I. In Focus This Week
Kevin Kennedy bids adieu
Q&A with outgoing Wisconsin GAB director
For 30 years the name Kevin Kennedy has been synonymous with Wisconsin elections.
He joined the Wisconsin State Elections Board in 1979 and became that board’s executive director in 1983. In 2007 he became director and general counsel for the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board.
This week however, Kennedy’s long career in Wisconsin elections comes to an end the the state’s Government Accountability Board is disbanded and two new boards, one to govern elections and one to govern ethics are created.
Before he hits the dusty trail (literally) we sent him some questions for an exit interview. In bocca al lupo Kevin!
I know that your retirement is perhaps bittersweet, but what are your thoughts about your time at the GAB coming to an end?
I am excited to leave in summer, which is beautiful in Wisconsin. I look forward to being able to decompress by savoring the wonderful Wisconsin outdoors. Wisconsin has a great collection of State Parks and the Ice Age Trail provides an incredible opportunity to appreciate the unique geology of Wisconsin.
From a professional standpoint, I regret not being able to complete my 10th presidential election cycle. The past 37 plus years have provided a rare perch from which to observe Wisconsin and national politics. However, I will not miss overseeing the next biennial budget or the transformation of our nonpartisan Board of decision makers into an evenly-divided group of partisan commissioners selected by the legislative leadership.
Fortunately, I leave behind an incredible staff who not only have made me look much better than I am, but continue to care passionately about serving the voters of Wisconsin to ensure accountable, fair and transparent elections.
What would you say has been the biggest change you have seen in elections during your tenure?
Two things really define the changes in elections since April 1, 1979: First, an increased scrutiny of all things related to election administration from voters queuing up in lines to the processes of how we deliver ballots and count votes; Second, the response of the election community to that scrutiny by embracing technology, accountability and transparency to ensure confidence in our electoral process.
Elections are the foundation of our society and we owe it to the voters, the candidates and the myriad of observers to provide a smoothly functioning process that engenders confidence and can be easily audited for accountability.
What was the most difficult time/issue you faced as director of the GAB?
Clearly, it was the “troubles” of 2011-2012 brought to us by the letter “R”! Nine state senate Recalls, a statewide Recount and Redistricting from the “top down” rather than the traditional “bottom up” approach in 2011 - followed by four more state senate Recalls and the Statewide Recalls of the Governor and Lt. Governor in 2012, which included a Recount of one of the senate Recall contests.
All of this was happening in a politically charged atmosphere with more than 100,000 protesters in the capitol building and on the surrounding grounds beginning in February 2011. The G.A.B. was a relatively new agency, having begun operations in January 2008. We were inundated with complaints and questions from all sides relating to campaign finance, ethics and election issues from perspectives that had not been encountered before.
What do you feel was your greatest accomplishment and why?
Successfully navigating the turbulent times of 2011 and 2012. We reviewed over 2 million recall petition signatures; successfully prevailed in all 11 lawsuits challenging our decisions; and certified, conducted and canvassed 15 recall elections while securing public acceptance of the outcome of these challenges. I heard from many, many people that our handling of the recalls and recounts inspired confidence in the integrity of the process, even if they were not happy with the results.
That being said, recruiting and retaining some of the most incredibly talented people to work at the G.A.B. was the foundation of that success.
What will you miss most about working in elections in Wisconsin?
The people! Working for a dedicated non-partisan citizen board of former judges who were trained decision-makers gave me a sounding board for the challenges the agency encountered. The committed, innovative, passionate and highly-professional staff brought inspiration to me on a daily basis and confidence that the work would be done well and timely. Our 1,926 local election partners (1,854 municipal clerks and 72 county clerks) who were on the front line of election administration in Wisconsin. The candidates, state public officials, lobbyists and media that we served brought a sense of purpose to each work day. The 4 million plus voters, three million of whom showed up for presidential elections, was the raison d’etre of working in Wisconsin elections.
As an expert in the field of elections, where do you see the administration of elections headed?
I see increased professionalism among state and local election administrators. I see innovative uses of technology to better serve the voters. I see continued funding challenges with an increasing scarcity of resources available to election administrators.
What’s next for you, besides being able to sleep in on election days?
First and foremost time off with my family, including a two-week trip to Tuscany, coinciding with our August partisan primary. I hope to observe elections abroad and in the U.S. I plan to be engaged in the continued improvement of elections as a consultant
Any parting words of advice for the new Wisconsin Elections Commission?
The voter is paramount. Numbers are essential to evaluating and measuring performance. Be accountable, fair and transparent.
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