Blog

Perspectives on Election Policy and Practice from the Local Officials Who Make It Happen

Paul Gronke, Paul Manson, Jay Lee, and Heather Creek
/
April 27, 2021

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

Through their role in administering elections and expertise developed over time, local election officials gain a vantage point on election-related matters that is like no other. They are often more knowledgeable about how election laws and procedures operate at the ground level than citizens, advocates, and politicians. They interpret and implement election policy as they conduct local, state, and federal elections. They interact regularly with voters, as well as public office holders and political candidates, and they shape the voting experience.

In this post, we examine responses to the 2020 Democracy Fund/Reed College Survey of Local Election Officials to uncover this critical group’s views on the performance and integrity of the U.S. elections system and commonly proposed election reforms. We also unpack differences across jurisdiction size and other factors. Finally, we explore election officials’ opinions on their own role in serving voters. (See the survey website to learn more about data and methodology.)

Because of their expertise and connection to networks of other elections professionals, local election officials may be less swayed than the general public by some claims and counterclaims about elections. However, they are deeply embedded in local administration, and the distinct local and state administrative environments in which these officials work vary significantly in both nature and size, which may explain some differences in how they view election policies and reforms.

Local election officials are also diverse in their backgrounds, life experiences, and political beliefs (though much less so than the public at large, as we reported in a previous post), and this is also likely to lead to a diversity of viewpoints across the profession. Further, local election officials’ attitudes may be shaped by other forces, such as knowledge about election administration in other regions, continuing education and professional certification programs, or involvement in regional and national association meetings.

Our survey is among very few posed to chief local election officials that include questions about election policy reforms and system integrity, and interpreting the patterns that result is a complicated enterprise. In the following discussion, we explore differences in perspectives on these issues within the population of local election officials — specifically, by jurisdiction size, partisanship, and experience with specific election policies — understanding that ongoing research can reveal more about how such perspectives are shaped.

Confidence in the Election System

Voter confidence is a commonly referenced metric for the overall performance of the elections system. Voter confidence levels, especially when voters are asked whether they think their own ballot was counted accurately, often reflect individuals’ voting experiences and thus, at least in part, the administrative choices of local election officials. But voter confidence also moves in response to the election outcome, especially when survey participants (including local election officials) are asked about state and national election integrity, which may be driven more by political outcomes and less by legal or administrative choices.

Our study asked local election officials about their confidence in the integrity of the voter registration systems and the vote count at the state and national levels. We then compared these responses to those from the general public, captured in the Cooperative Election Study survey — but it should be noted that our survey of local election officials was administered in summer 2020 and the survey of the general public happened just before the election.

Not surprisingly, local election officials are much more confident than the public in the system that they help run. Although like the general public, local election officials also express more skepticism about election integrity at the national level than in their own state. Among local election officials, confidence that votes will be counted as intended at the state level is 96 percent — nearly 20 percentage points higher than among the general public — but their confidence in the national count is less than 10 percentage points higher than that of the public. When asked about voter registration rolls, local election officials similarly said their states’ systems were very secure, but they expressed much lower confidence in the security of voter registration systems nationwide.

Similarly, the percentage of local election officials who answered “don’t know” was much lower when asked about the integrity of state registration lists (4 percent) and state vote counts (1.4 percent) than national registration lists (16.7 percent) and the national vote count (12.9 percent). Also, as we explore later in this post, there is far less variation across jurisdiction size when asked at the state level than at the national level. These observations taken together lead us to surmise that local election officials’ opinions about state-level systems are grounded more in expertise and experience than are their opinions about systems nationwide.Local election officials are more confident in the election system than the general public, particularly within their state

Differences in Confidence by Jurisdiction Size

The size disparity across voting jurisdictions percolates throughout almost all aspects of local election administration, including perceptions of system integrity. For example, fully 95 percent of local election officials in the largest jurisdictions are “somewhat” or “very” confident in the integrity of the national vote count, as are 85 percent of local election officials from mid-sized jurisdictions serving 100,000–250,000 registered voters. Yet 62 percent of local election officials in the smallest jurisdictions express confidence, and just 14 percent in these districts are willing to say they are “very” confident.

Similarly, confidence in the integrity of nationwide voter registration lists declines steadily as we move from the largest jurisdictions (where nearly eight in ten are confident) to the smallest jurisdictions (where less than half are confident).

A look at local election officials’ confidence in the state vote count and registration lists reveals a dramatically different pattern — confidence is extremely high, and there is no variation at all across jurisdictions.

The smallest jurisdictions are overwhelmingly municipalities in Michigan, Wisconsin, and New England. The largest jurisdictions contain the most populous cities and metropolitan areas of the country. Further research is needed to understand whether differences in perceptions about the national election system are purely a function of size or something else, such as exposure to and involvement with national professional organizations, which is more common among local election officials in more populous jurisdictions.

Local election officials serving larger jurisdictions are more confident in the integrity of the election nationwide

Differences in Confidence by Partisanship

Partisanship has become the most important factor in explaining political values and opinions in the mass public, overshadowing the influence of race, education, religion, and other differences. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that partisanship factors into perceptions about election administration. In fact, the partisan gap in state voter confidence is larger among local election officials than within the mass public, while the partisan gap on national voter confidence is approximately the same magnitude across these groups.

Local election officials show partisan differences in their confidence in elections similar to those in the general public

Perspectives on Election Reforms

We want to amplify the voices of local election officials in policy debates, so we asked these professionals to share their viewpoints about important and timely election reform proposals. This produces a gauge of national support among those who would need to put these changes into place. In 2020, we asked local election officials about seven election reform policies — for six of them, we are able to compare the responses of these officials to those of the general public to understand major areas of agreement and difference. The popularity of these proposals should be understood in the context of their familiarity to officials and the public. In 2020, voter identification was required in 36 states, and Election Day registration was allowed in 21 states plus Washington, D.C. Only five states conducted all elections by mail, and there was no national holiday on Election Day.

Among reform policies, requiring the use of photo identification stands out; it is supported most strongly by local election officials (77 percent) and by the public (68 percent), and it is an area of greatest agreement between these groups.

The only other suggested change that is supported by more than half of local election officials is consolidating local, state, and federal elections so that they would occur at the same time. Local election officials understand how much cost, administrative burden, and job stress is created by the near constancy of elections in some states and localities.

Local election officials differ from the public in their support for many voting reforms, with the exception of voter ID requirements

How about making Election Day a national holiday? Just over half the public say they support this, while just over 40 percent of local election officials expressed support for this change. Interestingly, somewhat fewer in the public (40 percent) would support moving Election Day to a weekend, and only 15 percent of local election officials endorse this move.

Voting by mail, which became a flash point for political conflict in the 2020 election, shows far more support (over 40 percent) among local election officials, a number that may seem surprisingly high until we consider that 46 percent of all ballots were cast by mail in 2020. While our survey of local election officials was conducted in summer 2020, it was evident even at that point that voting by mail would hit historic levels that year. Local election officials were 14 percentage points more likely to support a full vote-by-mail system than were members of the general public (public polling was conducted very near to the November 2020 election).

Election Day registration is supported by approximately 40 percent of local election officials and just under half of the public. Also online/internet voting is supported by only 15 percent of local election officials, only half of its support among the public. Local election officials’ concerns over online/internet voting likely reflects the generally held belief by experts that no system would allow secure and private internet voting with current technology.

Differences in Policy Support by Partisanship

Election officials show the same partisan divide on some voting reforms as we see within the general public. For example, local election officials who identify as Republicans are about 45 percentage points more likely to support photo identification requirements, and local election officials who identify as Democrats are about 25 percentage points more likely to support same-day registration, running all elections by mail, or making Election Day a holiday or weekend event.

It is revealing that the partisan policy gap among local election officials is approximately equal in magnitude to that within the public. This suggests that these two populations may be responding to similar messaging from national political leaders.

Other studies have found a muted partisan effect on policy views of local election officials and on how these officials assess the benefits of election day registration. As 28 percent of the local election officials in our survey told us “they prefer not to answer” our question on partisan leanings (194 of 707 who responded to this question), and another 12 percent self-identified as “Independent,” our analysis on this topic is limited to the responses of the remaining 60 percent in our sample who felt comfortable telling us their partisan leanings, so we caution against over-interpreting these results.

Partisan differences on election policies among local election officials largely mirror those in the general public

Differences in Policy Views by Experience

We have observed in the past that experience matters to the views of local election officials, as it does for most policymakers. Prior experience working with a particular election rule or policy can impact a local election official’s opinion about the wisdom of implementing the same policy nationwide.

In our study, we use state election laws as a proxy for experience or knowledge about a given policy. And, indeed, the impact of policy experience is evident in the data when we compare opinions among local election officials in states with and without Election Day registration, and election officials in the five states that have full voting by mail to those serving in the rest of the states. In both cases, experience with the policy translates into support levels that are 50 percentage points higher.

Local election officials who have experience with vote-by-mail and Election Day registration are more likely to support these policies

Local election officials’ opinions about photo identification requirements are also conditional on whether their state already has the policy in place. In our survey, those in states with photo identification standards (either strictly required or with alternative workarounds) expressed the highest support when asked generally about a photo identification requirement. Officials in states with non-photo identification requirements expressed somewhat lower levels of support. Support was lowest — below 50 percent — among local election officials who serve in states with no identification requirement. (All categories for identification requirements are taken from the National Conference of State Legislatures.)

Local election officials in states with photo ID requirements are more likely to support these policies

Finally, we refer to findings about online and automatic voter registration from our earlier Stewards of Democracy report published in 2018. We learned then that support for online voter registration and automatic voter registration was substantially higher among states that had already adopted those policies — more than twice as high in the case of automatic voter registration.

Dedication to Voters and Elections

As we engage with local election officials and work to understand their views, it’s helpful to also understand their level of commitment to voters and effective elections.

Based on their responses to this and previous surveys, local election officials express highly voter-centric ideals and responsibilities. Nearly 90 percent of them say that they “enjoy educating citizens about voting rules and procedures,” and roughly 70 percent agree that voter education, voter satisfaction, and encouraging voter turnout is part of their job. Meanwhile, 70 percent disagree that the primary responsibility of a local election official is to conduct the election and not to worry about voter education or satisfaction.

When we asked about support for this objective, we were not surprised to discover that almost two-thirds of local election officials face resource constraints that limit their ability to educate voters along with conducting elections.

“We also need to do our best to educate voters and get them engaged early so they can easily exercise their voting options. We are all in this together and if one of us fails, we all fail. So, we need to build each other up and understand our differences. No election is perfect. But we can all strive to be as efficient, secure, and fair as possible.”

– LOCAL ELECTION OFFICIAL, MID-SIZED JURISDICTION

We also asked whether or not local election officials should work to reduce demographic disparities in turnout, a question we thought might surface some disagreement because many of the reasons for turnout differences are beyond the control of local officials. Nonetheless, just under half of our respondents did think that reducing demographic disparities was part of their mandate.Local election officials express voter-centric views about their role

The underlying structure of local election officials’ opinions is complex, impacted by jurisdiction size, partisanship, practical experience, and many factors not considered here. This is a ripe area for further research as we try to understand, support, and amplify local election officials’ viewpoints about election integrity and reform.

More From This Series

“Perspectives on Election Policy and Practice from the Local Officials Who Make It Happen” is the third in a six-part 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.