Amid growing violent threats and increasing administrative burdens, a surge in resignations among local election officials signals trouble for U.S. democracy.
In the aftermath of the 2020 election, election officials have faced rising threats, harassment, and administrative burdens related to election administration in the United States. Such stressful and dangerous work environments have prompted a surge in resignations among America’s foremost “stewards of democracy.”
A new report from the democracy-focused nonprofit Issue One finds that more than 160 chief local election officials across the western United States have resigned since the last presidential election. This amounts to about 40% of all local election officials in the region departing their roles. The exodus of election officials overall represents a loss of more than 1,800 years of combined institutional experience.
I argue these election officials’ resignations are both a symptom and a potential cause of democratic erosion. My argument is twofold: first, I will highlight how democratic erosion – in the form of threats against election officials, politicization of independent institutions, and rampant election misinformation – has prompted high turnover among local election officials. Second, I will discuss how these resignations, in turn, have significant implications for our democratic institutions going forward. Overall, the substantial exodus of election officials is both a reflection of current democratic erosion and also a harbinger of future problems that may further erode trust in our democratic institutions.
First, it is necessary to understand the challenging landscape in which election officials are operating. Following the 2020 election, election officials have faced increasingly frequent and hostile threats. A Brennan Center for Justice survey conducted earlier this year finds nearly one in three local election officials have experienced threats or harassment as part of their jobs. About 45 percent reported fearing for the safety of their colleagues and other election workers, and more than half expressed concern about these threats impacting the future retention and recruitment of election workers.
Coupled with increasingly violent threats and personal attacks, election officials also face onerous administrative burdens in combating election misinformation while carrying out their official duties. One former Utah election clerk, Josh Daniels, told NPR he devoted hundreds of hours to debunking conspiracy theories, describing the experience as “exhausting.” Daniels is just one of many election officials who ultimately decided not to run for reelection, joining numerous others who opted to leave the profession altogether.
Such heightened administrative burdens result in exhausted and overworked election staff, according to the Issue One report. “When elections workers feel undermined — by false information, lack of resources, or worse, threats of violence or death simply for doing their jobs — turnover rates can creep painfully high,” the report notes. “Exhaustion, demoralization, and fear deplete the election administration field of the people whose knowledge and experience are necessary for the day-to-day administration of democracy.”
This pattern of resignations thus represents a symptom of democratic erosion, as evidenced by extant literature. Dahl (1972) suggests that democracy requires certain conditions under which the government is responsive to its citizens. Among his requirements for democracy, Dahl underscores “free and fair elections” as being crucial for citizens’ ability both to signify their preferences and have those preferences weighted equally by the government. Dahl’s interpretation suggests democracy rests on more than just the mere presence of elections but rather the quality, fairness, and accessibility of election administration, all of which are at stake when election officials resign their posts due to harassment and threats.
Huq and Ginsburg (2018) further provide context for how a strong bureaucracy of election administration is necessary for upholding free and fair elections. “Meaningful elections require a bureaucratic machinery capable of applying rules in a neutral and consistent fashion over an extended territory,” they write, pointing to how “there must be officials to organize and staff polls, certify ballot structure, and establish counting facilities.”
Yet, the ability of election officials to conduct administrative tasks has been severely undermined by anti-democratic forces. Much of the current threat landscape against election officials can be attributed to the former president’s “Big Lie” conspiracy and a growing public appetite for misinformation.
Protect Democracy’s Authoritarian Playbook further describes how one of the basic strategies that authoritarians pursue is the politicization of independent institutions. This includes increasing attacks on election administration and oversight, along with rhetoric couched in concern about election fraud. Other components of the playbook include spreading disinformation and working to malign elections, as the playbook details how “often, those who attempt to corrupt elections justify their actions by claiming that elections are insecure or vulnerable to fraud.” This aligns with Bermeo’s (2016) definition of democratic backsliding, which involves the “state-led debilitation or elimination of any of the political institutions that sustain an existing democracy.”
I argue the harassment and threats against election officials have functionally led to a “debilitation” of our institution of election administration – driving out experienced election officials and creating vacuums of institutional knowledge that weaken our democracy. In this way, the recent trend of resignations among election officials can be considered a symptom of anti-democratic forces, stemming from misinformation, conspiracy theories, and the politicization of our electoral institutions.
But the resignations of these election officials also risk becoming a potential “cause” of democratic erosion in the future.
As new individuals fill these vacated roles, the possibility of errors increases significantly – albeit inadvertently. For example, an investigation into a Pennsylvania county’s ballot paper shortage last year found the error was largely caused by high staffing turnover and limited institutional knowledge in the election office. The Issue One report highlights this potential for errors, noting that “those with less experience are more prone to making small mistakes based on lack of knowledge — mistakes that, however innocuous, may be interpreted by hyper-partisans as malicious acts.”
This reflects an unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy. Experienced election officials have resigned in large part due to rampant misinformation about election fraud. The dearth of institutional memory they leave behind could very well produce election-related errors that could further incite misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Overall, it is worth recognizing how our polarized landscape has contributed to high turnover in election administration roles across the country. This turnover is both a symptom of current conditions weakening our democratic institutions and a potential cause of democratic erosion in the future. New election officials who assume these vacated positions ultimately face an enormous uphill battle. More than 1,800 years of institutional knowledge cannot be learned overnight, and there is a substantial risk of errors as a result. How this new wave of election officials responds to rising physical threats, misinformation, and administrative burdens will shape the strength of our democracy going forward.
Beckel, Michael, et al. “The High Cost of High Turnover.” Issue One, 26 Sept. 2023, http://issueone.org/articles/the-high-cost-of-high-turnover/.
Currie, Shannon, et al. “Local Election Officials Survey – April 2023.” Brennan Center for Justice, 25 Apr. 2023, www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/local-election-officials-survey-april-2023.
Manion, Anita, et al. “Who Are Local Election Officials, and What Do They Say about Elections?” MIT Election Data and Science Lab, 24 Feb. 2022, http://electionlab.mit.edu/articles/who-are-local-election-officials-and-what-do-they-say-about-elections.
Parks, Miles. “In Some States, More than Half of the Local Election Officials Have Left since 2020.” NPR, 26 Sept. 2023, www.npr.org/2023/09/26/1200616113/election-official-threats-harassment-turnover.
Protect Democracy. “The Authoritarian Playbook,” 2022. https://protectdemocracy.org/work/the-authoritarian-playbook/.
Van Voorhis, Adrien. “Meet the Faces of Democracy: Josh Daniels.” Issue One, 25 July 2023, http://issueone.org/articles/meet-the-faces-of-democracy-josh-daniels/.
Walker, Carter. “Report: Turnover to Blame for Luzerne Election Debacle.” Spotlight PA, 20 June 2023, www.spotlightpa.org/news/2023/06/luzerne-county-election-2022-paper-shortage/.
Whitehurst, Lindsay, and Christina A. Cassidy. “Election Workers Have Gotten Death Threats and Warnings They Will Be Lynched, the US Government Says.” AP News, 1 Sept. 2023, http://apnews.com/article/election-workers-threats-justice-department-trump-f17df44d63156a28eaa0862b0aa08f0b..
Wines, Michael. “After a Nightmare Year, Election Officials Are Quitting.” The New York Times, 2 July 2021, http://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/02/us/politics/2020-election-voting-officials.html.