Elections: When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Geeky


[Image courtesy of ency123]

This piece originally appeared in the March 5, 2015 electionlineWeekly.

Last week, I was in Minneapolis for a career panel at the Humphrey School featuring state and local election administrators based around the Twin Cities.

During that session, one of the students asked about how people get into election administration, which led me and others on the panel to talk about what I call the “accidental” nature of the field. As many of you know, there are almost as many origin stories as there are election officials, whether it’s the single mom who rose through the ranks from temp worker to become Kitsap County (WA) auditor or the Nebraska hydrologist who moved to Minnesota and discovered that election work was the “something else” he needed in his career decades ago.

But as the discussion continued, one of the panelists (it wasn’t technically on the record so I won’t say who) said something that stayed with me: while it is true that people come into election administration via many different paths, not everyone stays – and the ones who do are the ones with the ability to survive and thrive in the high-stress, deeply uncertain world election administrators inhabit.

Looking back on my interactions with everyone I’ve encountered in my years in the field, I realize how true that observation is. Every election official I’ve ever met is involved in the same general struggle: to follow the law and serve their voters in the face of politics, changing laws and dwindling or uncertain budgets. It results in this odd blend of idealistic optimism and weary realism that understands that the daily work is a combination of (to paraphrase the late Sen. Paul Wellstone) pushing the good and stopping the bad. But if nothing else, it creates a hardness (the good kind, like a diamond) that prepares one for whatever comes next – because something will be coming next.

As I noted back in 2012:

For all of our attempts as a nation to make politics a blend of sports and entertainment, the truth is that election administration is a serious business filled with serious people. [That’s why we call ourselves geeks instead of rockstars.] They know that the best way through any crisis, if and when it does occur, is to remain calm and stick to the plan (and if something completely unexpected comes up, improvise adapt and overcome).

Our challenge is to find a way to capture that spirit and instill it in the next generation of election administrators even as (I hope) we establish a more orderly path into the profession. Yes, the substance of election administration is changing – as America becomes ever more mobile and diverse and technology increasingly dominates all facets of American life – but in some ways, the most important lesson we need to teach our future election officials is how to hold up under the intense scrutiny and wild uncertainty of the election process that will almost certainly never change.

How do we do that? Perhaps through case studies, maybe mentoring – but regardless of how we do it, we have to make sure that the next generation of election geeks has the same toughness (whether innate or learned or both) to bear up under the difficult but important job of making democracy work.

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