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S2E16 – Pushing back against election misinformation with Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum

In this episode, hosts Brianna Lennon and Eric Fey speak with Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum in Michigan about how she pushes back against election misinformation, the need for greater voter education, and how she hopes all election officials – regardless of party – can work together to address election-related conspiracy theories.

High Turnout, Wide Margins Credits:
Managing Editor: Rebecca Smith
Managing Producer: Aaron Hay
Associate Producers: Katie Quinn, Abigail Ruhman

Transcription of the episode is as follows:

Barb Byrum: The difficulty looking back is that we believe facts will help people understand that the election wasn't rigged, there wasn't misbehavior, but rather it's a human process, there was a human mistake. It's been corrected. It was caught – the system worked with all of our checks and balances, and that wasn't the case.

[High Turnout Wide Margins Introduction]

Eric Fey: Hey everyone. This is Eric Fey. I’m here with my co-host, Brianna Lennon.

Brianna Lennon: So, we are High Turnout Wide Margins, and we're here at the Election Center Conference in Denver, Colorado, and we're talking to –

Barb Byrum: Barb Byrum. Ingham County Clerk in the great state of Michigan.

Brianna Lennon: And so we're really excited to have you here to talk about – a little bit about Michigan, but mostly just talk about your experience as a county clerk, and just to go into some of the uniqueness of Michigan elections anyway because it is one of the most decentralized states.

And I always think that's really interesting, and we had an interview last year with Tina Burton, and that was from the City Clerk perspective, at the time, because she was still there, and we'd love to hear more from the County Clerk perspective, too. But our first question is always how did you end up working in the election space?

Barb Byrum: I came about election work by accident – pretty much like every election official, right? Unfortunately, people, young kids are not setting their sights on Election Administration as a career path, and that's really unfortunate, and I hope to change that.

But I came to elections as an elected official. So, my background is actually I have a Bachelors of Science degree in agribusiness management, with an emphasis in Crop and Soil Science, and then my law degree from – both from the Michigan State University.

And I grew up in a family very active in politics. My mom was a County Commissioner, a State Rep, a Senator, and now she is the chair of the MSU Board of Trustees – Michigan State University Board of Trustees, and so, I grew up with a strong woman, elected official as a parent. And then my other parent was on the Community College Board of Trustees, and really helped educate legislators about agricultural issues. So, that's my upbringing, and I ran for State Representative a long, long time ago, and was successful. I ran up against my former middle school principal that was, that was a fun opportunity, and I served three two-year terms in the Michigan House of Representatives.

We have term limits in Michigan, and what that means is you serve three two-year terms and you're all done for life. And I was looking at what I was going to do next, and I was approached to run for County Clerk. At the time, it sounded so fun.


Barb Byrum: And I have been reelected and so, I have served as the Ingham County Clerk now for three terms. So, nearly 10 years, and here I am.

Eric Fey: Where's Ingham County? What's it like? How many people are there?

Barb Byrum: So, Ingham County we have just over 200,000 voter – 210,000 voters. It is very rural in portions and then quite populated in other portions. So, I live in the most rural of portions of Ingham County, but Ingham County holds – we are the home to the Michigan State University. An amazing land grant university in our in our state, and then we have the capital city – City of Lansing.

So, it's right in the middle of Michigan. So, there are very rural portions around Lansing and East Lansing and such, but it is where I grew up. I actually was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but I grew up in the area. I live right around the corner from where I grew up. Went to school in the county, and it's just a, it's a very Democratic County, but the portion that I live in is the conservative area of the county.

Eric Fey: And so, I take it, you've been County Clerk now, you said a few terms – everything's just kind of low key.

Barb Byrum: Yeah, nothing –

Eric Fey: – nothing really going on there election-wise.

Barb Byrum: Nothing really. It's been really quiet, you know, people are so appreciative of the work that their election administrators do…

Yeah, it's changed. It's changed. I remember when I first started, not many people knew what a county clerk was, let alone who their local clerk was, and now, people know who their clerks are, and although they know who their clerks are, they have forgotten that their clerks are their neighbors. We’re behind them in the school drop-off line. We are grocery shopping right beside them in a “Election Geek” t-shirt while they're wearing a “Trump Won” t-shirt in the chip aisle.

Like we are, we are the neighbors. We are your neighbors. Our kids go to school together, and I am fortunate in that I have not had any threats or harassment as a result of my profession, but many election workers have, and it is unacceptable. It's just unacceptable, and so, thank you for having me on to talk about holding people accountable for their threats, and just the horrible way they're treating each other.

Eric Fey: So, let's maybe back up a little bit to that. Michigan was – I was being facetious before, obviously. Michigan was at the forefront of a lot of controversy after the 2020 election. Can you paint a picture for the listeners what it was like being an election administrator in Michigan and what kind of went on there and what continues in Michigan?

Barb Byrum: Yeah, so in Michigan, we are very decentralized, as you mentioned, and what that means is the county clerk does the programming of the system, or they contract, but they're in charge of, they're responsible for the programming of the election. But then it’s the local clerk – those city and township clerks – there's over 1,500 clerks in the state of Michigan, and they are responsible for the day of and the absentee ballot processing.

So, the only ballot I as county clerk will typically touch per election is my own. Whereas the local clerks – they're issuing those absentee ballots, they're receiving the absentee ballots, they're matching all the signatures, they're dealing with voters in person.

I train many of the precinct workers, but those precinct workers are employed by the by the local clerk, and so, it's a very decentralized system. So, there are a lot of checks and balances, but during the November 2020 election, there were some mistakes, and, you know, election administration is a human process. Computers are certainly involved, but it is a human process, and there were mistakes, and the mistakes were caught, and as soon as they were caught – whether it be at the local level or at the county level – those clerk's came forward and explained what those mistakes were.

What I have learned is that those individuals that truly believe our elections are not proper, they're not safe and secure – will look at anything and decide that that is “evidence” that our elections are not safe and secure.

So, if you're looking, if you're talking about Antrim County – that was a human error, it was identified, and it was corrected. And even after it was corrected, there was even a full recount to make sure the results were correct that Trump won that county.

If you're looking at Tina Barton, you mentioned earlier, wonderful, dedicated local clerk. Results were uploaded twice – human error again. She realized it, she corrected it, and then she went the extra mile to have an explanation video.

What happened to both of those clerks – the county clerk and the local clerk – they were attacked. I mean, horrifically. The voicemails that were left for these clerks. I have a pretty thick skin, pretty high tolerance, but I listened to some of those messages, and they were horrible. It’s not acceptable.

And so since November 2020 – that's just two examples from that election – now, if you look at other elections that are coming, and other elections that have passed, out of Michigan's 83 County Clerks We have 83 counties – 83 County Clerks. Over two dozen of them have resigned or opted not to run for reelection, and that is a direct result of the increased stress, the increase responsibilities.

And with them goes decades of institutional knowledge, and who replaces them isn't always those good faith civil servants that you want to replace them. Sometimes it's individuals that believe our elections were rigged and refuse to follow the law to make sure our elections are safe and secure.

So, I mean, that's what we've been seeing and then for this past election – this past August primary in Michigan – we were getting word that workers were being recruited to work as precinct workers at the polling location or in the absentee counting boards, and they would work for the local clerk, but realistically they would report to the party and report to someone else.

And so, we were getting ready to help local clerks know that if your employees are not faithfully facilitating – faithfully doing their job, you have that responsibility, you have the authority to relieve them of their duties. And we didn't see any of that though, in August, but I do believe those groups, those individuals that wish to continue to sow distrust in our elections, are just testing out ways that they can do that.

We had more challengers – another group file for challengers during the August primary, which we have rules you can file as a challenger. You can challenge. You can watch or you can speak. And we didn't see the actions in August, but I think it's just a test to see what they believe might work.

But I know that our election workers, even if it's the ones that show up at 5am on Election Day or the ones that are programming elections or are working the election weeks before – all of those election workers, I know that they stand ready to make sure we continue to have safe and secure elections.

Brianna Lennon: So what are you, you know, individually, in your office, or even with other clerks that you work with on a on a daily basis in Michigan – What are you thinking going into the Midterm Elections, but even going into 2024 that you can do to not react, but be more proactive and try to push back against some of these things?

Barb Byrum: Yeah, so in the beginning, I thought, “Oh, there's no way people actually believe these things. There's no way people actually believe this Sharpie, the Sharpie gate. There's no way they think we use bamboo paper. There's no way…” and I've moved from that to, “Okay, we're gonna have to play a little offense here.”

And so, I am trying to educate either when there's a slip up, when there's a new theory – use that to start the conversation to educate, or to offensively start the conversation to educate as well. Whether that be through social media or even through conversations just in the grocery checkout line. And I have always been a walking billboard, when I'm running, out running, I have voting tank tops on. My masks are often encouraging people to vote. So hopefully, I'm engaging in more conversations, and I think we need to lock arms – Democrats and Republicans – and work to educate our public, but also hold those accountable that wish to attack our democracy.

[Mid-episode Break]

Eric Fey: If people follow you on Twitter –


Eric Fey: They know that, I mean, you, you go at it with people. Somebody says, like you said, somebody says something, you want to put it right out there and try to try to correct them. And I've seen several things you've tweeted, [and] I'm like, “Man, I don't know that I would, you know, go to battle with that person on that thing, or whatever.” And, you know, what do you think has been accomplished by your very public stances? On Twitter in this case? And do you recommend it for other election officials?

Barb Byrum: Ooh. So, before the November 2020 election, I was not in a happy place, and that's what I started tweeting really bad jokes every morning. So, “that's the joke, then vote.” And that just kind of helps me start my morning in a lighthearted manner, and then, recently – so in the past few months –the jokes just weren't doing it anymore for me, and I had had my fill of some specific conspiracy believers and pushers in my state. And this has been very cathartic for me. I am an elected official, so I need to be truthful, and I need to be friendly even when people are attacking me, but I think it's important to put people on notice of how incorrect and how damaging their statements are.

So, would I recommend this for others? Probably not. I think, I've served my community for over 15 years. So I'm, I'm well known in my community. They know me personally. There is a risk to being so offensively information sharing, and so I think that risk needs to be weighed. But also, my Twitter account is my personal account.

And I think that's very important for your listeners to note. That this is not the County Clerk account, this is my Twitter account.

Brianna Lennon: I wonder, I know that you just said on Twitter and things like that you wouldn't push back, but do you wish that there was a more concerted pushback from election officials in general? Because there is still a pretty quiet void where, you know, all this is happening. There are conferences happening about conspiracies about the election, and, you know, most I think of us have taken the tact of like, “Well, we don't want to entertain them. We don't we don't want to elevate their voices, especially if nobody mainstream has heard them.” But we know that it's happening. But we also don't want people implying – getting that the silence that we have implies that we're okay with what's happening, too, and I don't know how you feel about it, but I'm curious what your opinion is.

Barb Byrum: Yeah. So it's really difficult to have a unified message against all of these conspiracy theories around elections because elections are state ran, and it's dictated under state law. So, I think it's important for all of the election administrators to speak up just a little bit more at least, and help their constituents understand that – I'm your neighbor, but so is that other clerk down the road, and all of us election officials, we are all here doing a civil service. We are, we are committed to free and fair and transparent and secure elections.

And in Michigan – we have paper ballots. Most states have paper ballots, and we know that there is the ability to recount and audit elections, and it's very difficult, I guess, around the way saying – it's very difficult for us to have a unified message against the conspiracies because every state runs elections differently as determined by their state laws. But our states run good elections. So, I think there needs to be a way for – whether it's an organization or maybe some louder voices – all to stand up and say “No. Our elections are safe. They're secure. There's not fraud. If there is anything, it is identified and it is rectified.”

There needs to be some way for us to have a unified voice, but that's going to be awful difficult with how different elections are ran based on state.

Eric Fey: I've asked every person from like Wisconsin or Michigan about the extreme decentralization you all have. If Barb Byrum is in charge of election structure in Michigan, would it look like it does now or would you change things?

Barb Byrum: So, Barb Byrum supports the state law, and the state law in in Michigan allows for local control. I do recognize that there are some locals – some townships and cities that are very small, and their clerk may run an election once every couple of years. They have one precinct, and they may not work 40 hours a week. And I recognize the disservice that often places on voters because the voters aren't able to get to the office and obtain their ballot, update their voter registration, whatever the case may be. I also note that many of our smaller jurisdictions lack resources.

In my county, where I live – my neighbors and my Clerk's office did not have internet access at all for three weeks leading up to the election, and but for me being able to stand in and put a hotspot in the Clerk's office, they would not have been able to update their qualified voter file. Their list of voters. That's a disservice and it's not necessarily the township’s fault – especially for this situation, but there would be, it would be very nice if locals could contract with neighboring locals or with the county for – to just be more accessible to voters. That would be nice, but the law does not permit that right now, and I will follow the law.

Eric Fey: Well, I'm glad to hear you're gonna follow the law.


Eric Fey: Like we all have to do. So, I'm curious in Michigan, I'm sure there's been a lot of talk in the state legislature about any number of election administration related reforms. Has that kind of thing been talked about at all, or is it been all this other stuff about other stuff?

Barb Byrum: Yes.


Barb Byrum: So, yeah. So, the Michigan Legislature has talked about all sorts of election reforms that they think would be helpful to curb voter fraud, right? But what they have failed to do is actually have conversations with the election professionals who know how to make our elections even more safe and secure. So I am, I am confident that we as the election administrators in our state will help the legislature introduce some good legislation, but right now they're focused on not so helpful legislation, which has been vetoed by our Governor, and you know, the election administrators and the election officials and all of the election workers – we're a fun group, and we are being battle tested, and we will get through this, and our future is brighter. Right now is just very frustrating.

Brianna Lennon: You've been listening to High Turnout Wide Margins, a podcast that explores local election administration. I'm your host, Brianna Lennon – alongside Eric Fey. Thanks to KBIA for making this podcast possible. Our Managing Editor is Rebecca Smith. Our Managing Producer is Aaron Hay, and our Associate Producers are Abigail Ruhman and Katie Quinn. This has been High Turnout Wide Margins. Thanks for listening.

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After serving as Assistant Attorney General in the Missouri attorney general's office and as Deputy Director of Elections in the Missouri secretary of state's office, Brianna Lennon made the decision to pursue election administration at the local level. She was elected county clerk in Boone, Missouri, in 2018, making her responsible for conducting elections for more than 120,000 registered voters.
Eric Fey is a lifelong resident of St. Louis County, Missouri, who fell in love with election administration as a teenage poll worker. He has worked in the field for a decade, and became director of elections in 2015. He’s on the executive board of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities, and has observed elections in twelve countries, including Ukraine, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan.