Retaining Election Officials to Secure Future Elections

A look at some of the steps state and local governments can take

The MIT Election Data and Science Lab helps highlight new research and interesting ideas in election science, and is a proud co-sponsor of the Election Sciences, Reform, & Administration Conference (ESRA).

Our post today was written by David Levine, based on his paper presented at the 2021 ESRA Conference; the paper that formed the basis of this blog post can be read here. The information and opinions expressed in this column represent his own research, and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the MIT Election Lab or MIT.

Though the 2020 presidential election has been called the most U.S. secure in U.S history, many who helped successfully run that election feel anything but safe nearly ten months later. In that time, many election officials have been threatened and harassed, and such behavior shows no signs of abating. And instead of taking steps to address this problem, many states have passed laws that could make this problem worse.

A survey of election officials commissioned by the Brennan Center and conducted by Benenson Strategy Group found that one in three election officials feel unsafe because of their job, and nearly one in five listed threats to lives as a job-related concern. This unrelenting targeting of election administrators has, not surprisingly, led many administrators to leave or consider leaving their position. According to a recent Democracy Fund/Reed College Survey of Local Election Officials, nearly one-third of chief local election officials will be eligible to retire before the 2024 presidential election. And after what many of these officials experienced during 2020, who could blame them for wanting to hang it up?

Unfortunately, the United States’ ability to conduct future secure elections could very well depend on how many of these unsung heroes from 2020 are retained. State and local governments should admittedly have support from the federal government and Congress to help address this national security issue, but if the fight over funding the 2020 election is any indication, they need to begin taking steps to address this problem now. In my paper, How to Retain Election Officials to Secure Future Elections, I lay out ten suggestions for what state and local governments can do in concert with their election offices to help retain as many of their high-performing election officials as possible, each of which is briefly described below.

  1. Ask election officials what can be done, ideally, to support them. You may be surprised by what you learn. Asking such questions not only shows empathy and understanding, but could lead to information that creates more effective training and development programs, which subsequently increases employee retention.
  2. If there was turnover among your election officials, get to the bottom of why it occurred. As a former election administrator, I know firsthand that it’s not necessarily surprising for election officials to depart during a major election cycle, and that the reasons for departures can differ pretty dramatically. But because the 2020 presidential election cycle and its aftermath have been so stressful for election officials, it’s important to examine employee turnover rate from the 2020 election cycle and see how it compares with previous election cycles. Such analysis could give governments a better sense of how employee retention could be affected by future elections that are as contentious as 2020.
  3. Consider the cost of election official employee turnover, or the “total cost” of losing an employee. If governments and their election officials can lay out the specific costs that employee turnover from accumulated strain caused by contentious elections — like the 2020 presidential election — is having on their workforces, that could make it easier to seek additional funding for retaining high performing election administrators and addressing other priorities. Since the exact costs of employee turnover vary, it is something all state and local governments should monitor.
  4. Compare the compensation of your election administrators to other government employees with similar responsibilities and adjust, if necessary. One of, if not the top, reasons workers quit their jobs is so they can make more money. Currently, the typical local election official makes about $50,000 annually, which appears to be more on par with administrative support positions than positions with commensurate skills. In short, election administrators are underpaid. If key election administrators are not paid comparably to other government employees with similar responsibilities, retaining them is likely to pose a greater challenge.
  5. Establish a Government Resource Group. Many of the challenges election officials faced in the 2020 election cycle are an unfortunate outgrowth of decreasing trust in government and increasing amounts of mis- and disinformation more broadly; challenges that employees throughout government are confronting, not just in elections. Election officials often depend on large numbers of fellow government employees, particularly around election time, to serve as poll workers, process voter registration applications, and help conduct their elections. A government resource group could go a long way towards strengthening these relationships and identifying solutions for these challenges, which could help contribute to higher retention rates.
  6. Offer election administrators flexible working conditions when possible. The pandemic provided an opportunity for many election officials to conduct more of their work remotely, and thousands of election officials responded by taking security training that made it easier for them to work remotely yet securely during the first Covid-19 peak in the spring and summer of 2020. While many election processes — such as voting equipment preparation, mail ballot signature validation, and provisional ballot adjudication — will continue to occur at the workplace, the successes achieved from working remotely should be built upon because they can be a win-win situation for both election officials and their governments. Organizations that provide the option for remote work have lower employee turnover; state and local governments would be wise to heed this warning if they hope to retain their best election officials.
  7. Advocate for consolidating elections to no more than three per year. Consolidating elections to no more than three per year would enable election officials to keep their skills sharp while also lessening costs and reducing election officials’ stress. It could also help increase turnout in both local and national elections.
  8. Make sure election officials are aware of all current security protections in place. This includes any arrangements with law enforcement, office and worktime security measures, and tools available to help ensure their personal physical security. A meeting between election officials and local law enforcement can help confirm existing protections and identify any potential gaps. Such efforts, which can also be aided by local Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) protective security advisors, can help ensure election officials know all of the resources that are currently in place to help ensure their protection, and by extension, their success.
  9. Develop a plan to provide more enhanced protection for election officials going forward. Retaining many election officials will be difficult unless more can be done to ensure they feel safe. One potential place to look for developing a more robust security plan for election officials are federal judges, who have a number of protections in place for their safety and are seeking more in response to increased risks, and like election officials are often subject to threats well beyond their place of employment. In the same way that election administrators can represent or personify the election system, judges and other judicial officials can represent or personify the justice system; in both cases, the motive for an attack can arise out of anger at the respective systems or simply a desire for revenge.
  10. Form a task force made up of government employees to advocate for (or oppose) legislative measures that support your government’s work, including your election officials. Since the 2020 election, many states have adopted legislation that unnecessarily penalizes election administrators and workers (including, most recently, Texas). Election subversion laws increase the likelihood that election outcomes achieved through successfully administered elections are overturned for illegitimate reasons. Task forces made up of government employees who have firsthand experience with administering elections have gone to great lengths to outline the pernicious nature of such measures and their potential impact not only on administrators, but voters, elected officials, and democracy, more broadly.

Election administrators’ work supports the U.S. Constitution, which forms the basis of the rule of law in this country. Administrators who are concerned for their safety or burnt out from the stress of the job are more likely to perform poorly or even leave the profession. Every citizen, regardless of political affiliation, should want to make sure these defenders of democracy are comfortable performing their legal obligations and administering safe, secure, and transparent elections. It’s perhaps the best way of ensuring that the United States continues administering its elections in a genuine and democratic manner.

David Levine is the Elections Integrity Fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, where he assesses vulnerabilities in electoral infrastructure, administration, and policies. His research interests and recent publications focus on election access, trust and security, and the nexus between external threats from malign actors and the challenges many democracies face in conducting free and fair elections.


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