In some states, more than half of the local election officials have left since 2020
Updated September 26, 2023 at 5:12 PM ET
Josh Daniels got into running elections by accident.
A Marine veteran and registered Republican, Daniels was recruited in 2019 by a friend who'd been elected clerk in Utah County, Utah, to be her deputy.
Eventually Daniels became clerk himself and grew to love the complex minutiae that went into running an election, and finding creative ways to help vulnerable populations access the ballot.
"It was really rewarding to help improve some really important functions in local government," Daniels said.
But when the time came to decide whether to run for reelection in 2022, Daniels decided against it. Voting conspiracies had become too much to take.
He estimated that he spent hundreds of hours over two years tracking down election concerns that voters got online and brought to his office.
"It was just exhausting," Daniels said. "It really was like The Twilight Zone of government service. Groundhog Day ... every day you wake up and it's the same thing over and over again. It doesn't matter how much information and data you share, it doesn't matter how many concerns you answer. There will just be a new group of critics to again dish out the new conspiracy of the day."
Daniels is part of a large group of voting officials who have decided to leave the profession since 2020 and the tension and pressure that followed Donald Trump's loss in that election.
In some battleground states, more than half of the local election administrators will be new since the last presidential race, according to a new report from the democracy-focused advocacy group Issue One shared exclusively with NPR before its release.
"Local county clerk is not a glamorous job," Daniels said. "We're not paying people in local election administrative jobs enough to be the subject of public scrutiny, particularly when that public scrutiny is often misguided and misinformed."
The Issue One report focused on 11 western states and found that the problem of voting official turnover is particularly acute in the region's swing states, where conspiracies have flourished.
In Nevada, 59% of the state's county voting officials are new since 2020. In Arizona, 55%.
It's not clear how these numbers compare to previous cycles — data on trends in election administration is notoriously hard to come by — but experts have been saying for years that they worried about a mass exodus driven by the polarized environment.
In total, more than 160 chief local election officials — nearly 40% of the region's officials — have left their positions in the 11 states that Issue One tracked. Experts say they expect to see a similar trend in other states as well, as recent polling and NPR's own reporting have indicated many people in these roles fear for their or their colleagues' safety.
Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, a Democrat, told NPR that he was considering issuing a "declaration of election administration emergency" to shed light on the issue, and on underfunded elections departments.
He added that threats affect Republican and Democratic jurisdictions alike.
"Many of the folks who have been harassed and threatened are Republicans. One former Republican recorder, county recorder here in Arizona, had her dog poisoned," Fontes said. "This is not a partisan issue. This is a question of the survival of our constitutional order."
Since 2020, some states have passed laws aimed at addressing threats to election officials, and the Department of Justice has set up a specific Election Threats Task Force, but intimidating and threatening language from voters often doesn't rise to the level of criminal offense, so election officials note that law enforcement can't solve the issue on its own.
Election brain drain
Practically speaking, the turnover presents a troubling brain drain.
Experts say the job of an election official has grown in complexity in recent years, with county clerks now needing to be well-versed in cybersecurity, the foreign adversary threat landscape and communications, in addition to the normal tasks that go into putting on an election. And in many counties, especially smaller ones, running elections is only part of their job as well.
Kim Wyman, a former local election official and Republican secretary of state of Washington, said the easiest way to learn the job is to do it for a few cycles.
"The biggest challenge right now facing new election officials is just not having that experience of having run a presidential election," said Wyman, now a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. "It sounds really simple, but it takes months of planning to get there. And without that experience of knowing what to expect and really what to be looking for puts them a little bit at a disadvantage."
Issue One found that the officials who left took with them more than 1,800 years of experience.
Which experts say presents a conundrum: New voting officials make more mistakes than seasoned ones. So the exodus brought on by election conspiracies may beget more conspiracies, as first-time honest mistakes are treated like evidence of malfeasance.
In 2022, a printer issue at some voting centers in Maricopa County, Ariz., became the center of false narratives. In 2020, it was user error by a clerk in Antrim County, Mich. (which was quickly corrected).
"The 2024 election will be even more scrutinized, which means that these government election officials have to be on their game at every turn and with every detail, and there is no room for error," former Utah clerk Daniels said. "And there will be balls that are going to be dropped in the 2024 election because of this lack of expertise."
Not just election officials
An increase in threats against election administrators and turnover comes against a backdrop of elevated hostility against public officials at every level.
New data show that members of city councils, county governing boards and mayors are now experiencing insults, intimidation, harassment and even attacks with some regularity.
The data, collected by the nonpartisan Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton University and the nonprofit survey group CivicPulse, build on three similar surveys conducted over the last year. The latest round, which included more than 1,300 respondents across the country, shows that within the last three months, nearly half had reported being insulted, one-third reported being harassed, and nearly one in five reported being threatened.
"What we felt like we confirmed from this survey was some real numbers behind that sense of pervasiveness that we were hearing from officials over and over," said Shannon Hiller, executive director of the Princeton initiative.
Many reported that they were concerned that the severity and frequency of these hostile events will only increase as the 2024 election nears.
"If we see ... officials not willing to serve, [if] we see people not wanting to speak up and participate at that level, I think it's really concerning for the broader democracy as a whole," Hiller said.
NPR's Odette Yousef contributed reporting.
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