Nov. 29, 2022

An Election Lawyer and Lobbyist Who Builds Relationships to Preserve Democracy

The 2022 midterms may be over, but who are the election lawyers behind the scenes? We found one – meet Katherine Knox. 

Election law piqued Kate’s interest during a law school internship, and she hasn’t looked back. As one of the most highly regarded lobbying and election law attorneys in Maine, Kate has helped pass groundbreaking legislation (including the first ballot initiative on same-sex marriage nationwide), worked with countless candidates at all levels of government, and serves as general counsel to the Maine Democratic Party.

The law wasn’t her first career stop; Kate spent ten years as a clinical social worker before attending law school. Her emotional intelligence and passion for relationship building and working on a team to get results led her to a flourishing lobbying and election law practice at Bernstein Shur in Portland.

In this episode, Kate shares how managing relationships and loving the energy of a chaotic legislative floor are the keys to successful lobbying. She also talks about how the tone of the 2022 midterm elections affected her counsel around election rules and ballot protection. Listen in to hear some fascinating stories from this standout Sticky Lawyer.


Guest Insights

  • Kate represents candidates, campaigns, PACs, corporations, trade associations, public interest groups, and is general counsel to the Maine Democratic Party. [00:25]
  • Pursued a Master in Social Work after college and spent 10 years as a clinical social worker, where she did policy work for the Social Work Association and testified before the Maine State House. [01:06]
  • Transferable skills from social work to lobbying included understanding people’s motivations and knowing how to support them. [02:46]
  • Lobbying is dependent on the strengths of your personal relationships with lawmakers and other advocates. [03:13]
  • EQ and relating to people are extremely important to creating successful outcomes for clients. [05:02]
  • She wasn’t set on pursuing election law in law school, but a summer internship gave her exposure to lobbying, and client questions led to an interest in election law. [06:21]
  • Explaining what an election law practice looks like due to strict laws around the whole process. [08:13]
  • Election integrity is now a huge focus of her practice due to election scrutiny and rules around ballots. [10:51]
  • Because politics are tribal, the odds are low that a Republican campaign would request her counsel. [12:10]
  • Honesty with clients is how she approaches her lobbying practice, and she is clear about not exploiting personal relationships with elected officials while giving the facts of an issue. [15:57]
  • She loves lobbying and the relationship part of the practice, and the amount of energy in the room. [17:04]
  • Election laws are complicated, and she likes being able to clarify them and being the roadmap for people. [19:12]
  • Election ads are much more confrontational now, requiring conversations with candidates about libel and slander. [20:41]
  • Ethics Commission complaints are now a common campaign tactic. [21:52]
  • The 2020 election’s impact on 2022’s midterm elections prompted the rise in absentee voting, and that volume is a challenge. Everyone was fearful and nervous about election day and being at the polls. [24:20]
  • Kate chose to bridge election law and lobbying by not overthinking it. The seasons matched to keep her busy all year and she sees them as separate practices. [27:30]
  • Helping others and building relationships has led to a fully referral-based business. [30:33]
  • Greatest career moment #1: Marriage equality in Maine. [33:25]
  • Greatest career moment #2: Rank choice voting – the hardest lobbying she ever did. [36:02]
  • Much of what happens in the legislature is not based on new ideas; lobbyists lobby around the same issues over and over again. [40:21]
  • Upgraded technology has been successful in creating very transparent databases that prevent voter fraud. [42:39]
  • Voter ID is an old construct that comes out of attempts to restrict the right to vote, mostly for people of color. We should all care about everyone following the same rules and everyone having the same kind of access. [44:03]

Links From the Episode

Transcript

John Reed: [00:00:00] Hey, here's a word that's become pretty scary recently. Election. Kind of makes you want to run and hide behind a stack of absentee ballots, doesn't it? My guest today is Katherine Knox, an equity shareholder at Bernstein Shur in Portland, Maine. Her practice includes both election law and lobbying, which I'm told is a rare combination that distinguishes her from other election lawyers across the country.

Kate represents candidates and campaigns from local school boards all the way to the governor's office, political action committees, corporations, trade associations, and public interest groups. And she also serves as general counsel to the Maine Democratic party. Kate Knox, welcome to the podcast.

Kate Knox: [00:00:42] Thank you so much. What a pleasure to be here. Thanks for that nice intro.

John Reed: [00:00:46] I'm always interested to know the guest's origin story, so let's start with that. Tell us the number of years between college and law school and what you did.

Kate Knox: [00:00:57] College and law school was, oh, this is, this is a little bit embarrassing.

John Reed: [00:01:02] I didn't mean to start out with math. I'm sorry,

Kate Knox: [00:01:04] Probably 15 years. Yeah. And before I went to law school, right after college, I went to get my master's in social work, and I practiced as a clinical social worker for almost 10 years in Maine. And I loved it. It was a great job, but I always had a pull toward law school and a policy pull.

Even though I was a clinician, I did a lot of policy work for the Social Work Association and took me to the State House here in Maine several times to testify and advocate for various policies that social workers care about.

And then I had one of those moments in life that you look back on as kind of a transitional moment and I decided, you know what? I'm going to go to law school. And I think I probably wasn't confident enough to go to law school until I was in my thirties. I always knew I wanted to go. I just didn't quite have the sequence in my mind. And for me, it worked out perfectly. So, when I went to law school, I had worked for a long time. I knew what a privilege it was to be in school full time, and I was able to kind of indulge my, my second career interest in the law, and now I sort of have a dual existence, although I'm not technically a social worker. I use a lot of those same skills.

John Reed: [00:02:38] Why don't you talk to us about that? Tell us about the transferable skills of being a social worker to what you do.

Kate Knox: [00:02:45] Yeah, it's interesting. People always, when I, when I first said I was going to law school, they thought it was insane, which, you know, is fair. But to me, it made sense in that what you learn, certainly as a clinician in social work school, is how to really dig deep and try to understand people, what motivates them and what helps them, what you need to do to help and support them to get wherever it is they want to go.

The same is really true in the lobbying practice. So, it is almost completely -- it is a legal practice -- but it is completely relational. So, it is very dependent, in my experience, on the strength of your personal relationships, at least in Maine, with lawmakers, with other advocates, with everybody around you because it's, it's quite a rough and tumble kind of process.

It's talking to people in the hall, in the bathroom, and trying to talk them into things. And really, at its heart, trying to understand what is it that everybody at this table wants? So, you can see if you can get everyone to that place.

John Reed: [00:04:00] I've conducted now, for 20 odd years, an unscientific survey. And the hypothesis is that with exceptions, some of the most well-adjusted, fulfilled lawyers I know are those that did something in between college and law school who had a career and made a conscious decision to run towards the law as opposed to run away from whatever they were doing.

You certainly sound like you have that you. You look at a law firm front door or the sign on the building and it says “attorneys and counselors.” You've done that. I mean in both senses of the word, both the clinician, but also as the legal counsel. And you very articulately stated that just like a patient, you're helping your law clients achieve their goals; get to a certain objective. I would imagine that the EQ that you developed clinically is of tremendous value in what you do.

Kate Knox: [00:05:01] It's hard to overstate that. And I say that to the students I teach at Maine Law all the time. You are going to be surrounded, in your professional career most of the time, by people who are just as smart as you.

It's not necessarily people who are successful in the practice of law. It's not necessarily the smartest people at law school. It's not necessarily the top 10. It's people who have those additional skills that you just described, like EQ, who can figure out how to translate academic smarts and intellectual smarts into very practical, everyday relational kinds of tasks.

You have to be super creative and use a lot of different kinds of skills to come up with something that you can get across the finish line, which is the most important thing. And that really does feel like a success to your client.

John Reed: [00:06:01] So, let's go back. You made the decision, the very mature decision to go to law school, and when did the idea of election law come into the picture? 

Kate Knox: [00:06:13] I feel like much of my life was falling into things sort of on purpose. I put this in that category. So, I was not a person in law school who said, “oh, I want to do election law,” or “I want to be a lobbyist.” I didn't really know. I knew I didn't want to be a family law attorney because I’d had that experience on the therapist side, and I wasn't really interested in it. I wasn't sure.

And so, I just tried to be open in law school. And I think the great luck of mine falling into Bernstein Shur was that they allowed us in our summer program to kind of rotate and do whatever we wanted to do, kind of like, “here's some ideas.” And I got approached, “Hey, do you want to go to the state house someday?” And I thought, “yeah, sure.” And I went and I loved it. And I thought, “wait, this is like -- lawyers do this?” And that was the lobbying practice. And then pretty clearly became interested in election law because you get asked a lot of questions as lawyers.

So, I'd form relationships with candidates, and they would say, “Hey, do you know if I can/is it okay if I reuse my signs from my last campaign?” And I'd say, “well, I don't know. Let me look.” And I really liked that. I liked the interface with the different kinds of candidates and different groups. And for me, I was lucky there weren't a lot of other people here doing it. So, I just became an expert by virtue of being interested in it, and now it's, it's as big a part of my practice as my lobbying practice.

John Reed: [00:07:52] Someone you meet at a party over the weekend says, “what do you do?” And you tell them you are a renowned and accomplished election lawyer. And then they ask, “what does that mean?” How do you define your practice? To the layperson that asks you what you do as a lawyer?

Kate Knox: [00:08:07] It's really hard. So, I either say election law or lobbyist, and I get the same look from people. One of sort of puzzled horror. So, what I say about election law is that elections are one of our most, sort of, sacred processes we have in the country.

And as a result, election speech, political speech falls into a very different category than other kinds of speech. It's protected, but there are also very strict rules about how you interact with voters, what you're allowed to say to voters, and what you have to disclose to voters. Those rules are designed to protect the integrity of the election process generally.

I just finished a marathon, two months of looking at everybody's ads and making sure that all the cross-references are correct, and all the disclaimers are correct, and people don't realize how strict the rules are. How big someone's face is on the ad. There are rules about that, how big the font is, how long the ad is, how long you have to state a disclaimer, very specific rules.

And if you break the rules, the consequences are not insignificant. Whether it's a PAC or an association that do a lot of this work, whether it's canvassing or TV advertising or consulting with candidates, they have very, very strict rules to follow. They always joke that my job is to keep them out of jail.

That's not actually true most of the time. But to make sure they can exercise their right to political speech but follow all the rules to make sure they don't get in trouble.

John Reed: [00:09:50] I should mention that you said the last two months because we are recording a week after the 2022 midterm elections, and you sound chipper So good for you.

Kate Knox: [00:10:01] Yeah, don't I sound good for just two weeks after the elections?

John Reed: [00:10:02] Exactly. To put a couple more fine points on your practice, probably terms that people would immediately recognize beyond what you described, which of course, is so important, getting down in the nitty gritty, it's candidate eligibility, it's communications to voters.

As you said, it's campaign expenditures. Candidate and campaign ethics. Any other kind of tip-of-the-tongue terms that you would use that the everyday person would recognize from the papers?

Kate Knox: [00:10:34] Yeah, I think those are all true, and I would say contributions have become a big one. Right? Who's giving whom to what? And how transparent those contributions are. That's become a much bigger part of my practice after the Citizens United Supreme Court case.

The other thing, which is very front and center now, and we're still doing right now, is election integrity. So, the three days before the election, all I did was interface with towns and are they emptying their drop boxes on time? Who's getting an absentee ballot? How are they processing those ballots? What kinds of machines are they using? They ran out of ballots. Are they following the proper procedure for requesting additional ballots? There is a tremendous amount of work that goes into making sure those elections are secure.

And given all the additional scrutiny we've had over the last number of years about how elections work, that has become a much more prominent part of my practice. Knowing the rules about how to cure absentee ballots and what the rules are about machines and the different types of machines, because there are a lot of them. We used to do not much of that. And now it's a tremendous amount of what we do.

John Reed: [00:11:52] I mentioned that you are the general counsel of the Maine Democratic Party, and you've told me that most of your clients' campaigns, whatever, are on the Democrat side of the political aisle. Is the partisan die cast for you in terms of the clients you represent? I mean, how likely is it that a Republican candidate or campaign is going to call you up anytime soon and ask for your counsel?

Kate Knox: [00:12:19] That’s an interesting question. I think the odds are low. I think the die is cast is an interesting way to put it. I do think that at a certain point in your career, you have, you know, picked a side, sounds a little dramatic, but maybe not for most parties and political parties, but also organizations who are spending big money.

On the national level, and those folks do tend to play in Maine because we're cheap, and a lot of our election laws allow them to do broader activities than other states, they're not as interested in a bipartisan election attorney. You know, people are, as we all know, very tribal, and they consider themselves to be on one side or the other.

When you give someone, especially in a very high-stress environment like an election, and you're telling somebody, “I think you should do this,” or “I think you should file an ethics complaint,” or “I think you shouldn't file an ethics complaint.” They need to trust that you believe in them and that you're on their side.

If they don't, and politicians are very funny like that, you know, they want to feel you are on their team, no question. And I think that would be harder for them if they didn't know what my history and my other client relationships were.

John Reed: [00:13:49] And I get that in terms of the election side of the practice. On the lobbying side, you represent corporations somehow seen as always evil, and yet they know your skills, and they engage you and retain you to fight equally hard for them for whatever their policy interests are. It sounds like there's a wall then between elections and lobbying when it comes to the partisanship.

Kate Knox: [00:14:12] Well, it's interesting. I have wondered this myself over the years. So, I think that, in many ways, the election practice is very helpful. It allows me to know the candidates when they get elected, they have a sense of trust with me that transfers from that.

It's a disadvantage on the opposite side, right? I have no relationship with the Republican candidates, and particularly if I've been before the Ethics Commission against them, it can be a little bit tricky. I try very hard. It's just sort of my personality and the way I practice generally to be calm, graceful, not aggressive.

I can certainly be aggressive in how I'm applying the law, but personally not aggressive. And I think that helps me at the State House. I hope my reputation is as an honest broker, so I'm not going to pretend to be something I'm not. But many times, in Augusta, what I find interesting is, many of my clients would be considered to be on the democratic progressive side of policy, but many are not.

And I'm just excruciatingly honest with people. Here's my client. They're not really interested in having their product regulated by the state, and here's why. I find in Maine that often if you are really honest with people, they don't feel like you're being tricky; they’ll hear you out.

John Reed: [00:15:39] You have this interesting relationship -- back to that word again. There's probably a number of a, a vast number of people in the State House that you represented or at least sided with in their candidacy, along their political careers, and now you're going back to them, and I'm sure a lot of your lobbying clients are aware of that.

Kate Knox: [00:15:57] I think one of the things I've tried to do is be really careful not to exploit that initial relationship.

You never want someone to feel like I am exploiting a genuine personal relationship if I'm lobbying them. I try to be very clear. You know, “Can I switch gears for a second? I really want to lobby you on this particular issue.” I sense we probably won't be aligned on it, but I definitely want to at least have the conversation so that I don't, I try to not have there be any confusion about me being a genuine, friendly face to them versus somebody who's trying to talk them into something.

John Reed: [00:16:38] It's kind of like being a journalist and meeting with a friend and saying, “Hey, now we're on the record.” You know? There's a point of demarcation in the conversation.

Kate Knox: [00:16:49] That's a good analogy. I like that.

John Reed: [00:16:51] Yep. I obviously heard the passion in your description of what you do, but to go even further, what do you really love about what you do? What are the aspects of your practice that you enjoy the most?

Kate Knox: [00:17:04] So I enjoy on the lobbying side, which was very hard during Covid, I really enjoy the relationship part of the practice. I really enjoy just being in that atmosphere where there's a lot going on, it’s a little bit chaotic, it's a lot of people, but there's a ton of energy in the room, and I am definitely a person that feeds off energy.

So, I like that generalized kind of atmosphere. And I also love about lobbying that it requires a ton of creativity. And a lot of people, if they come to the State House, it drives them mad because to them it's just chaos. There's no offices in Maine, there's very little staff. It's catch and catch can. I'm grabbing this person in the bathroom, I'm brainstorming something in a corner, and then running over to grab someone else.

I personally have always found that very energizing. I work better in a group, in a team. In that kind of an atmosphere, I thrive in that. It can also be exhausting, but it's invigorating. And on the election side, those laws are so complicated. It is a nice feeling to be able to really understand something that not many people understand because you can often just clarify things for people quickly.

When they call me, they're either panicked because they've done something wrong or they want to get involved, but they don't really know how to get involved. I like that feeling of being able to say, “I can be a roadmap.” I know how to do this, and you can do it. You just have to follow my directions. Yeah, which they don't always do.

John Reed: [00:18:54] It sounds like on the election side, you're an interpreter. And as complicated as election law is, as you’ve stated, you get your yayas out interpreting it to people that in a million years wouldn't sit down to study it and decipher it the way that you can for them. Is that fair?

Kate Knox: [00:19:13] I think it ties back to that social work, wanting to be of service, and helping somebody through something difficult. And I will tell you that about half of my election law work is dealing with people who are already in trouble, right? They've gotten a call, they've done something wrong, and those calls are very scary.

There are some criminal penalties, and the financial penalties are very significant. And so, there is something about walking with somebody in that space that I've always been comfortable with. People in distress don't necessarily scare me if that makes any sense. So, I'm able to say to somebody, “it's going to be okay. Here's what's likely to happen; here’s what I can do.” Being able to say to them, “I know how to deal with this, and I'll help you deal with it.

John Reed: [00:20:06] Stating the obvious for a moment. The volume and the temperature have been turned way up over the last six-plus years. Vitriol, acrimony, intimidation, violence, unfortunately. How has the election law landscape changed in Maine and how has your work changed in relation, I mean, you mentioned that election integrity, the substance of that has changed for you, but in, in terms of the landscape and the practice, how have you had to adapt to what you've experienced?

Kate Knox: [00:20:38] Yeah, it's very different than it used to be. People use this term all the time, but it, it's very divided. It's very partisan. Some of the ads that I review now, nobody would ever have dared to put those ads on 10 years ago. Just the level of confrontation to the other candidate, the things we say about other candidates.

The conversations that I have to have with my own clients now about libel and slander, defamation to say, “Look, you're saying some pretty nasty things about this person, and when you do that, you open yourself up to a different kind of potential liability and backlash.” I never had those conversations 10 years ago, never.

The other thing that's changed a bit, although it's still intact in me, is that if there's a violation of some sort, and, and let me be clear, there's violations all over the place. People make mistakes all the time. I see mail that comes to my house, and I say, “oh, well I can spot four mistakes in that one.”

Whether or not people then tend to ask the Ethics Commission to intervene. That used to be a very high bar. I would say to my clients, “Look, unless somebody stole money or is, you know, lying about you, we don't go to the Ethics Commission.” You know, the Ethics Commission is for really substantive complaints.

And that over the years has changed into a little bit of part of a campaign tactic, and everybody does it on all sides. I'm going to file a complaint and then I'm going to run an ad that says, so and so's under investigation by the Ethics Commission. So, election law itself has turned into a Gotcha situation.

It's been weaponized, right? It's been weaponized and you know, I constantly struggle with myself about, you know, it's my job to represent my clients, but it's also part of that responsibility to say to them, “if you do this, these are the likely outcomes on the back end. You file this complaint and they're going to file two against you.”

So, helping people navigate that because when you're in the heat of an election, people's judgment is not what it is like today, 10 days after. It is very personal. They're investing a lot of their personal time. The attacks are very personal. So, my function as, sort of back to what you said earlier, John, as like a counselor comes much more into play.

What are you trying, what's your goal here? Are you trying to embarrass somebody? Are you trying to make them pay a lot of money? Are you trying to just be able to say they're being investigated? I try to break that down with clients so I understand and sometimes help them understand exactly “what do you want the outcome to be here” because sometimes what they want the outcome to be and what it's actually going to be are two completely different things.

John Reed: [00:24:04] So a little bit closer in time. In the lead-up to the 2022 midterms, what was different from 2020? What of the aftermath of 2020 made things different for this last election?

Kate Knox: [00:24:19] Two things. The level of absentee ballots people used was phenomenally increased. I'm a firm believer in absentee ballots, and Maine has a very open absentee ballot law.

I think a lot of people use them, quite frankly, to stay away from the polls, and I understand that. But the volume of them presents some challenges, and so how you cure those ballots, absentee ballots have a whole, very specific set of rules. So, we were dealing with a lot of absentee ballot issues.

Everything in my mind tied back to people being quite fearful and nervous about election day itself. So, poll workers were nervous, towns were nervous, we were nervous. Normally it's no big deal for you to say, “oh, we're going to do all our voter production from the Bernstein office on Tuesday.” Nobody was telling anybody where they actually were, and that's, that was all safety.

Lots of people very, very physically uncomfortable, and nervous about what's going to happen if I go there. Right? Is there going to be violence? Are people going to lose their tempers? That uncertainty. I have never seen that before. I haven't seen that level of physical fear. And I can tell you in the rank choice voting tabulation that's being done right now in Congressional District Two, that has been a huge concern.

That's all the ballots are in one room; are people going to show up and protest? And of course, back to my earlier point, the whole election system is fundamental to the functioning of the nation. So, I love a good protest. I don't have any problem with that, but people are scared that a protest is going to turn into violence.

We were very lucky we didn't have any of that, and we didn't even have anybody losing their temper in lines, things like that. You know what I think of as COVID creep? Everybody kind of forgets their manners a little bit. We really didn't have a lot of that, but it was very present. It's the first time I've ever felt it to that degree, I think.

John Reed: [00:26:37] It did feel heavier, didn't it? Yeah. The atmosphere was just heavier last week.

Kate Knox: [00:26:42] That's a perfect description. It felt thick and heavy, and at the end, the next day, even knowing we had recounts and other things to do, I had this tremendous sense of lightness like, “Phew. Okay. We made it through. Nothing bad happened.”

All the machines worked, and we didn't have any violence and I do think for a lot of people there was, expressed or unexpressed, a real fear about what might transpire on election day.

John Reed: [00:27:18] Let's lighten things up a little bit. Okay. You've indicated that there are election law practitioners, and then there are lobbyists and government relations lawyers. How did you bridge that gap and how were you able to build a successful practice that includes both of those areas?

Kate Knox: [00:27:38] I think the fear for many people is what you touched on earlier, which is doesn't one negatively impact the other? Right? Wouldn't it be hard to work with Republicans in the legislature if you were a very visible Democratic lobbyist? I think that's the fear for many people.

I think I was naive to that fear until I'd already done it for long enough that I realized, you know, this works out fine for me. It may be a sense, it may be an example of how I didn't it and just said, “oh, I love these two things, and their seasons match.” Election work is basically August to December and lobbying in Maine is January to June.

So, for me, they worked perfectly in a law firm setting where you have to figure out a way to be busy all year. So, for me, a bunch of things happened where I just started doing it and the synergy was okay for me, and the firm was very supportive. And I will also say they're relatively independent practices.

I mean, I do have an amazing team and I consult with them all the time, but I knew early on I was never going to be a person who was a transactional lawyer that sat at my desk doing contracts. There's nothing wrong with that. It's just not my personality.

I had these two opportunities. Both of them involve always talking to people, not in the office very much. Lots of independence for how I do things in my schedule, and that fit for me. And as I always say to law students, you’ve got to find the kind of practice that fits with your personality or you're going to be miserable.

John Reed: [00:29:40] There's the adage that success breeds success. You help a candidate, you help a campaign, and they talk to somebody else. Has your business grown more through referrals than, let's say, other partners in your office?

Kate Knox: [00:29:54] Again, it's all relational. I work with a couple of big firms in DC, and I remember the first time this happened, I got called by one of them and they had a client that had gotten in trouble and said, “we don't practice in Maine, so we wanted to pick your brain on something.”

And I said, “yeah, absolutely.” And I just dug in with them. You know, they weren't a client; I wasn't sure I was going to get paid. I don't think they actually paid me, which was okay. But at the moment I just thought, you know what? This person's asking me for help and I'm going to help. That was probably 15 years ago, and ever since that time, they send all their people to me.

It has been my experience that the more you put yourself out there, help people try to create a relationship with them -- and again, it has to be authentic; it can't be fake -- that ends up paying back over the years. So that now I would say my practice is entirely referral. I don't even know where people hear my name. You know, somebody told me to call you and I'm thinking, I'm not sure I even know who that person is, but I feel very blessed. That's where you hope you end up at 20 years of practice. But that's worked well for me.

I was never good at… maybe they don't tell you this anymore, but in law school, they used to say like, you should write an article. I never did that. I just tried to genuinely help people when I got asked and put myself out there as somebody who cared and could maybe help them out.

John Reed: [00:31:30] For people that listen to this podcast regularly, there is no single template to build a practice, and just like you have to find a practice that suits your personality, how you build that practice depends on the practice and also depends on your personality as well. For an area of the law that is so relationship-driven and so relationship dependent, it doesn't surprise me at all that you didn't do the article writing and the thought leadership stuff. It, it probably wouldn't have benefited you as much as the director you had.

Kate Knox: [00:32:03] When I was in law school, there was like one model of how to be a lawyer. That was it. That traditional lawyer role always seemed a little off to me, kind of very strait-laced. Super serious. That's not my personality. I like to be around people. I'm a little bit irreverent. People sometimes will assume that because my social skills are very strong, that my intellectual skills, I think, are less strong.

That was true when I was a younger attorney, and I just had to be aware of that and when it was appropriate, prove them wrong. And I was very lucky to find a space where my authentic self resonated with that job, but there are many lobbyists who all have very different personalities. You know, you don't have to have my personality to be a lobbyist, but it's worked for me.

John Reed: [00:32:57] You've been involved in, actually instrumental in, some pretty milestone developments in Maine, the nation's first ranked-choice voting system, the nation's first same-sex marriage ballot proposal, reproductive rights and fertility care, immigration, flavored cigarettes, how would you kind of rank these greatest hits? And maybe there's something that's not on that list that should be mentioned.

Kate Knox: [00:33:19] Yeah, well, you mentioned two I'm pretty sure when I die will still be in my top five. And the first one is marriage equality. Maine was the first state in the nation to pass marriage equality in the legislature and get it signed into law by the governor.

Other states like Massachusetts had passed it in the ballot box, but nobody had done it through the legislature and gotten it signed by the governor, and we worked on that for years. I mean, a very amazing team of people, including Mary Bonauto, who argued in front of the Supreme Court, and Shenna Bellows our current Secretary of State. I mean, just amazing, amazing people.

But we went through years of defeat. We passed it in the ballot box. It got repealed. The law we passed that got signed was vetoed--a people's veto. But in that moment, when we passed it through the legislature, I can tell you it was like climbing a mountain. And you would feel like, I can't do this. This isn't going to work. I, I can't do it. It's too hard. Everybody's telling us we can't do it. And you would do the next thing. You know, you'd be like, “I'm going to have this next conversation.” And then that would go okay. “All right, maybe I'll do this next thing.”

And I remember a moment we had the public hearing on the bill, and we had 2000 people in the Civic Center where they had to move it, watching testimony. We had every piece of testimony choreographed, and I remember going to my car and thinking, “I did every single thing I could; that could not have gone better. I've got nothing left in terms of the public hearing.” And then we moved on to the other pieces.

I can tell you we didn't know the governor was going to sign. It was Governor Baldacci. He was very Catholic, and I think was really struggling very personally with what to do. And we didn't know. We just were being told you need to just wait and leave him. And I remember sitting in the Senate president's office and she came in and said he signed it. It's the one and only time I've ever broken down in tears as a lobbyist because I, I couldn't believe it.

I was so proud of everything we'd done, and even though we had to fight against repeal at that moment, I knew we'd cross the threshold. Right? There was now a state who'd had a governor sign it into law, and you don't get those moments very often. I was smart enough then to realize it. It was amazing. There's a photo of the team of us that was taken right at that moment, right after we found out. That's still one of my favorite pictures ever.

And then rank choice voting I got pulled into late in the game, in terms of rank choice voting's life, by a very charismatic woman, Cara McCormick, who's since become a great friend.

And she said, “We have a referendum. We need you. You're the person everybody says we should have.” And I remember at the time thinking, “okay, you know, that's interesting.” But I got really, really energized by ranked choice voting and turned from not a fan to a true believer. And that was the hardest campaign I ever worked on.

And by campaign, I mean lobbying. It was absolutely the hardest thing I've ever done. Every procedural move against us was used. We went to the Supreme Court. We came out of court. The Democrats didn't like it. The Republicans didn't like it. It was just like pulling a dead elephant across a road. It was just, it just felt impossible when it finally happened.

I think the sense that something really important had happened and that your perseverance is probably what helped get it done is a pretty amazing feeling. Both marriage equality and rank choice voting I attribute to having an amazing team because nobody has perseverance all the time. You need a couple people to feel like we can't give up, we're just going to do the next thing, and then we'll figure out the next thing and don't look too far. Because that's what you have to do, and then when you're tired, somebody else is doing it.

John Reed: [00:37:38] And the rank choice voting. While you were talking, I'm thinking this isn't something that everybody knows about and can easily take a position, right? I don't know it; I don't understand it. And then you've got to sell people on all the different scenarios and what can happen.

I don't want to take anything away from the other things that you've championed, but that sounds like a more herculean effort than anything else, simply because it's different. I can't like it; I don't even know what it is. Right? For all these voters.

Kate Knox: [00:38:10] That's right. And there were some built-in assumptions that were very challenging.

Ranked choice voting was kind of first introduced and made by an independent candidate who Democrats felt had stolen the Blaine House from them, and so anything he did was bad. Didn't matter whether it was unicorns and rainbows, it was bad. And to the Republicans, it was a surefire way to get Democrats elected to even get to the conversation about what rank choice voting actually was.

We were constantly pulled back into these old narratives by a lot of people in terms of, “oh, I just don't like it.” And I laugh about the Democrats one because I was definitely in that camp before I got involved. So, I understand it and it's interesting now to see it evolved into, we don't use it for every election now in Maine, but somewhat regular practice.

It's sort of old hand at this point. I remember having conversations with election officials saying basically like, this is impossible. We can't possibly do it. It's too hard, it's too confusing, and now it's just the regular old way you vote.

John Reed [00:39:20] With these things that were debuted and were first successful in Maine, have you become the go-to person for other lobbyists, other election law lawyers, and other jurisdictions that are looking to do it there for the first time?

Kate Knox: [00:39:34] A little bit. So certainly, after ranked choice voting passed, Kara and I did some traveling to other states who were thinking about it to say like, “here's what we did; here's what you should think about.” One of the things that's interesting is, and I guess true, all states, including Maine, think they're entirely different from everybody else.

And so, you have to be careful about going into Wisconsin or Michigan or Texas and saying, “here's how we did it here. Here's what you should think about.” So, in many ways, I think people lose opportunities, and I have certainly done that I think over the years, to not ask more questions of people who've done it successfully because we assume that they're not applicable here.

John Reed: [00:40:19] We were talking a little bit earlier about litigation. I think one of the benefits you have in your non-litigation practice is you don't have to worry about double jeopardy or judicial estoppel. Right? Meaning that I don't, you know, if you, if you bring the civil case and you lose, you can't go back and adjudicate it again.

If you can't get the conviction the first time, you can't go back the second time with the same charges. But you can. You can keep doing it and get a different team and keep going.

Kate Knox: [00:40:45] That's right, and sometimes it's really helpful. Right? So, you brought up flavored tobacco. So, I've worked for Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids for a couple years on banning flavored tobacco.

We just keep coming back at it, right? Like if you don't do it this time, we'll be back next year. Sometimes it helps and sometimes it doesn't help because you think, on the flip side for clients you're trying to play defense for, “Oh my gosh, we're doing this again.”

You know, we're trying to shorten the statute of limitations on sex abuse cases. Again, you kind of brush off your old testimony and take a look at it, but much of what happens in the legislature, I would say about half of what happens are not new ideas. They're things that have been tried before. And not that that's necessarily bad. I think for big things it takes several times before you can build up some momentum and muscle memory and really understand what the issues are. It, it takes a couple times to do it, so that's not unusual.

John Reed: [00:41:46] Voter fraud is very much the topic du jour in our current campaign system, election system. What has Maine seen in terms of actual proven voter fraud? And to the extent that you've had any involvement in those issues, either curatively or on the back end, trying to prevent it from happening again or whatever, maybe you could tell us about that too.

Kate Knox: [00:42:10] Yeah, Maine's been pretty lucky. We have over the years, had one or two, I would say, prosecuted voter fraud, and it usually has to do with somebody voting for someone who's dead or somebody voting twice. I used to live in South Portland. I sent in my absentee ballot and then I moved to Portland, and I voted there and sometimes I literally forgot I voted in South Portland.

Very unusual. That being said, the Secretary of State's office worked really hard to have a much more transparent database, especially around absentee ballots. They've really done a lot of upgrading of the system so that it's in very real-time. You can go in; I can go in and look someone up and say, “oh no, you didn't request one.

You should be good to go,” or “You did, so now you're going to go in and just tell them to delete out that line.” That's really the best way to do it is to have upgraded technology so that you can track where people are properly registered in voting. Maine also did a big seamless purge over the summer, which people generally don't like the idea of a purge, but if it's done well, and if it's done not all the time, you know it's done every 10 years or so, it really does clean up your list quite nicely.

And so, it helps just reduce the opportunity for people, in my experience, to make unintended mistakes. That's usually what we see.

John Reed: [00:43:48] I'm not affiliated with any party, but without getting into it too much, I am adamant supporter of the right to vote, and I will say that I believe we need to make it easier, not harder to legally cast a ballot at whatever level.

I'm very interested, Kate, to get your perspective on ballot protection versus infringement on an eligible voter's civil rights, showing ID, other proof of citizenship, residency, and whatever. So, it's access to the ballot box, but making sure it's the proper person.

Kate Knox: [00:44:24] This is a big ongoing conversation all over the country in terms of how do you prove someone is who they say they are?

And what I would say to that is that is an old construct that comes from attempts to restrict the right to vote, mostly for people of color that just isn't born out. It's born out of racism and oppression more than a real concern about people being who they are. So, for example, Maine doesn't have a voter ID law.

Under Help America Vote, you have to have proof of residency and you could use a driver's license, but you don't need to have a driver's license. And as I just said to you, we do not have issues with people voting for somebody else. So, I guess for me, and this is obviously maybe a political position, I don't know. To me, I don't see those two things as connected. And so, I am a firm believer in the system at least that we have in Maine. If somebody calls the hotline and says, “I'm having trouble,” I don't care what party they're in. My job is to have the vote counted. That you get a vote, I get a vote, and everybody gets a vote.

That's how the system works. And so, we should all care a lot about everybody following the same rules no matter how, what party they're in, and everybody having the same kind of access and giving people the benefit of the doubt, which is I think the way our system is set up now has always worked fine.

John Reed: [00:46:01] Bringing up the discrimination aspect. That's not too dissimilar from large counties in states and having one box that's at the county seat and people having to drive, just like you're assuming everybody's got photo ID and a driver's license. You're also assuming everybody has the ability to travel those miles to deposit that ballot.

Kate Knox: [00:46:26] Yeah, that's absolutely right. And that's why the expansion of all kinds of ways to vote, whether it's using a drop box, whether it's going to the polling place, whether it's using an absentee ballot, we should care that all of those things are accessible for exactly the reasons. You say some people don't have a car. Some people can't take the day off. Some people can't wait in line. Some people can't do an absentee ballot because they need an aid to assist them reading the actual ballot and making those marks. We should care that all of those things are open and available.

John Reed: [00:47:00] Kate, for anyone who wants to learn more about you, we're going to include links to your law firm website bio and LinkedIn profile, and we'll put those in the episode show notes. And I know from personal experience, a quick Google search on Kate or Katherine Knox, lawyer, will bring up all sorts of news items about your accomplishments.

Election lawyer, lobbyist, adjunct law professor, social justice advocate, and sticky lawyer, Kate Knox, I so appreciate your time today, your patience with me, your educating me, and for giving us some insight and dare I say, hope for how democracy is supposed to work. So, thank you so much for being here today.

Kate Knox: [00:47:37] No, thank you for having me. It was a real pleasure to chat with you. It was a lot of fun.

John Reed: [00:47:43] Hey, listeners, if you haven't already, please subscribe to Sticky Lawyers wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating, and maybe leave us a review too.

Also, be sure to visit stickylawyers.com where you can see episode transcripts, get information about our guests, and recommend a standout attorney who might be a future guest on the show.

Until next time, I'm John Reed and you've been listening to Sticky Lawyers.

Katherine Knox Profile Photo

Katherine Knox

Election Lawyer & Lobbyist

A shareholder at Bernstein Shur, Kate Knox is among the most highly regarded lobbyists and election law attorneys in Maine, guiding clients through the complex reality of elections and public policy. She’s advised candidates from the school board to the governor’s office, and helped pass ground-breaking legislation to establish ranked-choice voting in Maine and the state’s first-in-the-nation ballot initiative legalizing same-sex marriage.