Expert Commentary

The role of local election officials: 5 studies to consider

We highlight recent research that can inform journalists who are reporting on precinct staffing challenges, bias in who gets help voting, and more.

(Tony Webster / Flickr / Creative Commons)

During the 2020 presidential election, national and local news outlets highlighted the critical role election officials play in administering impartial voting in the U.S. 

With the 2022 midterms on the horizon, local election officials should once again be in the spotlight leading up to Election Day, on Nov. 8. Since 2020, former President Donald Trump has endorsed numerous candidates running for election posts around the country, including powerful jobs such as secretary of state.

Historically, former presidents have not endorsed candidates in state or local races for election offices. In the U.S., the federal government sets election laws that broadly protect voting rights and specify election crimes, though the Supreme Court in recent years has sided with states seeking to weaken voting rights.

But federal officials do not administer local voting, even during national elections, and states may enact their own voting rules, provided they do not conflict with federal law. North Dakota, for example, is the only state that does not require voters to register.

Local election officials play an important role in the voting process. They are responsible for assessing, then approving or rejecting voter registration forms. It’s up to these officials to interpret and carry out state rules and laws, such as those related to voting access. They also interpret state law as to which votes should count if there is a ballot dispute. They are responsible for voter education — for instance, sending mailers on when and where to vote — and counties may vary in their ability or desire to conduct voter outreach.

Secretaries of state are often in charge of a state’s voting process, though some states have another top election official chosen by the governor, or an election commission.

Decades ago, the job of a local election official was apolitical and somewhat perfunctory.

“In 1976, the job of the local election official was widely viewed as clerical, requiring no particular education or training,” writes Ernest Hawkins in a 2008 Public Administration Review commentary on how his job as a top election official in Sacramento County changed over 30 years. “Most [local election officials] were, and still are, elected, and many of them combine elections with other duties, as in the case of county clerks.”

Local election officials work for a county, city or town. They hold a range of titles, which may include “county clerk, county commissioner, registrar, director of elections, or probate judge,” according to a September 2021 report from the Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School. (The Journalist’s Resource is also housed at the Kennedy School, in the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.)

Election officials in heavily populated cities bear a large responsibility for administering successful elections. In 2004, for example, “local election officials responsible for administering elections in just 4% of jurisdictions covered almost 64% of American voters,” according to the Ash Center report. Poll workers, who direct voters on where and how to vote at a voting site, are usually volunteers from the nearby community. Sometimes they are paid a nominal sum — $50 to $135 for an 18-hour work day — according to one of the papers featured below.

The work that local election officials do has become more dangerous since the 2020 presidential election, according to a July 2022 report by the Benenson Strategy Group and the Brennan Center for Justice, commissioned by the National League of Cities.

Based on a 2022 survey of 596 local election officials around the country, the report finds that “64% of local election officials believe that false information about elections is making their jobs more dangerous, and 95% place blame on social media. Most say that social media companies have not done enough to stop the spread of false information.”

To help bolster journalists’ election reporting, we’ve gathered recent research on the role that elections officials and poll workers play in making voting run smoothly.

Here are the questions the research seeks to answer:

  • Why do some counties have more poll workers and voting places per eligible voter than others on Election Day?
  • What are the most effective communication methods to encourage voter registration?
  • How do various voter registration methods affect the likelihood that people’s applications will be rejected?
  • Does allowing poll workers to work statewide, instead of just the precinct where they are registered, help election officials ease staffing pressures?
  • Do local election officials show bias in helping voters from particular racial or ethnic groups navigate the polling process?

Determinants of Local Election Resource Distribution Nationwide
Joseph Coll. Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics and Policy, September 2022.

The study: Using federal survey data on polling sites and poll workers in all 50 U.S. states taken after national elections held 2012 to 2018, Coll explores several questions: Do richer counties have more polling sites and poll workers? What about counties with high historical turnout and large populations, or those that have predominately minority populations? Do counties with a top election official who is Republican provide fewer polling sites and poll workers than those headed by a Democrat? Or are voting resources more closely linked to whether a majority of a county’s voters are from the same party as the top election official?

The findings: Voting resources are most strongly linked to voting demand, Coll finds. Counties with large populations and relatively high turnout — indicating a high demand for voting — have more polling sites and workers per 1,000 voting-age individuals. “Additionally, counties in states with early voting also employ more poll workers,” Coll finds. The median income of a county is not linked to voting resources. Counties with a Republican top election official tend to offer fewer voting sites as the county trends over time to favor Republican candidates — the opposite is true in counties with a Democrat top official where votes trend Republican. Coll suggests that as the Republican vote in a county becomes “locked” — when voters in the county reliably vote for Republican candidates — Republican election officials may be less inclined to provide voting sites and workers.

The author writes: “Contrary to research from specific states and counties, this study does not find an anti-non-white bias to election administration resource distribution nationwide. However, these findings do not necessarily invalidate state or county-specific evidence, rather, they suggest there may be idiosyncratic influences in certain locations.”

Can Electoral Management Bodies Expand the Pool of Registered Voters? Examining the Effects of Face-to-Face, Remote, Traditional, and Social Media Outreach
Thessalia Merivaki and Mara Suttmann-Lea. Policy Studies, March 2022.

The study: This study focuses on Florida, where, by state law, election officials in all 67 Florida counties have to administer a voter education survey after federal elections. Among other topics, the survey asks where voters engaged with voter education efforts — at high schools, through print and social media, and other venues. The authors analyzed survey results from 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2018, along with detailed data on voter education posts from local officials on Facebook, in order to assess what works when it comes to increasing voter registration.

The findings: From 2014 to 2018, face-to-face outreach, such as educational sessions with community groups, were associated with increased voter registration rates. Newspaper ads were also good at getting people to sign up to vote, “consistent with experimental evidence that individuals who read newspapers are more likely to vote,” the authors write. Facebook posts from 2020 related to voter education were also associated with more use of Florida’s online voter registration system, indicating a positive response from “prospective and existing voters, who may not have otherwise been exposed to this information during the pandemic.” (Florida voters can also use the online portal to edit personal information, such as their address.) Home mailings were less effective, but the authors note the survey data does not allow them to parse whether specific types of mailings are more or less helpful in encouraging registrations. 

The authors write: “Election officials in countries like the Bahamas, Belize, Burundi, and Mexico, the United Kingdom, and South Africa, which also place the burden of registration largely on individuals, may look to some of the tools we assess. And even among countries where the burden of registration lies more heavily on the government, voters may still be required to take additional steps to successfully register to vote.”

Access Denied? Investigating Voter Registration Rejections in Florida
Thessalia Merivaki. State Politics & Policy Quarterly, January 2021.

The study: In another Florida-centric paper, Merivaki explores how the process of registering affects registration rates across the state. Applications are rejected mostly due to missing or incomplete address information, Merivaki writes. Prospective voters can register in every state in a variety of ways, including at motor vehicle department offices, through mail-in applications, and at community registration drives. Merivaki examines whether particular registration methods are associated with higher rates of application approvals across the 67 counties in Florida during 2012.

The findings: Registration at motor vehicle offices and in-person at an elections office did not affect the likelihood a voter form would be rejected. For every 10% increase in a county’s rate of mail-in registrations, rejections dropped by about 2%, Merivaki finds. Similarly, every 10% increase in applications submitted through a registration drive is associated with a rejection decrease of about 1%. And every 10% increase in applications at public agencies, like libraries, is associated with a nearly 5% drop in rejections. Registrations submitted closer to the October 10 general election registration cutoff date were not more likely to be rejected — in fact, rejection rates were higher more than three months out from the deadline. Merivaki suggests that closer to the deadline voters may be more personally invested in the election and more likely to pay attention and make sure their application is filled out correctly. But there is less margin to correct errors when prospective voters submit applications closer to the deadline.

The author writes: “As the evidence from Pinellas County suggest, even though most voters submitted complete and valid voter registration applications between October 1 and 9, 2012, many of those who did not were eligible citizens who essentially did not have the time to correct any missing information, and therefore would not have been able to cast a valid vote in the 2012 Presidential Election.”

Portable Poll Workers: Eliminating Precinct Requirements in U.S. Elections
Joshua Hostetter. Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics and Policy, September 2020.

The study: Hostetter analyzes federal election survey data from 2008 to 2018 to assess whether allowing voters to volunteer or work as poll workers anywhere in the state where they are registered — not just their own precinct or county — improves access to poll workers for election officials. Alaska, California, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia are the only states where registered voters can work in any precinct across their state, according to Hostetter. He adds: “I expect that, by not restricting the geographical location poll workers can work, these six states can send poll workers to precincts around the state to work the polls.”

The findings: After federal elections, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission survey asks every county election administrator whether it was difficult or easy for them to get the poll workers they needed for the most recent election. Hostetter analyzes presidential and midterm election years separately, since presidential elections usually result in higher turnout. He also controls for whether the state allows vote by mail, is rural, or has a large older population, since older Americans are more likely to be poll workers. Hostetter finds in order for local election officials to have an easier time recruiting enough poll workers to meet local voting demand, their state needs to allow poll workers to move statewide, not just at the county or precinct level.

The author writes: “The results highlight the importance of simplifying the poll-worker voter registration requirements. Further, increasing the pool of potential poll workers may help address the underlying problem of poll worker quality. Since many [local election officials] do not have the luxury to turn away poll worker volunteers because of the worker shortages they currently face, by simply having a larger pool of volunteers it may allow [local election officials] to differentiate between lower- and higher-qualified workers.”

Persistent Bias Among Local Election Officials
D. Alex Hughes, et. al. Journal of Experimental Political Science, August 2019.

The study: The authors explore whether local election officials exhibit racial or ethnic bias in how they interact with voters. They sent an email to 6,235 local election officials across 44 states in late October 2016, asking for information on state voting requirements and with each email following the same basic structure. The main difference was each was signed with a different male name commonly associated with a particular race or ethnicity, according to U.S. Census data and other sources. The authors used male names because they were interested in parsing whether race or ethnicity, not gender, played a role in responses from local election officials. “The two primary motivations for this study are to determine whether the previous finding of bias toward Latinos stands up to replication and to examine whether this bias extends to blacks and Arab/Muslim Americans,” the authors write. As a few examples of the names used, the authors associate “Daniel Nash” as likely being the name of a white man. “Jose Valdez” is an example of a Latino name, “Terrell Turner” a Black name and “Baqir Ali” an Arab American name.

The findings: About 58% of all emails received a reply during the week leading up to Election Day. Emails from senders with white-sounding names garnered a 61% response rate, compared with 57% for all of those sent with Black-, Latino- and Arab American-sounding names. But response rates for white and Black senders were even at 61%. Latino senders received a response 58% of the time, with Arab American senders receiving a 50% response rate.

The authors write: “One key innovation in this experiment permits the identification of whether e-mails were received and opened by election officials. We include a 1 × 1 pixel image with a unique link — commonly referred to as a tracking pixel — in the e-mail body, so that upon opening the e-mail, most e-mail clients loaded the image from our server and provided a positive record that the e-mail had been opened by a particular official.”

Further reading

Who Counts? A 50-state Look at How States are Shutting People Out of Our Democracy.
Center for Public Integrity.

NCSL Election Resources
National Conference of State Legislatures.

Understanding the Role of Local Election Officials: How Local Autonomy Shapes U.S. Election Administration
Hannah Furstenberg-Beckman, Greg Degan and Tova Wang. Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School.

Voting Laws Roundup
Brennan Center for Justice.

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