I. In Focus This Week
Longtime Boone County, Mo. Clerk Wendy Noren dies
By M. Mindy Moretti
“It is complete now
2 ends of time are neatly tied
A one way street
She's walking to the end of the line
And there she meets
Faces she see's in her heart and mind…”
-- Tomorrow Wendy, Concrete Blonde
On March 11, longtime Boone County, Missouri Clerk Wendy Noren lost her battle with cancer. She was 63.
News of Noren’s death spread quickly throughout the elections community and she was remembered by her colleagues for her dedication to the voters of Boone County and for her tireless efforts to make the process better for them and ultimately for all of us.
“Wendy Noren was a strong protector of the people's right to be heard. She was always looking for innovative ways to better serve the voters. No matter your political party, Wendy was always willing to listen. We will miss Wendy's leadership and knowledge on election issues,” said Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft (R)
Noren first joined the Boone County clerk’s office as a deputy clerk in 1978 and was elected to her first term as county clerk in 1982. After serving the voters of Boone County for almost 30 years, Noren stepped down on June 23, 2017.
According to then-Clerk Chris Kelly, when he hired Noren, she reprogrammed the entire election system herself to make sure it was tamper proof.
“Wendy was a firecracker, a leader with almost encyclopedia knowledge of elections, local government, technology, and politics. She was a mentor and a guide for many in the field (whether they were new or experienced),” said Adam Ambrogi, program director, elections at The Democracy Fund. “I spent many hours with Wendy, discussing issues of importance on national election issues, and found her advice invaluable, and her passion for serving her voters invaluable. I, and many professionals in the field will miss her deeply.”
She served as a member of the National Association of Counties advisory board to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission from 2004 until 2017. The EAC issued a joint statement on the passing of Noren and Chairman Tom Hicks added his own thoughts.
“There were five or six people who were truly instrumental in what would become the Help America Votes Act, and Wendy was one of those people. She brought the passion of ‘little guy’ to the room, always standing up for local rights and common sense to the discussion,” Hicks said. “When the bill became law, she continued that work, fighting for small jurisdictions and all voters as she served on the EAC’s Board of Advisors and TGDC. She will be missed, but never forgotten for her commitment to the elections process.”
Upon hearing of Noren’s passing, Commissioner Matt Masterson, took to Twitter to offer a series of tweets about Noren’s importance to the elections community. This week he told us:
“Wendy's preparation and attention to detail was legendary. She is one of only a handful of people that I know that have read the VVSG cover to cover and even tabbed it for follow up and questions she had. No one out-prepared Wendy,” Mastserson said. “We will miss her contributions, wit, and friendship, but we will honor her legacy by continuing our work to create a common data format for voting systems and ensuring secure and accessible elections.”
Noren was the only local election official named to the National Academy of Sciences Committee on the Interoperability of Voter Registration Databases and was involved in the creation of the Help America Vote Act and was a member of the National Research Council.
“Wendy was innovative, dedicated and good-hearted. She was a great friend of mine and so many others across Missouri and the country,” said former Secretary of State Jason Kander. “Wendy was a model public servant that genuinely cared about democracy and took maintenance of it personally. She spent her career making sure that every eligible voter in Boone County got the chance to cast a ballot, and her ideas became a national model. Everyone that cares about elections owes Wendy a debt of gratitude for her tireless work, and we'll miss her.”
While staunchly a Democrat, Wendy earned respect for her work in elections from both sides of the aisle because of her dedication to the fairness of the system, no matter who was on the ballot.
“Luckily we will never lose what Wendy brought to election integrity and the election community. I feel honored to call her friend,” said former Maricopa County, Arizona Recorder Helen Purcell. “I cannot say enough about this special lady, there was not a more dedicated and knowledgeable person when it came to election technology and common sense procedures.”
Noren was honored by many organizations for her work in elections. She received the 1998 Rosemary Plitt Award and the 2014 Brite award, both commending her for her contributions to Missouri elections. In 1999, she was honored with the Distinguished Alumna Achievement award by Pi Beta Phi. In 2003 she won the Public Advocacy Award from Services for Independent Living and in 2013 the Missouri Assistive Technology Award for her efforts in making voting accessible. In 2015 she was presented the Women in Business Professional Excellence Award. In 2017, she was named the League of Women Voters Citizen of the Year and received the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities Innovator Award.
"Wendy was truly an icon of election administration. Her unique blend of creativity, pragmatism and fierce determination to improve the election process for voters propelled her from a respected voice in a small county in the middle of the country to national prominence,” said Conny McCormack, former Los Angeles County registrar-recorder/county clerk. “It was my privilege that we became close friends; I will miss her wit and laughter so very much."
In June 2017, during a busy week when she was wrapping up a nearly three-decade career, packing up her belongings and saying good-bye to colleagues, Noren took some time to answer our questions for an exit interview. We’ve decided to rerun that exit interview and give Wendy the last word she so rightly deserves.
When you got started in this business back in 1978, did you see yourself making a lifelong career out of it? What kept you running for re-election?
While I loved the job from the first day I started I did not plan on doing it the rest of my life. My goal then was to prove to my parents I could do a “real” job so they would let me return to Europe to study art history. Each year I was in the job new challenges would arise that I felt compelled to overcome before I left. Every challenge conquered opened the path to a new one to take on. Before I knew it, I had been there over 35 years and had conducted 10 presidential elections.
You’ve seen many changes in the administration of elections, what change to the process have you appreciated most? What change have you appreciated least?
When I started all registrations were processed by typewriters and hand written changes – we had no computer. I live or die by the quality of my registration file on Election Day so the advances in technology have been what I appreciate the most. The Internet allows me to let the voter control their registration and for me to communicate quickly with thousands of voters through email and text messaging. I also appreciate the fact that election administration has become something researchers now pay attention to – that can only help our profession.
As far as the least appreciated change it is the current atmosphere of political distrust which makes it difficult for people to innovate. Innovation requires the ability to “do it wrong till you do it right”. Because no level of failure is allowed in our business it is extremely difficult for creative people to advance new programs.
What would you say was your greatest accomplishment as an elections official?
I think my constant embrace of new technology. I always tried to look at what other businesses were doing to get ideas. For example, the first time I saw a barcode used in the grocery store I knew it would help my office. Soon after I had barcodes added to our computer printed election day voter lists so we could update voter history records quickly and accurately. Most recently it was the text messages from airlines of flight status that I used as model for sending training reminders to poll workers and upcoming text messaging to voters of polling place changes.
Do you have any regrets about your time in office? Anything you wish you would have accomplished but weren’t able to?
I very much wanted to conduct an election with early voting. Unfortunately Missouri has never been able to work out legislation that is satisfactory to the state and counties. I have so many voters who work shifts that make it difficult, if not impossible, to vote on Election Day. Missouri’s very strict absentee laws make it impossible for many people to get the chance to vote – except those willing to perjure themselves on the affidavit.
What challenge/task/principle would you charge the rest of the elections community to carry on in your honor?
While this applies to all election officials it applies most to election officials in college towns. I have always believed that I am the gatekeeper to young people’s entry in the election process. A good or bad experience the first time someone votes will carry with them throughout their life. If I fail to provide a good voting experience to a first time voters they may never return to the process. That is a responsibility we must all take seriously.
What will you miss most about being the Boone County clerk?
I worry my brain will atrophy without the constant stimulation that comes from always trying to create a better way of doing my work. Or frustrated if I think of something new that I cannot implement.
What advice would you give to someone just getting started in the election administration business?
Read, read, read, read. At least once a year your state’s election code cover to cover. Take advantage of all of the research that is now being done on the administration of elections – this did not exist when I started. As often as possible check out the business sections of NY Times and Wall Street Journal to find new technologies. And of course, check Electionline every day to see what is going on with election administrators all over the country.
What’s next for you, besides sleeping in on the next election day?
Spending time with family and cherished friends – many of whom I have neglected horribly over the years.
A celebration of Noren’s life will take place on Saturday April 7 at 3 pm at The Ballroom of the Tiger Hotel, 23 South 8th Street, Columbia, Missouri. Contributions in Wendy’s memory can be made to the True Life Fund, PO Box 121, 2000 E. Broadway, Columbia, Mo. 65201.
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