Friday, June 14, 2024

Column: Election officials are quitting in droves. Here’s why you should care

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Election denialism is a losing cause.

Studies of the vote in 2022 put the penalty at anywhere from 2% to 7%, depending on the office.

In other words, Republicans who spread the Big Lie about massive fraud and a stolen 2020 election received significantly less support — in races for secretary of state, governor and Congress — than Republicans who refused to traffic in such nuttiness.

Way to go, discerning voters!

Liars like Kari Lake, who lost a bid for Arizona governor by parroting former President Trump’s falsehoods and hopes now to flimflam her way to a Senate seat, are only the most visible threat to our system of democracy.

New research by a political reform group, Issue One, has given us something else to worry about: a troubling exodus of local election officials — those on the front lines fighting for truth, justice and the American way.

In 11 Western states, including California, roughly 40% of the chief local elections officials are new to the job since 2020, the study found.

In four states — Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah — the turnover exceeds 50%.

Why does that matter?

“It takes a long time to learn how to do what we do,” said Ryan Ronco, the elections chief in Placer County and head of the California Assn. of Clerks and Election Officials. Ronco has spent 30 years in the county clerk’s office; 10 of his 15 staffers are new.

Running a safe and aboveboard election is not simply a matter of turning on the lights at polling places, or sliding a letter opener through an envelope when mail-in ballots arrive.

It requires, among myriad responsibilities, learning how to operate specialized voting machines, combating cybersecurity threats and, increasingly, venturing out in public — to town hall meetings, election seminars and other venues — to explain how election operations work.

“Ensuring elections are accessible, secure and accurate requires trained, dedicated, knowledgeable people,” the Issue One report stated. “When local election officials leave these critical positions, the costs to institutional knowledge and running elections are real. Losing experienced people costs us in countless ways.”

That’s for sure.

If preserving and protecting the integrity of our election system doesn’t move you, then consider the departure of experienced election professionals from a coldly calculated dollars-and-cents perspective. There’s a price to pay for all that turnover, which requires training a new staffer each time a more experienced election worker departs.

Earlier reports had warned of an exodus of election officials as the menace from election conspiracy-mongers grew. The latest study suggests it’s now happening — particularly in battleground states where election officials have been targeted by harassment and death threats.

(There are thousands of chief election officials in the United States. Issue One limited its research to 11 Western states because that’s what the nonprofit organization could afford and the region includes two states likely to be quite competitive in 2024, Arizona and Nevada.)

It’s not hard to imagine a downward spiral where less experienced workers goof up an election, causing further doubts about the results and resulting in even more threats of violence, which causes yet another mass exit of election workers.

But there are some encouraging signs.

In California, legislators passed a bill to extend the law protecting election officials from harassment and interference to cover staff members, temporary employees and poll workers. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the legislation Sunday.

At the federal level, prosecutors have stepped up cases against those threatening or harassing election officials.

“But we believe more needs to be done to keep them safe,” said Cory Combs, a spokesman for Issue One. He said the group would like to see Congress pass “anti-doxing legislation” that would “help election officials keep sensitive personal information” — like their home address — “from public disclosure.”

The group also seeks increased federal funding to improve election security, replace outdated machines and technology, and recruit and train election workers.

Ronco, the Placer County elections chief, has a somewhat optimistic view.

Having been through previous contentious campaigns — including 2004, when those on the left were bleating afterward about a supposedly stolen election — he’s hopeful the current threats of danger won’t become a permanent part of our politics.

“I can’t promise these times will pass,” Ronco said. “But I try to remind people we do have these cycles.”

Let’s hope the madness subsides, like a bad fever dream, with the resounding repudiation, once and forever more, of Trump and his devious imitators.

In the meantime, let’s push lawmakers in Congress and around the country to do all they can to protect the workers who constitute the paper-thin line keeping our elections system alive and well.

The country depends on it.

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