Paths Forward: Lessons in Supporting Local Election Administration and Officials

Paul Gronke, Paul Manson, and Heather Creek
June 17, 2021

Part of “Stewards of Democracy,” a series on findings from the 2020 Democracy Fund/Reed College Survey of Local Election Officials

In the wake of a historically competitive and challenging election, election administration and administrators continue to be flashpoints of political conflict. We want to provide a forward-looking, proactive agenda to sustain this critical part of our democracy and to support the people who serve in more than 8,000 voting jurisdictions nationwide.

For the past six weeks, we have been posting the results of the 2020 Democracy Fund/Reed College Survey of Local Election Officials as part of a “Stewards of Democracy” project. In this final post, we reflect on top takeaways from the 2020 survey and identify paths forward to support and advance the professional community of local election officials.

Here we identify key areas we believe should be a focus for state and local officials and their allies in the policy and research communities. For each, we describe what we have learned from the research as well as where we know we still have a lot to learn — critical questions that call for further experimentation and evidence.

Sustainability Advancement

What we have learned

Local election officials are a community invested with the responsibility of maintaining a piece of critical national infrastructure and administering elections for nearly 240 million eligible voters, yet they report chronic underfunding, a stressful work environment, and rapid and sometimes unexpected policy changes. Local election officials tell us that state and federal lawmakers seldom consult with them when contemplating changes in election administration.

It is vital to identify sustainable budget paths so that local election officials are not constantly faced with new and changing mandates without the resources to meet them. Local election officials are experts and should be consulted as key stakeholders in discussions of the budgets that impact their capacity, as well as legislative and policy decisions related to election administration.

Opportunities for experimentation

Adequate budgets don’t completely solve for the stress and unpredictability of election work. Sustainability also depends on ensuring sufficient and capable staff, which merits attention to recruitment, training, and retention.

Our survey results highlight the importance of professional development and training for election officials. Most officials have access to training when they begin their careers and even more receive ongoing training, but there is variation in officials’ perceptions of how effective that training is. For example, local election officials from the largest jurisdictions are the least satisfied with the effectiveness of their training.

This indicates an opportunity for differentiation in the way training is designed and delivered. To do this well, we need more experimentation in the types of training programs that are offered to election officials and the way those trainings are tailored to the needs of different jurisdictions. Experimentation would allow us to collect new evidence about the kinds of training programs that work best for a diverse and heterogeneous elections administration community.

Where we need more research and learning

The Democracy Fund/Reed College Survey of Local Election Officials provides data on the career backgrounds of the chief local election officials, how long they stay in the field, as well as their job satisfaction and what motivates them to continue doing this work. But we lack data on the staff in local election offices. This would be harder data to gather in a systematic and generalizable way, as our survey does with respect to chief officials, but studying elections office staff would fill in a missing part of the story on diversity, retention, and institutional knowledge in the profession.

Related, we know very little about the recruitment strategies and pipelines used by local election officials to attract staff, what kind of movement occurs across jurisdictions, and whether there are successful diversity initiatives that can serve as object lessons for the elections administration community. As we learn more about diversity in the field, we will have an opportunity to observe how diversity impacts the attitudes and practices of election administrators.

We have heard much this year about a wave of retirements, but we actually know next to nothing about historical rates of retirement and turnover. This makes it impossible to know if we are experiencing a brain drain or just a typical spike that occurs after a presidential year.

And while 60 percent of local election officials across the country are elected to their positions (rather than hired), we know almost nothing about how the elective path operates, and how much turnover is a result of election losses.

Networks and Community

What we have learned

Networks, both formal and informal, and “community” were mentioned again and again in responses to our survey and in our in-depth interviews as ways that local election officials learn, adapt, and maintain resilience in the face of change.

We are convinced that there is a substantial added value to regular state and regional association meetings and venues for professional development, such as Election Center and the election administration program at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Not only do local election officials learn in these venues, but they also connect and build support networks. States and localities need to provide budgetary support or other mechanisms so that all election officials, not just those from larger and well-funded jurisdictions, can attend regular training and regional and national gatherings.

Opportunities for experimentation

While we know that networks and community are important, we need to learn more about what structures, events, and learning opportunities are cost-effective and add the most value.

State associations are highly rated as sources of information by most of our survey respondents, but these associations operate very differently from state to state. This variation provides an opportunity to learn how different ways of organizing and creating communities of local election officials produce different levels of engagement and satisfaction among members.

Our survey responses demonstrate that officials in smaller jurisdictions are far less likely than those in medium and large jurisdictions to attend a regional or national gathering of election administrators. Some national programs — such as the ELECTricity, a newsletter run by the Center for Tech and Civic Life — gear their information and outreach toward officials in small and medium jurisdictions. As these programs mature, and new networks are developed, there will be an opportunity to learn about the tactics that bring these officials into the community and how information is shared across the field.

Where we need more research and learning

Interviews with local officials indicate that many of these public servants are connected to other professional networks outside of the elections field. Only 61 percent of local election officials — and 46 percent of those in the smallest jurisdictions — say that elections make up the majority of their workload. Even those who spend most of their time on elections often have other responsibilities, like administering courts, maintaining public records, and issuing marriage licenses. These duties connect them to other functions of their local government and other state and national networks. There is an opportunity to understand how trends in other sectors of local government may impact the work and culture of local election administration.

Voter-Centric Practices

What we have learned

The 2014 report of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration highlighted the importance of a “voter-centric” service orientation among election officials. Respondents to our surveys expressed overwhelming support for a voter-centric approach. Officials, without respect to jurisdiction size, embraced voter education and outreach as part of their jobs. This is good from a customer service perspective and also from a democracy perspective.

But there are barriers to such voter-centric practices: The most commonly cited among these is insufficient budgets for voter outreach. Local election officials must be able to meet voters where they are — whether through print materials, media advertisements, or engagement on social media — and these efforts take time and resources, and may require new skill sets.

Opportunities for experimentation

Our surveys show that some pro-voter policies, such as voter registration modernization, are more likely to be supported by officials who have experienced those policies. This may mean that local election officials who have experience with effective policies can be “champions” to others in the community who have less experience.

However, we don’t know how attitude change occurs among local election officials. Our finding about officials supporting a policy with which they have experience may reflect learning that happens through interactions with a policy — or, it may be acceptance. For example, officials in states that do not currently have a policy may simply be resistant to change, while officials in states that have already implemented a policy have already adapted to the change and accepted a new norm.

Where we need more research and learning

In our post about local election officials’ perspectives on election policy and practice, we noted that the opinions of these officials show some of the same partisan patterns that are observed in the general public. What we don’t know is why these patterns persist in a community of experts that presumably should be more resistant to misinformation and false claims.

More research needs to be done to understand the underpinnings of local election official attitudes toward election administration at a local, state, and national level, and how the structure of beliefs can impact the ethos of election administration. We also know very little about who are the trusted communicators within the community, whether fellow local election officials, state officials, national taskforces, academics, or advocates. Understanding who can best convey information to these local officials is a critical element in advancing a voter-centric approach.

While there is much to explore and learn about the field of local election officials, what we know already points to important ways we can better support the essential work they do in service to democracy and the voting public in their communities.

We encourage fellow researchers, policymakers, and others who care about representative government to be part of this journey of inquiry, knowledge-sharing, and reform. And just like legislators, the research and advocacy communities must engage local election officials in an ongoing and systematic way to ensure we’re asking the right questions and surfacing valuable insights. Local election officials have a critical vantage point, and their voices and expertise should always be part of the conversation.

More From This Series

Paths Forward: Lessons in Supporting Local Election Administration and Officials” is the final in a multipart series designed to amplify the voices of local election officials. It features findings from the 2020 Democracy Fund/Reed College Survey of Election Officials and builds on our 2018 report.

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