Between possible foreign interference, potentially record-high turnout, new voting equipment in many parts of the country and what could be a razor-close outcome, the 2020 election was already shaping up to be one of the most challenging elections to administer in U.S. history.
On top of those challenges, a number of top election officials who oversaw voting in 2016 won't be around next year. Some are retiring after long careers, but others are feeling the strain of an increasingly demanding and politicized job.
Among those who have left are former Virginia Election Commissioner Edgardo Cortés, now an election security adviser with the Brennan Center for Justice. He decided to move on last year when the governor he worked for was heading out of office. Cortés also had a new baby on the way and a three-hour commute, and says he needed a break from his 24/7 job.
"In Virginia in particular, there are elections going on every year, multiple times a year, so it was definitely a huge time commitment," says Cortés.
Running elections can be difficult work, with long hours, low pay and an electorate that isn't always appreciative. Most officials say they love the work and believe they're performing a key democratic function, but several high-profile election officials have recently announced that they're leaving, in part to give their replacements time to prepare for 2020.
The longtime election directors for Delaware and Minnesota retired earlier this year, while Chicago's head of elections plans to retire after next March's primary. This month, Michigan election director Sally Williams said that she, too, is leaving after 34 years working in the field.
In an email to NPR, Williams said that she was too busy to talk but that she is retiring, in part, to slow down and "enjoy life."
Not everyone who's departing is retiring. Nikki Suchanic announced a few days after the Nov. 5 elections that she's resigning at the end of this year from her job running elections in York County, Pa.
"With the stress and the constant pressure of the job, I just want to put more of my energy into my family versus my career at this point in my life and I think I'm just ready to move to a career that's maybe not so much under the spotlight or the microscope," she says.
Suchanic says she was thinking about leaving for the past few years and that her decision has nothing to do with problems that emerged with new voting equipment used in her county for this year's elections.
More pressure, more scrutiny
But the controversy probably didn't help. Election officials around the country say their jobs have become increasingly complex and that they're under pressure to do more and more with limited resources, even as public scrutiny intensifies.
"Quite frankly, elections officials are exhausted," says Joe Holland, registrar of voters in Santa Barbara County, Calif., and president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials. Holland says running elections used to be pretty routine, but each year has brought new demands — everything from upgrading voting equipment, to expanding absentee and early voting, to modernizing voter rolls, to guarding against ransomware and Russian hackers.
"Any one of these things is maybe not all that significant, but when you heap them all on top of each other, it just is approaching overwhelming," he says.
Especially when resources and salaries in many election offices remain relatively low. A recent survey found that local election officials, who tend to be older women, are paid an average of about $50,000 a year — more like someone doing clerical work, rather than running an important government office.
Declining public trust
Mary Bedard, who oversees the 19-person election staff in Kern County, Calif., thinks that's one reason she has had trouble retaining entry-level workers and replacing four of her top longtime staffers, who are all retiring this year.
"It's hard to get people with elections experience if they don't come up within your own ranks. You know you have to try to steal them from another county and so many of the other counties in fact are having retirements and turnovers," she says.
Bedard was able to get the county to raise salaries to be more competitive, which definitely helped. But she's also concerned about the impact of the nation's growing polarization over the voting process.
"In 2016, we would get phone calls coming in, just from the public, accusing us of rigging the election or things like that," she says. Her office received more calls last year accusing them of not caring about the voters or wanting to ensure that every ballot was counted.
"And that really did hurt these people who've dedicated 25 to 30 years of their lives doing this, and of course they care about the voters and counting every eligible vote," she says. "I mean these people really love elections. They wouldn't have stayed here this long if they didn't."
Holland, the Santa Barbara registrar, also worries about the long-term impact of a decline in public trust. He fears it could lead to even more departures, which in turn might mean more problems at the polls, as those with the most experience leave.
"Elections are about confidence," he says. "And if you begin to make mistakes, you erode that confidence."
Mitchell Brown of Auburn University, who trains local election officials around the country and has written extensively on election administration, isn't too worried. She thinks those who run the nation's elections are extremely resilient and will rise to the challenge.
"I've never met an election official who didn't want to do a good job," says Brown, who doesn't believe there's more turnover in the field than usual, although no one know for sure.
There are 8,000 election offices around the country — ranging from one-person shops to large agencies with hundreds of employees — and no one keeps tabs on all of them.
Brown says some turnover is understandable, as the job of running elections becomes more specialized, with more attention now on technology, cybersecurity and election law.
"You see more people with JDs, with master's degrees, occasionally a Ph.D., getting into this type of work, and so the field itself is slowly professionalizing," she says.
She adds that this change brings its own challenges. Such experts are more inclined to switch jobs, looking for higher pay and more opportunity. Brown says that if the country wants good elections, it should be prepared to pay a little more.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The 2020 elections could be among the most challenging in American history. Think of the high turnout, the political tension, the partisan conspiracy theories and the very real fear of foreign interference, which means that highly qualified election officials will be essential. So it matters that some experienced election officials are leaving their jobs. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: When Virginia voters went to the polls earlier this month, Edgardo Cortes did something he couldn't do for a very long time.
EDGARDO CORTES: Waking up and going to sleep at a normal time (laughter).
FESSLER: As state election commissioner for four years and a county registrar before that, Cortes often had to work around the clock to make sure voting went without a hitch.
CORTES: In Virginia in particular, there are elections going on every year, multiple times a year. And so it was definitely a huge time commitment.
FESSLER: So with a new baby on the way and the governor he worked for about to leave office, Cortes decided last year, it was time to move on. He's not the only one. Elaine Manlove and Gary Poser, longtime election directors for Delaware and Minnesota, respectively, both retired this year. A couple of weeks ago, Michigan's election director, Sally Williams, announced that she, too, was leaving after 34 years in the field. Not everyone's retiring, though. Nikki Suchanic is resigning from her job running elections in York County, Pa., to spend more time at home and to find a new line of work.
NIKKI SUCHANIC: With the stress and the constant pressure of the job, I just want to put more of my energy into my family versus my career at this point in my life. And I think I'm just ready to move to a career that's maybe not so much under the spotlight or the microscope.
FESSLER: She says her decision has nothing to do with the controversy that erupted in her county this month over problems with new voting equipment, but it probably didn't help. Election officials say they're under pressure to do more and more with limited resources, even as public scrutiny intensifies.
JOE HOLLAND: Quite frankly, elections officials are exhausted.
FESSLER: Joe Holland is the registrar of voters in Santa Barbara County, Calif., and heads the state association of county election officials. Holland says running elections used to be pretty routine. But every year now seems to bring new demands, from upgrading machines to expanding absentee and early voting, to guarding against cyberattacks.
HOLLAND: Any one of these things is, maybe, not all that significant. But when you heap them on top of each other, it just is approaching overwhelming.
FESSLER: Especially when budgets and salaries remain relatively low. A recent survey found that local election officials, who are overwhelmingly female, are paid on average about $50,000 a year. Mary Bedard, who oversees elections in Kern County, Calif., thinks that's why she's had trouble retaining entry-level workers and replacing four longtime staffers who retired this year.
MARY BEDARD: It's hard to get people with elections experience. If they don't come up within your own ranks, you know, you have to try to steal in from another county. And so many of the other counties, in fact, are having retirements and turnovers.
FESSLER: She convinced her county to raise salaries to be more competitive, which definitely helped. But she's also worried about how polarized the public is.
BEDARD: I know in 2016, we would get phone calls coming in from the public, accusing us of rigging the election or things like that.
FESSLER: Some officials fear this erosion in public confidence will lead to more departures, which, in turn, might mean more problems at the polls as those with the most experience leave. Mitchell Brown of Auburn University, who has trained local officials around the country, isn't so sure about that.
MITCHELL BROWN: I've never met an election official who didn't want to do a good job.
FESSLER: She says they're a pretty resilient group and will rise to the challenge. Brown also thinks the turnover rate is pretty normal, although no one knows for sure. And she says some turnover is understandable as the job of running elections becomes more specialized, with greater focus on election law and cybersecurity.
BROWN: You see more people with JDs, with master's degrees, occasionally a Ph.D. getting into this type of work. And so the field itself is slowly professionalizing.
FESSLER: Which, of course, brings new challenges. Such experts are more inclined to switch jobs, looking for higher pay and more opportunity. Brown says, if the country wants good elections, it should be prepared to pay a little more. Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.