A wave of departures by election officials in key states risks adding new stress to the nation’s election system ahead of next year’s presidential contest, voting rights groups and several state election chiefs warn.
The growing alarm over the resignations and retirements comes as officials say election workers continue to face a barrage of threats and harassment and partisan interference in their duties, first ignited by false claims of a stolen White House election in 2020.
In one region alone – across 11 Western states – more than 160 top local election officials have left their positions since November 2020, according to a regional case study by Issue One, a nonprofit watchdog group tracking the departures. In the counties with new election chiefs in those states, the typical level of experience has dropped from about eight years to one, the analysis found.
In the battleground state of Arizona – which became a hotbed for election falsehoods after Joe Biden flipped the traditional GOP stronghold by a little more than 10,000 votes – 12 of the state’s 15 county election chiefs have departed since the 2020 election, including one whose dogs were poisoned as a “means of intimidation,” said Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, a Democrat elected last year.
Other parts of the country are seeing a similar brain drain.
In Pennsylvania – another presidential battleground – nearly 70 county election directors or assistant directors in at least 40 of the state’s 67 counties have left their jobs since January 2020, according to the state’s appointed elections chief, Republican Al Schmidt.
“It’s a national emergency,” Nick Penniman, Issue One’s CEO, told CNN. “If any private-sector company experienced this amount of loss this quickly, they would probably go bankrupt.”
Schmidt, who previously helped oversee elections in Philadelphia as a city commissioner, faced threats against him and his family members following Donald Trump’s false stolen election claims in 2020.
During a congressional hearing last week, Schmidt said the environment around election administration “remains contentious.”
And he warned that the exodus of experienced staff will only fuel more conspiracy theories in the months ahead.
“When you have people running elections who have less experience running elections, they are more likely to make errors, and make errors in an environment where everything is perceived as being … malicious,” Schmidt said.
Even places far away from the swing states that were in the spotlight after 2020 say they are now grappling with security concerns.
In King County, Washington – which includes Seattle – Julie Wise, the county election director, recalled receiving a letter over the summer with a rant about elections. The letter-writer warned that the missive contained a dangerous substance and told officials to have Narcan – the brand name for a drug used to treat potentially fatal opioid overdoses – on hand.
The letter was later found to contain trace amounts of fentanyl, Wise said.
“While we always have to be aware as public employees, this kind of direct mention of violence is new for us, and it’s a scary place to be,” she told CNN.
To date, the US Justice Department has brought criminal charges against at least 14 people after creating a task force in 2021 to address threats against election workers, according to a department summary.
Additionally, 11 states have passed laws since 2020 that create new protections for election officials and poll workers – ranging from making it a crime to threaten a worker to shielding election officials’ home addresses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Election watchdogs say more action is needed – including boosting federal funding and extending a federal law that criminalizes the release of restricted personal information about federal workers to cover election officials.
Biden’s fiscal 2024 budget proposed $1.6 billion in federal election grants, but Congress appears unlikely to approve anything close to that figure.
The leading elections funding bill in Congress, which advanced out of the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier this year, set aside a tiny fraction of that amount – $75 million – for election security grants. Issue One is among the groups lobbying for much more money.
“Our election systems have been horribly neglected for decades and now our election workers are being actively abused by people,” Penniman said. “It’s time for this to stop.”
Workers are also dealing with fresh efforts by legislators in some states to exert more authority over election administration ahead of 2024.
In Wisconsin, for instance, the Republican-controlled state Senate voted in September to fire the state’s top elections administrator, Meagan Wolfe, over the objections of most of the election commissioners who oversee her work. Republicans in the state Assembly, which the party also controls, have since launched an attempt to impeach her.
Trump supporters have blamed changes to Wisconsin’s voting procedures during the pandemic for his loss in the state. (Litigation is pending over the vote to remove Wolfe, and a Wisconsin judge recently ruled she can remain on the job until there’s a decision in the case.)
And in North Carolina, a swing state with a key governor’s race on the ballot next year, GOP lawmakers recently changed the makeup of local and state election boards. Starting in January, they must be evenly divided by party, and GOP legislative leaders gave themselves the authority to name board chairs if the panels reach an impasse in selecting a leader. (Republicans hold supermajorities in the state Legislature that are likely to be cemented for years to come under new lines the lawmakers approved last month.)
Previously, the governor’s party held the majority on the election panels. North Carolina’s current chief executive, Gov. Roy Cooper, is a Democrat.
Supporters say the change in North Carolina will guard against undue influence by a governor. Critics say the change could lead to paralyzing deadlocks on a range of issues, including the establishment of early voting locations and the certification of election results.
‘It does keep us up at night’
The national exodus of election administrators has also hit North Carolina: Fifty-three of 100 chief county election officials have left their jobs since January 2019, according to a tally by Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections. Brinson Bell began tracking the departures when she became the state’s election chief that year.
Among them is Kathy Holland, who retired in late 2021 from her post running elections in Alamance County in central North Carolina. She had worked in elections for nearly 32 years, and a family member’s health issues became a big factor in her decision to depart, she said.
But the job itself had grown far more stressful, Holland added. First, she faced the challenge of running an election during a pandemic. Then, her office was flooded with, at times, as many as five public records requests a day from activists hunting for malfeasance after the 2020 election.
“I felt like that they were looking for something. And if they didn’t find it, they would make it up,” she said.
The turnover in the Tar Heel State has wiped out years of experience, officials say.
Next year, at least 26 election directors in North Carolina – or more than a quarter of the state’s local election chiefs – will oversee their first presidential contest as their county’s top election administrator, according to Brinson Bell’s tally.
“It does keep us up at night,” she said of the loss of experienced staff. “Even a well-skilled person, who is very passionate about being a public servant, to not have any background in elections, it’s quite a feat for them to take this on.”
Adam Byrnes, 22, is one of North Carolina’s new election administrators. He was hired in May to oversee elections in Swain County, a mountainous region of roughly 14,000 people, just weeks after graduating from Emory University with a political science degree.
Although he worked on civic engagement projects as a college student in Georgia, he’s now running an office with two other paid employees and has responsibility for everything from implementing the state’s new voter ID provisions in his community to reviewing candidates’ campaign finance submissions.
“There’s a lot to learn, especially since this is my first full-time job out of college,” Byrnes told CNN. But he said the community has been supportive, and he feels confident his small office is equipped to smoothly carry out municipal elections now underway.
“Next year, maybe the climate will change,” he added. “The nature of elections is that they are political. We know that. But our job is to be the referees and make sure that the rules are enforced and that people can exercise their right to vote in a free and fair manner.”
State officials in North Carolina and elsewhere say they are working hard to support the new class of administrators who will oversee next year’s elections.
And Fontes, the Arizona secretary of state, said they deserve praise for stepping into these roles, given everything that has transpired in recent years.
“The folks that are coming in know what they are getting into,” Fontes said. “And it is … that civic bravery, that courage that’s really encouraging to me.”
For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com