Amid nationwide exodus, BOE searches for new elections leader

Panel weighs importance of education, leadership style and experience in considering job description update

By: - October 10, 2023 5:02 am

Board of Elections Director Robert Rapoza is retiring next year. (Jocelyn Jackson/Rhode Island Current)

Wanted: Experienced administrator to head Rhode Island state election agency. Must have professional background in elections, management and leadership. Also desirable: social media skills, cybersecurity expertise and comfort fielding reporters’ questions quickly and calmly when scandals emerge. Desired start date: ASAP.

It’s a big ask, especially amid a mass exodus of local election administrators nationwide. Yet the Rhode Island Board of Elections (BOE) must attempt to find a replacement for outgoing executive director Bob Rapoza, who recently confirmed plans to retire ahead of the 2024 election cycle, which kicks off with an April 2 presidential preference primary. 

A subcommittee of board members is scheduled to meet Tuesday to debate details of the soon-to-be-posted job description. One thing the seven-member board overseeing the search and hiring process already agrees upon: The description needs an update over the existing two-pager used during the prior, 2017 search.

While many of the foundational qualifications – leadership and management, elections administration experience, communications skills – are still important, there are also new demands spurred by technological advances and post-pandemic changes in how people vote.

Early, in-person and mail voting, once scarce, are increasingly popular ways to cast ballots. Which means the head of the state elections agency needs to understand the extra security protocols they require, and the importance of promoting them through social media.

Applicants should have media savvy

Also crucial in the eyes of some: public relations skills. Two years ago, BOE hired a public relations firm, Advocacy Solutions LLC, to handle press releases and respond to questions from reporters. But it’s also important that the executive director, as the face of the agency, can address the press and the public, especially in times of crisis, said Jennie Johnson, a board member.

“We all saw with a couple of the challenges we had with the last couple of elections – signatures, problems with voting machines – that we really needed to be very responsive to the media,” Johnson said.

Rapoza, in contrast, has appeared reluctant to talk to the press, deflecting or even at times walking away from in-person questions. Johnson didn’t blame him; he wasn’t hired with that skill set in mind, she said.

Indeed, Rapoza’s promotion marked a turning point in the agency’s history, providing stability after the tumultuous leadership of his predecessor, Robert Kando, who was fired in 2016 after numerous clashes with the board and state leaders.

“Prior to Bob Rapoza, the position was usually held by someone politically connected with no experience in running elections,” said John Marion, executive director for Common Cause Rhode Island.

Rapoza was not available to comment.

Despite dodging press interviews, Rapoza brought other, much-needed experience based on his 20 years with the agency. He was plucked from a pool of 60 applicants, confirmed by a 6-1 vote of the board, according to a Providence Journal story at the time.

“Bob did a great job stabilizing the ship,” said Johnson, who was appointed to the board in 2018, after Rapoza was hired. “It’s no secret to anyone what had occurred previously. But now, I would like to see someone who is really out there, kind of forward-looking and able to speak publicly.”

Johnson stressed the importance of someone with “adaptive leadership” – oscillating between visionary, big-picture planning and delving into the day-to-day details.

Importance of strategic vision

To Marcela Betancur, another board member, those visionary qualities were more important than, say, writing manuals on election rules, which is one of the duties listed in the prior job description. While the state elections board is charged with handling voting equipment, counting ballots and certifying results, the director is not usually the person at polling places actually counting the ballots, Betancur pointed out.

“When I think of the executive director of a state agency, I think of someone who can set a strategic vision of the organization, an expert in what’s happening with elections and technology and voting access across the country,” Betancur said. “I’d rather have someone with strategic vision than someone who can do the nitty-gritty.” 

Ideally, someone would have both.

David Sholes, vice chairman of the board, suggested at least 10 years of elections administration experience as a minimum requirement.

But in an era when local elections officials are leaving their positions at a rapid rate, with 20% suggesting in a 2022 survey by the Brennan Center for Justice that they will quit before the 2024 presidential election, that level of experience might be hard to find.

“I am worried,” Betancur said. “Especially after 2020, it seems like a lot of people are retiring.”

She added, “I don’t think that making thoughtful changes to our job description will lead to a less-qualified person.”

Betancur also suggested reconsidering educational requirements, which currently state that candidates must have a college degree as well as a “current Certified Elections/Registration Administrator certificate.”

Betancur preferred the language used in the Maryland State Administrator of Elections job posting from earlier this year, which considered an educational background among its “preferred” qualifications.

“Higher education is important, but it can also be a barrier to accessing positions of power,” Betancur said. 

Of the certification, she added, “There are very few people in Rhode Island who would be qualified.”

Familiarity with Rhode Island election rules may be an advantage, but the board is planning to look nationwide, though where and how they will conduct the search is still being finalized. 

Marion remained hopeful the Ocean State could attract an out-of-state county election administrator, drawn by the prospect of a promotion, and potentially, a less contentious election climate.

And it needs to happen quickly.

“We are already so close to the next election, so it needs to be an expedient process,” Johnson said. 


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.