Your Vote Matters
Regina de Heer: What election did you care the most about and why?
Kim: This last one we just had, with Biden winning. It was important because people don't understand their rights.
Nasta: The Trump election, just 2016. Just because it was so dramatic. Literally a reality TV show.
Anonymous: Yes. I would say FBoy Island, at this point ,is like--
Regina de Heer: You don't get to vote at FBoy Island.
Anonymous: Well, you could. What do you mean?
Katie: I mean, I ran for class president in high school, so that was the only campaign that I have been a part of that I cared a lot about.
Speaker: The Trump-Biden election definitely, in this country, was the most important anywhere. I'm 57. Biggest political event for me before that was probably the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Regina de Heer: Did you vote in the midterm elections?
Nasta: No. [chuckles]
Anonymous: No. I haven't. I can't say that I've even been up-to-date politically as to what's happening.
Kousha Navidar: Welcome to the show. I'm Kousha Navidar, filling in for Kai Wright. Democracy, it's a big word. It's heavy, abstract. Even its definition gets debated, but what about the word vote? Now that is concrete. It's an action, and it's very personal. As you heard, whether it's voting for President of the United States or president of your high school class, everyone's got a story about voting. For me, it goes back to when I became a US citizen. I'm 16 years old, in upstate New York. At my naturalization ceremony in a room of maybe eight other people, all older than me. Everyone who speaks during that ceremony congratulates me on becoming a citizen and tells me what a big deal it is that I get to vote. As a 16-year-old kid, I remember thinking, "Wow, this is a lot of pressure." [chuckles] I took voting seriously because, for me, it wasn't a given.
Now presidential elections were easy, but throw in midterms, special elections, city council. It was hard to keep up. Clearly, I'm not the only one who thinks that. The midterms are fast approaching, and they'll likely receive a fraction of the people who vote in presidential elections. Some would argue that it's the other elections, the smaller ones, that are even more important than the presidential for your local community.
I want to know what gives. There are so many systemic issues that get in the way of increased turnout, but what about the personal obstacles? Can we talk about what makes people excited to vote, and can that inform a way to help us-- I don't know- make voting better? Roxanna Moritz is the former Chief Election Officer in Scott County, Iowa. Not only has she spent a career trying to promote and protect voting, she's also faced the threat of losing her own voting rights because of her work. Roxanna, thanks for coming on.
Roxanna Moritz: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.
Kousha: Absolutely. Let's get started with your own story. You've been in public service for over 20 years. What drew you to focus on voting for your profession?
Roxanna: Well, originally, I moved from Florida to Iowa in the early '90s, and I hadn't participated in voting up until that time. I moved into a community and an area of the city that I moved to that I felt like needed some work. It appeared to me that it wasn't getting the city's attention that it needed to have, so I got involved. After four years of living there, I ran for city council.
I think if you want to affect change, you have to be part of change, and you have to be involved in that process in one way or another. I lost my first election, but I learned a lot. I stayed involved, and I ran again. On my second time, I won. I served three terms on city council. I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish for the community and decided to retire from that position. Then I ran for County Board Supervisors, and I served a half-term there. I say a half-term because our Commissioner and Chief Election Officer at the time passed away.
From running all those campaigns, I had gotten really involved in how important it was to vote in every election, no matter who you are or who is running, that we each have a voice, and each one of our voices really really matter. I ran for that position and was elected in 2008, reelected in 2012, reelected in 2016, and then reelected in 2020. Five months after being reelected, I chose to leave the position.
Kousha: What happened? Why did you choose to leave the position?
Roxanna: 2020 was a very difficult year for many of us as election officials. We knew it was going to be tough going in in 2019 because all presidential elections are very stressful. Then we added COVID to that and all of the things that had to be changed, there was no roadmap to a worldwide pandemic. We were all doing just what we needed to do to make sure that we ensured that we had a fair and honest election, that people saw that it was a good election. I left because there just seemed to me to be a partisan divide. I think I started seeing it around 2008, where it was no longer just what was best for the citizens in the community. There was a definite division of each party. I really didn't feel like I had the support of both parties. My board of supervisors was dominated by Republicans.
I missed a code section, one code section, one sentence that said I didn't have the authority to pay hazard pay to my poll workers. Because of that, the board wasn't sure what I had done illegally, but there was a lot of chatter, and of course, social media plays a role in it. I'm still under investigation right now from the state auditor whether I did anything wrong or not.
Kousha: You missed one sentence, and that caused a lot of backlash, it sounds like? What was that experience for you after having been in the position since you said 2008, right?
Roxanna: Right. I still experience anxiety over it. During COVID and all of the national media attention that was happening in 2020, we were just trying to move as quickly as we could to get all the safety things in place for COVID, for the primary election. I missed it in the primary, not in the general. We are going into COVID. We were about 60 days in, and I missed the code section. I felt like people should be paid if they felt like coming to work, being part of the process, and being at risk of getting COVID. The new law changed, which was Senate File 413, which makes it that there's an opportunity for you to be charged with a felony and find up to $10,000 for misconduct, at the discretion, I-
Roxanna: -guess of the Secretary of State.
Kousha: Yes. You were exposed to that, and you decided, pack up my bags 2008 to you said 2020. Time to go to new horizons, I guess, right?
Roxanna: Right. It's not only a felony. I lose my right to vote if you're charged with a felony. I think we all take those things very seriously. I see that around the country is that you're losing the institutional knowledge that's been in place because of the threats and the underlying bullying that goes on with the partisanship in the elections field. Most chief election officials just want to do their job. They just want to put on a good election.
Roxanna: Make sure everybody that has a legal right to vote, like you being a citizen, has the right to come out and express their voice. Use their voice to make a difference in democracy.
Kousha: Let's talk about that partisan divide they're talking about. Maybe zoom out a little bit. With that two decades of experience you've got, do you think anything's changed about the spirit of voting, especially when it comes to less publicized elections like the midterms, during the time that you've served?
Roxanna: I do. I think as you slowly seen that shift of the partisanship that people just really feel like their voice does not matter. I lived in a county where our congressional district in 2020 was the closest of any election in a hundred years. It matters. Every single vote matters, no matter what election it is. Every voice needs to come to the ballot box.
Kousha: Can we dig into that a little bit for a second, though? Sorry to interrupt you. It's just I hear from so many people I hear from friends. For instance, they say, "My vote doesn't matter." Now in the abstract, it's hard to feel like when you put your ballot in the ballot box that it's going to move the needle. When somebody says something like that to you, "My vote doesn't matter," what do you say back to them?
Roxanna: I tell them that my husband won by five votes in his first city election. His first term on city council, he won by five votes. Rita Hart's election was less than a hundred votes. It is very important that even if you feel it doesn't change the needle, that you're part of democracy, that you take that issue to heart, and to mind that we live in a country that gives us fair representation. Like you said, when you became a citizen, it was a huge issue for you that you were going to be able to actually participate in your governance, in your democracy. That comes through your voice, and it comes through your vote when you go to vote. Whether that's a city election, a school election, a midterm election, or presidential election, every one of those elections matter.
Kousha: There's a certain amount of irony in the sense that if your concern is how much impact a single vote has, it's actually often the smaller elections where your vote could go further. What do you think are the biggest challenges that get in the way of participation in these smaller elections, either systemic or individual motivation?
Roxanna: I think there's just not enough education, and I know that's a hard thing to wrap around because we always say, "Just go educate the voter," but because in your large elections, like your presidential election, then down to your midterm elections, you see national news. You see radio ads for the campaigns. You see campaign workers out knocking. In your smaller elections, you just don't have the dollars that are spent that you see in the bigger elections, and so you don't have the publicity for people to know what's going on.
We all live very, very busy lives. No one knows what someone else that's life pattern is. Is that someone working two jobs who doesn't have time to invest to find out? Is that someone who can't get to the bus during the day to get to a polling location? We really have to challenge ourself to make sure that we reach out to people in a way that we can educate them on all elections. I am a strong proponent of like what I call auditor on the roadshow. Let's go out in every election and let's share with people the election equipment that we use, the processes that we use, to educate them and empower them to want to go vote.
Kousha: When you think about folks that don't have that office, what could they do as individuals to move the needle? Is there anything besides education because I feel like that's the answer I always hear. Is there something else that you've seen that works?
Roxanna: Get involved, be a poll worker. Work for the county commissioner and election. Get invested. Share your stories about when you went to vote, whether they're good or they're bad, whether you feel like you made a difference or not, but stay involved. We need to work with our high school students. We need to work with our college students. I'm not sure if I heard this in your intro, but when I was raised, I went to the polls with my parents. It was a generational thing where we were taught the importance of voting, and so you got that when you became a citizen. Are we culturally teaching our children the importance of their voice and their vote?
Kousha: You feel like that doesn't happen as much anymore, or it's just different?
Roxanna: I don't think it happens as much. I think people live very, very busy lives. They're not engaged because we can see that by the voting patterns of who votes. I think we need to make sure that we're teaching our children what that democracy really means. That what people have fought for this country for us to have the right to go to the ballot box.
Kousha: Let's pause it there. I'm talking with Roxanna Moritz who's the former chief election officer from Scott County, Iowa. We'll take a break, and when we come back, we're going to hear from people around the country about what got them excited to vote. Whether it was in a political race or get this, naming parts of Pluto. Now that part gets me really excited. I'm talking about Roxanna Moritz, and we'll be right back.
Kousha: Hey everyone, quick plug. This Wednesday, we're doing a special event talking about NFTs. That's the digital technology that's changing how artists distribute their work, and it could change even more in the future. The event is called Unriddling NFTs, and it's brought to you by the Green Space, which is WNYC's performing arts space. We'll be talking with BIPOC artists about what NFTs are and what it allows them to do as creators. If you want to check it out, you can watch the event on our YouTube channel. It'll be live-streamed and on demand. We'll leave a link in this episode's show notes. All right, thanks.
Echo: Hi, my name is Echo, and I live in Austin, Texas.
Andrew: My name's Andrew.
Claire: This is Claire from Milwaukee.
Echo: The last time I was really excited to vote was in the 2016 presidential primary. I had turned 18 a couple weeks before. Bernie Sanders represented my views more than anyone else I'd seen in major politics. I haven't been excited to vote since largely because that just doesn't feel like it makes a big difference when Democrats do win.
Claire: My first election I was able to vote in was the 2016 presidential election, but the election I was most excited to vote in was my senior year of college. I was part of a sorority, and I remember the last election for the executive board feeling so important because I felt could have made or broken the success of the sorority for the next year.
Andrew: I'd like to start off by saying I voted in every US election since I've been able to. That said, the most important election for me was the naming of features on Pluto and its moon Charon supported by NASA and the International Astronomical Union in anticipation of New Horizons fly by on July 14th, 2015. I lobbied really hard to get features named after creations by satire legend Terry Prachett. It was really important to me because base Pluto and Sir Terry Prachett are all magnificent beyond description.
Echo: The time I was most excited to vote was my first presidential election in 1992. My sisters and I had turned 18. We were all in college at different universities. We came together for a weekend visit, and we had our absentee ballots retrieved from our parents' house. I remember us sitting on my older sister's dorm room floor, punching our ballots. To me, this was something great. We were adults now making some difference in the world.
Kousha: Welcome back, I'm Kousha Navidar. Now the voices you just heard were messages we received from around the country. We asked people to send us stories about what election got them most excited to vote, both political and non-political elections. Thanks to everyone who submitted a story. I'm joined by Roxanna Moritz, former auditor and commissioner of elections in Scott County, Iowa, and Roxanna, listening to those messages, were there any themes that stuck out to you?
Roxanna: There were. Two, as I previously said, the last one where they said they all came together, as a family and as sisters and they felt like adults, was a generational thing so they had been taught or they felt the importance growing up of like, "Oh my gosh, when I turn this age I'm going to be an adult because I'm going to get to vote," like what you said in your intro. The other ones, they were passionate about something that they wanted to see change in and they followed through and were motivated to go and vote. The one that saddens me the most of all three was the first one who voted and then felt disenfranchised because her candidate did not win. We don't always win in elections. You have to take it for what it is, stay involved and if you want to see change, make a difference by keeping to your values of voting and going to the ballot box and hoping and working for those campaigns, so I was saddened to hear, she felt disenfranchised.
Kousha: I hear that, and another thing that stuck out to me, especially that you mentioned was the excitement that "I have a personal stake in this," and to me, it just makes me wonder, is there anything we can take away about that element of it to address in elections that are local? Saying excitement about city council, a lot of people are excited, but a lot of people aren't. Is there something we can do there, or is there anything that you've seen that bucks the system in that sense?
Roxanna: In every interview I always do, and especially the presidentials that I've done in the past, I always say I'm always enamored by the fact that people are not that enthused by their city elections or their school board elections because that is where they can make the most difference. That's where they can actually touch somebody. They can go to their office. They can have input. They can go to the meetings. They can speak. That's where their dollars go, and they can see that budget. I'm always just taken aback by the fact that they don't feel like they have impact there, but they do in a presidential election. I just think it really is a motivational challenge for us, and I know this is the word you hate 'education.'
Kousha: I love education, just with the record, but yes, I hear you. [chuckles]
Roxanna: A way of looking at how we can look at this outside of the box of just what that word is in education. What does that mean? What are the tentacles to that? How can we deliver that to our younger generations in a way that becomes accepting to them to where you get to where the sisters sat around the table and had their absentee ballots, and were so excited to be adults? How do we challenge ourselves to look outside of that arena, and how to bring that to the younger individuals?
Kousha: I hear that. It's reframing and reinjecting the spirit, I guess, is what I hear you say. Let's pause there for a second and bring back Roxanna in a second, but to get voices from all around the country, I'd like to bring on somebody else. We partnered with station KUOW in the Seattle area to ask for stories from their community. I'm really excited about this because it's the first time I think this show's tried that. We're joined now by Zaki Hamid, Director of Community Engagement for KUOW. Hi Zaki.
Zaki: Hey Kousha, how you doing?
Kousha: I'm good, thanks.
Zaki: Thanks for having me on.
Kousha: Oh, totally. I'm so happy to have you here. You used text messages to talk to your community. Walk me through that a little bit. What did you do, and what did you find out?
Zaki: Sure. We have a club called the Community Feedback Club and people opt into this and when they do, we send them about one or two texts per week asking for feedback on or story ideas. We sent out a text, and we were saying, "Hey, we're partnering with this great show in New York." We asked them a question, "What election did you care about the most and why?" We said any election political or not. One of the cool things that's popped up was that systems was really top of mind for the people that wrote in, and specifically three things I want to point out. One was people talked about a vote by mail. People feel really protective of that system. We have a vote-by-mail system here in Washington state. We've had it for many years, but I think people feel protective of that system, especially because vote by mail came under some scrutiny by some especially by some in the GOP in the 2020 election.
I'll give you an example. Lisa wrote and said, "I care very much about all elections, local, state and national. I guess I have the most fear and concern around national elections because of voting systems in other states that suppress votes and are open to manipulation. I think Washington's mail-in voting is very secure, and we've had good election laws that are fairly enforced." That was a pretty cool example there with that system and we got several messages about two other systems-- approval voting and ranked-choice voting- that makes sense because here in Seattle in this November, voters will be able to choose if they want to adopt rank-choice voting or approval voting. Both electoral models allowed voters to pick multiple candidates. As you probably know, because I know you have this in New York, rank-choice allows voters to rank their candidates by preference while approval voting tabulates all of the votes evenly. If either is passed, it will go into effect in Seattle for city attorney, mayor, and city council elections.
Kousha: Let me just pause you here for a second because since we're talking about rank-choice voting, I just want to shout out Bridget Bergen, who's WNYC's city hall and politics reporter who has done a lot of work to cover and explain this arena. If you're listening and you want to find out more about what rank-choice voting is, you can go to our website, wnyc.org, and search for that term rank-choice voting and read up on a lot of her coverage. Sorry to interrupt you, Zaki.
Zaki: Yes, no worries.
Kousha: Please keep going. What else did you see?
Zaki: I'm going to give you a couple of examples here people texted in about those two systems that we just mentioned. Dan wrote in and says, "I hope rank-choice voting and approval voting can take prominent roles in these discussions. I think rank-choice voting is an important step we can take to allow voter wills to be better represented and push against polarization." One more I want to mention here. I think this is pretty cool. Anne wrote in saying, "My most personally rewarding elections have come from the adoption of rank-choice voting in both my reading group and my charitable giving group. Rank-choice voting is a method that means if your first choice doesn't win, your second favorite could. Our votes continue to count, and a significant degree of satisfaction remains. Civility reigns, and partisan misbehavior declines. Just ask Alaskans." I thought that was pretty cool that she adopted that in something that is more personal to her, which is her reading group and charitable giving group.
Kousha: Seattle likes systems, I guess.
Zaki: Yes. [chuckles]
Kousha: Can you tell me a little bit about that? What's unique about the Seattle community in the responses that you got?
Zaki: They're very engaged. Seattle's a really engaged group. Our voting percentages are pretty high. I think a lot of them are engaged on looking for ways to continue to make voting more fair and to make it really accessible. We've had a great secretary of state, Kim Wyman, who was a Republican, but had left now the office, and Steve Hobbs have taken over. She is incredibly passionate about making sure that our voting systems are fair and just make it really accessible to everybody. I think Seattleites really care about that.
Kousha: I want to give a shout-out to everybody in the Seattle area that helped Zaki out with this and brought us their insights. It's really special to have it. Zaki, before we let you go and thank you so much for partnering with us on this. Can you tell me a little bit about your own voting story?
Zaki: Oh, sure. [chuckles] Just a little bit of background. I came to the states in '94. I'm an immigrant. I'm Palestinian, but I was born and raised in Jordan, and I got my citizenship in July of 2001. I was really excited to finally be registered to vote. I was registered to vote in New York, but by the time the 2002 midterm elections came, I was in Delaware, and I missed the deadline for requesting an absentee ballot. I couldn't vote in 2002, and that-
Kousha: I know.
Zaki: -just really weighed on me. By 2004, I was now in Seattle. The first time I got to vote was in February of 2004, and it was a special election. There was only one thing on the ballot, which was a school levy. A foregone conclusion because here in Seattle, we love school levies, and we always overwhelmingly approve them. Only about 30% or so of eligible voters actually ended up voting in that election, or I think in registered voters. I just was so incredibly happy. Back then, we had to go into a booth, so I did manage to experience of going to the booth and pulling and just voting for that levy. That just meant the world to me. It was the first time I was ever able to vote in anything in my life, and to experience democracy like that, it was addictive. I've never missed a single election since.
Kousha: Oh, wow. Started with school levies, and it just grew from there. I love it.
Zaki: Yes, exactly.
Kousha: Zaki Hamid is the director of community engagement for KUOW. Thanks so much, Zaki.
Zaki: Yes, thanks for having me.
Kousha: Absolutely. Roxanna, I want to turn it back to you in a lot of Zaki what he got from his community. I heard this focus on systems, and it's interesting because it feels like there's a tension between whether the idea of voting itself should change with how we consider votes to be tabulated. For me, it's like a constitutional argument almost, like originalist versus living and evolving. What do you think about that? Especially as new systems and options, rank-choice voting, for instance, come up, what does that resonate for you?
Roxanna: First, I have to say to Zaki, I have chills when he talked about what that meant to him to vote. He took it so seriously, and he felt bad when he wasn't able to vote in the first election. I wish that every single individual felt and experienced what you and he both have done and felt. Rank-choice vote, I'm really not familiar enough with it, but with systems, everything he said about his texts, about the vote by mail, and how protective Washington is about that is the opposite for some of us in the Midwest who use election equipment. Not me specifically, but people challenged the thought of how safe vote by mail is much like how they probably feel how safe our equipment is.
Vote by mail would definitely encourage more people to vote. If we can't get a vote by mail, we had two auditors-- oh, I'm sorry- three auditors in the primary election in 2020 mail out absentee ballots to every single registered voter, and they were sued. They lost because there was a law in Iowa that says you can't do that. Many states are trending towards making it less available to get to the ballot box. It's less days to get an early vote. While I would love to see a vote by mail like Zaki has in Washington, our legislators are taking us clear to the other side of the spectrum. Less days, more restrictions, harder to vote, making it harder for individuals to get out to vote. I think the challenge is how do we get them back to the other side to see the importance of every single vote matters?
Kousha: With those challenges coming up and after all you've been through and seen, do you get discouraged?
Roxanna: I get discouraged in the fact that our legislators don't understand the importance of every single vote. Rather that's a Republican, a Democrat, or an independent, we all have the right to voice our concerns at the ballot box. The most important thing is to understandm much like what Zaki and you are saying, we live in a different environment now. If everyone was mailed a ballot, and they could sit at home, and they could take time to research who they were voting for and mail it back, we might have more of an engagement across the United States for every election.
We seem to want to scrutinize, and while that's a very progressive state, Colorado is, California, where you have vote by mail, we don't seem to be in the rest of the country, moving towards making it more available. We seem to see those other states that are making it more restrictive. Iowa was the first one to pass the less days for absentee and the penalties for elections officers. In Iowa, we have absentees, but we went from 40 days to 29 days to now 20 days. If we have UOCAVA votes, which are votes for military people overseas, if our ballot has to be ready 45 days ahead of time for those individuals, I think we should make that available for all of our citizens in our counties, in our states, so that-
Kousha: I see.
Roxanna: -they can vote early.
Kousha: Let's wrap this up then. If you had to think about one takeaway that you want folks listening to have about what it would take to increase voter turnout, what would you say to them?
Roxanna: Absolutely their voice and their vote matter, no matter what election it is. Get involved, lead by example. go to the ballot, put your voice out to action. Make it happen.
Kousha: That's wonderful. If you get the response of "Yes, but it just takes up too much time. I've got too many things in my life." What would you say to that person?
Roxanna: Your life is dictated by the votes that those individuals are going to make, so it's very important that you understand that every single office that there is, whether it's school board or city council, they're affecting your life in one way or another, and it matters how you are voting, how they're governing, and that's the true sense of democracy. One vote for fair representation.
Kousha: One last one for you, why is this so important that people vote in every election, even the smaller ones?
Roxanna: I say a lot of that is the commitment of those people to put themselves out there and even run. Support them for wanting to step up. School board, especially, I don't know in other states, but in Iowa, they don't get paid, and they put lots of hours and time in to ensure that our children have the policies and procedures in place. Understand those people are out there working on your behalf. Whether you support what they're doing or you don't, stay involved.
Kousha: Can you tell us a little bit about how you stay involved right now?
Roxanna: I'm running, I am actually. I don't live in Scott County anymore. A couple of counties over, but I'm running a statewide senate campaign.
Kousha: Oh, wow. Are you being able to translate what you've learned about voting through that position of what you're working on right now?
Roxanna: Oh, absolutely because there's so much information out there and much like what Zaki used with his text messaging, there's a lot of opportunities to use technology to benefit us all through the election process. Even if your commissioners of elections were able to send out a text to everybody letting them know where their absentee voting sites are.
Kousha: Got it. Roxanna Moritz is the former chief election officer from Scott County, Iowa. She spent more than two decades in public service. Roxanna, thanks for joining us.
Roxanna: Thank you so much for having me today.
Kousha: The United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC studios. Our theme music was written by Ennis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Mixing by Jared Paul. Milton Ruiz was on the boards for the live show. Our team also includes Emily Botein, Regina de Heer, Karen Frillman, Rahima Nasa, Kai Wright. I'm Kousha Navidar. As always. I hope you'll join us for the live version of the show next Sunday at 6:00 PM eastern. Kai will be back with a special announcement we're all really excited about. You'll definitely want to take note. Until then, thanks for listening. Take care of yourselves and each other.
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