Some Officials Are Getting Schooled in Running Elections

At a time when the job of elections administration is becoming more complex and more scrutinized, a major university has started formal training.
by | July 27, 2016
Voters wait in line to cast their ballot in Arizona's presidential primary election in March. (AP/Matt York)

Like many elections administrators, Ginny Gelms learned most of what she does for a living through on-the-job experience. She held various posts in Iowa and Minnesota for a decade before taking over as elections manager for Hennepin County, the most populous county in Minnesota.

But now Gelms is going back to school. She's going to get formal training at what's thought to be the first certification program for elections administration at a major university. The online program through the University of Minnesota connects Gelms and colleagues across the country in graduate-level seminars about the finer points of running elections.

The program, which launched just last year, comes at a time when the business of running elections is becoming more technical, more complex and more scrutinized.

"It's a good opportunity for me to take time to step back to talk about, think about, write about the larger issues at play in our field. That's something you don't often get a chance to do in the day-to-day of your work," said Gelms.

The demands on election administrators have been growing in recent years.

Federal laws passed in the wake of the Florida recounts in the 2000 presidential election imposed new requirements on everything from voting equipment to provisional ballots to voter databases.

States have added to the complexity, too. Some have imposed voter ID laws that require election officials to apply a new layer of scrutiny on would-be voters. Others have added to administrative duties by expanding early voting, increasing access to absentee ballots and starting Election Day registration.

Meanwhile, social media and the 24-hour news cycle can easily turn a local bureaucratic snafu into a national news story -- like when voters in the Phoenix area had to wait hours to cast votes in this year's presidential primary.

Sharing expertise in the field has been difficult, but Doug Chapin, the director of the University of Minnesota's election administration program, hopes they can fix that.

"Because elections are so localized in this country, people tend to become experts on how things work in their own jurisdiction," he said. "This program allows them to put it in a larger national and thematic context. It's the first step in creating what I like to think of as a profession of election administration."

Because the program is online, it allows elections officials from across the country to connect with one another. The diversity of their experiences is important, said Gelms, because states handle various issues differently. And even in the same state, populous areas face a whole unique set of problems from spread-out rural areas.

An introductory class covers broad themes, including what Chapin characterizes as the three central tensions in election administration: central control vs. local control; access to the ballot vs. integrity; and fairness vs. finality. Other courses explore law, design, communication and even transportation -- and how they affect election administration.

The certificate requires 12 hours of coursework and a capstone project. Students can choose their own pace but can complete the curriculum in two years. Chapin, the program's director, said the courses are intended both for seasoned election officials and for graduate students interested in public policy. Students can take individual courses without committing to completing the certificate program.

Aside from the actual coursework, the program offers election administrators a chance to talk frankly about the problems they confront, in ways they may not feel comfortable discussing with local officials or voters.

"Because we have to maintain an impeccable public persona, it can be a little bit difficult to have discussions that are candid about the issues with our profession and how to fix them," said Gelms. "Anything we say publicly can be taken the wrong way."