The Key Players in Election Administration

In November, The Atlantic reported on Pennsylvania races for two elected positions: judge of elections and inspector of elections. Haven’t heard of those? Most people haven’t, and that’s the problem. Candidates, many of whom embraced conspiracy theories around how the 2020 election was stolen, won their under-the-radar contests by dozens of votes or by simply writing in their own name. 

In today’s Explainer, we provide a high-level overview of the individuals who run our elections, attempting to parse through the patchwork of decentralized election administration across the country. The extreme variation from state to state makes it difficult to capture, but these local officials hold the keys to our democracy.

In many states, the secretary of state acts as the chief elections official.

There are secretaries of state in all states except Alaska, Hawaii and Utah. In 37 states, this individual acts as the chief elections official, managing voter registration infrastructure, updating voter rolls, distributing federal funding and implementing voting law changes. With a presidential election in the midst of a global pandemic, secretaries of state took proactive steps to loosen restrictions on vote by mail, or even sent mail-in ballot applications to voters. Crucially, secretaries of state also certify results post-election. The specific procedures and deadlines vary by state, but the secretaries of state are central figures in the signing of a certificate of election for U.S. House or Senate results and a certificate of ascertainment for presidential results.

Additionally, secretaries of state have non-election related responsibilities that can include registering corporations or charities, publishing session laws and votes, maintaining state archives, issuing land permits and more.

The secretary of state position exists, but does not manage elections in Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin. Instead, election authority is concentrated within a state board of elections, sometimes called a department or commission. This multi-member board is appointed, not elected, to these positions and in some instances, includes the secretary of state or legislative leaders.

Though secretaries of state play a crucial role in a high-profile statewide position, their elections typically are overshadowed by more politically charged contests (and in 12 states, they are nominated by the governor or legislature). That’s all changing though, as more Republican candidates campaign on platforms of voting restrictions and election subversion. Now, the secretary of state is likely the most well-known (and consequently, easiest to rally behind) elections official on your ballot, but they are far from the only ones integral to the democratic process.

Beyond secretaries of state and state boards of elections, election administration varies immensely at the local level.  

The structure, size and responsibilities of election administrators depends on the state, or sometimes even the county. There is also inconsistency between what these administrators are called; you may see titles such as county clerks, county auditors, election supervisors, county boards of elections or election commissions, registrars of voting, superintendents and more.

Election administration is often managed at the county level. These officials are responsible for supervising voter registration and mail-in ballot requests. They can sometimes design ballots, decide the number and location of polling places and take part in the counting of ballots. In the case of sheriffs and county jail administrators, they very literally control voting access for eligible, incarcerated voters.

There are over 10,000 election administration jurisdictions in the United States, from small towns of a few hundred to Los Angeles County with over 5.6 million registered voters. In the New England states, election administration is particularly localized at the municipal (town or city) level, rather than county. 

Local election administrators hold the keys to our democracy.

In low-information, low-profile races — like the county judge of elections in Pennsylvania — candidates run unopposed or win by the difference of only a few votes. “[Decentralized election administration] also creates more opportunities for malicious actors to take control of the electoral process with effects that ripple out beyond their jurisdiction,” writes Quinn Yeargain in an article introducing a new election admin database. “Voting rights activists seeking to expand access to the polls may comparatively struggle to organize inside opaque election systems that usually draw little public attention.”

So, what can be done? Bolts has published a database on “Who Runs Our Elections?” that contains state-by-state details. Voters can find their state, identify the individual(s) or board(s) that run elections in their county or town, learn whether these are elected positions, and if so, look into potential candidates. 

Comprehending election administration in the United States is challenging — there’s no  consistent answer or universal structure. But, it’s easier for bad actors to take advantage of a system no one understands. That’s why we need to pay attention.