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Understanding the Career Journeys of Today’s Local Election Officials and Anticipating Tomorrow’s Potential Shortage

Paul Gronke, Paul Manson, Jay Lee, and Heather Creek
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April 20, 2021

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

A modern, trusted, and equitable U.S. election system depends not just on laws or administrative procedures, but on people who are pivotal to delivering democracy: local election officials. In this post we examine the career trajectories, job satisfaction rates, and retirement plans of those playing this important role. Our research found generally good news about the experience and satisfaction of this workforce. We also found a few points of concern — specifically the significant proportion of local election officials eligible for retirement before the next general election.

Findings are based on survey and interview responses from more than 850 individuals who serve as chief local election officials — those in charge of elections in their jurisdiction — across the country. Whenever interpreting information about local election administration and administrators, it is important to pay attention to differences by jurisdiction size. For our analysis, we often present data sorted in this way, and all means are weighted to represent the overall population of local election officials. See the Reed College Early Voting Information Center website for further survey results broken down by jurisdiction size.

Wide Variation in Scope and Staffing

The specific array of election officials’ responsibilities varies enormously across states and between jurisdictions of different sizes. In the largest jurisdictions, these professionals are full-time officials, compensated with six-figure salaries and running operations with hundreds or even thousands of permanent staff, and they administer elections to millions of eligible citizens.

At the other end of the spectrum, more than one-third of officials tell us that their jobs are less than full-time and that they are responsible for far more than just administering elections. Notably, over half of our respondents (and by implication, half of local election officials nationwide) told us that their “staff” consists of only one person — that is, themselves.

Three-quarters of jurisdictions serving fewer than 5,000 registered voters have only one staff member working in the elections office, and 25 percent of jurisdictions serving between 5,000 and 25,000 voters have only one elections staffer. In the largest jurisdictions, by contrast, almost 85 percent of elections offices have 10 or more staff members — and many have more than 50.

The difference in staffing between large and small jurisdictions is striking

Paths to Becoming a Local Election Official

The path to leadership as a local election official differs across and within states. It also differs by jurisdiction size as illustrated below. Whether officials are elected versus appointed is the most basic difference, but elected officials may also vary in whether they run for partisan versus non-partisan positions. Of note, research has shown that how officials are selected can be influential in shaping their incentives and policy goals.

While over half of local election officials are elected to their positions, less than 20 percent of these officials in the largest jurisdictions are elected. Among local election officials who are elected, 61 percent are elected in partisan elections, while the other 39 percent hold non-partisan positions. Our overall estimate of the percentage of local election officials who are elected versus appointed closely matches estimates obtained from surveys conducted by the Congressional Research Service.

Election official in larger jurisdictions are less likely to be elected to their positions

Among officials who are appointed, those appointments may be made by county commissioners, a chief executive, or by elections boards or commissions, which themselves can be elective or appointive. Finally, appointive positions may or may not have civil service protections.

The responses in our survey indicate that the community of local election officials is highly experienced. The median official has been working in elections for over 12 years, having started in 2008. Local election officials in larger jurisdictions have a slightly longer tenure than those in smaller jurisdictions. Less than 5 percent of survey respondents reported that they had been working in election administration less than a year, and just over 10 percent said they had been in their current position for a year or less.

Local election officials, especially those in larger districts, are highly experienced

While local election officials in larger jurisdictions reported slightly longer tenures, those from smaller jurisdictions reported that they were older. Seventy-six percent of local election officials in jurisdictions serving under 5,000 voters are over age 50, while 60 percent of those in jurisdictions serving over 250,000 voters are over that age. In combination with findings about tenure, this would seem to indicate that officials in larger jurisdictions are starting in the elections field earlier in life than those in smaller jurisdictions, thus gaining more job experience at a younger age. Based on available data, it seems likely that a significant number of local election officials working in larger jurisdictions served previously in smaller- or medium-sized jurisdictions in something of a career “pipeline.” We do know that large jurisdictions with appointed election officials often conduct national searches for replacements. What is less well known is the breadth and diversity of these search pools.

Local election officials in smaller jurisdictions tended to be older than their larger-jurisdiction counterparts

“I took a part-time job in our community — we’re in a small town — working with what is like our chamber of commerce. Did that for 10 years, being active with the community… that led to me eventually running for office here, trying to have a voice in the direction of our community.”
– LOCAL ELECTION OFFICIAL, ELECTED POSITION

Local election officials in smaller jurisdictions are more than twice as likely as those in the largest jurisdictions to have no prior elections experience before starting their current job as the chief local election official.

The types of jobs and activities that current local election officials worked on before entering the elections field can also inform our understanding of the career pipeline. Our survey respondents were most likely (39 percent) to say that they were working in the private sector (non-elections related) before entering election administration. Another 21 percent said they had other roles in local government, and 13 percent were elected officials serving in roles other than election administration.

Working in the business sector is the most common prior experience of local election officials

“Before this, my experience varied from construction to working in law offices… I worked in the office under the previous clerk as a part-time employee, then bumped up to full-time employee while working another full-time job. The previous clerk passed away in office and another deputy finished the term and then I ran and won the election.”
– LOCAL ELECTION OFFICIAL

As we think about career pathways, we must realize that for many local election officials, there isn’t a dedicated “career track” to follow into this profession. Larger jurisdictions might train up their assistant elections director or actively pursue outside candidates to replace a retiring official, while in a smaller jurisdiction an outgoing election official might be replaced by a first-time elected clerk with no previous elections experience.

Job Satisfaction Among Local Election Officials

For all the diverse pathways and job responsibilities involved, there is remarkable agreement that being a local election official is a rewarding career. Among our respondents, 55 percent said that they were “satisfied” with their job, and another 37 percent said they were “very satisfied.” This holds true regardless of the jurisdiction size.

An important caveat for all of our findings on job satisfaction is that the survey was conducted prior to the November 2020 election, which saw death threats and other attacks directed at local election officials. We asked these questions during the summer of 2020, when dedicated officials may have felt determined to stay focused on the positive aspects of their work. Perspectives on satisfaction may have shifted by November.

“There’s something at the end of the day, knowing the most fundamental aspect of our country was carried out from president to school board. …We had a transition of power, and people had faith in the results, in the votes counted being valid.”
– LOCAL ELECTION OFFICIAL

Local election officials report high levels of satisfaction with their job across all jurisdiction sizes

Across most questions probing specific areas of job satisfaction, there was very little disparity between local election officials serving in jurisdictions of different sizes. When grouped by size of jurisdiction, all groups on average agreed with about eight or nine of the 14 statements indicating satisfaction.

When asked how they feel about specific facets of their job, respondents unsurprisingly presented more varied opinions.

“Election offices on the local level should have more support. We are expected to give a herculean effort without the proper resources in space, employees, and equipment. We sacrifice our own health in order to make sure everything goes smoothly.”
– LOCAL ELECTION OFFICIAL, SMALLER JURISDICTION

Overall, approximately 50 percent of local election officials surveyed said that they were satisfied with their pay. Still, it’s important to understand that this high rate of pay satisfaction is uneven; when we isolate the responses of those from the largest jurisdictions, the figure jumps to 74 percent.

Local election officials in larger jurisdictions are more satisfied with pay, but report more challenges with work-life balance and leaving problems at work

When we further probe into the elements of local election officials’ job satisfaction we find a few concerns. For example, resources and funding are a pain point, with over half of local election officials agreeing with the statement, “a lack of sufficient funding prevents me from doing my job well.” Local election officials share issues about their personal work experience as well. For example, less than 45 percent said that their workload was “reasonable.” Managing work-life balance is also a problem. While overall, most local election officials share that they are able to balance work and home priorities, the larger the jurisdiction is, the more this is a reported challenge.

It is important to note that 25 percent of respondents neither agreed nor disagreed with the question of balancing work and home priorities. To explore this further, we framed the question a different way. When asked if they agree with the statement, “I am able to leave problems at work,” local election officials surface more worries. Almost half of respondents said they agreed that they could leave problems at work, and 42 percent disagreed with the statement. In the responses to both of these questions, we see that for larger jurisdictions, balancing the stresses of work is harder.

“I’m exceeding my capacity for dealing with it. I’m tired, constantly. It’s stressful. I go home and crash, get up and do it again the next day. I think all election officials right now are kind of in that same boat. Presidential elections are always stressful but this one seems hyper stressful, at least to me personally.”
– LOCAL ELECTION OFFICIAL

Combining the pandemic with heightened political pressure, misinformation, and staffing concerns, the 2020 election created a uniquely stressful environment for local election officials. Some expressed this during interviews conducted in fall 2020.

Plans for Leaving the Field

Having an experienced body of local election officials is important to maintaining administrative competencies, knowledge of state laws and local procedures, as well as an intimate familiarity with the local electorate.

This local election official population is older, with many nearing retirement. Indeed, 74 percent of chief local election officials are over age 50, and a quarter are over age 65. Almost 35 percent report that they’re eligible to retire before the next presidential election in 2024, and this figure is more than 50 percent among local election officials in the largest jurisdictions. It should be noted that among those eligible to retire in the next four years, only 45 percent said that they planned on doing so. Even so, this expected wave of retirements diminishes today’s population of local election officials by 16 percent. When we asked those who were planning to retire to tell us their motivations for doing so, the top three reasons shared were a desire to move on to something else in their life (37 percent); that they had served long enough to retire (35 percent); and the political environment (23 percent). In addition, 20 percent noted they “no longer enjoy the position” or “want to do something else for work.”

Of the local election officials that are not eligible to retire soon, we asked whether they were planning to leave the field otherwise. Only 10 percent said yes, but a quarter responded that they were “unsure.” Similar to those planning for retirement, the most common reason they gave was a desire to move on to something else in their life (33 percent). But notably, job satisfaction concerns like the desire to move to a position with a better work-life balance (29 percent), desire to do something else for work (25 percent), and no longer enjoying the work (20 percent) were cited more often than, for example, the political environment, which factored more significantly into retirement decisions.

When we take into account those planning to retire and planning to leave for other reasons, the numbers give us pause. Overall, 22 percent of respondents said that they were planning on leaving the profession in the next four years, 49 percent said they weren’t planning on leaving, and 29 percent said they were unsure.

Most worrisome, local election officials in the largest jurisdictions were almost twice as likely to say that they’re planning to leave in the next four years. These officials have large and presumably experienced staff but very little is known about planned transitions in leadership. Local election official turnover in the largest jurisdictions has the potential to impact a huge number of American voters.

Significant proportions of chief local election officials plan to move on before the next general election, especially those in the largest jurisdictions

In survey follow-up interviews, local election officials were asked to discuss what transition-planning looks like in their jurisdiction. Few of them — whether elected or appointed — said they have formal transition plans or documented procedures in place for their eventual successors. Most said that they expect their second-in command (e.g., deputy clerk, assistant manager) to take over the role when they leave the position.

Paying Attention to the Pipeline

Given that more than half of all local election officials have served over a decade in their positions and express overall high levels of satisfaction with the job, there is much positive news about this field of professionals at the front lines of democracy. Still, traditional pain points — budgets, facilities, and compensation — remain, supporting assertions by many that the field is undervalued and under-resourced.

Further, with half of local election officials from the largest jurisdictions reporting that they are qualified for retirement, the shape and composition of the pipeline of talent to support this work is an important topic for future investigation. This means paying close attention to retirement and other turnover, as well as the degree to which these positions are filled by people who are diverse, experienced, and capable of playing this vital role.

More From This Series

“Understanding the Career Journeys of Today’s Local Election Officials and Anticipating Tomorrow’s Potential Shortage” is the second 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.