From election coordinator to Michigan Clerk of the Year: Justin Roebuck’s passion for public service

Growing up in his hometown of Sand Lake, an energetic Justin Roebuck can still hear his mother’s advice when he got a little too rambunctious.

“I remember having a lot of high energy as a kid and my mom telling me to go run around the house three or four times and then come back in,” recalls Roebuck. Now 37 and the Ottawa County Clerk/Register of Deeds, that high energy serves him well.

The Michigan Association of County Clerks (MACC) recently named Roebuck the 2021 Michigan Clerk of the Year. The award is given to a county clerk chosen by a committee of five previous winners of the award.

Roebuck is the second winner from Ottawa County and the first since Harris Nieusma won the second Clerk of the Year award in 1977.

According to Marney M. Kast, Hillsdale County Clerk, chair of the Clerk of the Year Committee, and Clerk of the Year in 2020, the search each year for Clerk of the Year starts around the first of April. There were several qualified candidates, but Roebuck ended up as its choice.

“Justin’s attendance, participation, and leadership qualities at our MACC conferences is exceptional,” says Kast. “He currently co-chairs our Legislative Committee, which is very demanding. Justin works closely with our MACC lobbyist and is called upon frequently to address the Legislature on topics that concern our statutory duties as clerks.

“The committee felt that Justin met the criteria and is a real asset by going above and beyond in keeping our association informed.”

Election work

Of the eight states that administer elections on the local level, Michigan is the largest both in terms of population and geography to do so, according to the MACC, which involves 83 county clerks, 280 city clerks, and 1,240 township clerks. Michigan’s elections system is the most decentralized in the nation.

And during a presidential election, when voter turnout is typically higher, an immense about of advance preparation is critical.

Then-Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Ottawa County Clerk/Register of Deeds Justin Roebuck speak at Holland City Hall.

“The ramp-up to a presidential election, you have to experience it to know what it is like,” says Roebuck. “I liken it to a party for 220,000 voters that requires figuring out all the logistical aspects to getting voters out at the appropriate time. It’s an immense amount of preparation for a major election.”

Steve Daitch also was knee-deep in preparing for the 2020 election. He served as Ottawa County’s election coordinator from July 2014 to May of this year. Working with 23 township and city clerks, Daitch says Roebuck did his level best to ensure everyone involved with the election process trusted the veracity of the election results.

“We had a huge amount of calls in 2020,” says Daitch, now senior election subject matter expert for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. “I think a fair amount of success in our 2020 election — and Justin’s success overall — comes from being willing to talk to people and build relationships. It’s really for the service of our community and the benefit of our customers. Justin did a phenomenal job of building relationships with our local clerks, with our local political parties, with candidates who are running for office, and voters, too.”

Roebuck is quick to add that following the examples of others shaped his foray into elected politics.

Began as a volunteer

When fellow Republican Terri Lynn Land decided to run for election as Michigan’s 41st Michigan Secretary of State in 2002, Roebuck dove in headfirst to volunteer for her campaign team.

“I worked on her executive team and, during my first year of college, I was her driver,” says Roebuck. “There were many humbling moments but incredible opportunities in what it looks like to be a statewide elected official. She has a real passion for election administration, which I think she passed on to me. I’ve always been interested in politics and love politics but the administration side I hadn’t seen before until working for Terri.”

That front-row seat into running an election campaign eventually served Roebuck well.

Former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land with Ottawa County Clerk/Register of Deeds Justin Roebuck.

In 2009, Roebuck began his career serving Ottawa County as election coordinator for the Ottawa County Clerk’s office. He was appointed County Clerk and Register of Deeds in 2014 by the chief circuit judge in Ottawa County, then elected to the position in 2016 and again in 2020.

He is in essence chief election officer for Ottawa County, overseeing the elections process in 23 local cities and townships and for the county’s 220,000 voters. Roebuck also serves as the clerk of Michigan’s 20th Circuit Court and clerk of the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners.

In addition to his work in Ottawa County, Roebuck currently serves on the Standards Board of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, is vice-chair of Michigan’s Council of Election Officials, and is co-chair of the Legislative Committee of the Michigan Association of County Clerks.

He was appointed by the Michigan Supreme Court to the Michigan Judicial Council, formed in 2021 to create a statewide strategic plan for the judicial branch. Roebuck has been appointed by Govs. Rick Snyder and Gretchen Whitmer to the Michigan Electronic Recording Commission, which governs the standards for real property documents recorded in Michigan, where he is currently serving as chair.

He also administers the Ottawa County Honor Rewards program that connects veterans with discounts and services.

Such endeavors prevent Roebuck from living in a political vacuum.

“Those things are fun for me, to see what people are doing in other parts of the
state,” says Roebuck.

Led with initiatives

Roebuck has made customer service a priority since taking office, with a focus on utilizing technology to solve problems and improve access and transparency.

He has led initiatives such as electronic filing in the courts, electronic recording of land records in the Register of Deeds office, and bringing numerous Clerk/Register services online for the convenience of customers.

Ottawa County Clerk/Register of Deeds Justin Roebuck giving committee testimony earlier this year before the Michigan House Elections and Ethics Committee.

As Ottawa County’s chief election officer, Roebuck says his focus is to build trust in the elections process with honesty and transparency. His goal is to change the way election officials interact with voters by modeling proactive, consistent, and fact-based communication using multiple platforms from social media to in-person voter engagement.

The county's voter information campaign recently received national recognition.

Understandably, election years are busy times for clerks throughout the state. What made 2018 a tad different was anyone in Michigan who wanted to vote absentee could. That option grew increasingly popular when the COVID-19 crisis struck starting in March 2020, producing an uptick in absentee voting for the primary and general elections of that year.

“We have been doing absentee voting for 150 years in the state of Michigan,” says Roebuck, adding that, of the 73% of eligible voters who cast ballots in the 2020 general election, 50% voted via absentee. “It’s the volume that was new.”
Unleashed in pockets of the nation following the presidential election were charges of voter fraud. Roebuck affirms that charge does not apply to Ottawa County.

“I’m very confident in the process,” he says. “Every vote required a signature by the voter in the post-election process. We do audits where we match up applications for ballots to make sure every ballot has an accompanying application. The ability to get a ballot, sit at the table to do your research, and drop it in the mail, I think that makes voters more involved and engaged.”

Roebuck lives in downtown Zeeland with his wife, Laura, and their children, Sarah and Michael.

And while he no longer lives in Sand Lake, the values he was taught there remain his North Star.

“I appreciate growing up in the country and the values it brought into perspective for me,” says Roebuck, “such as people taking care of one another. My dad, Billie, is a man of deep faith and conviction and loves other people really well.”

Read more articles by Paul R. Kopenkoskey.