Incumbent Democrat Larry Kestenbaum, who was first elected to the job of Washtenaw County clerk/register of deeds in 2004, was the only candidate for that office to appear at the Oct. 8 forum organized by the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area.
The Republican candidate, Stan Watson of Ann Arbor, did not attend the event. League president Nancy Schewe, who moderated the forum, reported that Watson wasn’t feeling well and had sent his apologies. In these situations, the league invokes its “empty chair” policy and allows the candidate who attended to answer questions.
So in a brief session lasting about 15 minutes, Kestenbaum fielded six questions, including some on voter fraud, election reform and county redistricting.
Information about both Kestenbaum and Watson, including brief answers to four questions about their background and approach to the job, can be found on the League of Women Voters Vote 411 website. Kestenbaum also has a campaign website. The clerk/register of deeds is elected to a four-year term.
The Oct. 8 candidate forum was held at the studios of Community Television Network, and will be available online via CTN’s video-on-demand service. It was the last of three forums on Monday evening. Others covered the races for county treasurer and water resources commissioner. The full schedule of candidate forums this week is on the league’s website. The forums are broadcast live on CTN’s Channel 19 starting at 7 p.m.
Oct. 9 is the last day to register to vote for the Tuesday, Nov. 6 general election. Information on voter registration can be found on the Washtenaw County clerk’s elections division website. To see a sample ballot for your precinct, visit the Secretary of State’s website. The league’s Vote411.org website also includes a range of information on national, state and local candidates and ballot issues, and a “build my ballot” feature.
The broadcast portion of the Oct. 8 county clerk’s candidate forum was brief, and began at 9 p.m. But Kestenbaum had arrived nearly two hours earlier, soon after the evening’s other candidate forums started. He chatted with other candidates and organizers, and brought two books to read while he waited: “Democracy & Populism” by John Lukacs, and J. K. Rowling’s “Casual Vacancy.”
Kestenbaum was given one minute for his opening statement. Thanking the organizers, he noted that this is the first League of Women Voters forum that he has participated in as county clerk. When he first ran for the position in 2004, there was no forum held for this office. In 2008, he ran unopposed. [He was also unopposed in this year's Aug. 7 Democratic primary election.] He said he loves this job. It involves many things he’s deeply interested in and fascinated by, and that he’s worked on for many years. He thanked the citizens of the county for electing him in the first place, and hoped that they would re-elect him on Nov. 6.
What professional experiences preceded your run for office, and what was the most significant in preparing you for this job?
Kestenbaum mused that he gets to reinterpret his whole life as preparation for this position, starting when he was researching land records as a teenager. From 1983-88 he served as an Ingham County commissioner. [Lansing, the state's capital, is located in Ingham County.] From 2000 to 2002 he was a commissioner in Washtenaw County. In Ingham County, he chaired the personnel committee for two years. He also chaired a committee that was a liaison with the county clerk and register of deeds – because there, the jobs were held by two different people. Kestenbaum explained that under Michigan’s constitution, every county must have a clerk and a register of deeds, though the two jobs can be merged into one position, as is the case in Washtenaw County.
He noted that he’s only one of two county clerk’s in Michigan who is also an attorney. Kestenbaum also cited his extensive experience in election law, and in writing articles and giving lectures on issues in election administration.
Purpose for Running
Why are you running for office, and why should citizens give you their vote? What distinguishes you as the best candidate?
Kestenbaum said he has successfully run the clerk/register of deeds office for nearly eight years, and has accomplished a lot. It’s been a great experience for him, and he has an excellent staff, he said. With budget cuts over the years, the office has downsized to 38 employees, compared to 50 when he was first elected in 2004. Yet they’ve been able to continue to provide excellent customer service, he said. That’s central to everything they do, he added – to treat all customers with courtesy and respect “no matter how challenging they may be as an individual.” They’ve implemented improvements in technology, he said, and now solicit feedback from customers about their performance.
Duties of the Job
Explain the responsibilities of the clerk/register of deeds.
These are two separate jobs, Kestenbaum said. The register of deeds is in charge of recording land records of all kinds – like mortgages and deeds – for all properties in the county, Kestenbaum explained. The office must maintain those public records in perpetuity. The entire land economy relies on those records being public and establishing chain of title, he saiad. For the clerk’s office, the most important responsibility relates to vital records: recording and registering deaths, births and marriages. He noted that the Washington Post once wrote that the clerk’s office is where the basic passages of life are made real through paperwork. He’s also the chief election official for the county, in charge of campaign finance reporting, concealed weapons permits, and certain court records.
Voter Registration Reform
What changes would you like to see in the current voter registration system?
Kestenbaum noted that he’s served as co-chair of the legislative committee for the Michigan Association of County Clerks, working with legislators in Lansing on election law and clerk-related issues. He believes election day registration will ultimately be allowed – and it already works well in a number of other states, he said. Early voting is another issue, he said. Now, if you want to vote early, you have to swear to a reason for needing an absentee ballot, such as being out of the community. As a result, there’s more “rigmarole” than needed, he said. If someone wants to vote absentee, they should be allowed to do that. What happens now is almost the equivalent of early voting, he said, with people showing up at the clerk’s office to vote absentee.
Is voter fraud a problem in Washtenaw County? What are your preferred methods of controlling voter fraud, if there is any?
Kestenbaum doesn’t believe voter fraud is a problem in Michigan. The election system has evolved over the last 100-plus years in ways to improve security, he said. It’s not foolproof, but it’s very, very good, and certainly would prevent anyone from stealing an election through fraud. Historically, he said, the most vulnerable part of an election has been in the tabulation of votes. As a result, tabulation now takes place in the precincts and results are posted there for the public to see. That means there’s no room for making changes further along in the process, he said.
Are you willing to make the county redistricting process more open to public input and participation the next time it’s done?
By way of background, the redistricting process for the county board of commissioners occurs every 10 years, based on population changes determined by the U.S. census. It’s handled by the county apportionment commission, a five-member group consisting of the county clerk, county treasurer, county prosecuting attorney, and the chairs of the county Republican and Democratic parties. The process took place most recently in 2011 and the commission was chaired by Kestenbaum.
The commission held several public meetings and public hearings. For most of the process, only two plans had been offered: one for 9 districts, another for 12. However, just hours before the group’s final meeting on May 11, 2011, several new plans were submitted for consideration. In total, the commission considered 11 plans – for 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, and 21 districts. During public commentary at the final meeting, one resident expressed shock at seeing so many new plans on the day of the final vote. The redistricting plan that was eventually adopted at that meeting received a unanimous vote, but the lone Republican on the commission – Mark Boonstra – complained about the process. For additional background, see Chronicle coverage: “County Board Loses 2 Seats in Redistricting.”
In response to the question at the Oct. 8 forum, Kestenbaum said he felt the process had been open during the most recent redistricting. All of the meetings were public, he noted, and public hearings were held in different parts of the county to improve access. The commission invited redistricting plans from the public, and the final 9-district plan was adopted unanimously, he said, so he felt it was a successful process. He said he’s certainly open to ways to improve the process, but he thought they did very well.
Kestenbaum was given two minutes for a closing statement. He reiterated that he loves the job. It combines all kinds of things he’s interested in – elections, preservation of historic records, genealogy, customer service. People expect excellent customer service, he said. They have a right to expect that. This county has one of the most highly educated populations in the nation, and he’s proud to serve as a county official.
He said his philosophy toward elections is that they should be participatory and inclusive. Among other things, he said, he has pushed to move the primary election from August to May. That’s because in many cases the primary election is critical – it shouldn’t be held in the middle of the summer vacation season, when many voters are away. Holding it in May would improve turnout, and also spread the work of election officials across the year. With August primaries, there’s a severe time pressure to get absentee ballots for the general election to residents who are overseas, he said.
Kestenbaum also mentioned a partnership his office has worked out with the circuit court to consolidate the administration of court employees. He concluded by asking citizens to consider voting for him on Nov. 6.
The Chronicle would not survive without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of local government – we hope you elect to subscribe. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!