America’s “Stewards of Democracy”: Experienced In Their Jobs, But Turnover Is Greater In Smaller Jurisdictions

Some 8,000 local election officials guide elections across the United States. These local officials work to assure the safety, security, and legitimacy of our elections. These Stewards of Democracy are a critical group in our nation – yet they do not receive much attention.

In 2018, the Early Voting Information Center (EVIC) at Reed College, in partnership with the Democracy Fund, initiated an annual survey of local elections officials to learn more, and to share the perspectives of these public servants. This is the first in a series of posts sharing our 2019 results, reflecting on what we have learned in the first two years of our polling.

This post is inspired by Pam Fessler’s report that some prominent local election officials, many serving in populous jurisdictions, are “heading for the exits.” Officials interviewed in the story all agreed that administering elections was rewarding and important, but also stressful and exhausting. As one official told Fessler:

“With the stress and the constant pressure of the job, I just want to put more of my energy into my family versus my career at this point in my life and I think I’m just ready to move to a career that’s maybe not so much under the spotlight or the microscope,”

In our 2019 survey, we wanted to learn about the career trajectories and professional work environment of LEOs. One of the questions we asked was what year they began “working in elections”.

What we found supports in some respects the concerns raised in the story. Over half of the LEOs in our survey tell us that they started working in elections more than 13 years ago (median response: 2008). That indicates a quite experienced set of professional administrators.

At the same time, over half of the LEOs in our survey have served just over a decade (only two presidential cycles), and there is a noticeable spike at 2018.

As we found so many other aspects of elections work, there is a substantial difference in turnover and experience levels between the largest and smallest jurisdictions (and a clear trend in years of experience by jurisdiction size).

Larger jurisdictions have administrators with more years of experience than small jurisdictions (< 5000 registered voters). We want to dive deeper into our survey data, but it is our sense from talking to officials that many start their careers in smaller jurisdictions and then move to larger jurisdictions, which may account for the patterns observed here.

Some jurisdictions elect their local election official. Others appoint or hire them into their role. We wondered if there might be more turnover in elected positions based on more competition for the position or the periodic review that elections create.

We find no real difference. If anything the opposite is somewhat true: elected officials have are more likely to have served longer compared to appointed officials.

This is only the first in a series of blog postings as part of the 2019 Democracy Fund / Reed College Local Election Survey. We welcome questions, comments, and please keep tuned!