Selecting the Stewards of Democracy

In our last blog post we explored turnover among local election officials in the US. In this installment we turn to examine how the Stewards of Democracy are selected for their positions and how LEOs themselves think about selection methods. We hope our results can inform ongoing discussions about how we select the local and state officials who administer American elections.

Local election officials that administer elections across the United States may have run for office, been appointed, or been hired into their positions. Elections may have been partisan or non-partisan contests. As with so many features in American election administration, selection methods vary both across and within states.

In our 2019 survey, we heard from a random sample of over 800 officials. The respondents are evenly split between those elected and those appointed.

was Selected
N of CasesPercent of Sample
Appointed406 47.6%
Elected409 47.9%
Other38 4.5%

In jurisdictions with less than 25,000 registered voters, most local election officials are elected (according to our survey results). In larger jurisdictions, the LEO is more likely to be appointed. This could be potentially explained a number of ways. For many smaller jurisdictions, the LEO may be the local county clerk, with a diverse portfolio of duties that might include managing city council records, managing administrative records including business, marriage, dog and other licenses — along with that minor thing called elections.

We see this in our results — 71% of LEOs in jurisdictions with 5,000 or fewer registered voters report election work makes up less than half of their work. For larger jurisdictions, the LEO role is likely a civil service or appointed role that serves a higher elected body. In larger jurisdictions with over 100,000 registered voters, 60-80% of LEOs report that elections make up all or almost all of their workload.

Selection Type
Percent of
Elected Partisan20.8%
Elected Nonpartisan46.0%
Doesn’t matter5.3%
Not sure2.6%

Dr. Evan Crawford, one of our collaborators for the 2019 LEO survey, has been exploring the question of partisanship in local elections as an extension of his dissertation work at the University of Wisconsin. Evan’s work shows a growing call to change school board elections to partisan races.

In our 2019 survey, we wanted to give LEOs a chance to weigh in on this question. How do LEOs think that we should select the local officials who run elections?  

Two thirds of our respondents want to see LEOs elected to their position, with partisan races supported by over 20%. These answers are likely influenced by how the respondent themselves are selected, so we examined whether being elected or appointed makes a difference.

Not surprisingly, those who are elected prefer elections for LEOs (89%). Those who are appointed are much more divided. Of those who are appointed, 43% indicate they would like to see LEOs elected and 47% prefer appointment. Finally, non-partisan elections are much preferred over partisan elections.

Selection Type PreferredAppointed LEOsElected LEOs
Elected Partisan14.4%27.7%
Elected Nonpartisan29.4%61.7%
Doesn’t matter6.1%4.3%
Not sure3.5%1.5%

In our survey, we also asked LEOs who were elected whether they ran in a partisan or nonpartisan race. This provides us a chance to compare preferences for partisan or non-partisan elections by the type of election the LEO participated in.

LEOs elected in nonpartisan races overwhelmingly want to see nonpartisan races. However, for LEOs elected in partisan races the opinion is split, with 58% wishing to see the selection not be a partisan race.

Selection TypeLEOs Elected in
Nonpartisan Races
LEOs Elected in
Partisan Races
Prefer Partisan Races4.7%41.8%
Prefer Nonpartisan Races95.3%58.2%

It makes sense that elected LEOs would support the continued use of elections to select the occupant of their position. They are familiar with and successful in elections. These elected LEOs also seem interested in moving away from partisan races. But why are so many appointed LEOs interested in seeing the use of elections to select their position? It is possible that these LEOs are themselves appointed by elected boards or officers and would like to be elevated to that role. It is also possible that these LEOs feel they might find some independence in their position if it was an elected position. These possible explanations are a topic we hope to explore further in our next survey.