Violent threats against election officials in the U.S. were at an all-time high during and following the 2020 election cycle — elected officials are leaving their jobs in what has been described as a “mass exodus” because of such threats. This has precipitated a decline of institutional knowledge and expertise which jeopardizes election integrity.
According to a recent Brennan Center poll, one in three election officials reported feeling unsafe and one in six experienced a threat due to their roles. The upsurge of these threats during the 2020 election cycle emanated from widespread claims of election fraud, perpetuated by Trump and various other elected officials. The unprecedented nature of the attacks on election officials is corroborated by Freedom House issuing a score change from a three to a two for the U.S. in the category pertaining to freedom of political choices, explicitly citing the increase in threats aimed at election officials as a justification. Additionally, the aforementioned poll demonstrated that 77% of election officials polled feel as though the threats have significantly increased recently. These threats have not ceased post 2020, and they will likely intensify during the 2022 midterms.
Election officials have fled their homes and increased their personal security because of the frequency and severity of the attacks launched against them and their relatives; many, however, have reached their breaking point entirely and have resigned from their duties. These vacancies will prove detrimental to upholding electoral integrity in the U.S. News outlets and political commentators alike have expressed concern over partisan actors filling these vacancies, thereby threatening apolitical election administration. However, the loss of institutional knowledge and experience remains an underappreciated result of these attacks – one that will also severely threaten election integrity.
Having an experienced body of election officials is essential to maintaining administrative competencies; it is no coincidence that a Democracy Fund survey found that the average official had been working in elections for over 12 years. The survey also found that local officials, especially in larger districts, are “highly experienced” and that less than 5% of respondents had been working in election administration for less than a year. These averages are unsurprising considering the level of expertise that election officials must cultivate in order to properly and efficiently administer elections. The precedent of experience is greatly at risk in light of the increase in threats and the “mass exodus”; in fact, the recent Brennan Center Poll finds that 20% of election workers plan to leave before 2024, with one-third citing unnecessary stress as a top reason for their departure. Moreover, the survey demonstrates the concerning fact that 30% of election officials know at least one or two local officials who have left their jobs because of such threats.
The lack of national standardization and in-depth training opportunities for election workers intensifies the costs of experienced officials leaving the field. This phenomenon is especially evident in Pennsylvania, which proved to be a particularly competitive state in the 2020 election. Training requirements to become an election official vary by state, with some states, like Pennsylvania, not offering formal or standardized training. Access to external, nongovernmental training opportunities through universities or associations is also quite limited, at this time, in PA. Because of these gaps in preparation, it is evident that experience and knowledge must be accrued for these officials to successfully run elections. Therefore, the loss of at least 21 Election Directors in PA (around 1/3 of the total number) following the 2020 cycle presents an enormous issue. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that these vacancies are being filled by many individuals lacking previous election experience. Some of these individuals, like Bob Morgan, are apprehensive about their new role as Election Directors and feel as though they are missing a guidebook. Morgan, who previously worked as a Chief of Staff for a U.S. Representative, describes his experience entering the role as similar to “…drinking from the firehose.” The combination of the inadequate training opportunities and requirements with the amount of knowledge (which is accumulated overtime) requisite to properly conduct election administration heightens the danger of the experienced officials’ exodus. Their departure creates a knowledge vacuum that directly endangers electoral integrity.
Evidently, a decline in experience and knowledge is occurring — we need to examine how and why this places election integrity at risk. At the base level, in order to successfully administer an election, officials must have a grasp of state laws and local procedures as well as a unique understanding of the local electorate. While successful election administration is important to electoral integrity in and of itself, political scientists Shaheen Mozaffar and Andreas Schedler argue, in their article The Comparative Study of Electoral Governance — Introduction, that electoral authorities’ ability to depoliticize elections is dependent on their success in achieving this administrative efficiency. This is because “technical failures” in elections tend to be met with a degree of political suspicion and accusations of fraud from opposition parties. These accusations may lead to disputes which can derail the entire process. This risk is especially detrimental in our current polarized political climate already rife with election fraud claims.
Violent threats against impartial election administrators and the subsequent loss of institutional knowledge and expertise are particularly concerning because they strike at even the most elementary and procedural components of democracy. Political economist Joseph Schumpeter famously defined democracy, in his book Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, as “… that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals have the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.” Free and fair elections, the bedrock of our democracy, are required to achieve the condition of a competitive election. The mass exodus of election officials as a result of the unprecedented level of violent threats places electoral integrity in a precarious position, and we must address this problem in a multi-faceted manner in order to ensure that free and fair elections and thus our democracy at large survive.