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Why election officials are turning to public relations specialists

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

With early voting underway across the country during these midterms, local officials running these elections say their jobs have gotten busier and more complicated because of misinformation. So they're turning to communications experts in the fight. Mallory Noe-Payne of member station WVTF reports.

MALLORY NOE-PAYNE, BYLINE: A few weeks ago, notices went out to voters in Richmond, Va., who had been drawn into new districts. But some of those notices had a mistake. Keith Balmer, the city's local registrar, notified the State Department of Elections, got the information fixed and let the impacted voters know. But then there was the backlash.

KEITH BALMER: 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? Just a simple clerical error gets looked at through suspicious lenses.

NOE-PAYNE: Amidst that atmosphere, Balmer is learning that his job is no longer just running elections but also explaining them.

BALMER: If you work in elections, you should be in charge of your own narrative because if you're not, then somebody else is.

NOE-PAYNE: This is exactly why Balmer recently hired a full-time communications specialist, Katherin Cardozo-Robledo. Today, she's visiting poll workers who are staffing early voting sites.

KATHERIN CARDOZO-ROBLEDO: So it is very simple. I'm just going to take your photo, get your name and then ask you, like, two small questions about yourself.

NOE-PAYNE: She'll use this to help fill the office's social media feeds - little spotlights that humanize the folks who make the elections run.

CARDOZO-ROBLEDO: How do you like that photo?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That's not too bad.

NOE-PAYNE: She'll post it alongside information about same-day registration and redistricting, often in Spanish as well as English.

CARDOZO-ROBLEDO: We do a lot on our social media accounts just to - whether it's from informing people and then also just showing what the office is about.

NOE-PAYNE: For election officers, having communications specialists is a relatively new phenomenon. Tania Griffin recently started in the role in Arlington, Va. She's been able to take a lot off the registrar's plate.

TANIA GRIFFIN: She was doing social media. She was dealing with the website. She was dealing with the press. So that's a lot.

NOE-PAYNE: But across the country, many election offices have one, maybe two full-time staff, meaning media and public relations just aren't the priority.

JENNIFER MORRELL: I've talked to plenty of especially smaller jurisdictions who've just said, it's really just outside of our bandwidth.

NOE-PAYNE: Jennifer Morrell is with The Elections Group. They provide PR help to local election officials, who Morrell says are doing the best they can with limited resources.

MORRELL: And if we invested in elections like it was that sort of critical function in our democracy, every single election office would have a communications professional working for them. It's that critical.

NOE-PAYNE: It's that critical because if voters aren't getting their information from election professionals, increasingly they will get it elsewhere, like at a recent Virginia Board of Elections meeting where a man dressed as George Washington was passing out flyers with a QR code leading to conspiracy theories online. Samantha Shepherd works for the registrar in Virginia's Loudoun County.

SAMANTHA SHEPHERD: We're trying to figure out right now, all of us election officials, what the public wants and what the public needs to know and how to give it to them. Because for a while, people didn't, for lack of a better term, care about elections, right? Like, people would just think about us in November and then stop thinking about us.

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

For NPR News. I'm Mallory Noe-Payne in Richmond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mallory Noe-Payne is a freelance reporter and producer based in Richmond, Virginia. Although she's a native Virginian, she's most recently worked for public radio in Boston. There, she helped produce stories about higher education, including a nationally-airing series on the German university system. In addition to working for WGBH in Boston, she's worked at WAMU in Washington D.C. She graduated from Virginia Tech with degrees in Journalism and Political Science.