Inspired by events surrounding the 2020 election, you turn to your computer in search of answers. How do local offices utilize technology to administer an election? What events take place prior to your ballot arriving in the mail? How do election officials know vote tallies are correct? After reading through numerous articles, you come across a podcast about election administration. You click on the most recent episode and hear the voice of Brianna Lennon, Boone County Clerk and co-host of High Turnout Wide Margins.
Elected Boone County Clerk in 2018, Lennon’s expertise in election administration has been forged by years of experience and mentorship under seasoned practitioners. As an undergraduate, Lennon completed an internship with the League of Women Voters where she worked to reformat voter education materials. Upon entering law school at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law, she secured a position with the Missouri Secretary of State’s Office, then under the administration of Robin Carnahan. It was during this time that Lennon fell in love with elections.
After graduating with her Juris Doctor, Lennon worked briefly in the Missouri Attorney General’s Office before returning to the Secretary of State’s office, where she assumed the role of Deputy Director of Elections and Elections Counsel. In this role, she collaborated with county clerks to ensure state election procedures supported the operations of clerks at the local level. She also worked alongside vendors and fellow election officials to design and implement the statewide Military and Overseas Voting Access Portal.
Having worked closely with numerous county clerks throughout the state, Lennon was soon drawn to the position. For Lennon, it was the challenging nature of the job that compelled her to run for office. “At the local level, officials are afforded a lot of discretion in how they implement policies. This is both a challenge and an opportunity. For me, I saw the position as allowing me to leverage this discretion to uniquely serve voters,” said Lennon. By 2018, she had mounted a successful campaign for Boone County Clerk and assumed office in January of the following year.
Through these experiences, Lennon has become attuned to the importance of communication and the solicitation of feedback by state officials. Although the Military and Overseas Voting Access Portal was developed by state-level officials, the feedback of local officials has greatly shaped and improved the customer service experience for voters. “Election officials at all levels need to seek out conversations to share and solicit feedback. There are many lessons to be shared; it’s often just a matter of asking the right questions.”
As Clerk, Lennon has personally sought to connect clerks with subject-matter experts and one another to better share best practices. In Missouri, the work of a county clerk depends on the assessed valuation of the county. The smaller the locality, the wider the range of responsibilities a county clerk is assigned. As a result, some clerks have less time to explore the practices of fellow election officials. According to Lennon, this is where her podcast, High Turnout Wide Margins, came into play.
Thirty-nine episodes strong and counting, High Turnout Wide Margins was started by Brianna Lennon and her fellow election administrator, Eric Fey, in December 2020. In each episode, Lennon and her co-host take approximately 30 minutes to touch on a pressing topic in elections through consultation with prominent subject-matter experts. “The purpose of the podcast is to act as a resource for fellow election authorities. We want to highlight local election stories, national trends, and really anything that may be useful for practitioners just entering the field,” said Lennon.
Through the podcast, Lennon has had the opportunity to connect with some of the nation’s most experienced practitioners. Guests have included Overseas Voting Initiative working group members Neal Kelley (Orange County Registrar of Voters) and David Stafford (Escambia County Supervisor of Elections). When asked what she enjoys most about the podcast, Lennon stated, “you can just feel the guests’ devotion and enthusiasm for the profession.”
Conversations that have emerged through the podcast also have highlighted the adaptability of election officials. When it comes to the 2020 election, everyone has a story to tell. Lennon has proven no exception. As the November election approached, her office was tasked with joining the statewide voter registration database. As the existing system was gradually phased out, staff were required to enter voter registration data in both systems.
Although dual data entry took its toll on Lennon’s staff, the coronavirus pandemic later took hold and quickly overshadowed the stress of the task. Rapidly changing public health and safety protocols soon led to confusion among voters regarding absentee voting eligibility. Added to this confusion was the prevalence of election mis- and dis-information online.
As nearly all election administrators can attest, the burden of combatting misinformation fell on the shoulders of local officials. In anticipation of a challenging election cycle, Lennon’s office created social media accounts earlier that year to enhance voter outreach and voter education efforts. These accounts later became key avenues through which Boone County officials communicated with voters. Posts were made online to eliminate gray areas surrounding absentee eligibility and public health protocols as well as to communicate the safeguards in place to protect elections from wide scale fraud.
Looking back on 2020, Lennon realizes that, unlike the pandemic, the heightened scrutiny of elections and election administrators will linger. Another wave of practitioners will retire, and a younger generation will step into positions of leadership. Creative strategies must be applied to meet the challenges posed by the digital age. According to Lennon, these creative strategies must be built on a solid foundation and a deep understanding of the laws and policies that govern elections. “Read all the statutes that apply to your job. Even go as far as to read them once a year. Also, get to know your fellow independently elected officials. It’s always good to glean their perspective and put your minds together to solve the issues you may collectively face,” said Lennon.