Election Administration at State and Local Levels

6/15/2016

Overview

Word cloud related to election administrationThe 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. 

The following page summarizes the different election administration structures in the states. All tables and much of the content on this page is adapted from Chapter 2 of the book "Administering Elections: How American Elections Work" by Kathleen Hale, Robert Montjoy and Mitchell Brown, published by Palgrave Macmillan 2015. 

History

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 statesAlaska and Utahhave an elected lieutenant governor as the chief election official.
  • Three statesMaine, New Hampshire and Tennesseehave a chief election official selected by the legislature. 
  • Five statesDelaware, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texashave 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 statesHawaii, Illinois, Maryland, North Carolina, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsinhave 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 statesArkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Rhode Island and West Virginiause 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.

Table 1 contains information on the title, methods of selection, and appointing authorities for chief election officials in all 50 states.

E = Elected

A = Appointed by state official

B = Appointment by and service under a board

AB = Appointed board or official also has some responsibility

EB = Elected official or board also has some responsibility

 

Table 1: Title, Method of Selection, and Appointing Authorities for Chief Election Officials

State

Title of chief election official

Selection

Appointing authority

Alabama

Secretary of State

E

 

Alaska

Lieutenant Governor

E

 

Arizona

Secretary of State

E

 

Arkansas

Secretary of State

EB

 

California

Secretary of State

E

 

Colorado

Secretary of State

E

 

Connecticut

Secretary of State

E

 

Delaware

State Commissioner of Elections

A

Governor

Florida

Secretary of State

A

Governor

Georgia

Secretary of State

EB

 

Hawaii

Chief Election Officer

B

State Elections Commission

Idaho

Secretary of State

E

 

Illinois

Executive Director

B

State Board of Elections

Indiana

Secretary of State

EB

 

Iowa

Secretary of State

E

 

Kansas

Secretary of State

E

 

Kentucky

Secretary of State

EB

 

Louisiana

Secretary of State

E

 

Maine

Secretary of State

A*

State Legislature

Maryland

Administrator of Elections

B

State Board of Elections

Massachusetts

Secretary of State

E

 

Michigan

Secretary of State

E

 

Minnesota

Secretary of State

E

 

Mississippi

Secretary of State

E

 

Missouri

Secretary of State

E

 

Montana

Secretary of State

E

 

Nebraska

Secretary of State

E

 

Nevada

Secretary of State

E

 

New Hampshire

Secretary of State

A*

State Legislature

New Jersey

Secretary of State

A

Governor

New Mexico

Secretary of State

E

 

New York

Co-Directors

B

State Board of Elections

North Carolina

Director

B

State Board of Elections

North Dakota

Secretary of State

E

 

Ohio

Secretary of State

E

 

Oklahoma

Secretary of Board of Elections

B

State Senate

Oregon

Secretary of State

E

 

Pennsylvania

Secretary of Commonwealth

A

Governor

Rhode Island

Secretary of State

EB

 

South Carolina

Executive Director

B

State Election Commission

South Dakota

Secretary of State

E

 

Tennessee

Secretary of State

AB*

State Legislature

Texas

Secretary of State

A

Governor

Utah

Lieutenant Governor

E

 

Vermont

Secretary of State

E

 

Virginia

Commissioner

B

State Board of Elections

Washington

Secretary of State

E

 

West Virginia

Secretary of State

EB

 

Wisconsin

Administrator

B

State Elections Commission

Wyoming

Secretary of State

E

 

Source: Administering Elections

*Hale, Montjoy and Mitchell categorize the selection method as E for elected since these positions are elected by the legislature. NCSL has categorized Maine, New Hampshire and Tennessee as A for appointed, with the appointing authority being the state legislature, in order to differentiate between states that elect their chief election official by popular election. 

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 (more details found in Table 2).  

  • 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 (more details found in Table 2).

    The following map outlines the institutional configuration of local election officials.

50-state map showing election administration structure

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.

Table 2 outlines of names of offices involved in election administration in states with divided duties.

Table 2

Table 2: States with Multiple Election Officials

State

Names of Offices

Alabama

Probate Judge

Clerk of Circuit Court

Sheriff

Board of Registrars

Arizona

Director or Administrator

County Recorder

Arkansas

County Board of Election Commissioners

County Clerk

Connecticut

Registrars of Voters

Town Clerk

Georgia

Judge of Probate

County Board of Registrars

Indiana

County Election Board

Clerk of Circuit Court or Board of Registration

Louisiana

Clerk of District Court

Registrar of Voters

Maine

Town/City Clerk

Registrar of Voters

Massachusetts

City/Town Clerk

Board of Registrars of Voters

Michigan

County Clerk

County Election Commission

City/Township Clerk

City/Township Election Commission

Mississippi

County Board of Election Commissioners

County Registrar (Clerk of Circuit Court)

Nevada

County Clerk

Registrar of Voters in Clark and Washoe Counties

New Hampshire

Moderator

Town/City Clerk

Superintendent of Checklist (towns)/Board of Registrars (cities)

New Jersey

County Clerk

County Board of Elections

New Mexico

County Board of Registration

County Clerk

South Carolina

County Board of Registration

Commissioners of Elections

Texas

County Clerk

County Tax Assessor/Collector

Virginia

County/City Electoral Boards

County/City Registrars

Source: Administering Elections

Professionalization of Election Administration

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 (more details on NCSL’s webpage Election Costs: What States Pay).
  • 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.

Legislative Action

Though not a frequent topic for legislative action, legislators do periodically examine how election administration is structured in their state. In 2016, the following bills were enacted:  

  • Florida SB514 raised the base salary of supervisors of elections, which had not been increased in some time.
  • Louisiana passed a series of bills affecting registrars of voters, relating to their retirement benefits (HB39), merit evaluations (HB470), qualifications (HB471) and appointment (HB593).
  • Maine SB 582 prohibited a registrar from serving when an immediate family member is a candidate for federal office.
  • Maryland HB1077 required the Montgomery County Board of Elections (the state’s most populous county) to contain at least one member of the minority party.
  • Oklahoma SB849 exempted State Election Board members and personnel from the state’s merit system of personnel administration.
  • Virginia passed a series of bills relating to training requirements for local electoral boards (HB88, SB574/HB1030) and HB1145 reassigned certain election administration duties to general registrars.

Search bills from previous years using NCSL’s 2011-2016 Elections Legislation Database.

Additional Resources