Current, former county clerks weigh in on nuances of job
‘People think that all you do is run elections’
Sunday, August 3, 2014
According to Missouri state law, the office officially is the “The Office of the Clerk of the County Commission.”
Cole County Clerk Marvin Register is retiring at the end of this year after a dozen years in the office and, on Tuesday, Cole County residents will choose one of three Republicans — Patty Bates, Steve Korsmeyer or Rik Combs — to run against Democrat Susan Cook in the Nov. 4 general election, with the winner succeeding Register on Jan. 1.
Register succeeded Bill Deeken, who also served 12 years as Cole County’s clerk.
“People think that all you do is run elections,” Deeken said last week. “But, really, the county clerk’s office — although the commissioners and others may not agree — is the hub of the courthouse, because everything that just about goes on goes through the clerk’s office, sooner or later.”
He noted that the three-member commission — the county government’s chief administrative body — “can not make a decision until the clerk, or a representative of the clerk’s office, is in that meeting to take minutes.”
Register agreed that “there’s a lot that goes on in this office that people don’t know.”
In addition to elections and keeping the County Commission’s minutes, he said, “We’re responsible for liquor licenses, notaries.
“And we also work with the other (county) officials, like the assessor and the collector, because we also are responsible for figuring what the schools and the other entities are going to get out of the taxes collected.”
The clerk’s office also is responsible for the Board of Equalization, that hears taxpayer challenges to property assessments.
The job doesn’t have any legal requirements specific only to that position.
State law says a county clerk must be a U.S. citizen, at least 21 years old “and shall have resided within the state one whole year, and within the county for which the person is elected one year just prior to such person’s election.”
Both men noted that state laws control what the clerk’s office does and, in general, how it does it.
So voters can listen to what candidates say about changes they might make in office operations — as an indication of the candidate’s seriousness — while discounting the actual promises.
Register encouraged voters to look at a candidate’s previous experiences.
“If he or she’s been a business person or a supervisor, whether he or she has had a position with some responsibilities,” he explained, “to know what they’re doing and to know how to handle people.
“And to be able to do customer service because, in this office, you really, really have to be able to be in the customer service business — because you’re taking care of and working with a lot of people.”
Deeken noted he didn’t really know what the job was when he ran for it the first time.
“I sold food for 20 years, and I had no idea that I would ever be in politics,” he explained. “I didn’t want to be in politics.”
But he’s not sorry he ran for county clerk or, later, for the Legislature.
“This turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me in my life,” Deeken said. “Those 12 years, and the eight years at the Capitol, were the most exciting years of my life.”
Register, on the other hand, had been looking for an opportunity to enter politics.
“When Bill Deeken decided he wasn’t going to run again, I thought, ‘If I’m ever going to do it, now is the time to do it,’” he recalled.
Just as Deeken had experienced 12 years earlier, Register discovered “a lot of surprises when I walked in the door,” including a big, controversial election involving a city annexation proposal just over a month after he took over for Deeken.
“I got my feet wet pretty fast, and I got to learn pretty fast,” he said, “and I have to be thankful that I had the staff that I had — because they helped me make it through that election.”
The last 24 years have seen a lot of changes in county clerks’ office operations — especially with technological advances.
“I don’t think your changes will be as big anymore, but I think you’ll continue to see changes,” Deeken said. “The 12 years I was there, we had the punch card.”
Register was in office when punch cards were replaced with optical scanners and poll books — the on-paper listing of registered voters — were replaced with electronic listings.
“Every time we turn around with the electronics, there’s something new — and I’ve enjoyed that,” he said.
Both Register and Deeken said their biggest disappointments in the clerk’s office were those elections with low voter turnout.
But, they also agreed, ballot issues or candidate races affect voters’ interests much more than anything the county clerk can say or do.
Deeken was the first Republican to be Cole County’s clerk years, and Register also is a strong Republican.
But neither man said party affiliation is important for operating the clerk’s office.
Neither man would announce support for one of the three candidates in Tuesday’s GOP primary.
Register simply is “trying to keep myself out of it as I possibly can.”
Deeken, a new member of the Missouri Ethics Commission, can’t take a political stand nor give money to candidates.
“It’s a tremendous job,” Deeken said. “Whoever gets it, I want them to know that they’ve got a good job, and to take care of it.
“And if they take care of it, they’ll be there as long as they want to be.”
Although the job has many responsibilities above those election-related duties, both interviews still concentrated on elections.
Both Deeken and Register support the idea of requiring a photo identification for people casting votes at the polls — a major Republican-led policy change that, so far, never has made it to Missouri voters.
“I always was for a photo ID,” Deeken said. “I mean, you have to have it for everything else you do, so I don’t know what difference it makes.”
Register agreed that “you’ve got to have an ID for almost everything that you do,” and voting should be no different.
Opponents note Missouri’s Constitution already says that, once a voter is properly registered, they are “entitled” to vote.
Register would resolve that problem by having county clerks issue the photo ID at the time of registration.
Neither man thinks the state needs to adopt an “early voting” law or constitutional amendment — when the only change needed is to eliminate the requirement that voters give a reason for not being able to vote on election day.
Lawmakers proposed a constitutional amendment creating six days of early voting, while another proposed amendment, submitted by initiative petition, would make the period run six weeks before an election.
“You already have early voting,” Deeken observed. “You’ve got six weeks for absentee voting.”
Current law requires voters to give a reason why they want an absentee ballot, but Deeken and Register would eliminate that requirement.
“There’s no sense in you having to come in and lie to me, if you want to vote absentee,” Register said.
Register and Deeken both said they were grateful for the support they received from Cole County’s voters over the years.
Both said the best part of the county clerk’s job was meeting and working with many great people.
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