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Democracy Day: Election workers in Oregon, elsewhere face growing toll

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Democracy Day: Election workers in Oregon, elsewhere face growing toll

Sep 15, 2023 | 8:30 am ET
By Paul Manson
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Democracy Day: Election workers in Oregon, elsewhere face growing toll
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Ballot readers compare dates on sample ballots during a ballot-counting test at the Multnomah County Elections Office in Portland on Tuesday, October 25, 2022. (Jordan Gale/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Democracy Day: Election workers in Oregon, elsewhere face growing toll
One lesson we have learned about the American experiment over the past decade is the crucial role played by public servants who are in charge of safeguarding our vote. 

Their efforts have delivered safe, secure and efficient elections. Yet we tend to take this system for granted – and often fail to properly invest in it even at a time when it’s facing threats, with foreign actors seeking to disrupt our elections, a stark new level of political polarization and the rise of groups and individuals seeking to question every step in the election process – often with unfounded or misguided assumptions. 

Today, Democracy Day, is a good time to remember that elections are about people: public servants that give exceptional amounts of time and energy to protecting our elections. 

Editor’s note

This commentary is part of U.S. Democracy Day, a nationwide collaborative on Sept. 15, the International Day of Democracy, when news organizations cover how democracy works and the threats it faces. To learn more, visit usdemocracyday.org.

I am fortunate enough to know many of these people – election administrators from across the U.S. and here in Oregon. Along with my colleagues at the Elections & Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland, I have conducted an annual survey of local election officials across the country since 2018. These surveys expose the pressures these officials face, and the potential for them to threaten our systems. 

These election officials are the stewards of democracy – and the system they administer is unique among democracies around the world. Our system tasks local jurisdictions to handle all of our elections. This means over 8,000 different offices in the U.S. work independently to conduct our elections, each implementing a unique combination of federal and state rules and laws.

Yet often the lion’s share of costs for administering these elections falls on local governments with some funding from state legislatures. Only occasionally do one-off funds come from Congress. 

The offices that run elections are also often assigned many diverse jobs. Here in Oregon most officials overseeing elections also manage property records and recording – some even manage mineral claims and livestock district records. 

We have found in our surveys that these officials do this work with frugal resources. Across the U.S., one-third of election offices operate with no full-time staff. Most offices are comprised of a small handful of dedicated election workers and a large group of volunteers and temporary workers that step in during the busiest time of the election cycle.

Increasingly, we also hear that the buildings they work in no longer fit the needs of elections. The spaces are tight, running out of room for storing critical records. The security of these spaces is also a growing concern, not just to protect the security of ballots, but also of those who work there.

These security concerns extend outside the office as well. Officials report experiencing abuse, harassment and threats. When we polled officials, 25% experienced some form of threats over the past two years, and most of these were politically motivated.

I have heard personally from election officials that this toll is growing to be too much. It happens at the checkout line for groceries and in the parking lot at work. It makes people unwilling to share what they do for work in public – and discourages them from continuing to serve.

Pressures on election officials are making a real impact on the people who fill these roles. Over 30% of election officials are eligible to retire before the next presidential election. Half of those eligible to retire plan to do so. Another 5% of officials say they are just done. When combined, one in five local election officials serving today plan to be gone by November of 2024.

A culminating storm of funding challenges, political mistrust and misinformation are straining this critical civic infrastructure. But these officials are people, our neighbors and community members. Across the board, every election official I speak with shares a reverence for their work. It is a core part of American democracy for these officials to place the voter at the center of their work. 

Access to safe, secure and efficient elections is a passion for these officials that reflects a commitment to all of us as citizens. In return, it is time for us to elevate their work – with resources but also with respect.