Denver’s Alton Dillard in electionlineWeekly on “Comms 101”

[Image via strategicsociety]

The latest electionlineWeekly features the first in a series of communications-related topics for election officials and other members of the community. The inaugural installment is “Comms 101“, a guest post by Denver’s Alton Dillard, who shares thoughts on the importance of transparency – and outreach! – when dealing with the media:

The November 2006 General Election started out like any other Election Day, but as late morning approached, it became apparent that something was wrong.

With rumors swirling that there were “voting machine failures,” lines began to grow at our vote centers and before long, news helicopters were circling, injunctions were filed to keep the polls open past 7 p.m., and a delegation of our congresswoman and state representatives marched into our then-director’s office demanding answers.

A quick eyeball of a couple of vote centers showed that the voting machines were actually working, but that people weren’t able to get them to the voting machines at all because the e-poll books weren’t working. Lines stretched for blocks and hours.

I was on camera for almost a week straight trying to explain all of this, while having no information about the root cause of the issue. This was the front end of the debacle.

The back end of the debacle was the fact that there was a programming error so our scanners couldn’t’ read the ballot styles if they were fed in a mixed batch. Imagine standing in a room with boxes of ballots stacked to the ceiling and being told they would have to be manually sorted by ballot style prior to being fed into scanners. We laid out a bunch of bins and literally spent the following days sorting “three,” “seven,” “here’s a four.”

It was brutal, but the 2006 election also strengthened our bond and our organizational resolve to never put the voters over ourselves through this experience again and in a 2007 special election voters approved a measure to eliminate the 3-person election commission and create an elected clerk and recorder like other Colorado counties.

Fast forward to 2019 and the Denver Elections Division is recognized nationally and internationally as one of the top elections offices in existence because of the outstanding work done by our team of very talented professionals behind the scenes.

I’m considered the Dean of the Delegation of Elections Communicators in Colorado because I’ve specialized in election communications for 13 years. I’m also a former U.S. Senate press secretary who cut his crisis communication teeth when the senator I worked for switched parties midway through his term.

Those skills served me well when under the three-person election commission structure in 2006 the e-poll book failure resulted in blocks-long lines and thousands of people being turned away without voting. I was the public face of that debacle even though I was an outside consultant at the time.

In Colorado, a lot of our 64 county clerks are their own spokespeople, their own public face.

If we are honest with ourselves, the world of elections administration has been a panicky place since Florida 2000. In the current environment where all it takes are the words “hack,” or “line” to stampede the herd, it is imperative to have effective communications with your voters.

Regardless of the size of your jurisdiction, transparency is key to instilling confidence in how you administer elections. With the scrutiny elections officials are under, elections administration can no longer take place “behind the curtain.”

Ask yourself, is our election office set up for transparency for voters, watchers and media? Does your physical layout accommodate the highest level of transparency allowed by law? Do watchers and official observers have the access required to do their jobs? Does your elections office conduct tours for voters, elected officials, candidates, media and external stakeholders? The perception of lack of transparency in the voting process is one of the quickest ways to draw negative coverage.

Local Media
Denver is the state capital, but it’s also a Top 20 media market. We are literally a five-minute drive from five television stations and we garner a lot of print, radio and web publication coverage too.

In our current elections environment, it is imperative to have good relationships with the media. If your jurisdiction is in a larger media market, make sure to know the reporters that cover you, but also make sure you meet with the people who deploy those reporters.

Prior to every major election, I meet with the news directors, web content editors, producers, assignment desk editors, and editors at every local television state and newspaper. We also conduct a media tour before every election make sure media gets their questions answered so we can make sure that current and consistent information is being put out. Media tours allow TV stations to update their file footage. Nothing drives me crazier than seeing 400Cs [voting equipment] in new stories when we haven’t used those in nearly five years. Even if the media in your jurisdiction is a small mom and pop newspaper, it is important to keep them informed.

Social Media
With social media, I can’t stress this enough. Go there, but only if you have the bandwidth to do so. Social media is only effective if you are prepared to treat it as two-way communications tool. You must be prepared to respond to voter inquiries and shoot down misinformation nearly 24-7, especially in live election mode. Incorrect information from your followers that sits on your social media feeds overnight because they aren’t checked until the next morning becomes a tough bell to un-ring.

The Denver Elections Division uses social media to let voters know everything from voting locations and hours, where we are deploying Haul-N-Votes, our mobile voting center, vote center wait times, the status and candidate and issue petitions, etc.  We also post videos of our ballot processing rooms, our post-election risk limited audit and canvass process and we encourage voters to snap selfies in front of our branded backdrop or a 24-hour ballot drop-off box and hashtag us to let us know they voted.

Because the general public doesn’t always differentiate between politics and election administration, we make it clear that our only concern is that people vote, not who or what they vote for. That keeps us from being tagged into political discussions for the most part.

External Stakeholders
It is also important to bring your external stakeholders to the table to help serve as your eyes and ears in the community you serve. We have an Elections Advisory Committee that consists of members from a cross section of the community. Local political party chairs, voting activists and advocates, League of Women Voters, Common Cause, Disability Law Colorado, Mayoral Commissions representing communities of color and the community of persons with disabilities and local elected officials are some of the interests that make up the membership of our EAC.

Denver is a Section 203 County under the United States Voting Rights Act due to our percentage of monolingual Spanish speakers.  We have ACCESO, a Spanish language advisory board that is codified in the same manner as a mayoral commission. We discuss everything from community outreach to the accuracy of the translations for our election materials with that group.

If it makes sense for your jurisdiction, consider hiring a professional communicator to lighten your load if you haven’t already. The first time I presented on media relations at the Colorado County Clerks Association Conference a few years ago everyone in my session was looking at me like I had two heads and asked me “does the media really cover you that much?” These days, I serve on the CCCA’s Public Information Committee along with Public Information Officers from other counties.

By the way, it’s okay to humblebrag as you tell your story. If you come up with an innovation that makes it easier for your customers to participate in the voting process while saving taxpayer money, tell your story. Have a 90-year-old election judge who has been voting since 1952? Tell her story. Putting some human faces on the voting process humanizes the process which will serve you well when things are going smoothly and even those occasions when they aren’t. Tell your story.

(Alton P. Dillard II is the communications director for the Clerk and Recorder-City and County of Denver. Before that he served as deputy press secretary and press director for U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell. He has owned his own media and community relations firm, and worked as a sports director and community affairs talk show host at local television stations. He is a graduate of the University of North Colorado with a B.A. in journalism-mass communications.)

Thanks to Alton for this amazing piece; this is all incredibly valuable advice – especially the guidance to talk to local media BEFORE there’s a story to share. I would add not to wait for them to come to you – while the very best journalists in the field understand the importance of election officials, not all do. If I had a nickel for every election-related story I’ve ever seen, heard or read that didn’t include a comment from (or even an acknowledgement of) the appropriate election official I’d have been rich years ago. There’s a reason why they call it “earned” media – you usually have to work for it.

Also, a tip of the elecctiongeek cap to electionline’s Mindy Moretti for recognizing the need for this comms-related series; I can’t wait to read what’s coming next! Stay tuned …

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