Theresa Freed: [00:00] On this week's episode, you'll hear from Johnson County election commissioner Ronnie Metsker. He'll tell you about the very latest efforts to protect the integrity of local elections. They'll also share with you the many ways the County is making sure you get to the right polling place and in and out quickly. Finally, we'll talk to a volunteer at the polls who is just one of many people who make election day possible.
Announcer: [00:22] Whether you live in or just love Johnson County, Kansas, JoCo on the Go has everything Johnson County. Here's what's happening and what's coming up in the community you call home.
Theresa Freed: [00:35] Thanks for joining us for JoCo on the Go. I'm your host, Theresa Freed, a Johnson County resident and employee of Johnson County government. Today we're talking about our Johnson County elections office. This is one of the more high profile departments within Johnson County and they are constantly busy preparing for upcoming elections, coordinating volunteers, voter registration and polling locations. We have a couple of guests today who will help shed light on the complexity and importance of elections in our area. We have with us election commissioner Ronnie Metsker and also elections volunteer. Gabriel Sanchez. Welcome and thank you both for being here today.
Ronnie Metsker: [01:09] Thank you.
Theresa Freed: [01:10] All right. To get started, Ronnie, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came into this role and then also about the uniqueness of your office structurally within the County department?
Ronnie Metsker: [01:20] Certainly I'm appointed by the Secretary of State and that's established by a statute that was passed by the legislature in 1947. I'm actually the ninth election commissioner to serve in Johnson County since that statute passed. So it's been in place for about 70 years or so. And I came as an appointee by Secretary of State Kris Kobach and was renewed for another four year term in August of 2018. So we have a staff of 16 people full time in the election office. We're all County employees. And we have two major sections of what we do, which is one, the whole registration process, keeping track of 420,000 registered voters in Johnson County. We're nearing another all time high as we speak. And so we're growing every year and we have more voters to process. Anytime a person moves or re registers a with a different party affiliation, they need to have touch with us to update their voting record. The second part of what we do is the administration of elections and we'll be talking about that as we go through today.
Theresa Freed: [02:30] All right, so very important work there and I know some great improvements have been made, especially over the last year, I think. Just if you could talk a little bit about the investment the County has made to improve elections here.
Ronnie Metsker: [02:43] Well, yes. In the last three and a half years, we've made some significant improvements. Prior to three and a half years ago, just before the 2016 election we established not for spasmodically placed elect advanced vote locations throughout Johnson counties that had been for several years. But rather we, we discovered and created not four but six and they're consistent. They're, they're designed to be in perpetuity so that the voters can find a rhythm or a pattern as to where they prefer to vote in advance and heavily marketed that so that it's been very successful. Over 60% of the voters who voted in 2016 voted in advance and we had nearly that many in 2018 as well. So it's very successful. And this year we're adding a seventh location, so we'll have seven permanent advanced vote locations that goes on for two weeks prior to the election in an in an even year election and then one week before the election in an odd year election.
Ronnie Metsker: [03:47] So that's one great change that we've made. And then the second part I would say would be all of our equipment and most people will fully recognize we added pole pads in 2016 revolutionized how we check people in. It takes 35 seconds for a person to walk up to the table and get checked in and be headed off to vote at a voting machine. That's amazing. And then secondly, our new voting machines themselves, which feature a voter verifiable paper audit trail, which enables every voter to have a paper ballot of record. And this is really important for things like the audit or a possible recount.
Theresa Freed: [04:24] Okay. And so kind of speaking of that and along those same lines you hear a lot in the news about the security of elections and, and the possibility of them being compromised. What safeguards do we have in place to prevent that?
Ronnie Metsker: [04:37] We have been designated as critical infrastructure and so we're working constantly and continuously on security matters. We've been spending a lot of time, even most recently, we, we are engaged with the DHS almost every day, the division, the department of Homeland security as well as other initiatives that are going on with security as it relates to cybersecurity, physical security. We're very engaged with the sheriff who protects our properties and we are engaged with other experts on the cybersecurity issues. So this year also we launched for the first time our post-election audits. As we have been able to add that in as part of our validation of the accuracy of our elections. If there's ever a question, we can go back to the fact that we continuously do this post election audit in addition to any of the pre-election testing and auditing we do on the machines for their accuracy and their integrity.
Theresa Freed: [05:40] So do you feel like just the fact that everything is so technology-based now, does that make it harder or easier to do that kind of work?
Ronnie Metsker: [05:48] Anytime you use the word security, if you add the word cybersecurity to it, we may be safe today, but not safe tomorrow because you never know what's out there. And so we have to be constantly vigilant and continuously improving our security initiatives and we're using every resource. We have great support from the County, great support from the secretary of state and all those in the election industry to make sure that we have no compromises in our systems.
Theresa Freed: [06:17] Yeah. All right. That's very important. And I know we've got races that are coming up and I'm sure you guys do some predictions to, to figure out what's an expected in terms of voter turnout and have you kind of looked at that?
Ronnie Metsker: [06:33] We, we do historically a, for this kind of an election it's about 15 to 20%. And so that sounds low, but for this kind of election it might be good to kind of give a summary. One would be, let's start with the constitutional amendment, which has to do with how we go about the process of the census. It's very important because we need an accurate count. This has an effect on everything across the state, but it also has a significant impact on Johnson County. So this, this is an important question for people to consider. And the second issue that's all countywide would be the Johnson County community college board of trustees who governs and they also have taxing authority of the, of the public for that particular entity. From there, we go to a city councils, mayors, school districts, which are all kind of unique to each sub section of the County where the district is that it's serving. And so those are the issues that people need to be aware of, that they should focus. And of course right now someone is saying, well, how do I know what's going to be on my ballot to find out what is on each individual voter's ballot? Go to the website that we have his voter.jocoelection.org and it'll take right to the page where it's a voter look up and you can see your sample ballot in your precinct.
Theresa Freed: [07:52] Okay. And we of course want voters to be educated about their votes. And so is there a good way for people to do some research?
Ronnie Metsker: [08:00] The candidates are listed there, some of them, they have the option of providing to us a website or some other way that a voter can get information about the various candidates if they provide that information we listed, if they don't, of course we just have their name and their phone number and address listed. So advanced vote starts on October the 28th and lasts for one full week.
Theresa Freed: [08:23] All right. Very good. And we know that no elections here in Johnson County could operate efficiently without volunteers. And so Ronnie, can you talk about the need and the training that goes into getting volunteers ready?
Ronnie Metsker: [08:34] Yes. The volunteers that come to serve are primarily election workers. Some of them are supervising judges, others are assistant supervising judges, kind of a leadership role. But every polling location has to have a blend of representation from both political parties helping to assure the, you know, the accuracy and the integrity of the process democracy that we're seeking to help the voters be able to execute. And so we have about 1300 people who will be trained and we've been actually training them since the 18th of October already. And over the, these periods of days will be 18 classes and we'll have about 1300 people to be trained. And then they will be dispersed out into each of the individual polling locations for election day. About 150 of them were trained to staff the seven advanced vote locations that have that start today. October 28.
Theresa Freed: [09:34] All right. And are you seeing people come back time after time to help with the process?
Ronnie Metsker: [09:38] Oh yes. They love it. I warn the newcomers when they come in the door the first time to train for the first time I tried to say to every one of them, this is addictive. You're going to do it, fall in love and want to come back again and again and again. It's usually the case.
Theresa Freed: [09:53] All right. And we do have one of those volunteers with us. Gabriel you and I are both going through Citizens Academy right now and we got to hear from Ronnie recently. And he talked passionately about the elections process and I know you chimed in and talked about how much you enjoyed volunteering. So can you talk a little bit about that experience?
Gabriel Sanchez: [10:11] I think Ronnie is absolutely correct. A lot of the people that I worked with and a lot of people volunteer keep coming back. So that's definitely proof of the pudding. You know that it's a good experience. So I was hesitant at first because something new, it seems technical, you don't know what you're getting into, but the training was something that was really outstanding. It really walked you through everything you needed to do. There was a lot of I guess I would say support hand holding. You are now, you are never put alone or in a situation that's a stressful or you don't know what to do or no one knows what to do. There's a lot of resources to get you up to speed, to actually be able to, to work the election and do it. The other thing was kind of surprising to me was the sense of camaraderie that you get with your team that you work with.
Gabriel Sanchez: [10:54] You go to a neighborhood polling place and you're working, helping your neighbors vote and helping your community do something good. And you're with people that all want to help the community and feel the same way. So it's one of those rare times where everything aligns and you're doing a positive win-win for everybody. You're helping your neighbors do their constitutional right and vote. You're doing something that's important that the community and the country couldn't function without. And you're getting to volunteer and help out. And as an added bonus, you do get remuneration. You do get paid for volunteering as well as everybody's thank you. That was, I was pleasantly surprised how everybody that voted, you know, says, Hey, thanks a lot for helping out cause you don't have to put in your time. So overall it's a, it's a fantastic experience and I would really encourage those that haven't done it before to to try it once, try it once and you'll be hooked and you'll enjoy it and hopefully keep coming back for many years.
Theresa Freed: [11:53] All right. And is the appeal that it's just a great community experience or, or is it the excitement of it being an election?
Gabriel Sanchez: [12:00] So, so we live in a very polarized time and it's kind of nice to be able to do something involved with politics that doesn't have to be political. You're actually enforcing and doing something that's a constitutional thing that that's good and that's helping people vote. But you don't have to worry about politics in it. So it's like I said before, it's a, it's a win, win all the way around. You feel good about helping the community. You get to spend some time and see a lot of your neighbors as well when they come to vote, you see some people that you know so you reconnect and so on. So it really is a win-win all the way around. I, I can't stress enough that it's good for your community, good for your country and go through your soul to, to do something good and give back.
Theresa Freed: [12:44] All right, that's great. And Ronnie, how do volunteers get involved?
Ronnie Metsker: [12:47] Well, just go to jocoelection.org and right under the very top banner of the page is a link that says apply to be an election worker today. It's a hot link. Just click there and it will take you to a portal where you fill out an initial profile that will send your name and your primary information back to us. We will verify and validate that you are a registered voter in Johnson County because you can't be a worker unless you're a registered voter. That's, and you have to be 18 or above unless you are a student and you're 16 or 17 and have the signature of your high school administrator that you're a good student and an upstanding citizen. So that's how people can get involved. And there's a wealth of information that people might want to know about the Johnson County election office and our, the things that we do just by going to that same website, we get over a million hits a year. And so we have quite a, quite a few folks that are checking it out and we encourage people to just go there and look around. They'll, they'll discover there's a lot of information there.
Theresa Freed: [13:54] And while we're talking about the volunteers, you mentioned some high school students can serve as volunteers. And that was something that I thought was really interesting. Can you talk about how they are utilized on election day?
Ronnie Metsker: [14:04] Oh, absolutely. An election worker who is a student that's not 18 yet, but 16 or 17, as I just mentioned can come and they are a full fledged election worker. They're not a grade B or a junior you know an assistant or, or you know, something like that. They are full fledged, they work every single position in the day, in each position, throughout the all of all of the positions at the polling place during the election day. And you know what? Many of our election workers are a little bit older and they love having the, the youthfulness of a high school student coming to help. And the students seem to really like being around a lot of people that would, they would probably view all of them as grandmas and grandpas, but you know, how we are when we're young. We think somebody that's 40 is very old and so, and so they, they really, it's a great blend. And every, you would think that the general, the generational thing would be, you know, questionable. It's, we have found it to be a wonderful blend.
Theresa Freed: [15:09] All right. And just one last question. We didn't quite get to this yet, but when you talk about the wide variety of people who come out to volunteer, we also want to talk about their wide variety of people who come out to vote. How are we working to accommodate people of all abilities when they come to the polls?
Ronnie Metsker: [15:24] Well, first of all we, we comply with the Department of Justice's requirements for ADA compliance and remediation. And so that means if a facility or some of the equipment is not is not ADA compliant, then we do remediation initiatives. And if it's not able to be remediated, then we remove and replace our, all of our equipment is ADA compliant. Those who are without site or they, they can't they can't hear what are the options available to them? It's amazing. Our equipment is a certified and has to be ADA compliant. So we, we seek to meet the needs of every person. You can, you can be in a wheelchair, you can sit all of those features if, if you're blind. We have braille connections. And so it's, it's amazing
Gabriel Sanchez: [16:21] The, the technology and the training as well. Just to chime in on that. Yes. The, the election workers all have a set of procedures to pretty much most of any situation you can come up with that will happen. They will make sure of the main goal, which is to help the Johnson County citizens vote. That's the main goal. That's what we want to do. So we, we take every step possible to make that happen.
Theresa Freed: [16:42] All right, so final message is just to get out and vote. If you're passionate about election day, you can also volunteer, right? Absolutely. All right. Thank you so much, both of you for joining us today. Thank you. All right, thanks for listening.
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