At no other time in U.S. history has there been so much conversation (that sometimes dissolves into vitriolic debate) about election integrity. That makes JoMeta Spencer's achievement that much more essential. Spencer, elections office administrator for Ada County, was recently designated a Certified Elections/Registration Administrator, having graduated from a multi-year program through the Master of Public Administration faculty of Auburn University. Spencer is only the third Idaho election official to become a CERA grad. Her boss, David Levine, who secured his own CERA certification before becoming Ada County Elections Director, said he couldn't be prouder of his colleague's achievement.
As they ramp up their office for another high-profile election season, Spencer and Levine spoke with Boise Weekly about CERA certification, their department's rich history and the never-ending challenge of protecting the integrity of the vote.
Jo, how long have you been with the Ada County Clerk's office?
Spencer: I started in 1975. Someone said, "We're having an election soon. Would you like to help?" I thought that sounded like fun. I've been an election office staff member, I became an election supervisor in 2005 and when they brought David here, my title became elections office administrator.
Can I assume that you've hired a lot of people over the years?
Spencer: I'm very proud to say that when I became a supervisor in 2005, I hired Phil McGrane as an election specialist.
Wow, and now he's your boss's boss.
Spencer: He ended up going to law school, worked in the Attorney General's and U.S. Attorney's offices in Colorado, and then returned here as the Chief Deputy Ada County Clerk.
What's even more interesting is that Phil McGrane will be on the ballot this November. He's running for Ada County Clerk.
Spencer: That's right, County Clerk Chris Rich is retiring this year.
Levine: It's interesting to note that Chris Rich is one of the other two people in Idaho who have been CERA certified.
Spencer: The other was Dan English, the former Kootenai County Clerk.
And David, you were CERA certified when?
Levine: In 2015. I was in D.C. at the time.
How big a deal is CERA certification?
Levine: It's quite significant. This field is becoming more and more professionalized. In the past, election offices were primarily clerical. Now, we have people with impressive technical backgrounds or [who] specialize in the logistics of emergency management. Perhaps most importantly, Jo can be a significant resource for other election offices. At a time when the integrity of the election process has been under siege, it's more critical than ever to have people to step into the breech, get the knowledge and be calm, cool and collected in the toughest of moments. Jo embodies all of that.
How intense was the classwork for CERA certification?
Spencer: There are twelve core classes, and each class is a day and a half long. Plus, there are additional workshops.
So, I know there's an event in New Orleans, where your CERA certification will be awarded in a big ceremony.
Spencer: But I decided to have them send it to me. Honestly, I don't want to waste the county's tax dollars.
What's the biggest difference in this elections office from when you started in the 1970s?
Spencer: Complexity. When I started, we had punch cards. With the advent of the optical scan ballot, our ballots are very complex. One of the most challenging, but most satisfying, parts of the job is to see the whole process through: from building a ballot, to the training, to the management of staff, all the way to the election results.
A big part of that now in Ada County is early voting, which continues to gain in popularity.
Levine: And we're quickly coming up on early voting. Here's a bit of news: This year we're going to have three weeks of early voting in Ada County and, for the first time, we'll have early voting available on two Saturdays. It's all about reaching out to people to try to get them to be part of the process.
If you don't mind me asking you a personal question, Jo, what are your passions outside of work?
Spencer: My husband Dave and I have raised, trained and shown dogs in competition. Some of them have been ours, but we also show other people's dogs.
Spencer: Norwegian elkhounds and Norwich terriers all over the Northwest and in Canada. We've been doing that since the 1970s. At one point, we would do about 50 dog shows a year. We just show dogs occasionally now.
Can I assume that your home is filled with blue ribbons and trophies?
Spencer: We have a fair number.
And now, you'll have your CERA trophy. I understand that it's a very impressive piece of hardware.
Spencer: Yes, that's all nice, but if I may, I really want to say a word about my co-workers. Our County Clerk Chris Rich is an absolutely wonderful person. And David is a wonderful example of being a great leader.
Levine: Jo is too kind. She's always ensuring goodwill around the office. We even have a committee named... Well, I'm not sure I should tell you the name.
Well, now I have to know the name of the committee.
Spencer: It's the Bureau of Frivolity. You have to make sure that people are having a good time, especially when they work so hard.