The U.S. is characterized by a highly decentralized election administration system. The entities that do the rubber-meets-the-road functions of running an election are typically on the county or city/town level. The state is responsible for certain aspects of elections as well, and the federal government has a role, too. The result is that no state administers elections in exactly the same way as another state, and there is quite a bit of variation in election administration even within states. Each state’s election administration structure and procedures grew organically, as times changed and administering an election became an increasingly complex task.
The diversity of election administration structures between and within states is alternately seen as a positive or a negative aspect of the system, depending on who is looking, and when. Critics say the level of local control can lead to mismanagement and inconsistent application of the law. This often comes into focus in large federal elections especially, when the media and the public focus on how different the voting experience can be depending on where a voter lives. On the other hand, this decentralization allows individual jurisdictions to experiment and innovate—to see how elections might best be run for the state and the locality’s particular circumstances. The dispersed responsibility for running elections also makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to rig U.S. elections at the national level. It also holds authorities in local jurisdictions accountable for the management of their own elections, so if something goes wrong citizens can go directly to their local government rather than blame problems on the distant federal government.
In the early years of the nation elections were an occasional responsibility of a county official. Elections were clerical in nature, didn’t happen frequently and weren’t time consuming. Officials would announce an election and voters would come and vote. Voters weren’t required to register ahead of time and voting was done orally.
A series of changes to the election process in the late 1800s made it a more complex undertaking, requiring more time and attention:
- The adoption of voter registration required election officials to receive voter applications and maintain lists of voters.
- The move away from ballots provided by parties to a secret ballot provided by local election officials required additional preparation and resources.
- The adoption of early voting machines that needed to be stored and maintained.
Legislatures began more and more to formalize election administration policy in statute, seeking to provide some degree of uniformity within the state. With this came an increased need for state election offices to interpret these increasingly complex procedures and help manage growing technology needs.
The role of state election offices have become even more important since the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993 and the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, both of which put additional responsibilities on the state, including more uniform procedures for voter registration, centralization of voter records and disbursement of funds for the procurement of updated voting equipment and improvement of election administration procedures.
Even so, the structure of election administration in the states today is still largely decentralized and contains a great deal of variation, although far less so than it was a century ago.
Election Administration at the State Level
Each state has a chief election official who has ultimate authority over elections in the state.
- 24 states have an elected secretary of state as the chief election official—Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming.
- Two states—Alaska and Utah—have an elected lieutenant governor as the chief election official.
- Three states—Maine, New Hampshire and Tennessee—have a chief election official selected by the legislature.
- Five states—Delaware, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texas—have a chief election official appointed by the governor. In all but Delaware, the chief election official is called the secretary of state; in Delaware the position is Commissioner of Elections.
- Nine states—Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, North Carolina, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin—have a board or a commission that oversees elections. Appointments to these commissions are usually made by the governor, and confirmed by the Senate. They are most often structured so as to be bipartisan, with a certain number of members from each of the major political parties.
- Seven states—Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Rhode Island and West Virginia—use a combination of a chief election official and a board or commission.
Duties of the chief election official or election board/commission vary. Secretaries of state have other duties in addition to the management of elections. For example, they may administer business filings and licensing in the state, and act as the keeper of the state seal. Enforcing campaign finance regulations may fall to a secretary of state or state elections board in some cases, and in others would fall to a separate ethics commission.
When there is both an elected individual and a board or commission charged with elections, the division of duties varies. Rhode Island is one example of shared responsibilities. There, the secretary of state’s office is in charge of ballot design, layout and coding; sending out mail ballots; certifying candidates; and overseeing procurement for voting equipment. The state board of elections packages equipment, supplies and precinct tabulators and delivers them to each city/town before the election; troubleshoots technical issues on Election Day; and receives and tabulates statewide results.
Regardless of who the chief election official is, there are some duties that fall to the state office of elections. These include: ensuring that election laws are followed by local officials statewide; administration of a statewide voter registration database required by HAVA; assisting local election officials by providing training courses or materials on running elections in the state; and providing a process for testing and certifying voting equipment for use in the state. Some state offices provide certification programs for local election officials on election procedures and may also help pay for certain types of elections, or a portion of expenses. More information on ways that states help bear the cost of elections is found on NCSL’s Election Costs: What States Pay page.
Election Administration at the Local Level
Elections are usually administered at the county level, though in some New England and Midwestern states it falls to cities or townships to run elections. In all, this means that there are more than 10,000 election administration jurisdictions in the U.S. The size of these jurisdictions varies dramatically, with the smallest towns having only a few hundred registered voters and the largest jurisdiction in the country, Los Angeles County, with more than 4.7 million.
At the local level, elections can be run by a single individual, a board or commission of elections, or a combination of two or more entities.
- 22 states have a single individual who administers elections at the local level.
- The election official is usually elected, but this can vary within the state. In Nebraska, for example, counties with fewer than 20,000 people have an elected individual. Counties with 20,000 to 100,000 people have an election official appointed by the county board. And counties with more than 100,000 have an election official appointed by the governor.
- Some states have an individual who administers elections in the majority of jurisdictions, but an election board that administers elections in the larger cities.
- In larger jurisdictions there may be an election administrator or supervisor whose sole responsibility is the administration of elections, whereas in most smaller and medium counties the county clerk, recorder, registrar, assessor, auditor or controller may serve as the election official in addition to conducting other county duties.
- 10 states use a board of elections for the primary responsibilities of local election administration.
- These are typically bipartisan in nature, with appointments made either at the state level (Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee) at the local level (New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island), or a combination of the two (Kentucky), and with input from political parties.
- 18 states divide election administration duties between two or more offices.
When election duties are divided between one or more offices on the local level, the most common division is between voter registration and the actual administration of elections. The division of duties between different entities varies greatly and is not detailed here.
As an example of what this division looks like, in Arkansas an elected county clerk runs the day-to-day operations of registration and voting, including absentee and early voting. There is a three-member county board (two chosen by majority and minority parties and the third by the state board of elections from the majority party in the state) which deals with Election Day procedures, including appointing election officials, delivering supplies to the polls, counting ballots and canvassing returns.
As the job of an election administrator has evolved it’s become more and more complex. Gone are the days when this was a largely clerical position. Now it’s a multifaceted managerial position with a lot of moving parts. And, as more and more technology is involved in the election process, election officials have had to take on the role of IT managers as well. The nature of election administration today highlights the need for professionalization of the field, and, in fact, states and other organizations are seeking to provide the training and support election officials need to perform effectively in this environment.
- Every state election office provides some level of support for local election officials, ranging from publishing digests of election laws to voluntary trainings to full-on mandatory certification programs. There has been an increase in state-provided training for election officials, with 32 states requiring training in 2016, compared to 21 in 2002.
- Most states have a state association of election officials that meets periodically to discuss election procedures. These organizations also may advocate for election administration changes in the legislature.
- The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) serves as a national clearinghouse of information on election administration and provides a variety of resources of election officials, including election management guidelines, webinars, best practices and opportunities for local officials to meet and exchange ideas.
- The Election Center (aka the National Association of Election Officials) conducts a series of conferences, workshops and seminars throughout the year and also runs the Certified Elections/Registration Administrator (CERA) program along with faculty from Auburn University’s public administration program. These college-level courses provide professional growth and development opportunities for election officials, with the goal of continuous improvement of democracy.
- The University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs conducts an online certification program in election administration.
- The National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) and the National Association of State Election Directors (NASED) provide opportunities for state election officials to exchange information and best practices.
- The International Association of Government Officials (a newly created organization created by a merger of the International Association of Clerks, Recorders, Election Officials & Treasurers (IACREOT) and the National Association of County Recorders, Election Officials & Clerks (NACRC)) holds events and disseminates information in support of local election officials.