‘Put Heart and Soul Into Upholding Democracy’: An Election Official on What It Takes


Reflections from a former secretary of state—on her time in workplace and her work at this time as an advocate and champion without spending a dime and truthful elections

(Courtesy of Natalie Tennant)

For a lady raised on a West Virginia farm, the youngest of seven kids, it might appear stunning that elections have at all times fascinated me.  

I vividly recall accompanying my dad and mom to the polls in a small close by city. They’d greet and chat with the ballot employees and obtain their poll. I might go within the sales space and thoroughly comply with every race as my dad marked them off. Once I requested why he didn’t vote for somebody who was operating unopposed, he’d reply, “We don’t need him to suppose everyone seems to be for him, that method he’ll work tougher.”

When my older sister mentioned she was operating for scholar physique president of her highschool, and could be the primary woman elected if she gained, my pleasure solely grew. She gained—and her victory set me alone path, too.  Although I misplaced each race for sophistication president in my freshman, sophomore and junior yr, lastly gained for scholar physique president my senior yr. I used to be hooked. 

I carried that decided mindset once I auditioned to be the Mountaineer Mascot at West Virginia College. It didn’t enter my thoughts that gender may play a task. But I used to be greeted with chants of, “Again to the kitchen, return to the kitchen and go make infants.”

Regardless of the response, I used to be chosen to characterize my college and state as the primary feminine mascot within the college’s historical past—a task that got here with nice accountability and public outcry. 

After school commencement, I continued within the public eye as an area tv reporter and anchor—a job that despatched me across the state telling tales of West Virginia and her individuals. It finally allowed me to cowl the West Virginia legislature—an eye-opening alternative to see up shut how the legislative course of works. 

Natalie Tennant’s household farm in West Virginia. (Courtesy of Natalie Tennant)

I knew then I had the potential of serving the individuals of West Virginia in elective workplace. Authorities shouldn’t be a hands-off, secret system the place only some are allowed to take part. I noticed the necessity for various voices and concepts.  

So, I gave up my information anchor job and ran for secretary of state in 2004 the place no incumbent was operating.  The 2000 presidential election, that was determined by the U.S. Supreme Court docket, confirmed us all of the significance of election integrity—and the necessity for a robust chief dedicated to making sure that voters have been empowered.

I misplaced that statewide race by 1,108 votes. Should you ever marvel in case your vote issues, that is proof! Yet one more vote in every precinct and I might have gained. By no means deterred, 4 years later I ran once more and gained.

Serving as secretary of state was an ideal mixture for me: an opportunity to advertise the state, grow to be an inclusive chief, innovate, take probabilities and push past expectations of the state’s smallest constitutional workplace. 

As a result of it was a constitutional workplace, I had extra independence and management. So, I invested within the staff by providing them coaching, sending them to out-of-state conferences, and offering raises the place potential. This ready them for unprecedented asks I had of them and, in flip, make our workplace a pacesetter in elections throughout the nation. We have been the third state within the nation to cross bipartisan automated voter registration laws. We carried out on-line voter registration, performed a pilot challenge for army web voting, and established poll monitoring measures. We improved our web site for larger transparency and data and saved the workplace cash all on the identical. 

Tennant was the feminine mascot in West Virginia College’s historical past. (Courtesy of Natalie Tennant)

I noticed I do lead in another way than my male counterparts. I centered on inclusion and empowerment of my group. I used to be content material with not having all of the solutions and permitting others to steer initiatives. A real chief is one whose imaginative and prescient (and staff) can proceed if you end up not within the workplace.  

It isn’t at all times simple being a lady chief, particularly for those who don’t have others round you. I used to be lucky to have a robust core of girls whom I might belief and rely upon. 

After being defeated in my third time period, I joined the Brennan Center for Justice as supervisor for state advocacy. I’m lucky to now share my expertise as a practitioner with advocates and lecturers who day by day put their coronary heart and soul into upholding our democracy. As well as, I’m a resident fellow on the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics the place I mentor undergraduates and conduct examine teams on election administration. Greater than tutorial examine, it’s a chance to work with younger men and women and mannequin how they’ll take part and make a distinction.

We’d like heroes—and we have to be heroes, as uncomfortable and unwelcoming as it might typically be. This installment of Women & Democracy uplifts many of those tales. I’m proud to be within the firm of those girls leaders. 

Care about U.S. democracy, girls’s management and truthful illustration? We do too. Let Ms. keep you up to date with our daily + weekly newsletters. (Or go back to the “Women Saving Democracy” essay collection.)


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