Experts are sounding alarms just over a year out from November 2024 that the presidential election could suffer from chaos and confusion after high turnover of local election officials and workers in key states.
Threats and scrutiny often linked to false claims of voter fraud have contributed to a surge of local election officials leaving their posts in recent years. The exodus could mean understaffed and inexperienced teams are left to grapple with continued conspiracies and misinformation surrounding the election process in 2024, with some running a high-stakes presidential election for the first time.
Richard Hasen, an election law expert and a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, said he’s “quite worried” about the attrition of election officials and workers nationwide but argued it’s “not surprising” given the threats and harassment lobbed at many in the jobs.
“Some of the language that’s been used against these officials has been really shocking,” Hasen said. “And why would you stay in a job that is high-stress to begin with, when you’re not going to be all that well-paid, and then to face this kind of abuse? People have to be really committed to democracy to want to stay in these jobs. And it’s asking a lot.”
A Brennan Center survey of local election officials taken in March and April, around the same time many White House candidates were jumping into the race, found that 1 in 5 are expected to be serving in their first presidential election in 2024.
The rate of turnover found in the survey is equivalent to “one to two local election officials leaving office every day since the 2020 election.”
Nearly a third said they’d personally been “abused, harassed, or threatened” because of their jobs, and nearly three-quarters said they felt threats have gone up in recent years. Nearly a quarter said they personally know at least one election official or worker who’s left the job due to threats, harassment or fear for their safety.
“Your dedication to public service … can only take you so far, when day after day you have people showing up in your office, or you have phone calls or emails accusing you of not doing everything you can to provide the best election experience, but also secure elections,” said Lisa Bryant, chairwoman of the department of political science at California State University, Fresno, and an expert with MIT’s Election Lab.
“I think there’s a breaking point,” she said, quipping that some officials may realize there are alternate jobs where they don’t “have to get hate mail every day.”
The Justice Department formed an Election Threats Task Force in 2021, citing a “significant increase in the threat of violence” against the election community during and after the 2020 presidential election.
Though research hasn’t confirmed that threats are the No. 1 factor driving these workers out of the field, turnover appears driven by burnout from interfacing with voters, responding to public records requests, fielding media inquiries and dealing with the public scrutiny — on top of running the election, said Rachel Orey, senior associate director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Elections Project.
“The job of an election official has gotten increasingly difficult over the last few years, and it has not been matched by how they’re being compensated or whether they have the resources to do all of the additional things on their plate,” Orey said.
The threats against election officials have come amid conspiracies about voter fraud in the 2020 election and beyond, which scholars say is linked to the politicization of the offices.
Experts pointed to former President Trump, who has continued to tout disproven claims of widespread election fraud and a “rigged” voting process after his loss to President Biden in 2020. In the midterms, Trump ally Kari Lake, an Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate, notably claimed her election was stolen.
“Donald Trump has been sounding the false alarm of voter fraud for years,” Hasen said. “It’s also become a kind of article of faith among the Republican base that the election was stolen.”
High election worker turnover is “dangerous” amid many Americans’ “crisis of confidence” in the system, he said.
People leaving these posts can be a double blow — their exit leads to a loss of experience and knowledge of the complicated work, and they’re replaced with newer, inexperienced workers who are possibly more prone to mistakes or slowdowns.
“There are so many moving parts on Election Day, that if somebody doesn’t have a lot of experience, it’s easy to miss something simple, right?” Bryant said. “This sounds silly, but like, ‘Did you pack the signs that say “vote here” so that voters can easily find the location?’”
“That seems like a really small, sort of nominal thing, except if voters are driving around looking for a place to vote, and they can’t find it, sometimes it doesn’t take that much to deter somebody from showing up out of frustration,” she said.
Newer officials’ potential mistakes could then feed into anxieties and suspicion around the process.
Barry Burden, a political science professor and director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, pointed to a 2020 incident in which human error led to incorrect initial results in Antrim County, Mich., and stoked conspiracies about election fraud.
The GOP-controlled Michigan state Senate later released a report that no evidence of fraud was found in the Great Lakes State’s 2020 election.
A downed website, a misposted spreadsheet or another small-scale technical error in any of the thousands of local election jurisdictions in 2024 could be an issue some seize on and circulate.
“I think there are lots of people who are attempting to have that ‘gotcha’ moment for election officials, where it’s like, any little mistake that maybe is made is going to be blown up into something potentially greater than it is,” Bryant said. “Then there’s also people who are trying to actively hack into systems and show that they’re vulnerable and can be corrupted.”
Hasen further warned that the exit of longtime election officials and workers could lead to inexperienced offices and people “with beliefs in the false claims of a stolen last election” taking their places.
Some experts said the 2022 midterms were a promising preview for 2024 — given that many vocal election deniers lost their races. Some also noted high turnover doesn’t always mean inexperienced people come into the vacancies. But others stress the situation is still volatile, and the high-stakes presidential race could draw more contention, conspiracies and misinformation than the quieter midterms.
Some pointed especially to rapidly developing artificial intelligence tech, deep-fake videos and computer-generated images that could aid the quick spread of false information about the 2024 process.
A new report from Voting Rights Lab found that “election-related conspiracy theories, death threats, and intimidation tactics” have led to “an exodus of experienced election officials” in Arizona.
Offices in North Carolina and Pennsylvania are also expected to be understaffed or inexperienced in 2024, according to the report, and “bad-faith actors” who touted conspiracy theories and election challenges in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Michigan over the last two cycles “may attempt similar activity again.”
A recent report from Issue One found that roughly 40 percent of the chief local election officials in the 11 states in the western U.S. are new since 2020. In Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah, that turnover rate has exceeded 50 percent.
“If you’re an election official, in a swing state, you should be prepared,” said Burden. “There’s going to be a lot coming your way and it may be stormy weather on the way to the result.”