Rationally, choosing to go into election administration is a noble, albeit thankless, career pursuit. This line of work has many responsibilities, but not a steady supply of funding, personnel, or training in how to navigate situations that would have bewildered Nostradamus. Before election administration became a hot conversational topic at the average American dinner table, election mistakes could be caught, discussed candidly by election administrators, and remedied without resorting to call-out culture and baseless ad-hominem attacks. The last couple of years of attacks, threats, and wasteful legal action have forced election officials to be on the defensive, and they’re certainly correct in their analysis.
Election officials possess varying personalities and levels of competence. The top tier combines an infectious passion for civics with media-savvy, telegenic personalities, and the near superhuman ability to run elections like finely-tuned precision machines. Others mean well and are otherwise quite competent, but are unprepared for the harsh glare of the media’s unforgiving spotlight, leading them to make small mistakes that can escalate at Mach 2 speed. Occasionally, complacency leads an unfortunate few to take advantage of sovereign immunity in order to obfuscate their misdeeds from public scrutiny and records requests. While thankfully rare, there are those who openly display contempt for their voters, their duties, or the election process itself.
The shortage of election officials is a serious concern for the upcoming 2024 elections, especially for ten states that have been hit the hardest. These states account for over half of the total recent resignations and include: Arizona, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Texas, and Utah.
While the abject dread of a projected 21% election administrator turnover rate in 2024 can and should strike fear into the hearts of anyone who values democracy, after a careful review of dozens of national, state, and local independently confirmed news sources, our research analysts were only able to document the departure of 677 election officials between 2020 and 2023. That adds up to approximately 7% of the total election administrator population. It’s important to note that this number is highly dynamic, subject to revision and updates. Wisely, the survey instrument focused on the thoughts and perceptions and lived experience of current election officials, eschewing cold and impersonal quantitative data collection.
It’s important, up front, to point out a distinction sometimes unwittingly lost on journalists covering this urgent matter: there is a difference between the exodus of full time professional staff, just described and the “seasonal” part-time workforce of poll workers.
A Comparative Poll-Worker Crisis
That noted, the existing and anticipated to increase poll worker shortage is a far greater, and alarming concern, and the dearth of consistent civic volunteers has the potential to derail Election Day for voters and local election officials alike.
In case anyone believes that we’re doubling down on pure hyperbole, in 2022, there were over 50 million voters who voted in-person on Election Day, but only around 600,000 poll workers to process everyone. This results in a national average voter to poll worker ratio of 84 to 1, which is short-staffed and requires more poll workers. For In-Person Election Day Voting, anything over 75:1 is considered short-staffed, and Early Voting has a ratio of 306:1, but this is typically spaced out over multiple days. Thus, it balances out to a more reasonable 21 voters to a poll worker if it spans a two-week Early Voting period.
Of course, some states, like Oregon and Washington, which are by-mail voting states, don’t track poll worker data. However, other states, like New Jersey, don’t have this reason for not tracking poll worker data. We believe it’s crucial to keep track of the poll worker data to have an idea of the current shortages and the areas that require immediate attention.
There are concerns that problems may be concentrated in Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Texas, and possibly Arizona. The threat landscape for election workers is more intense this year in some regions. By-mail voting (aka Vote-By-Mail or VBM) states and the United States Postal Service should be on heightened alert to track suspicious mailings. Fentanyl was the dangerous substance sent to local election officials this time, but it could be ricin, anthrax, or worse next time.
The Impact of Recent legislation
The emergence of new election laws has raised concerns about their enforceability and whether they will ricochet through the circuit courts. With private citizens now having a harder time filing a suit against a problematic law, the Department of Justice is responsible for ensuring that those who seek to deprive voters of their civil rights are kept in check.
If jurisdictions decide to pilot hand counting, retention will become even more precarious than it already is due to labor and temporal costs. This could exacerbate the poll worker shortage that is already a concern. It’s vital to take necessary steps to ensure that the upcoming elections are conducted fairly, and voters’ rights are protected.
Despite the challenges and criticisms faced by election officials, it is important to recognize that their role is crucial to maintaining the integrity and fairness of our democratic process. Here are some points to consider:
- Election officials play a critical role in ensuring that every eligible voter is able to cast their ballot and have it counted accurately. They are responsible for managing polling places, verifying voter registration, counting ballots, and addressing any issues or disputes that arise during an election.
- It is true that election administration can be a difficult and thankless job. Officials must navigate complex laws and regulations, work long hours with limited resources, and deal with intense scrutiny and criticism from the public and the media.
- However, despite these challenges, many election officials are highly dedicated and competent professionals who take their responsibilities seriously. They work tirelessly to ensure that every vote is counted accurately and that the election process is as transparent and fair as possible.
- Of course, there are also some officials who are less competent or who may even act unethically. It is important to hold these individuals accountable and to work to improve the election system so that it is more transparent and less prone to mistakes or abuses of power.
- Ultimately, we should remember that election officials are not the enemy. They are public servants who are working to uphold the principles of democracy and ensure that every citizen has a voice in our political system. By supporting and respecting these individuals, we can help to strengthen our democracy and ensure that it remains vibrant and healthy for generations to come.
We remain concerned at least, and disturbed at most, by the election workforce shortages occurring around the country as we head into 2024. While the exodus of full-time elections professionals may not be as statistically bad as some fear, we have nevertheless witnessed some esteemed, veteran, talented subject matter experts call it quits. More concerning is the potentially larger problem of what we call election “seasonal” workers–the folks in the trenches, on the front-lines of democracy dealing with the people, processes, and inevitable problems of polling places. We need to keep a close eye on this aspect as it could impact the election the most (with long lines being only the tip of that proverbial iceberg).
To ensure fair elections and protect voters’ rights, several measures can help address the shortage of election officials. These include increasing wages, launching recruitment campaigns, providing training, creating contingency plans, partnering with schools and universities, offering early voting, and encouraging employers to allow their workers to take time off to work at the polls.
In the end, our democracy depends on the hard work and dedication of election officials, as well as the active engagement and participation of citizens like us. By working together, we can help ensure that dedicated election staff are willing and able to conduct free and fair elections for 2024 and beyond.