Kevin Kennedy Approaching 35th Year in Wisconsin Elections


[Image courtesy of urbanmilwaukee]

I’ve often talked about how election officials operate as “grenade catchers” – taking complaints from just about everyone associated with the voting process. That’s why it’s always nice to see a member of the field mark a long tenure as an election administrator AND get positive coverage while doing so.

This week, the WisPolitics blog had a nice profile on Wisconsin’s state election director Kevin Kennedy as he approaches his 35th year as a state election official. In case you didn’t see it, it’s reproduced below. [The piece is actually taken from an interview, which you can hear here.]

Kevin Kennedy’s predecessor was removed as Wisconsin’s top elections official after a few “management issues.”

Kennedy recalled that included mistakes in tallying results from the September 1982 primary and a mix-up with the wording for a ballot referendum that was supposed to gauge support on a nuclear weapons freeze. But the language sent to local clerks left the word “weapons” out of the question.

So Kennedy has taken the approach that he’s auditioning each day to keep his post as Government Accountability Board director and general counsel.

“I don’t stand for election every four years. I get reviewed every day by a citizen board,” Kennedy said in a interview. “As I tell people it takes four votes, not a million votes, to get rid of me.”

Kennedy will celebrate 35 years with Wisconsin’s elections agency this week, first as legal counsel and then executive director of the old Elections Board before heading up the GAB, which was created in 2007 and began its work in place of the old Elections and Ethics boards in 2008.

Lawmakers on a bipartisan vote created the GAB looking for a less partisan approach to regulating elections and ethics after the Elections Board’s conduct became an issue in the 2006 guv’s race.

Still, the agency has taken its share of criticism. That’s been particularly true in recent years from Republicans, who were unhappy how the recall elections were handled. Some GOP lawmakers have even suggested it may be time to replace the GAB with something new or even go back to the old model.

Kennedy said some of that criticism is just the nature of regulating elections and ethics. He called 2011 and 2012 “unprecedented” between a 2011 state Supreme Court race and then a series of recall elections in 2011 and 2012. He noted the agency received hundreds of complaints from both sides over what they perceived to be ethics violations by their opponents.

“A lot of it is the nature of the business,” Kennedy said. “This is the nuts and bolts of democracy.”

GAB defenders have often pointed to the board’s makeup to counter GOP criticism of the agency. The current board includes three members — Chair Thomas Barland, Vice Chair Harold Froehlich and Gerald Nichol — who were elected as Republicans at one point in their career.

Still, Republicans have also trained their fire on the staff, complaining they have Dem biases that lead the board astray. For example, staff counsel Shane Falk was a Dem state Senate appointee to the old Elections Board, while Jonathan Becker formerly served as chairman of the Dane County Board of Supervisors.

But Kennedy defended the staff, noting it’s unreasonable to expect no political past or connections from those interested in working for an agency that is deeply involved in politics. He also praised the staff for recognizing the need to make the process work in a fair way when they join the agency.

“Everyone has some kind of past. The question is what do you bring to the job?” Kennedy said.

Kennedy said the agency has transitioned from one that was once preoccupied with campaign finance law to one that is increasingly involved in election administration.

He said that is due largely to the 2000 presidential race, when the country realized elections were administered in a hodge podge of ways. For example, Wisconsin did not have a centralized voter registration list at the time, and some smaller municipalities had no list at all.

That changed following the Help America Vote Act, which prompted a series of changes, though not all of them went smoothly. The state awarded Accenture a contract to build its voter registration list but faced intense criticism when the system still failed to work after addressing numerous glitches and errors. The state eventually backed out of the contract in 2007 and reached a settlement with Accenture over the faulty system.

Kennedy defended the handling of that contract, saying the state negotiated a $9 million contract that allowed it to recoup $6 million following the problems and keep control of the code used to build the list.

He also noted other state agencies had problems with IT contracts at the time only to walk away from the deals.

“Here we ended up with a product and money back in our product,” Kennedy said.

Lawmakers are now awaiting results of state audit reviewing the GAB. Kennedy said he views the review as an opportunity to see areas that could be improved that staff have overlooked. He also expects the audit to confirm the need to invest in the GAB to support the various responsibilities it’s picked up.

Resources are also part of the reason why Kennedy says he’d prefer a resolution on voter ID through a special session of the Legislature rather than solely a court order. Gov. Scott Walker has said he would call a special session to restore voter ID if the courts fail to uphold the law, raising the possibility of a summer session to do that.

Still, Kennedy said that could allow lawmakers to take steps to ease implementation such as using the August primary to give voters the option of showing their IDs before they’re required in November. It also would give lawmakers the chance to appropriate funds for a voter education campaign ahead of the election much like what was done back in 2011 before the requirement was put on hold.

Looking forward, Kennedy said he sees himself working through at least one more presidential election, noting that’s a good time to reevaluate things and decide whether to move on. However, in the next few years he also wants to focus on modernizing GAB functions. That would include another push for online voter registration, moving toward electronic statements of economic interest and perhaps replacing aging voting machines once again.

In general, Kennedy just wants to ensure voters have enough information to make an informed choice when they head to the polls.

“There’s a pretty good basework that’s put in place by the people who’ve worked on this in the last 35 years and I’m just one of them,” Kennedy said. “I want to make sure everything is in place for that to continue and for it to get even better.”

Congratulations to Kevin – and thanks to WisPolitics for taking the time to share the story!

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