Missouri county clerk discusses why she launched the High Turnout Wide Margins podcast and why now is a great time to become an elections administrator
Editor’s note: More than 10,000 officials across the country run U.S. elections. This interview is part of a series highlighting the election heroes who are the faces of democracy.
Adrien Van Voorhis is part of the research department at Issue One, the leading crosspartisan political reform group in Washington, D.C., uniting Republicans, Democrats, and independents in the movement to fix our broken political system and build an inclusive democracy that works for everyone.st 50 times each.
Since she was first elected in November 2018, Brianna Lennon, a registered Democrat, has served as the county clerk of Boone County, Missouri, which lies in the center of the state and ranks as Missouri’s eighth-most populous county. Boone County is home to the city of Columbia, the fourth-largest city in Missouri, as well as the University of Missouri, which has a student body of roughly 30,000.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic in December 2020, Lennon teamed up with fellow election official Eric Fey of St. Louis County, Missouri, to launch the High Turnout Wide Margins podcast to help local election officials glean best practices and tips on topics including voter outreach, cybersecurity, and transparency in election administration. The podcast has gone on to win multiple journalism awards. Last year, under Lennon’s leadership, Boone County also won an award from the National Association of Counties for its work to expand voter access through weekend satellite voting events.
Before working for Boone County, Lennon worked as a law clerk at the Missouri School Boards' Association, as Missouri’s assistant attorney general in the consumer protection division, and as the deputy director of elections in Missouri’s secretary of state’s office. In the secretary of state’s office, Lennon also served as the first coordinator of the state’s election integrity unit, which worked with local election officials in Missouri to ensure that elections were simple, secure, and accessible.
Lennon earned a law degree and master’s in public policy from the University of Missouri. She resides in Columbia with her husband and two children. Since 2023, she has been part of Issue One’s Faces of Democracy campaign advocating for protections for election workers and for regular, predictable, and sufficient federal funding of elections.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Issue On: How did you end up in this profession?
Brianna Lennon: When I was in undergrad, I knew I wanted to go into some sort of government work. I really enjoyed public service. I had the opportunity to intern in the Missouri secretary of state's office right before law school, and I pretty much fell in love with it. I still had several years to go in law school, and I also got a master’s of public policy. But throughout that, everything I was doing was centered around elections. I was very interested in the administration side of things. I always cared a lot about implementation.
When I had the opportunity to join the secretary of state's office, I came in as its elections counsel. I got to do a lot of really cool work with county clerks around the state. I did that for three years and really enjoyed it, but through working with the county clerks, I found that I liked their jobs better. I liked that they had a direct impact on voters’ lives, could orchestrate the huge event-planning that an election takes, and that they had the ability to help shape how different policies and laws were implemented. When I left the secretary of state's office, it was to get into county government, and I eventually ended up in the county clerk's office and have been here for five years. It’s been great!
Issue One: How many voters are on the voter rolls in your jurisdiction, and what are the main challenges of a jurisdiction of this size?
Brianna Lennon: We have about 125,000 registered voters, active and inactive. Our biggest challenge is that we are a college town. We have the University of Missouri, with over 30,000 students. We also have a couple smaller schools — Columbia College and Stephen College. That has a huge impact on the demographics of our voters and the needs our community has. Making sure that we have really good list maintenance practices is important, as is making sure we have clear voter education and making sure that we are accessible to every person in Boone County. We are also somewhat of a retirement destination community, so we have a lot of assisted living facilities as well. The mix of those demographics and needs is the most challenging.
Issue One: With Boone County being home to so many college students, some of whom vote in the county, some of whom vote in their home jurisdictions, and some of whom don’t vote at all, how do you meet the needs of such a unique population?
Brianna Lennon: Having a presence on campus has been important. For instance, we were at welcome week for the University of Missouri during the first week of classes to give out general information. A lot of it is just about being accessible, continuing to make relationships with student groups, professors, and administration staff that are interested in having relationships with us. The biggest time when we end up interacting is when we’re recruiting for poll workers. Our college population is a great source of poll workers!
Issue One: What part of that election administration story do you think is not told enough or is not widely understood enough?
Brianna Lennon: It’s hard to communicate exactly what the office does because it is not internalized to most people. The only experience most voters have with our office is the first time they register to vote and when they go to their polling place to vote. They don’t see what happens in between or all of the logistics and planning that goes into making sure that Election Day works, including the number of poll workers that we need and all of the other moving pieces.
I think the story that still needs to be told is the behind the scenes stuff that is not even behind the scenes. It is all publicly available. People can come in and take tours. We always get good feedback when they do. People say they had no idea how much work went into processes, and they are more assured that things are working correctly. But getting people to think about it and to care enough to come into the office in the first place is still a challenge.
Issue One: How are elections in Boone County funded, and what is the current typical price tag of elections in Boone County?
Brianna Lennon: For a major election in Boone County, like a presidential election, we budget about half a million dollars. In 2020, that number was pretty irrelevant — it was far more than half a million dollars because of the unforeseen costs of personal protective equipment (PPE) and additional voter education.
Over half of our cost is salaries for our 250 to 600 election judges and poll workers, and we do not even pay that well. We pay about $180 for the14-hour day. There are also costs for ballot printing, programming our election machines, and so on.
Election costs are paid for by the county. Our county commission has budgetary control, although they do not have an administrative role in how my office runs. If I propose a budget to them that has, say, $100,000 of voter education in it, they are going to cut that because we do not have that kind of money.
Issue One: A lot of people are surprised to learn that the federal government does not routinely fund election administration. Why do you think the federal government should routinely invest in elections?
Brianna Lennon: The inability to have consistent funding limits our ability to do planning and make the most efficient use of the funds that we do have.
We might have to make immediate decisions because we know we have the money this year and may not have the money next year, even though it may be more cost effective for us to wait to buy something. We are incentivized to spend it now.
It makes it really hard when you buy things that have depreciation, which is exactly what we saw with the first round of voting machines. When the federal government gave money to the states and local election authorities through the Help America Vote Act of 2002, we got to upgrade our equipment and that was wonderful, but all of that equipment was bought in 2005 and 2006. Some counties are still using that equipment because they cannot afford to replace it. That’s because once that money dried up, the county is on the hook, and the county does not have the kind of money to pay for new equipment.
We are not able to do long-term planning or strategic planning around things that would make the elections process smoother overall because we do not have a consistent stream of revenue.
Issue One: Why did you decide to start a podcast focused on election administration, and what have you learned from doing the show?
Brianna Lennon: Our profession prides itself on friendliness and the bonds that are formed through working in elections. There are conferences and regional associations where people get together and talk about best practices and do training programs. In 2020, everything went online, and it got me thinking about how we weren't really leveraging technology to share those practices or talk about what we learned during a particular election or have other interesting discussions. We’re all very nerdy people.
I put out a tweet at the end of 2020 asking if there were any podcasts about election administration. While we have classes and in-person seminars, I would just love to listen to a 20-minute episode on things like the ways others have helped military voters. There was not one. My colleague in St. Louis County texted me and said “If you want to start one, I would be in there with you.” So we did our first intro episode in January 2021, and it took off from there. We have been able to talk to so many people, and they’ve been able to share some really good insights from their experiences.
Issue One: You recently started season three of High Turnout, Wide Margins. What’s in store this season?
Brianna Lennon: The plan is to return to the roots of Season One, to talk about best practices and tangible things that you can do as an election official to make things more efficient, be more creative, get more experience on social media. We plan to share different types of ideas and be a lot more practitioner-oriented. Looking at 2024, it seems like what we will need is more tools.
Issue One: Earlier this year, you came to Washington, D.C., to meet with lawmakers and policymakers as part of a bipartisan, advocacy effort organized by Issue One. What were your key takeaways from those conversations and meetings?
Brianna Lennon: It’s hard to remember that members of Congress have a portfolio two miles wide on every issue, and they’re only able to get about an inch deep on any of it. The ability for local election authorities to have direct conversations about our experiences and what we are dealing with on a daily basis was incredibly valuable. I think members of Congress appreciated hearing some of the issues that we’ve been having and the challenges that we’ve been facing.
Issue One: Speaking of challenges, earlier this year, a conservative group aligned with former President Donald Trump accused you of using taxpayer money to pay for a membership in the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence, a nonpartisan collaborative of experts that helps local election departments improve operations. Why do you think election administration issues have been perceived in increasingly partisan ways?
Brianna Lennon: Anything that talks about ways that partisanship is involved in election administration is taking advantage of the lack of understanding that exists about how our offices operate. There is so little room or interest in injecting any sort of partisanship into our work. For instance, when it comes to staffing a polling place, our poll workers have to be bipartisan. That is the way that the polling places operate. But you do not see that until you work in it and experience what the process is like. It’s one of the reasons why we ask people to be poll workers when they have a concern about how a process works. The ones who have taken us up on that have come away with a much more comprehensive view of what is at work and how many guardrails are on the system to make sure that it is fair and secure and done accurately.
Issue One: Surveys show that 80% or more of local election officials are women. What unique challenges do female election officials face?
Brianna Lennon: Some of this is not my personal experience, but rather are things that I have observed and know from talking to other female election officials.
One of those things is lower pay, which goes right back to election resources and funding. It is a historically lower-paid field, and especially in Missouri, a lot of our clerks, the majority of whom are women, are making under $50,000 a year to do a job that encompasses more than elections. The average election official is not just running elections. They also serve as the budget officer, take minutes for the county commission meetings, and administer certain liquor licenses and auctioneer licenses. There are a lot of things that we do that have long been thought of as secretarial work. That has a direct impact when it comes to pay.
There is also a pretty big impact on our physical safety. I thankfully have not encountered it personally, but I have seen things that have been sent to other female county clerks and heard some of the voicemails that have been left for them. Women have become very targeted for a lot of this vitriol about elections, and it has been very personal. It has not been about jobs; it’s been about them personally.
Issue One: What advice do you have for someone who might be interested in going into the field of election administration?
Brianna Lennon: If you have an interest in getting into elections administration, we need you! It is an incredibly fulfilling job. Weirdly, now is a very good time to get involved in elections administration because we are dealing with so many challenges and changes. This is one of the most evolving times that I have seen happening in elections. I think we are going to come out better for it. So if you have ever thought about it, now is the time!
Issue One: Outside of being passionate about running safe and secure elections, what are your hobbies or what is a fun fact that most people might not know about you?
Brianna Lennon: My husband and I are licensed skydivers, although we have not done it in a long time because of our kids. Right now, most of my hobbies are what my kids are doing.
Issue One: Which historical figure would you have most liked to have had an opportunity to meet and why?
Brianna Lennon: Oh, that is a hard question. I am thinking about election stuff now. I’d really want to talk to an election official, a local election official who worked in, like, the1950s.
Issue One: Why the 1950s?
Brianna Lennon: It is right before the Civil Rights Act, and I would really like to see how offices actually ran. In an era that was rife with so many discriminatory election practices, I would really like to see what that looked like in an elections office and have a conversation with somebody that ran elections at that time and talk about what their thoughts were, especially if they disagreed with the laws that were in place at the time.
Issue One: What is your favorite book or movie?
Brianna Lennon: I really like reading celebrity biopics. One that I’ve liked recently was Tina Fey’s book. It was really good!