With public trust in elections enduring ongoing stress since the presidential election of 2020, the pressures on the local election officials charged with administering them have grown, too.
Now, many states have to deal with an alarming turnover rate in election administrators, who toil in an environment where pay is often low, the workload is high, and harassment and even threats of violence are no longer rare.
The local elections in Kansas on Nov. 7 are a semiannual reminder of the importance of the role of election workers. But it’s next year, and the prospect of relying on many election officials who will be overseeing their first high-turnout presidential election, that worries some national experts even more.
What’s the status of the election workforce in Kansas? An August newsletter from Axios, a national political news site, contained an alarming assertion: Kansas will see a nearly 75% turnover in election administrators between 2020 and 2024.
But while the state certainly faces challenges, the numbers across all 105 counties don’t appear to be that grim, according to Franklin County Clerk Janet Paddock, president of the Kansas County Clerks And Election Officials Association.
She estimates that at least 20% of Kansas counties will have new election supervisors since the 2020 presidential election. An analysis of records posted on the Kansas Secretary of State’s website confirms that assertion. A comparison of the current list of county election officers with that of Aug. 5, 2020, shows that 69 counties have the same election officers and 36 counties have experienced changes.
Paddock attributed the turnover to the stress from added duties that county clerks and other election officials must perform. She also knows of several county election directors who have received threats since 2020. She declined to name them.
Paddock wonders whether the 75% turnover rate cited by Axios refers only to the election directors that are appointed by the secretary of state. While 101 Kansas counties elect their own clerks to oversee voting, the top election officials in Johnson, Sedgwick, Wyandotte and Shawnee counties are appointed by Secretary of State Scott Schwab.
After the 2020 presidential election, President Donald Trump refused to concede defeat, attacked election results in a few states – in the process, urging on his supporters – and now faces criminal charges in state and federal courts for attempting to overturn the election. Trump denies wrongdoing.
In the face of such attacks, at least one recent poll suggests that public confidence in elections has taken a dip in Kansas. A recent Kansas Speaks survey from the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University shows only 54% of those surveyed believe the winners of Kansas elections are the actual candidates who got the most votes.
That’s down 15 percentage points from last year when 69% said they believed the correct people were announced as winners. The percentage of people who didn’t trust the outcomes as announced increased from 7.6% to 11%. The biggest jump came in those who are neutral on the subject or don’t know, which grew from 23% to 35%.
Since the 2020 vote, Schwab has replaced the Sedgwick County election commissioner twice. A planned transition elevated Fred Sherman to head the Johnson County election office in 2021. Longtime Wyandotte County Election Commissioner Bruce Newby retired, resulting in Michael Abbott’s 2021 appointment. Only Andrew Howell, the Shawnee County election commissioner since 2012, remained in office throughout the period.
Axios attributed the 75% statistic to Rachel Orey, senior associate director of the elections project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. Orey gave the statistic during a speech at the National Conference of State Legislatures summit in Indianapolis in August.
Orey told The Journal she had heard the 75% figure from Kansas State Election Director Bryan Caskey in a speech he gave at a National Association of State Election Directors conference. She says Caskey indicated he was expecting a 75% turnover in county election directors from the 2020 through 2024 presidential elections.
The Journal could not obtain further clarification from the secretary of state’s office about which officials comprise that 75% turnover figure. Caskey declined to comment.
The secretary of state’s office doesn’t track the turnover of county clerks statewide, says Whitney Tempel, the office’s director of communications and policy.
The Journal asked whether the charged political climate, including threats made against election officials, contributed to turnover among elections officials.
“Many factors play into the turnover of election officials. We saw this coming during the 2020 election, which is why we launched our new training and certification programs,” Schwab said in an emailed statement.
‘Burnout is an issue’
The pressures election officials face are clearly multifaceted.
Schwab appointed Laura Rainwater as election commissioner for the Sedgwick County Election Office in March. Rainwater says only two staffers among her office’s 11 full-time employees have worked there more than two years.
“Burnout is an issue,” she says. “Long hours. Lots of overtime. It’s real. We’ve been understaffed a long time.”
Dawn Harris, Rainwater’s former chief deputy, left her job in May citing those long hours, Rainwater says. Harris last year worked 1,100 hours of overtime, “and she was just burned out.”
Rainwater’s office did get three new positions approved: a warehouse supervisor to manage all election equipment and supplies, a technology supervisor for programming and logistics, and an election specialist who handles filings, registrations and reports.
People tend not to understand the scope of work county election offices do, Rainwater says.
“So many people think that elections are just a few weeks out of the year, and they don’t realize … work goes on year-round … not just August and November,” she says.
Yet not every office is experiencing challenges in the same ways.
Sherman, the election commissioner for the Johnson County Election Office, and Lisa Lusker, the Crawford County clerk and chief election officer, both say they haven’t experienced significant turnover on their staffs. They agree that stress on election officials and workers has increased since 2020 because of increased scrutiny and because the Legislature added to their duties and sought to increase their accountability.
Lusker says the state has seen a huge turnover of county clerks in the past two years. County clerks do “a ton of stuff, more than I knew before I took the job. Sometimes we feel a little bit like we’re not fully trusted to run these offices the way we see fit. It’s an oversight responsibility of the Legislature.”
A pipeline to preserve democracy
The turnover problem in election officials is tough to quantify, but Orey of the Bipartisan Policy Center says she has heard anecdotal evidence from election officials nationwide about big staff turnover. She attributes the turnover to increased stress in the “heated” political climate, the burden of running the office and sometimes harassment and even threats from the public.
“Officials have to spend more time responding to public skepticism, records requests, more time talking to voters about their concerns, and they have less time to focus on running elections,” she says. “They usually have limited staff.”
Orey cites a study of local election officials early this year by the Brennan Center for Justice. The organization interviewed 852 local election officials of all political affiliations nationwide from March 2 through April 3. Among the study’s findings:
- “We can expect more than one in five (administrators) to be serving in their first presidential election in 2024.”
- 21% of local election officials either started serving after the 2020 cycle or said they would be very or somewhat unlikely to serve in the 2024 election cycle. “This rate of turnover is equivalent to one to two local election officials leaving office every day since the 2020 election.”
- Nearly 75% said threats against election officials had increased in recent years.
- More than half said they were concerned that “threats, harassment and intimidation” would hurt recruitment and retention. Nearly half were concerned about the safety of their colleagues or staff.
- 30% said they had “been abused, harassed or threatened because of their job.”
Orey says she wasn’t surprised that election officials had been receiving threats. The political climate has grown “more extreme and more volatile, and it seemed inevitable that election officials would be drawn into the limelight once we started casting doubt on administrative processes.”
“And unfortunately, some candidates start fueling this kind of violent rhetoric and their base catches onto it. … I think that despite all the negativity in the present moment, it’s a huge opportunity to revitalize voters’ relationship with democracy. … In the long term, we could use it for some good.”
Before 2020, Orey says, election administration remained mostly obscure. But the public and policymakers have given them more attention. She thinks that in the next five to 10 years, this increased attention will “help create a new talent pipeline for folks who previously would never have considered a career in election administration and now realize how central it is to the preservation of democracy.”
More resources are being given to training, recruitment and retention, she says.
“Innovative programs are popping up all over the country,” Orey says. “I do think next year’s going to be a little tough just because it takes time to train people, and it’s going to be a lot of pressure. But I also have confidence that those who are there will get through it.”
Journal Executive Editor Chris Green contributed to this story.