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Stewards of Democracy: The Views of American Local Election Officials

By Natalie Adona / 2019 June 26th

Local elections officials (LEOs) are the stewards of our democracy, but oftentimes they are left out of important conversations about the future of our elections nationwide. The LEOs from our survey are the chief elections officers in their local jurisdictions. Not to be confused with poll workers, the LEOs surveyed in our new report oversee local election processes and are responsible for ensuring the voting process is fair, free, and secure. Among their many responsibilities, LEOs execute the election laws in their state, make decisions that define the voter experience, and train the permanent and temporary employees that interact with the electorate.

It might be hard to imagine but (depending on how you count) between 7,000-10,000 local election officials manage the front line of elections in the United States. Despite their recognition as the people who run elections, LEOs are often left out of national conversations about reform and may not have a seat at the table when important policy decisions are made at the local, state, or federal levels—decisions that they alone will ultimately implement.

Stewards of Democracy: The Views of American Local Election Officials details the findings of the Democracy Fund-Reed College 2018 Survey of Local Election Officials (2018 LEO Survey), and is part of our effort to create a space for these stewards of democracy to be heard. The survey is designed to capture the collective experience of officials across the country, and to help us learn more about their perspectives on election administration, access, integrity, and reform. The results should be interpreted as a snapshot of opinion taken in the midst of a competitive midterm election.

More than 1,000 LEOs from across the country responded to our survey. Our survey respondents serve over 81 million registered voters. They manage offices with staffs of one or two in the smallest jurisdictions to over 1,000 employees in the largest (not including poll workers). Our hope is that this report will be the start of an ongoing attempt to elevate LEO’s voices in efforts to modernize and secure American elections.

The report breaks down the findings of the survey into four sections:

  • Meet Your Local Election Official – This section provides data on the professional and demographic profile of the typical LEO including LEO workload, years in service, pay, professional training and other demographic information.
  • Running the 2018 Election – This section covers findings on 2018 election preparedness including information on resources, staff, meeting the challenges of cybersecurity, and confidence in voter registration list security.
  • Voter-Centric Elections: Education and Outreach – This section discusses LEO attitudes regarding accessibility, including voter education and outreach.
  • Improving Elections Using New and Old Tools – This section focuses on the adoption of modernization and of technology, such as online voter registration and automatic voter registration systems to improve elections. It also covers our analysis of LEO opinions, in their own words, on how they think elections can be improved, including legislative and policy changes involving voting.

The bottom line is that all the LEOs we surveyed care deeply about their ability to administer elections in an accessible, efficient, and secure fashion. We were particularly moved by how our survey demonstrated LEOs’ dedication to a positive voter experience and to nonpartisan election administration. Respondents in our survey made it clear that they have and will continue to be good stewards of democracy—but resources, staffing, and coordination between state and local officials are areas of concern.

We plan to solicit LEO opinions again, at different times, using different lenses. We hope that our efforts encourage conversations and collaboration with LEOs and lead to reforms that best serve the American electorate—providing policymakers with invaluable insight into the makeup of the election administration field and its evolving needs as it hopefully becomes more diverse in the coming years.

Democracy Fund’s Elections Program supports, among other things, nonprofit organizations that improve elections processes and provide assistance to election officials themselves. As we work with grantees and partners, we are reminded time and again of the important role of the LEOs ensuring that our voices are heard.

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