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It feels like, so far, 2019 has been a banner year for retirements in the election community. The latest is Minnesota’s Joe Mansky, who is stepping down as Ramsey County (St. Paul) election chief after a legendary career that includes a high-profile stint as state election director. His story is fascinating, and he shared it (in his own inimitable style) with The Pioneer Press:
As a hydrologist in his 20s, Joe Mansky knew nothing about elections. He’d taken one political science class in college, because he had to.
“They call the elections an accidental career. No one plans to be the elections director,” said Patty O’Connor, a colleague of Mansky’s who was elections director in Blue Earth County for about two decades.
Now, before Mansky’s retirement this month as Ramsey County elections manager after 35 years in the business, many acknowledge him as the state’s most widely known elections official. A fixture in the courtroom during crises, recounts and rule changes, he’s earned both admiration and ire.
“He brought Minnesota elections to the modern age,” said current Secretary of State Steve Simon.
“He’s a legend,” said former Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.
“That might have been one of the best decisions I made, was to hire Joe,” said Joan Growe, former Minnesota secretary of state. Growe gave Mansky his first shot at elections work in 1984.
“Joe Mansky’s long-standing dedication to Minnesota elections is commendable,” said Andrew Cilek of the Minnesota Voters Alliance, which has faced Mansky’s department in court multiple times. “Although we have often been on opposite sides of important issues, we wish him well in retirement.”
A GOOD PLACE TO SKI
Mansky’s path to Minnesota was hardly paved with ambition or well-laid plans.
With a degree in water resources management, Mansky spent his first couple of years out of college working for the Missouri River Basin Commission in Nebraska.
But the organization closed. And so Mansky arrived in Minnesota in 1982, in the middle of the worst recession in decades.
He was 28. He had no leads. If he’d been forced to focus purely on job prospects, he would’ve gone to Colorado, like any sensible hydrologist.
And yet, “I started cross country skiing when I was in Wisconsin, and this was a good place to ski.”
His first job was as an umpire for the Minneapolis park system. The kids were great, but the parents? “Total pain in the ass,” Mansky said. He kept looking.
One day, he noticed a position posted with the secretary of state’s office. It was nothing like what he’d done or gone to school or trained for. He shot a résumé off and forgot about it.
Several months later, he got a call. They’d interviewed 11 people before him; didn’t like any of them. With Mansky, they were scraping the bottom of the barrel.
He knew nothing about election rules. So the night before, he spent hours in the University of Minnesota’s law library, cramming election law.
The next morning, “I’m just firing the answers back at them,” Mansky said. Within a few days, he got an offer.
“He was smart, he was quick and he wanted to learn. And he did. … He had the memory of an elephant,” said Growe.
Mansky had a new title: election procedures adviser. In addition to advising county officials — all older than he was — on all that law he’d ostensibly mastered, Mansky had to oversee a major transition.
CHANGES IN VOTING
The year was 1984. Across the state, there were three disparate ways people voted: punch cards, lever machines and even – in some of the smaller, rural counties – the same simple paper ballots they’d been using since Minnesota became a state.
Election reporting and registration were two other cans of worms.
Not all counties had preregistration; voters had to prove they were eligible on Election Day.
After elections, results were sent by snail mail. Not certified, of course — that took too long. Once, they had to send the Minnesota State Patrol to Marshall County at the last minute to garner their reports.
The bottom line: Out of every 1,000 ballots, there were five errors. Thousands of votes in a statewide election. Worse were the absentee ballots. They had to reject about 5 percent of them.
A DUSTY DISCOVERY
One day, Mansky noticed something in a far corner of the bookkeeping department: an old IBM PC XT — a first-generation personal computer. It had a dust cover, and plenty of dust.
“I’m not sure why it was there,” Mansky said. He’d yet to witness anyone touch a single key.
But as a former hydrologist, four years out of college, he was used to computers. This thing had a 10-megabyte hard drive, a 5½-inch floppy disk — it had it all.
“I finally asked my boss, do you mind if I use this?”
Knock yourself out, his boss replied.
Mansky used the computer to build the state’s primary canvassing board report, in his first year on the job.
The next primary, in 1986, arrived with a big thunderstorm. Rice County officials were transporting their ballots in a pickup truck to the local courthouse. All those completed punch cards, stored in an unsealed metal box.
“You see the problem,” Mansky said.
The county called Manksy in a tizzy. They had hundreds of drenched ballots.
“Put them in the microwave,” Mansky said. It seemed to work. Mansky still calls it his craziest election story.
He wouldn’t know that two years later, staffers from secretaries of state offices across the country would converge on his office, to scrutinize his work.
RESULTS IN A DAY
In the months that followed, Mansky worked on getting computers to the 18 counties that didn’t have them, to start a statewide registration system from scratch. Only two states had done it.
With computers? There was a post office for a reason.
And as far as election night reporting, no state had the ability to get real-time results. Yet.
In November 1988, Minnesota was the first to give it a trial run.
“We were a little nervous that night,” Growe said. “That had never happened. … It was nasty weather. We didn’t have a very good backup for the system. Yes, a little nervous. We had guests from six or seven other states.”
Within 15 to 20 minutes of polls closing, Growe’s office started getting reports via the network. By 5:30 a.m., they had actual results.
After that, Mansky attained a reputation across the state, Growe remembered. And soon, a mantra. “You better call Joe,” Growe said. “That’s what I told people.”
That year, at the age of 34, Mansky was promoted to state elections director.
“I had no elections staff. No experience. Joe was the first person I’d turn to,” said O’Connor, who referred to Mansky as “a walking statute.”
Mansky also garnered a reputation for his ability to extrapolate.
“Every once in a while (at a conference), he’d go, ‘I just have one thing to say,’ and the whole room will groan because it’ll take a while,” said O’Connor.
But people would listen. Decades later, when Ritchie ran for secretary of state in 2006, “People were all pointing to him,” Ritchie said.
RAMSEY COUNTY JOB
After leaving Growe’s office in 1999 and then handling redistricting for Gov. Jesse Ventura, Mansky took a job at Ramsey County in 2002. Over the years, he became one of the most recognized and quoted officials on the payroll — and often the face of controversial election processes.
There was the 2008 Norm Coleman/Al Franken recount. Over eight months, Mansky set the record for related court appearances.
He claims to have enjoyed it.
“You get sued a lot. That just comes with the territory,” Mansky said. “But I never begrudge anyone from trying to exercise their rights.”
He’s lost a few, certainly. Recently, there was laughter at the U.S. Supreme Court on the matter of voting attire. The court tossed one of Mansky’s policies, alongside the state law it was based on.
There was the ranked-choice rollout in St. Paul in 2011. Another recount, between Mark Dayton and Tom Emmer, for governor the year before.
But when asked what stressed Mansky the most, it wasn’t all that. By then, he’d weathered decades of objections.
“The more stressful event from my standpoint was the 1990 election,” Mansky said.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Jon Grunseth withdrew in the wake of a scandal. Mansky didn’t get the order from the state Supreme Court on who should replace Grunseth until the Friday before Election Day. Arne Carlson was placed on the ballot and went on to win the election.
A close second was the plane crash that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone in 2002, 10 days before the election, with 10,000 absentee ballots already in. After working 24 hours straight on Election Day, Mansky took a trip to Las Vegas.
“Are you coming back?” his boss asked.
“Having gotten through the 2002 year, the rest of it was totally upside,” Mansky said.
‘MORE TIME ON THE TRAIL’
Mansky started his interview with a reporter talking about his work, and its most crucial resource.
“For us, time is absolutely critical. It is one of the few things that is absolutely set in stone.”
But it became obvious as the interview went on that he was no longer talking about work. Mansky noted that he hasn’t had a day off since last July. It’s not unusual.
But every year, he goes biking somewhere. Last year, it was Utah. For years, if not decades, he’s biked to work from his home in Oakdale.
On his last trip, a shuttle driver asked him something that took him aback.
“Are you retired?”
He was 64. No, he wasn’t retired, he hastily replied. But on the way back to the Twin Cities — on Amtrak, with his bike — he found himself with that thing that was so elusive. Time.
“I finally came to the conclusion, I’ve been working 41 years. And I’d rather spend more time on the trail, and less time sitting in an office,” said Mansky, now 65.
Now, rather than five out of 1,000, there are maybe two out of 10,000 errors in ballots. Absentee ballot rejection is down to less than 1 percent.
When asked about the biggest challenge his successor will face, Mansky talks not about reporting or accuracy, but turnout.
“I think the work remaining is to get in contact with the people who have been traditionally outside of the active part of the voting population,” he said. “The world belongs to those who show up.”
It’s not hyperbole to say that much of what we take for granted in the field of elections today – in Minnesota and elsewhere – can be traced in some way to Joe Mansky’s life of service to the field. I will miss him on the electiongeek trail, but I’m happy to know he’ll be out there blazing new ones in retirement. I also have zero doubt that he will be asked for his counsel from time to time – or that he’ll be willing to give it. Thanks for everything, Joe; we can’t wait to see what’s next for you … stay tuned!