recent example: After the presidential returns were in, it became clear that the popular winner, Hillary Clinton, was not elected, but rather the Electoral College winner, Donald Trump. People were like “Whaaa? That doesn’t sound right. What’s the Electoral College?” Many of us quickly swung into SuperEducator mode, tweeting links to the National Archives’ excellent resources, etc. In Washington, we also reminded people that our state was one of the members of the National Popular Vote compact. Our state, BTW, had over a thousand people attend the Electoral College gathering, and the nation’s largest number of “faithless” electors refused to vote for Clinton and Kaine. It lead the news cycle. We were ready. People were educated, if not happy.
6. Use every sensible communications platform at your disposal to reach your voters and media where they get their information. Flood the zone with useful, fun, sassy info, attaching full statements, background, etc., and always using attention-grabbing art. My favorite is Twitter, so immediate and dynamic!
7. Innovate and never stop improving. And don’t forget to toot your own horn when you do. (Examples are registration reforms, modernization, and the cool federal-state- local partnership to make it easier for military and overseas voters). The world is moving at warp speed and people’s expectations are through the roof! Many of our American institutions are sclerotic and some of the public’s disdain is warranted. Innovation is an antidote. Finding new and better equipment, more welcoming and inclusive attitudes, new strategies for engagement and re-engagement. Is D.C. broken? The magic is that states are the “laboratories of democracy” and local election administrators are “on the ground” where progress happens when yesterday’s solutions simply aren’t good enough. It’s in the election geek’s DNA.
There’s a future to be met, and a great story to tell. So tell it!
(Editor’s Note: To follow up on what Dave said, help us help you! We’d love to tell your story here at electionline. If you’ve got a new, innovative program, let us know about it. If you’ve got an employee who goes the extra mile to help people get registered and vote, let us know. We want to tell your story!)
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