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Former Vermont elections director discusses new job as a federal Election Security Advisor

Will Senning
Photo provided by Will Senning
Will Senning

Will Senning has been Vermont’s Director of Elections for a decade, helping make sure the elections process runs accurately and safely. He left that post this month to take a new position created in the Department of Homeland Security’s Department of Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

Senning spoke with WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley about his new job as an Election Security Advisor, but first reflected on the key challenges and how elections have changed over the past 10 years:

I would say that they've changed fundamentally and really significantly. And biggest challenges are weaved into that I would say. They're kind of a result of that change. I started in (Vermont Secretary of State Election) Division actually 13 years ago in the spring of 2011. That was an election administrator for two years. So then in the spring of 2013 I became director. So, 2014 was my first election. And back in those days, essentially, nobody really knew our division existed. Back in those days with elections you watched the results on election night. You got the result. You trusted it and you moved on. And the guts of that process, the administration to the election itself, wasn't really something that people thought a lot about and just trusted and assumed that it was going the way it should. And really all of that started to change in 2016, the presidential election in 2016, and then really kind of hasn't stopped becoming a bigger and bigger focus of people's attention since then. And 2016, it was a function of the profile of that election and then the realization that our elections were under sort of significant cyber influence from foreign countries. That was sort of the big news of that election: Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election. And it was after that election that actually the federal government designated elections as critical infrastructure, which is a pretty significant designation at the federal level. So it's akin to the power grid, the dams around the country and other significant critical infrastructure as the name implies. And so elections got designated as critical infrastructure which focused a lot of federal resources and attention and funding on sort of shoring up the cyber defenses around elections, systems and software. And just generally paying more attention to election security at the federal level and at all levels. Sort of in parallel to that, right, is the really disappointing, significant, unhealthy rise of myths and disinformation about election administration. Allegations of fraud, allegations of errors in the process, fraud via both cyber means through voting machines and the allegations against election officials themselves and just growing distrust among the voting public in the process around elections. And that growth of myths and disinformation really, you know, I use the term that the profile of election administration has just risen exponentially since then. You know, for the last six years at least, I work all day on the elections business, shut my laptop down at 4:30, go get in the car, turn the radio on and they're talking about absentee balloting. And then turn the car off at home, go inside, turn on the evening news and they're talking about election administration. So it's become a sort of 24/7 part of our lifestyle right now. And when it is focused on the job you do day-in and day-out that becomes really stressful and really tiring. And I think you've seen that as election officials across the country have been turning over at a way higher rate in recent years than they had previously.


Well, Will Senning, you're leaving to work for a new position that's been created in the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. You will be Region One, which is New England, Election Security Adviser. Can you say what you will be doing?


Yeah, I can. I am one of 10 Election Security Advisors. It's a new position that CISA has created. CISA itself is actually the newest federal agency. It's housed under the Department of Homeland Security. And they are the federal agency that's most responsible, I think, for managing the fact that elections now are critical infrastructure. And the election security adviser, as I said there are 10 of them. CISA's split into 10 different regions and Region One is New England. And the role of these advisors, I've been describing it as really kind of a two-way street. So my role will be to communicate down to state and local election officials across New England the services, products, guidance and training that CISA can provide to them around cybersecurity, physical security and operational security around elections. So, translating like I said, both the products, services, education, training that CISA has, but also sound advice about shoring up cyber defenses, shoring up election security in general down from the federal government that they can provide. But then at the same time I said two-way street. And I think this is as important or even more is for me to be a translator up from state and local election officials to that federal agency to try and communicate what they need. What they do gives CISA and all the people that know a lot about cybersecurity more knowledge about election administration itself. We're supposed to be a conduit both ways as people who know, have a deep knowledge of, election administration. It can help the agency do better in how it serves state and local election officials across the country. So really, in their recruitment I think their focus was on people who had a lot of experience with election administration. I know of at least three other former state election directors who are taking the role in other regions across the country. I was really excited. And I was really fortunate. I feel lucky. And I feel really honored to have the opportunity to use the experience that I've built over 10 years to help this agency do a better job at the mission it has.


One of the things that I'm curious about, and not to put any sort of damper on it, but you were talking about how stressful working directly with elections is becoming. How is this job going to be less stressful?


The way I answer that question, I've been asked that by a few people, is really the best way to describe it as there is nothing like being the actual election administrator and the person responsible for ensuring that the actual process of distributing and casting ballots and then counting them and certifying results goes off successfully. I don't think I will ever have another job that is as challenging as my job was as director of elections and sort of carried as much direct weight. The job I'm moving into is more a sort-of an ongoing guidance and training role. But I won't be responsible for actually making sure that every Vermonter gets the correct ballot style sent to them in their town.


Will Senning, as you move into the new position as an Election Security Adviser and becoming that conduit between basically the federal Homeland Security Department and the state's elections infrastructure, how crucial do you believe this work will be, especially as people seem to increasingly question election security, management and fairness of elections?


Well, I think that's precisely why it is so crucial. I just think that the more that people can see the effort that's being put in to safeguard our elections and elections processes, hopefully, the more that confidence will rebuild and that trust will rebuild in the integrity of elections. So that's sort of a perception answer, though, right? Just that the general public has the knowledge that government agencies at all levels are keeping an eye on things and making sure that people have the resources they need to put the protections in place that are necessary. It's always been a positive and a negative that the nature of election administration is that it's so dispersed down to the town level. Decentralized is the word I'm looking for. That, by its nature, adds an element of protection, right. There's not one point of attack that somebody can go to that brings down the whole system when there's 247 clerks dispersed around the state that are managing their little independent part of each election. But it also presents challenges. The primary one being resources and knowledge and training and turnover at those levels to kind of keep up with that. And one part of the job that I'll be doing is making sure that those state and local entities are aware of access to grants and funding that they can get from the federal level to supplement their local budgets for this stuff.


And how much of a learning curve do you have in learning about the elections processes in the rest of the New England states?


That's a good question also. Somewhat. But I've been here for 10 years. And actually one of my favorite parts of the director job was being part of a national organization of state election directors, known as NASED, the National Association of State Election Directors. We met two or three times a year where my counterparts from the 50 states would get together, exchange ideas, exchange information and experiences. For the last six or so years of that I was actually the Northeast Regional Representative to the NASED board. So I was the liaison to the board for the whole Northeast region, which was New England and then down the Atlantic coast a little ways to Pennsylvania and Maryland. So I got to know my election director colleagues in the six New England states really well, and a lot of their staff, honestly. And so I already have personal connections with pretty much each of those offices. I do have a pretty good idea of some of the nuances around the six states in New England. But always more learning to do and I look forward to it.


Will Senning, you will be an election security adviser. As Vermont Director of Elections and moving into this position, have you ever been worried about, or are you going to be worried about, your own security?


Yes is the bottom line answer to that, unfortunately. That stuff came to a peak during the 2020 presidential election and my office and individual members of my staff all received death threats and threats of all different wild natures by phone and internet at the office. And so really it's been four years now of getting used to being in a position where that's a reality. Of course, it's extremely unfortunate. And it's something I try not to focus on but it's always in the back of your head. I lock my door at night here in the small town that I live in where, whereas I never did before. I would hope that that nervousness goes down a little bit not being in the perch as the director. But the threat is still real in kind-of any position right now that has responsibility for oversight of elections. And it's really unfortunate and something we've got to try and combat and turn the clock back on.


Will Senning left his position as Vermont Director of Elections early this month and began his role as a federal Election Security Advisor on February 12th.





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