Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Calhoun County series.
Teri Loew had mixed feelings when she decided to retire after almost 30 years as Calhoun County’s Chief Deputy Clerk of Elections
. But, the more she and her husband, Dan, talked about the trips they would be able to take and the additional time they could spend with their children and grandchildren, the more at peace she became with her decision.
That peace has been severely tested since the sudden death of her husband on Aug. 13. The two had been married for 41 years.
Loew, 61, says she hadn’t thought about retiring, but the county offered an early retirement incentive in April and she decided to take it. Her last official day on the job is Dec. 31.
“We didn’t even have a financial advisor,” Loew says of her family finances. “But we found someone, met with him a couple of times, and all of our plans were in place when Dan passed.”
She is relying on her strong faith and a close-knit family to get her through the next few weeks at work and what comes next. Not coming into her office every day “will be different and I’m going to miss it.”
What she won’t miss is the increasingly combative narratives and negative perceptions people have about the fairness of elections and the challenges to election officials, like herself, throughout the United States. Loew says she has been spared the hateful rhetoric and death threats that so many of her colleagues have faced. Despite this, she says it hurts her to see this behavior continue and says the claims about rigged elections are “ridiculous.”
Teri Loew is retiring after a 30-year as Chief Deputy Clerk of Elections for Calhoun County.
“I’ve never feared for my safety,” Loew says. “I think more people are hearing things and seeing things in the media and trying to apply it to Calhoun County. They assume so much.”
The reality is that to make sure everything is ready to go prior to an election, Loew and local clerks do a preliminary and public test in which a deck of ballots with pre-determined results is run through a voting machine to make sure the results match. She says there is no way that these machines can be hacked or the results tampered with.
“We have so many things in place that these things people are saying have happened, can’t happen,” Loew says. “It’s not possible and I just keep thinking how ridiculous it is that people are saying it is possible.”
With the integrity of elections coming under intense scrutiny, Loew says election officials throughout Michigan will no longer be able to send results by cellular modem directly to offices like hers. They will instead have to be sent to their local clerk’s office which will pass them on to county election offices. This, Loew says, will slow down the availability of unofficial results.
“It was all done because of the fears raised in the 2020 Presidential election. I just keep thinking how sad it was and I say that because of all the facts that are out there and then people get upset based on assumptions and hearsay,” she says. “That’s what caused the state not to approve cellular modems. It’s like we’re taking a step back in time and making it more inconvenient for the voters and the candidates.”
Teri Loew reflects on her 30-year career as Chief Deputy Clerk of Elections for Calhoun County.
The lead-up to the 2020 election posed its own set of unique challenges for Loew, who is the sole employee in the county’s Election Office. Because of COVID, candidates used drop boxes and the United States Postal Service to file the necessary paperwork to be on the ballot and Loew moved all of the training modules for 350 election inspectors onto her office’s section of the county’s website.
She says she thinks this virtual training was better than in-person training because people could do it at their own pace.
Another change that alleviated the pressure for her was that candidates running for certain offices at certain levels of government are now allowed to pay a $100 fee instead of gathering petition signatures.
But these changes did not shorten the length of time Loew and clerks from various municipalities within the county spent working on election night 2020 and into the morning hours of the following day. By law, clerks are required to bring sealed envelopes containing vote totals and the Poll Book
for each precinct and another sealed envelope containing vote totals for each precinct that is for the Board of Canvassers
who verify the official election results.
The election results in Calhoun County weren’t challenged as they were in other parts of the country, but the Board of Canvassers did take the full 15 days allotted by law to verify the results and individuals representing both political parties were watching.
“They learned a lot about what goes on here,” Loew says.
Not what she signed on for
A $5,000 insurance deductible through her former employer, Bill Knapp’s
prompted Loew to apply for a job with Calhoun County. With a young family, she says that the deductible was too costly. She was hired in to the county’s Accounts Payable department which was part of the Clerk’s office at that time. This job would be similar to the work she had been doing with Bill Knapp’s.
Teri Loew, Chief Deputy Clerk of Elections for Calhoun County, shows a lever machine that formerly was used to cast a ballot.
“Within a few months that position was moved under the Finance department and I was only there for about two hours before they brought me back into the Clerk’s Office. I didn’t even have time to get anything arranged before they moved me,” Loew says. “When I came back into the Clerk’s office that day, they put me into the newly-created Election Clerk’s position. I knew it was a big job and it was going to be a challenge and I was looking forward to it.”
Another person was brought in to work with her, but he didn’t stay long and left to start his own election vendor business. “Since then, it’s been just me,” Loew says, adding that county staff from other departments come in to help her during elections.
Even though, hers was a one-person department, Loew says, “We had to justify the newly-created Election Clerk’s position and pay so we got creative by designing and selling election supplies and ballots which included the Poll Books that I call our ‘Baby’ because it took nine months to create.” They were generating revenue to show the value of the newly created position.
While the Poll Books continue to be used in every election, the tools used to vote have changed. Lever machines and punch cards were abandoned in favor of optical scanning voting machines and paper ballots.
These changes are among many that Loew has seen during her tenure, which began under Secretary of State Richard Austin and will end with Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. This constant state of flux, she says, is one of the best parts of her job, even when things didn’t run smoothly as was the case in 1992 when programming/software crashed as she was waiting for results.
Then there was an election night when a storm knocked out power at precincts and one township’s Election Inspectors had to “pack-up and come to our office to finish tabulating the votes,” Loew says.
A certificate indicates an American flag that flew over the U.S. Capital in honor of Teri Loew.
Times like this only added to the energy and excitement in her office during elections.
“In the early ’90s, the three rooms that make up my office were full on election night with media and candidates. We had several big red, white and blue banners hanging from the ceiling and food galore,” Loew says. “Election nights now are very quiet. There are only five of us here because everything comes in in real-time. We have an IT person who uploads the vote totals to our website and the GIS department comes and helps to do the mapping.”
Always a fixture from the beginning of her tenure was her husband. He would help monitor results and provide updated vote totals on election nights.
In the most recent November election, which involved proposals in four separate school districts, Loew’s daughter stepped in for her father.
“She came in to support me and we cried all the way home,” Loew says.
Lessons that stayed with her
Loew says she learned early on about the importance of maintaining integrity, professionalism, and confidentiality in her role. This involves remaining neutral.
“I have to be intentional about that, and I’ve worked on that. For a lot of years, I did not have any campaign signs in my yard and I wasn’t a Precinct Delegate either,” she says. “Years later I decided I wanted to put signs in my yard, but that stays outside of the office and when people walk in here, I’m here to help everyone.”
In recent years, letting people know how to get an absentee ballot and helping them to understand the voting process has kept Loew busy. She says she also handles the odd complaints about campaign signs that may not have the proper disclaimer language.
Among her favorite duties is walking a first-time candidate through the process of running for office.
Teri Loew, Chief Deputy Clerk of Elections for Calhoun County, stands in front of her office.
“Candidates running for the first time don’t have a clue about filing and I’ll ask them questions like, ‘Have you ever been to a commission or school board meeting?’ so they know what they’re getting themselves into,” Loew says. “There was one gentleman who ran for judge and he needed 600 ballot signatures and he handed me a petition stack that was almost three inches thick. I have had another candidate who was ready to faint because he wasn’t sure if he wanted to hand in his petition signatures and appear on the ballot. You’ve got to understand where they’re coming from and sympathize with them and help them understand the process.”
In 1994 her desire to be helpful had to be tempered with impartiality when she was involved in her first recall election involving the Athens school district where she and her husband had attended school and her children then attended.
“The secretary of the school board was being recalled and the county was responsible for conducting the election. I had friends on both sides of the recall, so I learned early on the importance of staying neutral,” Loew says.
In 2005, she would learn about the importance of a strong marriage when she and her husband found themselves on opposing sides during a contentious debate that would have, among other things, expanded the ability of a school district to change or hold its regular elections at a time other than the odd-year election, and require certain disclosures on the petition form authorizing a school tax "floater" election
. Loew says the School Election Consolidation 2005 law gave counties the authority to conduct these elections. The election revisions did not go over well with school districts in the state’s 83 counties.
A lawsuit was filed on behalf of local school districts against Calhoun County, the first lawsuit in the state testing the new consolidated election law. Loew found herself writing legal agreements that laid out responsibilities for these elections. Her husband was appointed as a school board representative for all election matters.
“My husband and I were on opposite sides of that lawsuit and we were leaving a meeting in Marshall with legal counsel between our county and school districts for a 25th anniversary trip to Paradise where we spent our honeymoon,” Loew says. “The schools had been told not to sign an agreement. It was a very cold ride to Paradise and we traveled many miles before either of us said a word to the other.”
During her almost three decades as the county’s go-to election person Loew has amassed enough memories to fill a book. She is a walking encyclopedia of the way her job has changed as elections have evolved.
She says she is not sure what comes next in her life and she will be ready for anything.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed working for Calhoun County these past 29, nearly 30 years. I am proud to have been a part of the Elections Division, representing and serving the citizens of Calhoun County and doing my best to ensure the integrity of each election process,” Loew says. “I have always believed that you should do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, while you can.”
Photos by John Grap. See more of his work here.