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How one county clerk in Michigan is preparing for a rocky election day

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When I met Justin Roebuck in Michigan earlier this year, he sounded determined to run an orderly and smooth election this fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JUSTIN ROEBUCK: This is America, and we don't stop voting for anything. COVID doesn't stop us from voting. The Civil War didn't stop us from voting. Tornadoes and floods don't stop us from voting.

CHANG: Maybe so, but this election cycle, Roebuck and local officials like him all around the country are facing a bigger storm than tornadoes and floods. We're talking about Donald Trump's campaign to discredit and overturn the 2020 election. It is still going on, and Justin Roebuck is still seeing it in his day-to-day job. He is the clerk for Ottawa County in western Michigan - a heavily Republican region - and his staff almost every single day fields questions and concerns driven by conspiracy theories and misinformation about voter fraud.

But Roebuck has an unwavering belief in the election system. His license plate literally reads, I voted. So on this eve of Election Day, we wanted to call him up and see how things are going. Justin Roebuck, it's so great to talk to you again.

ROEBUCK: Thank you so much, Ailsa. It's great to talk with you again as well.

CHANG: So how prepared do you and your team feel for tomorrow? Or maybe I should say, what are you prepared for?

ROEBUCK: Absolutely. I mean, I think, you know, an election is something that we spend months and months preparing for. And so from the sense of being prepared logistically and, you know, with the material we need and the training and all those preparations, we are ready to go, and we feel good about that process.

CHANG: That's good to hear. We should mention that you yourself are a Republican, and there have been threats against poll workers all around the country in the lead-up to this election. Are you at all worried about the safety of poll workers in Ottawa County tomorrow?

ROEBUCK: You know, I think safety is paramount in our minds as we are going into this cycle, and it has been for quite a while. We've been, you know, very communicative with law enforcement over the past many months. We held an election security roundtable discussion, tabletop exercise with our local clerks just a few weeks ago.

CHANG: A tabletop exercise - this sounds so militaristic.

ROEBUCK: You know, and I think, in terms of emergency management, you know, these are best practice sorts of things - right? - for major events. And when you think about an election and the critical infrastructure nature of our elections, this is a major event, and so we should be prepared.

CHANG: So can I just ask - these days, just how much of your time and your staff's time is taken up by responding to misinformation about the election?

ROEBUCK: Yeah, we estimate we're spending about 25% of our staff's time currently dealing with calls and questions, of Freedom of Information Act requests and concerns related directly to the 2020 election cycle. But we're also having conversations with people as well, and we're talking through those answers with citizens, just as we were, you know, a year and a half ago as well. As election administrators, our job is to be someone that our community trusts. And we need to make sure that we're doing the right things and communicating the right information and factual information consistently. And I think that that is the way to reach people. That is the way back. That is the way to trust in our process.

CHANG: I mean, you have invited people who've expressed concerns about the integrity of elections to come and see the process for themselves - you and I talked about that last time - you know, maybe even be a poll worker who processes ballots. Have people taken you up on that offer - people who are in doubt about the integrity of the system and who have signed up to be an election worker?

ROEBUCK: They have - many of them have. And I think what...

CHANG: Does that concern you?

ROEBUCK: Yeah, I think what's interesting is, I think we have this process where the vast majority of people, they may have questions about the process, but when they are presented with factual information from people that they trust, they want to understand a process and they want to know more. And I think there is a minority of folks out there who truly believe, you know, beyond a shadow of all doubt in their mind that their election process was stolen. And I don't know that we'll be able to reach some of those folks. But I think we have to be able to focus on the people who are willing to sit down and listen and talk through and dialogue about a process or certainly who are willing to step up to the plate and actually serve. Those are the people that we need to engage to bring our country back from the process where we have such mistrust in our elections.

CHANG: Justin Roebuck is the county clerk for Ottawa County, Mich. It is so lovely to speak with you again.

ROEBUCK: You too, Ailsa. Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.