The bureaucrats vital to democracy
The faceless bureaucrat is a caricature Americans love to hate. Even though most government administrators are under-resourced and underpaid, partisans of all stripes find it easy to criticize civil servants for any failing. Now a subset of these dedicated individuals is being drawn into hyperpolarized fights about voting, and the impact on democracy will be devastating.
The person most responsible for providing your right to vote is someone who lives in your community. This individual — a clerk, recorder or election administrator — rallies an army of your neighbors to fill vital roles like the “poll worker” to deliver democracy to you each election season. This person is also likely to receive threats against their personal safety or fear for their wellbeing simply for doing their job during an election cycle with no parallel.
The 2020 presidential election was always going to be a challenge. President Trump elicited very strong opinions among the electorate. Either you loved him or you hated him, and there was very little in between. The onset of COVID-19 in the middle of the primary election season cascaded into confusing policy changes, which set the stage for election battles no one quite expected.
Threats against election officials started early in 2020. They continued through Election Day, and, even months after, administrators continued to receive threats serious enough to warrant law enforcement action.
Local election administrators are not the decision-makers when it comes to setting the rules of the road for voting. They don’t have a say on voter registration deadlines or the number of days (if any) of early voting available to voters. Election rules are most commonly set by state law, in accordance with broad requirements outlined in federal law, the Constitution and jurisprudence.
The local administrator is legally bound to administer the election as statutes, regulations and directives mandate. In 2020, a slew of additional policy changes aimed at insulating voters from the pandemic came through direct orders from governors, secretaries of states from both parties, bipartisan election boards and courts. Caught in the middle were the election administrators who were left to operationalize the multitude of last-minute policy changes for their voters.
Though election administrators are often elected or appointed by partisan officials, the professional expectation is that they will put aside their own preferences to run a free and fair process. I have been privileged to work with election administrators in red, purple and blue jurisdictions. At the end of the day, they all want every eligible voter — and only eligible voters — to participate. They strive for clean elections, where the number of ballots cast matches the number of participating voters, and where audits with rules set by statute confirm the results. It’s a point of personal pride for administrators to have both high turnout and high security.
Yet, pride will only take you so far. Many election officials were forced into hiding during some of the worst moments of the 2020 cycle. Some saw their families’ homes burglarized. Dedication to a cause can be heroic, but no job is worth your family’s safety.
As a result of this rise in threats against election administrators and their families, a huge number of election officials are leaving before the next federal cycle, including about a third of all of Pennsylvania’s county administrators. The loss of institutional memory and fidelity to a free and fair election will take a generation to replace.
If the dedicated individuals who understand the intricacies of voting laws refuse to serve any longer, I expect fierce partisans to take their place, even at the local level. It’s already happening in secretary of state contests that will occur next year as both parties pour millions into historically sleepy races.
And even if a proud and public partisan wins the local administrator job, taking clearly political actions in office will only serve to undermine confidence in the outcome for a huge part of the electorate. Imagine if a local election official served as a local campaign chair for one of the candidates. Even acting in accordance with the law won’t be enough to overcome the reasonable assumptions of bias in any official actions.
Furthermore, the job is highly complex. Though many Americans only think of voting a handful of days every two years, what was once a relatively clerical responsibility now requires expertise in cybersecurity, database management, logistics and information technology. Partisan loyalties have no role and being a strong party member won’t make the job easier. In fact, it’s often members of your own party that ask you to cross the line.
The United States is unique when it comes to how pervasive politics is in election administration. It’s a feature unlikely to change anytime soon. But if voters expect professional, well-run elections, recent threats against election officials and all that it causes are a crisis deserving far greater attention. Election administrators deserve greater protection and threats against them must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. American democracy may just depend on it.
Matthew Weil is director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. He previously served in staff roles at the Treasury Department and at the United States Election Assistance Commission.
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