Big turnover for top election administrators after 2000

Tuesday, February 3, 2004

Turnover among election administrators in the nation's largest counties since the 2000 presidential stalemate has been unusually high with, by one expert's count, at least 20 top officials leaving office.

While individuals have cited various reasons for departing, many have faced greater scrutiny because of the 2000 race and new demands to fix long-standing problems, but haven't been given the resources to make effective changes, said Richard Smolka, an election expert who compiled the list.

The elections director in Ohio's Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) quit in a dispute over buying new voting machines; the elections superintendent in King County, Wash., (Seattle) was fired over missing absentee ballots. Others just retired.

"I've heard supervisors tell me that 'I don't need this. I'm not going to put up with this anymore.' It's kind of discouraging because of what we do and how much we love it," said Kurt Browning, the election supervisor in Florida's Pasco County, who has stayed in his post.

Some officials also worry that turmoil at the top could make new problems more likely this November, since local administrators are the ones responsible for making sure balloting runs smoothly on Election Day.

The 20 jurisdictions where administrators have left include New York City, and counties that encompass Houston, Seattle, the Chicago suburbs (though not the city itself) and several Los Angeles-area counties, and account for more than 35 million people, according to Smolka, a political science professor emeritus at American University.

Driven into retirement

Few who retired would acknowledge directly that they left because of the 2000 election. But many say it's been a driving factor for others who've left.

At the local level, elections are administered in various ways. Around Houston, for example, elected clerks are in charge, but the elections are actually run by hired administrators; in some areas, commissions hire administrators; and in Florida, administrators are elected directly.

Local officials also have complained for months that electoral reform money promised from the federal government has been slow to arrive.

That leaves local administrators on the hook to make changes without the resources to do it, Smolka said.

"It's not a pleasant place to be right now," said Smolka, who writes a newsletter for election administrators.

He says that many of the new officials have solid experience as deputy administrators or as top officials elsewhere. But others say the turnover will only create more problems, as new officials come to grips with rising expectations for the voting system.

"I think it will get worse before it gets better," said Hawkins, in Sacramento. The pressure isn't easing up, he said, noting that his county has had a very difficult time finding a new chief deputy since promoting his former deputy to the top post.

"People just don't want the job," he said. "They just don't want the responsibility for the job."

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