VOTE 2024: Two election workers running against longtime Marion County clerk

Marion County’s longtime clerk faces two challengers who work for him in a rare three-way race for the job of running local elections.

The county clerk is nonpartisan and elected to a four-year term with a salary of $127,296. In addition to running elections, the clerk processes marriage licenses, records deeds and oversees the county’s board of tax appeals.

Bill Burgess is seeking re-election to the office he’s held since 2005. His challengers are Jo Anne Lepley, a longtime government worker who’s been the county’s deputy elections clerk since 2022, and Anna Munson, a retired ultrasound technician and current election worker.

If one candidate wins more than half the votes in the May primary, only that candidate is listed on the November ballot. If no candidate wins a majority, the top two advance to the November election.

All three candidates identified trust in elections and civic participation as key issues they want to work on as clerk. They said voter education is an important part of the job. 

The most significant difference among them is their views on the cause of voter distrust and how they could restore it. Burgess and Lepley cited misinformation about how local elections work as the primary reason for distrust. Munson said Oregon needs to do more to reduce the likelihood of fraud and respond to those who question the legitimacy of election results.

County clerks don’t decide if voters can submit ballots by mail or establish identification requirements, but they can influence state policy and ultimately decide whether to certify local election results.

That process has gained more public attention since the 2020 election, when former President Donald Trump pressured local election workers in other states not to certify the results of Joe Biden’s election.

Here’s how each candidate said they’d approach the job.

Bill Burgess

Burgess has been Marion County’s clerk since 2005 and is seeking a sixth term.

A pharmacist by education, Burgess said his years working in retail pharmacy gave him a passion for customer service which he brings to the clerk’s office.

He said voters should give him another term “if they’re interested in stability, experience, knowledge, dedication, and leadership and promoting customer service.” 

Name: Bill Burgess

Age: 72

Education: Oregon State University, B.S. in Pharmacy, 1976; Lewis & Clark College, Master of Public Administration, 1995

Occupation: Marion County Clerk, 2005-present, pharmacist

Prior governmental experience: Salem City Councilor, 1990-1998

Campaign contributions: $514.04

Cash on hand:  -$752.47

During his time as clerk, he said the office has moved to having more services available online, including filing for a marriage license.

Burgess is passionate about voting and elections, often digressing from discussing his campaign and personal background to discuss how ballot counts are audited or explain how voters can change their party registration ahead of the primary.

Burgess said voter education and public trust in elections are key issues. He said the increase in people questioning the legitimacy of elections in recent years is due to fTrump’s efforts to cast doubt on the 2020 election results. It’s an effort he said has been lucrative for Trump and his supporters in the form of campaign contributions.

Burgess said the 2022 visit to Keizer Stadium of the “Reawaken America Tour,” which included election conspiracy theorists, “stirred up concern and contempt for the elections in specific and government in general.”

He’s tried to combat that by answering questions when people come to his office, and has been vocal in public presentations, sometimes with other clerks, about the dangers posed by misinformation.

“Election administrators county by county are working hard to make sure things are right. When people tell me that my voting rolls are bad, I say, show me which one you’re talking about. And I can look at it and I can explain it,” he said. 

For instance, he’s had people question how 80 people could be registered at one address in Salem. Many homeless residents use shelters like Union Gospel Mission or ARCHES as their registration address, he said, which can easily house more than 100 people. Such a listing is legal.

Burgess said would continue promoting elections. He’s unsuccessfully sought county funding for a social media and voter outreach employee in his office and will renew the request.

Burgess said he also supports efforts by the Secretary of State’s office to monitor social media for false information about elections and work to put out accurate information.

He sees adequate funding for election systems and security at the state level as an important issue.

Jo Anne Lepley

Lepley is a longtime Oregon resident and government worker who moved back to the state in 2021 after about a decade in Maine.

A Navy veteran, Lepley was stationed in Okinawa in the late 1970s, working as a cryptologic technician. She raised her children in Sandy and worked as city recorder in Bandon, moving to the East Coast after the Great Recession.

Lepley moved to Woodburn in 2021 and became Marion County’s deputy clerk for elections in 2022, hired by Burgess.

Name: Jo Anne Lepley

Age: 64

Education: B.S. in Political Science from Portland State University, 1996

Occupation: Deputy clerk for elections, Marion County, since 2022

Prior governmental experience: Bandon City Recorder, 2007-2010; Town Clerk, Berwick, Maine, 2013-2019

Campaign contributions: None reported

Cash on hand:  -$1,075.54

She said her government service gives her the experience to do the job well, and said she’d bring fresh eyes to the work.

“I love that it’s a constitutional office because it’s not just for a select few people. It’s not just for my friends or my family, or it’s not just for a political party that I may or may not belong to. It’s for everyone,” she said. “I love the fact that it’s so customer service oriented.”

As clerk, she’d like to see appointments set for those seeking passports, which can be a lengthy process. The county now handles such work on a walk-in basis.

Lepley said if people are in a hurry or trying to get the application done over their lunch hour, she wants to make sure they can be seen promptly “instead of waiting in line for four to six people to do their marriage licenses and record deeds.”

On election administration, Lepley agrees Oregon’s elections are secure and well run, and said the clerk’s office is currently doing a good job.

She’d focus on education and tours to combat misinformation.

“There’s people that once they see how everything works or understand how everything works, you win them over one at a time but that’s all it takes,” she said. 

Lepley believes existing systems like signature verification and registration through the DMV work well and prevent fraud.

Lepley said she’d like to see the state improve its voter registration database so the information shared with local olerk’s offices is as complete as possible, cutting down staff time consumed verifying information.

As city recorder in Bandon, Lepley oversaw the candidate registration process for local elections. She made up a packet to make the filing process easy, with forms and instructions in one place.

As clerk, she’d like to do more outreach to Spanish-speaking voters and personally visit middle and high schools.

“I also am a big advocate of going into schools and teaching the process in school … and teaching kids voting is important.” she said.

She said the clerk’s office might hold mock elections in schools as a teaching tool.

Anna Munson

Munson began working for Marion County as an election board worker in 2016, inspecting and sorting paper ballots to be counted. She’s a retired ultrasound sonographer who worked for Salem Health, beginning in cardiology before becoming trained in abdominal and obsetric ultrasound.

She said she was inspired to run for clerk because of the divisiveness of elections and what she described as a need for greater transparency.

“I am very concerned about elections and I wanted to find out more, help the county more,” she said. 

Name: Anna Munson

Age: 67

Education: Grossmont Community College, Associate of Science in Cardio-Pulmonary Tech, 1977

Occupation: Retired diagnostic ultrasound sonographer

Prior governmental experience: Marion County Election Board worker, 2016-2022

Campaign contributions: $10,540

Cash on hand:  -$2,296.03

She said she wants to bring people together “to help them understand how the voting is done, how elections are done and process, and make sure that all sides are feeling comfortable with that.”

Munson said low turnout – often just one in five voters cast a ballot in non-presidential elections – is a sign of distrust and disengagement.

“There is a definite message there. And that message is that as the county or the state or the nation … that people don’t have the confidence,” she said.

Munson said she’d examine security processes, identify improvements and answer voter concerns about how elections are conducted.

Oregon voters overwhelmingly voted to move to vote by mail in 1998. The process relies on signature verification, comparing the voter’s signature on file with what’s signed on their ballot envelope. 

Munson said she believes Oregon’s signature verification process can be improved, noting recent data breaches at the DMV raise concerns about voter information being stolen. She said the state should consider more secure measures to verify a voter’s identity, which could include photo ID for registration or more frequent updates to signatures on file.

“It’s such a porous process,” she said.“I believe that people are probably considering or or utilizing that porous process for nefarious means.”

She said she doesn’t have evidence that voter fraud is taking place at a scale that would alter election results in Oregon, but believes people who are worried about widespread fraud raise legitimate concerns.

“It’s not an accusation, but it is something that I would want to proactively see, can we do something? Because if … enough people consider that a vulnerability, then they will lose confidence,” she said.

According to the Secretary of State’s office, Oregon residents and local election officials reported a total of 140 cases of potential voter fraud statewide in 2020. Four of those were referred to the state Department of Justice.

Munson’s endorsements include state Sen. Dennis Linthicum of Klamath Falls, who’s seeking the Republican nomination for Secretary of State. He’s been a plaintiff in a 2022 lawsuit seeking to end Oregon’s mail-in voting system and claiming without evidence that there has been widespread voter fraud via a coordinated effort by unions to fill out other people’s ballots at the University of Oregon.

A judge dismissed his suit in 2023, saying the plaintiffs lacked standing because they had not alleged any personal harm, without ruling on the merits of their claims.

Munson said she’s not running for clerk to relitigate the 2020 election. 

“Joe Biden is the president,” she said.

But she said the questions plaintiffs in the suit raised about the chain of custody for their ballots merit a response.

“They willing(ly) signed a document that is binding in our legal system with the understanding that they could be asked in a court of law to testify about. Most of us would not do this on a whim, but would be thoughtful and honest as to what they experienced,” Munson said. “Because elections are so important I just wonder if some of these statements don’t warrant review.”

Aside from elections, Munson said she would focus on customer service in the clerk’s office, reviewing what can legally be put online so information is more readily accessible.

“The public being able to access information easily and readily is something I want to make sure is happening to the best of my ability,” she said.

She’s focusing during her campaign on outreach in immigrant communities and churches, and said she wants to better engage people to vote and participate in democracy.

She’d like to make field trips to schools and let students know, for example, that their vote influences their tax bills and other issues affecting their day-to-day lives.

“If you think that’s too high, there’s a way to solve that,” she said. “You fill out your ballot, you turn that in.”

Munson has raised substantially more than her opponents, with $10,540 in contributions as of Thursday, April 25. Her top five donors are Oregon People’s Vote, $800; Dick Withnell, $780; and Steven V. Johnson, Joel Pawloski and Rick Stwarn, $500 each.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.