Close, Chaotic Elections Spur States to Train Ballot Keepers

After long lines turned voters away in November, Connecticut is the most recent state to seek rules and requirements for election administrators.

A Connecticut official wants to require formal training for the state’s election administrators to try to avoid another election where voters have trouble casting their ballots.

Denise Merrill, Connecticut’s secretary of state, pitched a plan in February to standardize how towns in the state select election administrators and how those administrators prepare to complete their jobs. Having a non-partisan, appointed official running elections in the state’s towns and cities would increase accountability for officials, she said.

“There’s a pretty widespread agreement that we need more training,” she said. “There just needs to be more accountability, and I think that’s pretty widely recognized.”

Merrill’s push comes after several Connecticut precincts didn’t receive voter lists by the time polls opened on Election Day in November, creating long lines and dissuading many from voting.

Currently, each city or state in the town elects two registrars -- one from each party -- to run elections. Merrill said each party selects the candidate and there is rarely competition for the role. State and local officials don’t have oversight authority since the registrars are elected, and the state also can’t require additional trainings, she added.

“They’re elected, so they’re responsible to the voters. It makes for a difficult system to manage,” Merrill said. “I think the time has come where we look at professionalizing the whole system.”

Under Merrill’s concept legislation, which she has submitted to state lawmakers, each town’s legislative body would appoint someone to oversee election administration. That person would have to have training or experience in order to get the job.

She’s also hoping to launch online training modules for election administrators, which could give administrators a chance to earn a certification through a local community college, she said.

Around the country, more states have looked to professionalizing election administration as a way to maximize efficacy around elections as technology and elections become more complicated, said Doug Chapin, director of the Program for Excellence in Election Administration at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

That’s helped to legitimize the roles as a growing field or profession, he added.

“In the years since the Florida issue in the 2000 presidential election, there’s been increasing interest in how election officials get their jobs and how they do their jobs,” Chapin said. “Most recently, in the wake of a presidential commission report, there’s been a push to think a lot more broadly about the notion of professionalism or professionalization in the field of election administration.”

The Presidential Commission on Election Administration surveyed best practices in election administration in states around the country, considering areas like online voter registration and how new technology affects elections, Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center who served on the commission, said.

The commission looked at how all phases of election administration contributed to long lines, including growing opportunities for registration and types of voting machines.

“What we really wanted to do was highlight the ways that the states have created to address problems that can contribute to lines. The lines were really what started the commission,” Patrick said.

Many states, including Arizona, Massachusetts and Texas, have introduced online voter registration programs, a practice commission members saw as a best practice in some states they looked at. They also recommended the use of updated technology and early voting practices.

Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill: "I think the time has come where we look at professionalizing the whole system." (AP/Jessica Hill)

State-run trainings for election administrators aren’t unheard of. Iowa rolled out a program in 2002 that certifies officials after 40 hours of classes, and both Colorado and Washington run programs throughout the year, too.

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams said the state offers in-person trainings around the state, a boot camp to learn new skills and online sessions for election administrators to earn a required certification to run elections.

The trainings cover a variety of topics that administrators encounter during election season, such as accessibility for disabled voters, overseas and military voting and voter registration issues, he said. Williams, a former county clerk in El Paso, said much of the state’s training programs reflect its geography and different sized counties, as well as its polling center model, rather than requiring voters to vote at a certain precinct.

The trainings have improved administrators in smaller counties who juggle several different responsibilities at once, and has helped them to register voters efficiently, he said. The trainings have made it easier to work with fewer people in the office and move voters’ data online, he added.

“It makes the training critical. Having folks who don’t do this every day makes it critical that they have the training so they do know what they need to do when it comes to that time.”

Washington State also has a certification program for election officials, which includes an annual conference where administrators can stay up-to-date on state policies and practices. The state started offering a serious training program after a close legislative race in the early 1990s that ended in state-wide calls for better elections, said Secretary of State Tammy Wyman.

Training is beneficial when there’s a close race and the ways in which counties handle ballots get called into question, Wyman said.

“It really helps us be consistent across the table. That’s the single biggest benefit and why training and certification programs are so important. You want somebody whose ballot is handled in Tacoma to be handled in the way in Spokane. Voters have a confidence that their ballot is being treated fairly,” she said.

Only one national organization has garnered name recognition for training election officials: The Election Center, which partnered with Auburn University to create the Certified Election Registration Administrator program. Tim Mattice, the group’s director of education and training, said the trainings offer students a more national perspective on running elections, and often increases their confidence in what they already know.

Most participants take two-to-three years to complete the trainings, which include taking 12 courses in areas like election systems administration, management and leadership, ethics, and communications, which increases their awareness of challenges they could face and is a chance to communicate with other administrators about how they’ve dealt with similar situations, Mattice said.

Adam Ambrogi, a program director for responsive politics at the Democracy Center, said training is especially important for administrators in smaller counties, where they often juggle many responsibilities.

“They may not have the amount of time that’s needed to develop the best curriculum, to sort through different best practices available and also identify opportunities such as the U.S. Election Assistance Commission,” he said.

Mary Ellen McIntire is a Governing intern.