Joe Mansky never expected he’d become an elections expert.
After graduating from UW-Green Bay with an Environmental Science degree in 1977, Mansky worked as a hydrologist in Omaha, Neb. When his employer later went out of business, and amid an economic recession, Mansky moved to Minnesota figuring he’d have to do something else.
Now, he says, “I’ve been doing something else for 27 years.”
That “something else” started when Mansky took a chance job with the Minnesota Office of the Secretary of State, and evolved into his current status as one of Minnesota’s foremost election pros. As Elections Manager for Ramsey County, where the State Capitol of St. Paul is located, he’s overseen and advised on contentious recounts and controversial proposals.
With the landmark 2000 presidential election, he watched the position of elections official transform from behind-the-scenes worker to highly scrutinized public figure.
“That was the real watershed for us, the year 2000, (in) the Bush v. Gore race in Florida,” Mansky said, referring to that year’s too-close-to-call presidential contest. “For people that work in the elections world, that’s kind of like the Year One. Before that, this was not a high-profile role. Now the activities that we conduct are very high-profile, especially here in Minnesota.”
And also in Wisconsin, Mansky noted, because elections in both states have been close and contentious as of late. He still keeps in touch with friends in Green Bay, Milwaukee and Madison, and Mansky has been following the historic Wisconsin recalls and other turns of events during recent years.
Mansky watched with interest, for example, the Waukesha County vote miscount that led to the statewide recount in last year’s state Supreme Court race. Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus initially submitted incomplete vote totals that made it appear challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg had ousted incumbent David Prosser. In the end, the reverse turned out to be true.
“Anytime that something like that happens to somebody who is doing similar work, that tends to make all of us look bad,” Mansky said. “All we can do is double down on what we’re doing to make sure what we’re doing is correct all the time. … The public expects us to be 100 percent accurate, 100 percent of the time.”
That can be a lot of pressure, but also a lot of power, as Mansky is on the cutting edge of what’s next in voter trends and technology. Minnesota and Wisconsin have grappled with similar issues, such as voter ID, in recent months, and Mansky could be part of the former state’s solution to the problem.
Minnesota voters will take up a voter photo ID measure in a November referendum, but Mansky and many of his cohorts believe there’s a better way. In March, he testified before the state’s Committee on Finance about the proposal.
“As an administrator,” Mansky said, “my view is this: I am not of the view that you need to demonstrate your eligibility to me.” Among his concerns, Mansky said, is that looking at a photo ID is subjective, and there are better ways — and better technologies to use — to definitively establish someone’s identity. (After Voter ID became law in Wisconsin in 2011, two judges issued injunctions that kept it from being enforced when Badger State voters went to the polls in April.)
Among the biggest issues Mansky has overseen are the 2008 U.S. Senate recount, in which Democrat Al Franken narrowly bested Norm Coleman; and the 2010 gubernatorial cliffhanger that saw Democrat Mark Dayton eke out a win over Republican Tom Emmer.
These days, he’s keeping an eye on Wisconsin’s unprecedented recall elections, but doesn’t have to worry Minnesota will go down a similar path. That state’s law demands an allegation of misconduct to prompt a recall, which can’t be conducted for political purposes, Mansky said.
And although he’s taken an unexpected route to get there, Mansky says his UW-Green Bay education ensured he was well prepared for his current role. He still recalls the interdisciplinary activities of what used to be termed “Liberal Education Seminars,” and how they helped him to think critically and prepare for his unexpected career.
“The interdisciplinary approach was really valuable to me,” Mansky said, “and then, second, just the training in sciences, which teaches you to learn facts and see the facts for what they are. … I use those skills every day.”