S2E26: Reflecting on a Family Legacy of Election Administration with Miller County, Missouri’s Clinton Jenkins
They spoke about his family legacy of public service, the many tasks that come with the job, and some of the challenges he has faced in his small, rural jurisdiction.
In this episode, hosts Brianna Lennon and Eric Fey speak to Clinton Jenkins – a third-generation county clerk in Miller County, Missouri. As of the 2020 Census, Miller County has a population of 24,722.
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:
Clinton Jenkins: I actually took steps before the November 2022 election to kind of do some group and community outreach with how elections work, what equipment we use, how we do it. And there was a very, very low turnout. I'm going to try to do it again in November 2024. I mean, I went on the radio and talked about it. I did a TV interview, it was in the newspaper, I put it out on Facebook. That's the most frustrating thing about today's times is there's so many ways to inform people, but nobody's paying attention.
[High Turnout Wide Margins Introduction]
Eric Fey: This is Eric Fey along with my co-host –
Brianna Lennon: Brianna Lennon.
Eric Fey: And today we're at the Miller County Missouri Courthouse with the County Clerk Clinton Jenkins. I think we decided to do this because Clinton and I were testifying in the state Capitol a few weeks ago, a couple weeks ago, on a hand counting bill, and he told me the story about him being the third generation of county clerks in Miller County. So we thought that's too good to pass up.
Capitol Hearing Audio:
Chairwoman: Next in Opposition. Please state your name.
Clinton Jenkins: It's Clinton Jenkins, Miller County Clerk, and all the city people just took all my good points, so I’m batting cleanup.
As a third-generation County Clerk, I am not going to stake my family's name and reputation on using equipment or resources I do not trust.
Brianna Lennon: So, for our last episode of season two, we are talking to Clinton Jenkins in Miller County, Missouri. And he is a third-class county clerk, and in Missouri, our counties are divided by classification based on the assessed valuation of the county. So basically, if the county has more resources, more assessed valuation when it comes to property – you can be a third class to second class to first class county. Boone County, for example, is first class County, that means that my office is not in charge of the budget for the county because we have a county auditor, but in a third-class county, there is no county auditor. So, the County Clerk doesn't just run elections and payroll and liquor licenses, like they do in my office – they're also the budget officers. So, they're doing a lot more work on top of what a first class or second-class county would do.
And Clinton talks a little bit about that, but he also talks, I think, most importantly – and why we wanted to talk to him – about how he's really kind of a legacy county clerk, a third-generation clerk, and we just thought that was a really important note to end on.
Eric Fey: And for me, in many ways, Clinton is kind of the prototypical local election official in the United States in that he's from a relatively small jurisdiction, it's a rural jurisdiction, he has a lot of other duties in addition to elections, which is common throughout most United States, but he's also atypical and that he's – like Brianna said – a third generation clerk, which I think might have been more common in the past, but now with the seemingly increasing turnover in election officials that's increasingly uncommon.
So kind of to wrap up our second season, we wanted to bring it back to the origins of this podcast, and that was, you know – for local election officials, by local election officials, about local election officials. And we thought this was just such a fun way to end, you know, kinda brought the whole thing full circle in my mind. So seemed like a good way to end the season.
Eric Fey: So, Clinton, thank you for being here on the podcast. And why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself? How you, I mean, I alluded to it, but how you came into this? And maybe a little bit about Miller County?
Clinton Jenkins: Yeah, so about Miller County, we're fairly rural, we have a little sliver Lake of the Ozarks, that's really good for generating tax revenue. But it's two different worlds. Here, in the western part of the county is the lake, you know, very more progressive, very financially sound. But you move over into the eastern, northern, and southern parts of the county, it's very rural, very conservative, is where I grew up, it's home. So it's just a great place to live.
You've got options, like if you want to go into town, you can go into town, but you don't have to. People here are great. I mean, you can talk to anybody. Everybody's laid back, has a good sense of humor. How I got into office was my grandfather, and my dad were both county clerks for several years. I always kind of wanted to because I grew up in the original or not the original, but the old Miller County courthouse. It just always felt like something I was gonna end up doing. And here I am.
Brianna Lennon: Before we had started recording, how the rest of your family felt about you continuing on that tradition, I guess. Has it been like a long-standing tradition? Like there's always someone in your family that is going to be the clerk or?
Clinton Jenkins: No. Well, the clerk's office has been around since I think 1948. And I did the math on it. My family has been in this office for 65% of the time that this office has existed. But public service has always been a big thing in my family. It kind of started with my grandpa. During the Great Depression, he grew up in the northern part of the county and had a farm and just they weren't making where they needed to be. So him and his brothers joined the Navy.
This is at the end of the Depression and were stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. And were there on December 7, 1941. So they went all the way through World War Two. And then when grandpa came home shortly after him, within a few years ran for state rep and won and became State Rep. I'm not sure- when we were up at the Capitol, I was actually looking for the rosters, but they've moved them into the library. So after that, he became county commissioner for a while. And after that went to work as the chief deputy clerk in the county clerk's Office.
The county clerk passed away around 1970. Grandpa was appointed, and then was county clerk for another 12 years. Then there was a gap of four years. And then dad came in for 28 years. Now this is- I just started my third term. So this is the ninth year. I mean, even my dad worked for the state for like 12 years before he became county clerk. So there's a lot of public service there. And I served eight years in the military before I went to college and graduated and then did about three years with the state and then came here.
It's kind of funny because my dad asked me do you want to run for county clerk? Because he always knew it was like something in the back of my head. And I said, yeah, kinda, and then he commenced to six weeks of negotiations trying to talk me out of it because he said this the job that he did- I mean, that would have been 2014, 2013 we were having that conversation, that the job was so much different than when he started in 1987. It's changed a lot since I've been here, and this is my ninth year.
Eric Fey: I think that's a good segue into the next question. I mean, one reason we like to interview local election officials on this podcast is to try to give people an idea of what it's really like, for most local election officials. So Clinton, I think you are pretty typical of the vast majority of election officials in the United States.
Where not only do you preside, let's call it, preside over a relatively rural jurisdiction, relatively small jurisdiction in terms of population, but you also have a host of other duties. So could you describe for people a little bit like what, what your job entails? What's the normal day or week look like for you?
Clinton Jenkins: Depends on the year. So the frustrating thing about being a class three county clerk in Missouri is you take office January 1st. By the last day of August, or last day of January, sorry, you have a budget that's due, and our budget is 185 pages. And that's not including table of contents and all the supplemental stuff. So you've got a very short window to figure that out. Then you move into the financial statement, which is 1000s and 1000s of lines on an Excel spreadsheet.
During all that you're trying to figure out how to put on a municipal election. And in the past, you're doing a presidential preference every four years and a municipal election at the same time. Then you have railroad utility disbursements that have to go out to the schools that's going on at the same time. You have assessed valuations that you calculate that comes from the recorder from the assessor's office. You have a DESE [Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] report that takes about a week to do to break out all the information to the schools.
You have tax levies in the summertime, we're the hub, all that goes through our office for every school district, village, city, fire department, library district, everybody. We have to set our own tax levy. We have to do the railroad utility calculations to send the billing out to everybody. We do human resources, we have payroll, we have accounts payable, we do all of our health insurance. Sometimes we sweep the hallway during tax season because farmers come in with manure on their boots.
It's everything. That's one of the things I love about this job, though, is driving down here. The 15-minute drive it takes me to get to the courthouse. Sometimes I just tried to make an internal bet with myself of what's going to happen today and I'm never right.
Brianna Lennon: What was it like growing up in a family of clerks, because we all have kids, and most of us are not even second generation. And I wonder like, you know, my kids don't see me a lot during election season and things like that, what they're going to think of the office and my job and me and all of that. What was it like growing up with so many clerks in your family?
Clinton Jenkins: Well, to me, it's like, it's natural that everybody knows you. And who your dad is. I look exactly like my dad. You guys both came in, I think after he left office, but we're the same height. Not as robust as Dad is. But I mean, that's how I can judge how old somebody is, by, hey, I work for your grandpa, or I knew your grandpa. Those people are becoming more rare because, I mean, if my grandpa was still alive, he'd be like 103.
But you know, everybody knows my dad, for the most part. Then I'm getting to the point to where everybody knows me. Then my kids see that and it's like, oh, you know, everybody, Dad. I know a lot of people and they're getting to the age to where they can get out of the house and kind of get in trouble. So it's kind of nice to know everybody because they can say hey, I saw your kid doing this or that. Yeah, it was just part of life. I don't know what it's like not to be part of a family that is in local politics. So maybe I could ask what's that like to be able to go the grocery store and people haven't known you your entire life?
Brianna Lennon: Did you get- and I kind of already know the answer to this because you talked about it once, but did you get recruited to help out with elections when you were growing up?
Clinton Jenkins: Yes. If it wasn't nepotism, I never got paid. So let's get that out there. But if I were to get back paid, I think I've been working on elections since I was in fourth grade, helping bring in ballots. The old duffel bags of ballots and helping people come in and stuff. And then running election results from the courthouse down to my grandma's house and just keeping up. It's just been part of life. I mean, I miss the old days when people used to actually show up at the courthouse and kind of camp out and have that community feel to get results.
But now with the internet, and Facebook is just out there. But I mean, every once in a while, for me, April, not April, August, primary elections, we still have we'll have a group come out. I've tried to bring that back a little bit, but it's never gonna be like it was. We got the internet in Miller County finally, so that wiped that out.
Eric Fey: I couldn't believe when you told me that. Not only was your grandpa and dad county clerk, but you lived right across from the courthouse. So I mean, your dad, I mean, the work probably never left. And you told these great stories, how you on election night, when you're helping out, you run stuff back and forth from the house. I think that might be more typical than many people think still. Because they think of, you know, big cities. But like I said before, most election officials are not in big cities, they're in places like this.
Clinton Jenkins: I think a big part of what people don't understand is when you're a county clerk and a lot of these county level offices, you're not a politician by any means you're just a public servant. And they don't, I think a lot of people don't understand the amount of work that goes into a county clerk's office, whether it be class one, two, or three. I mean, you guys have your own responsibilities. It's just at a macro level instead of the more micro that I deal with. And I'm not, definitely not the smallest county in Missouri, there's smaller. It just depends on where you're at, but always somebody's carrying the burden.
[High Turnout Wide Margins Mid-break]
Eric Fey: Hello, I'm Eric Fey, Director of Elections in St. Louis County, Missouri, and you're listening to High Turnout Wide Margins, a podcast where we explore local election administration.
Brianna Lennon: Starting your third term and knowing- you were here for the 2016 election and 2020 election, and we're looking at 2024. And obviously, like you've been up to the legislature, what are you most concerned about going into the election cycle next year?
Clinton Jenkins: I'm concerned that it's gonna be 2020 more amplified. There's going to be more conspiracies, there's going to be more everything. Just I mean, if you've watched the news this week with what's going on with former President Trump, I think that's going to be amplified. I actually took steps before the November 2022 election to kind of do some group and community outreach with how elections work, what equipment we use, how do we do it.
And there was a very, very low turnout. I did one in this room, did one in Eldon and I did one at the Lake of the Ozarks with Camden County clerk. We had three people show up. So I mean, it was pulling back the curtain showing them who Oz is, but nobody was interested enough to do it. I'm gonna try to do it again in November 2024. I mean, I went on the radio and talked about it. I did a TV interview, it was in the newspaper, I put it on Facebook. That's the most frustrating thing about today's times is there's so many ways to inform people, but nobody's paying attention.
Eric Fey: Just before you started this interview, your verification board was here. Verifying everything from the most recent April election. So in Missouri municipal elections happened in April. So you had a bipartisan team here in your office, and they were manually hand counting ballots to verify that, you know, what was tabulated on election was correct. How did that go?
Clinton Jenkins: You saw it. So we had to do 28 ballots for manual recount, because it's 5% of your precincts. One precinct in Miller County satisfies that. We had to recount those three times. I couldn't even imagine trying to do 1000s of ballots that way.
Eric Fey: One great point you made Clinton when we were in the state Capitol a couple of weeks ago, you testified in front of the Senate Elections Committee. And you made the point that all the ballots are counted in bipartisan teams, and all the election judges in Missouri, they're all bipartisan.
Miller County is a conservative Republican County. So if you're going to hand count all the ballots, you might be able to find enough Republicans, but you definitely need more judges where would you find more Democrats? So I mean, that's one facet of it that many people don't think about.
Clinton Jenkins: Luckily, we had the statute to change the rules that where we could just pull in people from other counties without having to get the other county clerk's permission. I mean, even now I'm using judges from Camden County and Cole County, just to supplement what I have on the Democrat side. I've got Republicans in a holding pattern that have requested to work four years ago, and I still can't get him in. But Democrats, if you volunteer, if I call you and you say you will work, I will call you for every election until your phone turns off.
Brianna Lennon: There's things that are happening at the national level. We've been sort of hearing about them. And there's a magnifying glass now on everything that we're doing. Have you had any sort- I mean, you only had three people come to like the information sessions.
What I'm saying is like when I tried to do that same thing happens, very few people show up. And then I find out like way later, that there are these other little groups of people that are having conversations. They're online, or they're on Facebook, or wherever they are. And they never come and actually directly ask anything. Are you finding that to be the case here, too?
Clinton Jenkins: I get the calls. And I've actually had conspiracy theorists come down here. I walked him through the entire process, showed him the equipment, showed him our voter database. I didn't let him touch anything, obviously, but showed him. And I think I've had two, at least two of those people come down and when they leave, there's no more question.
It's yes, this is secure. Holy cow. I can't believe you guys have to do this for every election. Yeah, we do. There's no difference. So yeah, it's very frustrating. And I mean, I've told people openly, if you want to see how it runs, come down here, we'll show you we have nothing to hide. When you're in a small community like this. There's nothing, there's no way to hide anything. You shop in the same grocery stores with everybody. Kids go to the same schools. Why would I lie and try to hide stuff? I mean, I want to live here my whole life. Why? Why would I tarnish anything?
Brianna Lennon: Are you finding interest or support or anything from your other elected colleagues that are here? Because I mean, it's the same in Boone County, we're all in the same building. But I don't always get the sense that they have a full understanding of what it is that we're dealing with right now. And I look at places like Shasta County, and these other places where their commission is then getting overly involved in the elections process when they hadn't been before. Is that a concern?
Clinton Jenkins: No, everybody's pretty much hands off. Nobody wants to get involved. This is too much.
Eric Fey: We've talked a lot about the lead up to 2024. But just in general, what's your biggest concern? And it doesn't even have to be election related. What's the biggest concern you have with this job? What's the biggest challenge you have in this job that you would like people know about?
Clinton Jenkins: Work and private balances. Trying to do this and still find time for your kids. I mean, my son was six months old, when I filed to run. And he's nine now. There's stuff I missed. It's not fun. There's family stuff that you miss, there's just part of your life just kind of goes on hold when you do this job, because there's not missing elections. There's not missing deadlines. You just do it. That's hard.
But I mean, I guess as far as, like, if I was to categorize anything in election time, I know our equipment solid. Everybody in Missouri uses the right stuff. I'm not sure if there's – I haven't researched it enough to know what's wrong and what's right outside of Missouri. I always preface anything I always say about elections is I only know about Missouri. I don't know how other states do anything. But from what I understand, we're pretty, you know, tip of the spear on common sense, election laws.
But you know, you always can have a catastrophic breakdown with your equipment, you could always have, you know, judges that can't make it, you could always have a natural disaster. I mean, I stop sleeping about three days before an election, just trying to figure out what's gonna go wrong. And again, you never get it right. There's always something, a curveball that you don't see.
Brianna Lennon: I really want to ask more about being like third generation. So there's a shortage of clerks everywhere. I mean, that's the thing. That's the thing that I find like most remarkable about your situation is there's places that are literally like, vacant positions. And not necessarily in Missouri, but you can't find anybody to run.
And I think it's pretty rare to have somebody that's just like, yep, I come in and I have basically this whole wealth of experience and people that I can talk to you about it and everything. And you still wanted to do it after you saw what it was. So what is it that pushed you into it?
Clinton Jenkins: Stubborn? I don't know. It just, I never really wanted to be like, in the public for anything, because I'm a pretty, fairly shy person. I don't do well in groups. Like if you see me at our conference every year, like I'm usually like, off away, because I don't- like this, three people is fine, you throw in a fourth person don't know how to handle it. So like one on one, I'm fine. Public speaking, I've learned how to do. But it was just a part of life growing up. I don't know anything else.
Eric Fey: Any really great stories that you can share publicly about growing up in this business? Like your dad or grandpa have any great stories from being county clerk?
Clinton Jenkins: I've got two. One's kind of sentimental. There's two ladies that are on the senior citizen’s board. And they worked in the courthouse when I was growing up. One day they were talking about how it was so fun seeing me be in the courthouse now. And they got like- there was tears shed between the two. And I felt bad, but it was kind of touching at the same time. Because they would leave out a hard candy bowl and at the time, I would just run in.
I was short then as a child that changed later. But they would say they would just see my hand come over the counter and grab a piece of hard candy just run off. So they were just- There's other people that have had those. But there was one time when I was a kid and I've told this story publicly. I thought I burned down the courthouse. My grandma and grandpa lived across the road. And then my dad and my family moved in later after they moved.
But my grandma did everything in her power to spoil every one of her grandsons and had gotten me some fairly large bottle rockets. So 80s and Miller County. I'm surprised that a lot of us survived everything. I mean four wheelers, three wheelers, guns, fireworks, everything. But so, you know, I'm like eight years old, standing outside with these bottle rockets and a cigarette lighter. And there was a half-circle window at the top of the courthouse.
And one of the little panes was broken out. So for like a year I was trying to lob bottle rockets into that little crack. Again, I was eight, maybe nine. So one day, the stars aligned, and one went in there and it popped. And the entire top of the courthouse lit up white. I ran inside and went to bed because I thought I just burned down the courthouse. So I came and looked, like I woke up the next morning and like peeked through the blinds and it was still there. And I was like, “Oh, thank God.” But yes, that was a good one.
Eric Fey: It's probably a good one to end.
Brianna Lennon: Yeah.
Clinton Jenkins: I promised I will not burn down the current Miller County Courthouse either. So we're safe.
Eric Fey: We'll be sure to include that in the recording. So all Miller Countians can hear it.
Brianna Lennon: This is the last episode of season two. It also I think marks are 86 episode, which is crazy to think about.
Eric Fey: Yeah.
Brianna Lennon: You know, we're working on developing a season three. I think we're so excited to keep talking to people and have conversations about what we expect to have happen in 2024 and what everybody doing. But we've also talked some about – like how Eric said in the beginning – getting back to the roots of the podcast of a for us, by us, and focusing more on what's happening in local election offices, the challenges that local election authorities are facing, but also just kind of best practices and things that maybe we can just adapt from each other.
As we're looking at 2024, we're all going to have to be more efficient, we're all going to have to find ways to better demonstrate to the public everything that we're doing, and there's still, I think, a lot of counties that don't quite know where to turn or have the resources to be able to create public information campaigns or they're just starting out and trying. As Clinton mentioned, in his interview, in this episode, he tried to go out and do public information sessions, which is great, and it's probably the first time that something like that had been tried in Miller County, and only a couple of people showed up to that.
And we're all kind of facing that, but we're all still planning to do more of it in 2024. So hopefully, conversations like that with other local election officials will be fruitful, and you know, if anybody has any suggestions of who they want us to talk to, we are more than happy to talk to anybody.
Eric Fey: Yeah, I don't know that I have anything to add, really. That's perfect.
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, and thanks for listening.