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1 in 5 local election officials say they're likely to quit before 2024

Election workers in Georgia count ballots at State Farm Arena in Atlanta in 2020.
Jessica McGowan
/
Getty Images
Election workers in Georgia count ballots at State Farm Arena in Atlanta in 2020.

For the past two years, the people who run America's elections have been sounding the alarm.

The polarized voting environment that has come out of the 2020 election has led to near daily harassment and death threats for some election officials and made the profession unsustainable for many.

Now there's new data to back up those concerns.

A new survey of local election officials released Thursday by the Brennan Center for Justice found that 1 in 5 local election administrators say they are likely to leave their jobs before the 2024 presidential election.

"There's a crisis in election administration," said Larry Norden, the senior director of elections and government at the Brennan Center. "[Election administrators] are concerned, and they're not getting the support that they need."

The Brennan Center worked with the Benenson Strategy Group, which has worked for a number of national Democratic political campaigns, to conduct the poll over two weeks in early February among 596 local election officials. Respondents were split fairly evenly across the political spectrum: 26% identified as Democrats, 30% as Republicans, and 44% said they were independent. The margin of error was about 4%.

The poll results show that the 2020 election — specifically former President Donald Trump's continued false attacks on the legitimacy of the voting process — is playing a large role in how voting officials feel about their work.

Of those election officials who said they were likely to leave their jobs before 2024, the most common reasons why were that too many politicians were attacking "a system that they know is fair and honest" and that the job was too stressful.

A majority of voting officials surveyed also said they're worried about interference by political leaders in how they do their jobs in future elections, a reflection of the unprecedented effort by Trump and his campaign to influence election officials at the state and local level.

Misinformation has driven threats of violence on election professionals

"I get scared that someone I know is going to be seriously hurt one day," said Natalie Adona, an election official in Nevada County, Calif. "I know that's a thought that's shared with others who I've talked to."

Adona says she recently got a restraining order against someone who slammed a door into one of her staff members.

Almost a fifth of election administrators surveyed in the Brennan Center poll say they've been threatened because of their job, and more than half of them say they are worried about the safety of their colleagues in future elections.

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold said at a recent meeting of officials from across the country that she'd received 22 death threats just in the previous week, and she was asking for guidance on whether states could spend federal elections grant money on personal security for election officials.

"They're thinking about things like, 'Can we afford bulletproof glass for certain offices?' " said Norden, from the Brennan Center.

Local officials say election administration needs more funding

More than 3 out of every 4 election officials surveyed said the federal government should be doing more to support them.

There is no regular funding system for elections from the federal government, though in recent years, states have received one-off influxes of cash from Congress. The federal omnibus spending bill Congress is advancing this week includes $75 million for elections infrastructure improvements.

That is better than nothing, experts say, but it's nowhere near the amount of money they believe is necessary considering all the new responsibilities election officials have taken on in recent years, including cyber and physical security.

A recent report from the Brennan Center and Verified Voting found that it would cost more than $100 million just to replace the least secure voting machines still in use in the U.S.

"Some of the pressure [on officials], quite frankly, is economic," said Kathleen Hale, who directs the Election Administration Initiative at Auburn University. "Election offices are ridiculously underfunded by anybody's metric. And I haven't seen much in elections that couldn't be resolved by a healthy infusion of cash."

There is no national data on exactly how many election officials have already left the profession since 2020, but Hale says she has definitely noticed a shadow from that election over many of the people running local offices. That is frustrating, she says, considering there were no actual major issues.

"People who are attracted to this work and stay in it are tremendously proud of the work that they do. They feel that they have really accomplished something to conduct an election, especially a presidential," Hale said. "And for the first time in my memory, people were discouraged by the environment around the 2020 election — despite the fact that it was, by any measure, the most successful election we've ever had."

The Brennan Center poll did find that most election officials — roughly 75% — say they find real enjoyment in their jobs. But a majority also said they worry that the current environment will make it more difficult to retain or recruit election workers in the future.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.