Understand, and report, the process: A conversation with Pat Gannon of the State Board of Elections

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from August 31 for more from the Workshop, including industry news, job postings and shout-outs to journalists statewideSign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

Pat Gannon
Pat Gannon

My former colleague Pat Gannon has worked both sides of the political journalism street — as a reporter and editor for 17 years, and for nearly six years now as public information director for the State Board of Elections.

That gives him a distinct perspective on the state of political reporting, elections administration, voter awareness and trust, the threats to democracy, and how news and information professionals can best serve the electorate.

I caught up with him the other day for a conversation about the serious challenges that face elections administrators and journalists these days — and about how journalists can empower voters, and increase trust in the workings of democracy.

Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:

EF: So how has your job changed in the last couple of years?

PG: We had a very close governor’s race in 2016 that got messy afterwards. I didn’t think it could get worse or get tougher.

2020 got tougher.

Actually, 2018 got tougher, in some ways, because of the Ninth Congressional District scandal that we held a hearing on, and ultimately the state board ordered a new election. 2020, given the political atmosphere and all the political rhetoric out there, and combined with the COVID pandemic, could have been disastrous — but from our standpoint, as elections administrators, and if you talk to the directors of the county boards of elections, 2020 went remarkably well. We’re very proud of the work in 2020.

Since 2020, however, our jobs have gotten even more difficult, and I think the main reason is there’s a concerted effort by certain groups, fairly small in number, who believe the 2020 election was stolen and are doing everything in their power to try to prove it. This involves numerous public records requests, numerous data requests, in some cases harassment, in some cases threats. This is going on not only in North Carolina, but across the country…

We’re trying to prepare for the 2022 general election, which of course is a huge election in North Carolina … but we are spending unreasonable amounts of time trying to respond to people who believe the 2020 election was stolen. And in the past two years that has become a major part of our workload, yet we have fewer people to try to do it all.

EF: How many people work with you?

PG: Currently one, a data analyst. A few months ago, I had four people…We don’t have the funds (to fill two of the vacancies).

We used to have a website person who was responsible pretty much solely for maintaining the website. I now have to do all of that. I’m in the process of training a couple other people to work on our website, but currently, that’s falling to me.

EF: All those records requests — you’re legally obligated to answer all of them, right?

PG: We legally must respond to public records requests in a reasonable amount of time, or as “promptly as possible.” That’s never really been defined. We’re trying to respond as quickly as we can to every public records request. As you know, public records are things that already exist — they are documents, emails, letters, text messages. We’re not required to create any documents for the public. So we are trying our best to fulfill the requests to the extent that they actually are public records requests.

EF: Got a horror story about the past few months?

PG: Where should I go with that one…

So several months ago we had heard that there was a group that was going to go door to door in multiple counties asking voters about their 2020 vote. Basically, the group was working to try to find voter fraud. We got wind of this — it was spread across social media platforms. So we sent out an email to all of our county elections directors, because when these kinds of things happen, the county directors start getting phone calls — you know, “somebody came to my door, and they were asking me about the 2020 election.” People might wonder if those are actually election officials. In this case, they were not.

So I sent an email to all of the county elections directors just telling them, this may happen, if you start getting calls, this is probably what it is. You know, here are some things you can tell the voters and people who might be concerned that somebody is coming to their door to ask about their vote. My email somehow made its way to these fringe social media platforms, and I started getting bombarded with nasty text messages, phone calls, emails that were, you know, disturbing, and in some cases, a little bit frightening. Just for providing guidance for county boards of elections on how to respond to phone calls … So that’s one of many.

EF: You said “a little bit frightening.” What do you do when you get a communication like that?

PG: Fortunately, we have very good relationships with law enforcement, with other states and cities, with the Department of Homeland Security, with the FBI. We meet monthly with representatives from all of those groups. They are our partners. They help us respond to threats, harassment, cyber incidents … We just had a tabletop exercise with them last week, FBI representatives, Department of Homeland Security representatives, state Department of Information Technology, state emergency management, the Capitol Police, and others, along with multiple members of State Board of Elections staff, to kind of go through scenarios — what if this happens, what if that happens, how are we going to respond?

So what do we do when we get these threatening types of emails? We forward them to the FBI, and to our other partners at the request of the FBI. They have reached out to all elections officials across the country — there’s a press release about how to report these types of incidents. And when there’s reason to believe there’s potential harm, physical harm to a person, that is when they can investigate and prosecute.

The First Amendment, of course, is very important. People have the right to complain about the government, to complain about how the voting process works, things like that. But they do not have a right to threaten.

EF: Any criminal cases come out of your public interactions?

PG: Not that I’m aware of. They have in other states, where there have been very scary, very scary threats.

EF: So you’ve been on both sides of public records requests. I’m wondering if there’s something you have learned on the receiving end that would help people on the requesting end, or work to your mutual benefit?

PG: That’s a really great question. I think the ones that are most difficult are the fishing expeditions. I called them that when I was a reporter, and I call them that now. We’ve had folks ask for every email sent to or from our agency with the word “ballot.” Can you imagine the number of records that’s gonna pull up? That is extremely unreasonable. And that was for a number of years.

What I would suggest is reaching out to me or whatever agency it is, and saying, “Here’s what I’m looking for. What’s the best way to try to get that information?” Instead of submitting a blanket request that looks for every email from a certain person for five years, try to tailor the request as much as possible. And work with the PIO or the communications person or the attorney who’s handling public records requests, to try to narrow it down.

We spend an incredible amount of time trying to deal with public records requests. And it’s those that are extremely general or extremely broad that are the most frustrating, and it’s going to take the longest to fulfill them because, as you know, we have to review every page that we pull, for confidential information. Especially at the State Board of Elections, we have confidential information on every voter in the state — dates of birth, Social Security numbers, potentially driver’s license numbers.

EF: What else would you like for political reporters to know?

PG: Try your best to understand the elections process. Go to county board of elections meetings. They meet Tuesdays before every election to consider absentee ballots that come in and determine whether they were properly witnessed and signed, in order to count them. They should be having public meetings where they test the voting equipment, every piece of voting equipment, prior to an election. They do post-election audits in public — those are public meetings.

My recommendation would just be to understand the process. There’s so much political rhetoric out there about elections that’s simply not true, and the best way to learn is to immerse yourself in the process. I know people don’t have time to go to every single meeting, but if you’re covering elections, I would say it’s a must. There are a few reporters in North Carolina who have done that and done some great work as a result.

Our website, ncsbe.gov, also has tons of information. We’ve tried to put as much as we can out there.

EF: Do you miss reporting on elections?

PG: Not really.

EF: Why not?

PG: I see from this side — and I don’t agree with it, but I see more from this side — the amount of disrespect towards the media. It’s similar to the amount of disrespect that elections administrators are facing right now. And that just … you know, being somebody who worked so hard as a reporter to try to get it right, and to see how reporters are treated these days … you know, I think my time was done.

It makes me sad to see the way the media is treated, and the way there really is no truth anymore. Well, there is, but there’s no kind of baseline — this is true, and anything that’s different from this is not true.

And when I started in the media, that was not the case — the media was the go-to source for reliable information. It still is, but the public confidence in it is not there. And that’s because of a lot of misinformation, and also purposeful attempts to denigrate the media. It’s the same thing in elections — there are purposeful attempts to denigrate elections administrators who are just trying to do their jobs and do them the best they can. And it’s really unfortunate for both the media and for elections.

EF: Aside from helping folks gain a deep understanding of the process, what’s needed in campaign reporting?

PG: Any campaign reporting, or do you mean elections administration reporting?

EF: Let’s say the latter.

PG: Other than deep understanding of the process, I think just more reporting of the nuts and bolts of how it works, the fact that there are bipartisan eyes and bipartisan teams, from the county board of elections standpoint, the state standpoint, and the poll worker standpoint, there are Republicans and Democrats watching every step of the process. There are safeguards in place that have been there for years and years and years that elections administrators have to follow. They take oaths to ensure fair elections. I think a lot of people don’t understand what all goes into it, so that makes them more likely to believe misinformation.

Go talk to your county elections directors. Get to know the county elections officials. I mean, they can be skeptical of the media sometimes, and some of them are brand new. Forty-five of the 100 counties have new directors in the past three years. Some of them worked on the county staff or in another county, but that’s nearly 50% of our elections directors who have turned over in the past three years. Retirements, people who had basically done their duty, had been there for a long time, as well as just the demands — from a time perspective, from a resource perspective, and they don’t get paid a ton. In a lot of cases they’re understaffed and underfunded.

And people don’t understand that it’s a yearlong job. It’s not just two days a year. And then the threats and harassment are increasing. I think all of those things combined are contributing. Why work in a job that doesn’t pay you much, where you have to work overtime and then get disrespected on a daily basis?

EF: You’ve done that all your life.

PG: Good point.

EF: Anything else you’d like us to know?

PG: We have a problem with voter confidence, and I think in large part that’s because there haven’t been enough challenges to the people who are spreading misinformation and disinformation. There are not enough resources for elections officials to do that, although we’re trying.

You wouldn’t believe the stuff going on right now. I’ve spent the past two weeks providing guidance to the county boards of elections who are getting overwhelmed by public records requests. Mike Lindell had that symposium that has resulted in numerous public records requests, and they all look the same. Somebody said, “Here, send this to all of your elections officials” — so all of our county elections officials are getting the same requests, and they make no sense for North Carolina… I’m spending all my time responding to, you know, nonsense, from people who are gobbling up misinformation by the truckload.

EF: What are they asking for?

PG: They’re asking for what are called cast vote records. In North Carolina, cast vote records are confidential under state law. They’re basically individual records of every ballot cast… You can pull a specific report from certain types of voting equipment. In other states those are public records. In North Carolina, they are not.

So we’ve gotten, between us and county boards of elections, hundreds of requests for those over the past couple of weeks. We’ve gotten requests for poll tapes … or results tapes, and those can be multiple feet in length. We’ve had requests for every poll tape from every tabulator for every (polling place in every) county from the 2020 general election. So our counties are working to figure out how to scan those — they’re like a really, really long grocery store receipt. They’re public records, so they have to provide them.

We’re getting tons of requests on how we work with the federal government. Apparently, people don’t trust the federal government…

I mean, you name it. Kitchen sink. We’ve started calling it a “denial of service” because we feel like people are purposefully doing this, to muck up the works.

It’s just work (the county staffs are) doing, you know, when they’re not preparing for the 2022 election.

NC Local News Workshop