Amateur Election Administration: You (Don’t) Get What You (Don’t) Pay For


[Images courtesy of Old Time Radio Researchers Group]

The Associated Press recently ran a story that echoes a lot of what I’ve been hearing lately: namely, that messy caucuses in Iowa and Nevada are leading many people to question whether they are the best vehicle for deciding something important like a party’s nomination for President. NPR got in on the act late Tuesday with this story.

As a hardcore election geek with personal and professional interest in successful election administration, I will admit to a small amount of schadenfreude at the struggles that party vote-counters in both states encountered. Elections aren’t like the old Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney movies where one person has ballot boxes, someone else has a polling place and “hey kids, let’s put on a show” … it takes time, money and skill to do elections right, and the problems Iowa and Nevada have encountered suggest that if you want professionally-run elections, you should hire professionals to run them.

Here’s where it gets tricky, though.

If we’ve learned nothing else from recent history, it’s that the appetite for professional election administration isn’t always matched by the kind of budgets to make it happen. South Carolina may have had a smooth state-run primary January 21, but it’s still making up the difference between what their primary cost and what they were paid to run it.

The solution South Carolina ended up with – forcing counties to run an election on their own nickel, hoping to be reimbursed eventually – is likely going to be a non-starter in other places.

In short, parties looking to conduct nomination contests are going to to have to choose between amateurism and professionalism – and everything (especially the price point) both of those words entails.

None of this is to question the dedication and efforts of the amateur vote-counters often pressed into service in places like Iowa and Nevada; but if we are to hold them to a high standard of performance, we should also give them the kind of training, resources and support to make achieving those high standards a realistic goal.

In election administration, like in so many other areas, you get what you pay for … and if you’re not willing to pay the cost, you’re likely not to get what you didn’t pay for.

12 Comments on "Amateur Election Administration: You (Don’t) Get What You (Don’t) Pay For"

  1. Ohh yeahhh, I feel that same little delicious schadenfreude shiver myself.

    Partisan bullies are constantly blaming professional elections administrators for “inefficiency”, and replacing them with party hacks when there’s a regime change due to the mindset that running an election is not much more difficult than organizing a family reunion.

    I’d like to think they’d learn from this incident, but find it unlikely–the learning curve is steep and memories are short.

  2. Rick, I love your site, and read it enthusiastically every day! However. I disagree with your entire premise, that we need to replace volunteers with higher paid professional government bureaucrats.


    I worked with some of those highly paid, self-proclaimed election administration professional government bureaucrats here in Washington, D.C. I hate to disappoint you. Higher pay did not translate into a higher standard of performance. Conversely, higher pay seemed to correlate with lower standards. In the federal system, there is a tendency to do anything or nothing to keep your job vs. just doing a good job. This does not contribute to professionalism.

    And, my agency was oft cited for their imagined accomplishments. It was propaganda, not professionalism.

    My experience reflected every negative Washington, D.C. stereotype imaginable. Bloated budgets, over-paid political hacks and flunkies, excessive use of contractors, do-nothing jobs staffed by work-avoiding sycophants. Preserving the status quo was the highest standard, wiping out high standards altogether. Sadly, government at every level seems to bring out the worst, as Denver County, where I was an elected Commissioner, was just a microcosm to the federal macrocosm.

    While there will always be a Nevada and an Iowa crisis, I doubt throwing money and hiring professionals will improve anything. Research says federal employees are paid on average 16% more than their private sector counterparts. How’s that working? I can assure you that the waste, inefficiencies and incompetence Washington for which is known grows like an amoeba under the microscope when viewed close up.

    Federal employee unions claim federal workers deserve to be paid more because they are better educated. I ask again, has a better educated, over paid federal workforce created good government?

    I feel your schadenfreude, nevertheless. My Colorado party caucus in 2008 was frustrating,poorly planned and overwhelmed by the crowds. It was not clear to me that there was an accurate count, though the numbers were not close so they got away with it. I understand why you would advocate hiring more professionals, and paying them more money.

    While I understand the sentiment, I doubt more money or more highly paid professionals would make a difference. Hiring more highly paid appointees (professionals) will only enthrone a new class of Pooh-bahs. It would be nice if more money would be dedicated to the true election administration professionals, the staff who typically work for elected and appointed officials. In the words of Dana Carvey, “…ain’t gonna happen.”

    I do believe the national parties could support their local organizations with better training. And, I believe a concerted effort by you and your colleagues could make a difference with the party establishments. I hope you keep trying to make a difference, and look forward to following you.

    Just don’t go throwing those big government dollars at the problem.

  3. You may be hearing lately that the problem with Iowa caucuses (reported the wrong result, “lost” results) and Nevada (more votes than voters, took stupidly long to count a one-race ballot) were due to “amateurs.” But have you heard that Nevada and Iowa hired professionals to run the the caucus? You might just raise one eyebrow with that; you might just say, “Sheesh. Won’t hire those guys again.”

    But then comes conflict of interest. It turns out that at least three of the top guns listed below had been involved in the campaign of a single top candidate, and then went on to run the (botched, but beneficially so) caucuses. They were former top staffers at the RNC and also former campaign chiefs for Romney.

    Google can be your friend on getting at the truth in this one.

    “Two former Executive Directors of the Republican Party of Iowa, Gentry Collins and Jim Anderson, were hired by the Nevada GOP to oversee its 2012 caucus operations. The Nevada GOP contracted CAP Public Affairs, a firm led by Collins, Anderson, and Alan Philp, because Collins and Anderson had overseen the caucus process in Iowa,” writes The Iowa Republican:

    “The state Republican party is going pro. Chair Amy Tarkanian has tapped … Alan Philp and Gentry Collins (ex-RNC guys) on board. Plus Cory Drumright…” Writes the Nevada News Bureau.

    My sources tell me that the Nevada caucus was thoroughly organized, but in the weeks before it took place, the guy who had been putting it together was abruptly removed and was replaced with Philps and Collins — with Philps, by the way, reportedly one of the dirtiest politicians in Colorado.

    But why let the facts get in the way of a good media cover story?

    Bev Harris

  4. Bev: none of those people are professional election administrators. Thanks for writing.

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