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Electing to serve the voters

Sunday, January 28, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:17 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

It’s Nov. 7, and Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren is giving last-minute instructions to her staff. Within a few hours, the lobby of the Roger B. Wilson Boone County Government Center will be filled with about 60,000 general election ballots. Having already worked for weeks to prepare for the big vote and to ensure the election would run smoothly, it’s now her job to tally the ballots and release the results quickly.

It’s a pressure cooker, to be sure.

But Noren, 52, is used to it. Since being elected county clerk in 1982, she has presided over scores of elections just like this one. She’s in her element on Election Day.

“I don’t feel it’s work,” she said. “It’s what I like.”

Noren has developed a reputation as one of the nation’s foremost elections experts. She has served on numerous state and federal elections commissions and frequently educates legislators on the pros and cons of reform bills. She’s gone toe-to-toe with the Missouri secretary of state over election issues. And she’s traveled twice to Eastern Europe — in 1997 and 2001 — as an international election observer.

“She has a strong and positive reputation in organizing elections,” said Terry Smith, a political science professor at Columbia College. “She is highly regarded by lots of people.”

During the 2004 general election, Noren’s office won high praise from inter-national experts who described the U.S. voting system in general as being in disarray. In their final report, delegates wrote that they were impressed by Noren’s “knowledge of local and international practice and (by) her innovative solutions to improve registration and voting.”

But Noren doesn’t pay much attention to the good things people say. She focuses on continually improving the election process.

“I’m a fanatic,” she said. “I do every-thing I am physically capable of doing.”

[photo]

Wendy Noren is known as one of the nation’s foremost elections experts, and she serves on numerous state and federal elections commissions while serving as county clerk. Here, she is shown in 1982. (Missourian file photo)

In June she took it upon herself to develop a software program that enabled Boone County to join a statewide voter registration base that was federally mandated. The county could have used software offered by the state, but it would have cost $150,000, and the state had offered to chip in only $25,000. So Noren, amid a public spat with Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, spent her free time writing her own software, saving the taxpayers’ money.

“Now the new system doesn’t cost any-thing,” Noren said this summer. “The voters and taxpayers are the big winners.”

Aside from managing elections, Noren is responsible for recording all of the County Commission’s orders, rules and proceedings, as well as administering employee benefits and procuring adequate insurance for the county.

“Wendy Noren probably works more hours than any other official in Boone County,” Lensmeyer said. That’s especially true around election time, when Noren usually stays in the office much longer than the usual 10-hour day.

“There is no time for a personal life,” Noren said, “because there is nothing you can do but this job. Some days, I don’t have time to sleep.”

Nevertheless, Noren said she appreciates her job as much as she did when she became deputy county clerk in 1978. At that time, she said, “I fell in love with the work, and I still love this job because there is always more that can be done.”

Despite her expertise, 2006 proved a difficult year for Noren. Along with working overtime to comply with the new voter registration requirements, she also had to bring new voting machines into Boone County polling places. It was an expensive and time-consuming task.

“For the first time in my career, I hesitated (to run for re-election),” she said.

Though Noren has considered jobs beyond the county level, she said the idea of a higher office was put on hold when she had her son 17 years ago.

“Even though a job might seem more important because it is a state office, I think I have had as much impact by staying where I am and focusing on doing my job well,” she said.


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