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5 Things You May Not Know About Local Election Officials

It’s easy to miss the hard work going on behind the scenes to keep our democracy running.

Published: October 26, 2020

The highly decent­ral­ized nature of our elec­tion system creates a patch­work of approx­im­ately 10,000 juris­dic­tions at the county or muni­cipal level. At the heart of every one are local elec­tion offi­cials, and in many ways they are the unsung heroes of our demo­cracy.

That’s because when they do their jobs well, they often go largely unnoticed. Tens of millions of Amer­ic­ans routinely vote without facing long lines or other chal­lenges, but I’ve never seen see a head­line of “Local Elec­tion Offi­cial Aces Incred­ibly Complex Tech­no­lo­gical and Admin­is­trat­ive Test.”

To be sure, no elec­tion offi­cial (or elec­tion) is perfect, and one disen­fran­chised voter is too many. And it’s appro­pri­ate to have incred­ibly high expect­a­tions of these stew­ards of our demo­cracy. But many of the recent public attacks that they are facing are unfair and untrue.

Although I no longer serve as a state elec­tion offi­cial myself, I am honored to work closely with local and state elec­tion offi­cials from the full range of the polit­ical spec­trum on a number of reforms, from risk-limit­ing audits to resi­li­ency plan­ning.

Here are five things you may not know about local elec­tion offi­cials and the crucial work they do.

1. They work in a nonpar­tisan or bipar­tisan fash­ion to make sure that every eligible vote is coun­ted.

Elec­tion offi­cials across the coun­try endeavor to conduct every elec­tion in a profes­sional manner. Many take oaths of office, which require a pledge to uphold the federal and state consti­tu­tions.

I’ve found that in general, elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion at the local level is much less politi­cized than one might expect after read­ing news about the partisan fights between and among federal and state offi­cials. At least one reason for this is likely that state and federal offi­cials aren’t respons­ible for work­ing directly with voters during elec­tions, whereas local elec­tion offi­cials are. More than half of our elec­tion offi­cials work in juris­dic­tions with 5,000 or fewer registered voters.

Further, multiple states incor­por­ate balanced partisan repres­ent­a­tion into vari­ous layers of the elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion process. For example, in Arizona, bipar­tisan teams of one Demo­crat and one Repub­lican review absentee ballots that tabu­lat­ors are unable to read and jointly agree on how the ballot should be coun­ted. 

2. They don’t make the rules and they don’t set their budgets.

Local elec­tion offi­cials are often caught in the middle of conflicts between legis­lat­ors, courts, and local budget makers. When one of these sides makes a decision, it’s often with little or no input from the local offi­cials who then have to trans­late the policies into the forms, envel­opes, and proced­ures neces­sary to actu­ally admin­is­ter an elec­tion.

This year that posi­tion has been espe­cially tough as they are tasked with conduct­ing a safe and secure elec­tion during a pandemic while imple­ment­ing ever-chan­ging legis­lat­ive mandates and judi­cial decisions, even as some are facing budget cuts. As one elec­tion offi­cial explained,Being an elec­tion offi­cial right now is like being pushed into a batting cage without a bat and all of the pitch­ing machines are aimed at you.”

And this is not a partisan issue. With the pandemic raging, bipar­tisan groups of local elec­tion offi­cials, often joined by their state coun­ter­parts, have begged their legis­latures for a vari­ety of relief meas­ures. But time after time their requests for common-sense and zero or low-cost solu­tions, such as author­iz­ing the processing of absentee ballots before Elec­tion Day, have been denied.

Even worse, Congress — to be more specific, the Senate — has failed our elec­tion offi­cials. The Bren­nan Center estim­ates that, due to Covid-19, our elec­tion offi­cials are facing an addi­tional $4 billion in costs to conduct safe and secure elec­tions. But the Senate has only agreed to provide one-tenth of what they need. This finan­cial crisis caused at least one local elec­tion offi­cial to consider paying for plastic shower curtains and PVC pipe out of her own pocket in an effort to keep voters and poll work­ers safe at the polls.

Moreover, many of the chal­lenges are related to the aging and increas­ingly frail elec­tion infra­struc­ture that is the legacy of years of chronic under­fund­ing at the local, state, and federal level.

3. They must wear many hats but are under­paid.

The typical local elec­tion offi­cial makes approx­im­ately $50,000 annu­ally. Yet the job has become increas­ingly complex, and they are even subject to occa­sional death threats.

Today, elec­tion offi­cials must be logist­i­cians, cyber­se­cur­ity experts, commu­nic­a­tion special­ists, legal analysts, and community servants to name just a few of the roles they’re expec­ted to flaw­lessly fulfill. And this year, many are work­ing seven days a week and through other hard­ships. One offi­cial recently admit­ted to work­ing from his hospital bed after being diagnosed with Covid-19.

4. They tend to be white and female, but there are encour­aging signs that the profes­sion is becom­ing more integ­rated and equit­able.

There are many reas­ons for this gender imbal­ance, but at least one is related to the histor­ical role these offi­cials served, which is still appar­ent in many of their titles, like clerk, regis­trar, and recorder. In the past, a signi­fic­ant portion of the job respons­ib­il­it­ies could be inel­eg­antly described as “paper push­ing,” even though the job has always been best performed by dedic­ated community servants who deploy strong commu­nic­a­tions and tech­nical skills. But we’re begin­ning to see some elec­tion offi­cials fight, success­fully, to change their offi­cial titles to better reflect their current duties. For example, regis­trars in Virginia may now use director of elec­tions as their title.

The excep­tion to the low pay tends to be in big metro­pol­itan areas. But four of the top five largest elec­tion juris­dic­tions in the coun­try are led by men.

In a prom­ising devel­op­ment, the two newest admin­is­trat­ors on this list are people of color. Adrian Fontes was elec­ted as clerk and recorder in Mari­copa County’, Arizona, in 2016, and Chris Hollins was just appoin­ted as clerk in June of this year in Harris County, Texas. And we (finally) have a woman of color in the top five: in 2019, Karen A. Yarbrough was sworn in as the first female African Amer­ican clerk of Cook County, Illinois, the third largest elec­tion juris­dic­tion in the coun­try.

5. Today’s local elec­tion offi­cials are tomor­row’s state and federal lead­ers.

For obvi­ous reas­ons, serving as a local elec­tion offi­cial is great prepar­a­tion for lead­er­ship posi­tions in many other areas of govern­ment or the private sector. Sen. Roy Blunt, chair of the Senate Commit­tee on Rules and Admin­is­tra­tion, is the former Clerk of Greene County, MO. And Sen. Joni Ernst is the former auditor of Mont­gomery County, IA.

Several chief elec­tion offi­cials in several states, includ­ing New Mexico, Wash­ing­ton, and North Caro­lina, are also former local elec­tion offi­cials.

There are many struc­tural safe­guards built into our elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion system. The dedic­ated corps of local elec­tion offi­cials are among the strongest, and they deserve our thanks.