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Preparing the election system for poll workers who think it's rigged

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There's a man who is running to be the next governor of Michigan. His name is Ryan Kelley. He's a Republican. And he says, falsely, that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. Now, Kelley is not even a leading candidate, but there is a moment during his campaign that has gone viral. Here's his advice for poll workers on Election Day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RYAN KELLEY: If you see something you don't like happening with the machines, if you see something going on, unplug it from the wall.

CHANG: Kelley is now promoting a Republican-led effort in the state to recruit 5,000 people to work the polls in this fall's election. So here is the concern for the government officials running elections this year - could some election-denier end up working for them on the front lines in the hyper local jobs that keep America's election machinery running? County clerks like Justin Roebuck are already preparing for that possibility.

JUSTIN ROEBUCK: This is America, and we don't stop voting for anything. COVID doesn't stop us from voting. The Civil War didn't stop us from voting. Tornadoes and floods don't stop us from voting.

CHANG: And here is Roebuck's tip for Ryan Kelley.

ROEBUCK: Unplugging the voting machine will do nothing more than activate the battery power...

CHANG: (Laughter).

ROEBUCK: ...On the voting machine. And people will keep voting.

CHANG: Like Kelley, Roebuck's a Republican. He's the guy who administers the elections here in Ottawa County, Mich. And when you walk into his office, one of the first things you will notice is all the Abraham Lincoln collectibles.

How many Abes do you have? One, two...

ROEBUCK: (Laughter).

CHANG: Maybe some volumes up there on Abe.

ROEBUCK: I am obsessed with Abe. But people give me Abe things because they know that and so, like, people, like, start collecting, like, random stuff.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: At least you're easy to shop for.

ROEBUCK: Right.

CHANG: Roebuck's office is neat and tidy, just like his haircut and tortoiseshell glasses. This is a man who appreciates order. And ever since the 2020 election, he has gotten frustrated with just how much his job has changed because of all the election misinformation out there.

ROEBUCK: People are calling us still. We're having conversations still about 2020. That has not gone away. I'm estimating my team is spending about 25% of their time dealing with the 2020 election.

CHANG: Still.

ROEBUCK: Today.

CHANG: But Roebuck says he is not going to turn down any of those conversations.

ROEBUCK: I'm going to tell you the truth, including things that you do not want to hear from me sometimes, right? Some - you know, I think we've had a lot of conversations with folks who do get upset when I push back and I say, that's actually a lie; you've been lied to.

CHANG: And if anyone still believes those lies and wants to be a poll worker in his county, Roebuck says he is ready for them.

ROEBUCK: Our goal tonight is to not scare you off.

CHANG: He's changing up his poll worker training sessions, teaching people what to do if a poll worker were to try to interfere with voting.

ROEBUCK: So even more recently, there was a candidate for office who was coming in and speaking to a group of these folks who were essentially being recruited to be election workers. And he - his statement on this was, if you see something fraudulent, if you see something you don't like, unplug the machine. Don't do that.

CHANG: He reminds the volunteers that their job is to make sure that voters can cast their ballots freely.

ROEBUCK: We'll get somebody in there to remove the person who unplugged the machine. The other thing that is important to note is you can call law enforcement. We have a great relationship with...

CHANG: I mean, in all your years doing this kind of work, have you ever planned to include in a poll worker training the idea of, let's say a poll worker goes rogue, what do you do in that situation?

ROEBUCK: That's very new. Yeah. I mean, we talk about a lot of safety situations and, you know, make people aware of, you know, what they need to do in the event of an emergency. This is most definitely the first time that we've talked about an election worker being the cause of something disruptive like that.

CHANG: Now, most of the people at this training are not obsessing about the rogue poll worker scenario.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So which one are we - the next page over?

CHANG: They're here because they just want to learn how to help out with the democratic process.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It looks like we've got lots of parts in here.

CHANG: Walking through simple things like how to put the parts of a ballot scanner together.

I can never assemble IKEA furniture, so I would be daunted by this (laughter).

But some people attending tonight have been thinking a lot about the insider threat to election systems since 2020; people like Teresa De Graaf, a Republican. She's the clerk for Port Sheldon Township here in Ottawa County. And she says she has gotten poll worker applications from people she calls radicals, people who believe the lie that the 2020 election was stolen. De Graaf says she's already turned down two of them for poll worker jobs because she got the feeling they had ulterior motives.

TERESA DE GRAAF: They come in, and they want to be part of the process. But then they start spouting their beliefs and how the election was rigged and how they want to be part of the process because of that. But you can actually tell that their ultimate goal is maybe to create some chaos and to prove their point.

CHANG: What do you do in that case as a local clerk?

DE GRAAF: I've taken everyone's applications, and usually I screen them, and I make a note on them and typically then will tell someone if they check back that we have filled the positions.

CHANG: We should be clear it is virtually impossible for a couple rogue poll workers to actually affect the outcome of an election, but Roebuck points out that even a few people can do a lot to shake public trust in the system.

ROEBUCK: I think it's massive ripple effects of distrust in the process, intimidation, misunderstanding of what the process even is. And again, I think that's why it gets back to the heart of our training is so that we project the system in a way that voters can trust and feel comfortable and feel like they can come without disruption, without intimidation and participate.

CHANG: And so every night that Roebuck is on mic in this nondescript brick building in West Olive, Mich., he is trying to preserve that trust.

ROEBUCK: I always think about this, you know, I mean, the impact that we can have with people in their experience with the voting process can really define what they think later about elections, right?

CHANG: These trainings are Roebuck's way of shoring up the system in case another president or some other candidate tries to undermine it.

ROEBUCK: I think there's a period of a few months where I was certainly questioning my career choice, but I think I've arrived at a place now where I believe strongly in what we do to the point where we can't let negative forces win. There have been, you know, lies spoken about our process that I don't want to have the final word. And I love my community, and I love my country. And I think this is where I'm supposed to be right now doing this work.

CHANG: And Roebuck says he is nowhere near quitting.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.