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To battle misinformation, more elections offices are hiring PR pros

Mallory Noe-Payne
Radio IQ
Katherin Cardozo-Robledo, Richmond's elections communication specialist, works on creating election officer spotlights for the office's social media feeds.

In less than a month voters head to the polls for the Congressional midterms and municipal elections. Talk to local officials running those elections and they’ll tell you their job has become busier in the past few years – complicated by the fight against misinformation.

Now local registrars are turning to communication pros to help wage that battle.

A few weeks ago, notices went out to voters in Richmond who had been drawn into new districts. But some of those notices had a mistake.

Keith Balmer, Richmond’s general registrar, notified the state department of elections, got the information fixed, and let the impacted voters know. But then, there was the backlash.

“The response to it from some voters was like, is this a hoax or are y’all trying to prevent me from counting my ballot in this election?” Balmer recalls.

It can be frustrating, says Balmer, to face such doubts. “Just a simple clerical error gets looked at through suspicious lenses,” he says.

The lie that the 2020 election was stolen is still circulating, often pushed by Republican candidates. Alongside that, other election misinformation continues to spread. And amidst that atmosphere Balmer is learning that his office’s job is no longer just running elections, but also explaining them.

“What that means for local election officials in 2022 is that they need to be aware of what’s being said out there, and they can’t just sit in their office in a vacuum,” Balmer says. “If you work in elections you should be in charge of your own narrative. Because if you’re not. Then somebody else is.”

That’s something local registrars haven’t always had to prioritize, and it can be a lot. Recently one Virginia registrar announced he’s stepping down after this election, specifically citing stress and what he called hostile efforts to undermine his work.

As another registrar put it to Radio IQ, fighting the war on misinformation is like playing whack-a-mole.

This is exactly why Balmer recently hired a full-time communication specialist, Katherin Cardozo-Robledo. Today her job entails visiting the local election officers who are working at early voting sites in order to highlight their work and info about them.

She goes around from person to person, taking a photo and asking a couple questions: how long they’ve worked in elections, what their favorite part of the job is.

She’ll use this to help fill the office’s social media feeds with election officer spotlights. They’ll get posted alongside information about same-day registration and redistricting. Cardozo-Robledo works to provide the information in Spanish as well as English.

“We do a lot on our social media accounts, whether it’s from informing people and also just showing what the office is about,” she explains.

For local registrars, having communication specialists is a relatively new phenomenon. Many election offices around the state have only one or two employees. Only a handful are large enough to have a dedicated PR person.

Tania Griffin recently started in the role in Arlington. She’s been able to take a lot off the registrar’s plate.

“(The registrar) was doing social media, she was dealing with the website, she was dealing with the press,” Griffin says. “So that’s a lot.”

A lot, because it’s all on top of the most important part of the job – running elections.

Griffin’s been focused on revamping the website and ramping up social media, all in order to clearly communicate new voting laws and procedures to the public. Being proactive with information, instead of reactive.

“I wouldn’t say I’m fighting a war, other people in my office might say something different,” Griffin says. “It’s more… these are the new laws, this is the information. I feel that (the public) think we are the trusted source of information.”

That’s important because other people are communicating to the public too.

For instance, at a recent Board of Elections meeting a man dressed as George Washington was passing out flyers with a QR code leading to conspiracy theories. Several public speakers echoed the conspiracy theories in their comments.

It’s a clear example of how easy it can be for misinformation to spread.

But Samantha Shepherd, Loudoun County’s office of election’s outreach coordinator, thinks the battle against misinformation isn’t unique to elections.

“I don’t think it’s just elections that are facing this ‘war’.... on misinformation. I think that it’s part of the time that we’re in,” she says.

At almost two years on the job, Shepherd is actually one of the longer serving folks in this role around the state. She says part of her job is making it easier to access information from the local election office than from other competing sources.

“We’re trying to figure out right now, all of us election officials, what the public wants, what the public needs to know, and how to give it to them,” Shepherd says. “Because for a while people didn’t, for lack of a better term, care about elections…. people would just think about us in November and then stop thinking about us.”

But now, elections and the state of our democracy is a political focal point year round. And local election officers are realizing that public relations are becoming an important part of keeping that democracy running.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Mallory Noe-Payne is Radio IQ's Richmond reporter and bureau chief.