Election Administration at State and Local Levels

11/1/2022

Word cloud related to election administration

The U.S. is characterized by a highly decentralized election administration system. County or municipal officials typically do the rubber-meets-the-road functions of running an election, but the state and federal government each have roles, too.

The result is that no two states administer elections in exactly the same way, and quite a bit of variation exists in election administration even within states. Each state’s election administration structure and procedures grew organically over many decades as times changed and administering an election became an increasingly complex task.

The diversity of election administration structures between and within states can be seen as a positive or a negative quality, 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, 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.

This page provides a history of election administration structures and an overview of election administration at the state and local levels.

History

In the early years of the United States, elections were an infrequent, clerical responsibility of a county official. These elections were also not 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 beginning in the late 1800s improved election processes but added complexity. The adoption of voter registration required election officials to receive voter applications and maintain lists of voters. The move away from party-provided ballots to a secret ballot provided by local election officials required additional preparation and resources. The use of voting machines starting in the late 1800s meant they had to be stored, protected and maintained between elections.

Over time, legislatures formalized 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 to help manage growing technology needs.

The role of state election officials has 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 a century ago. 

Election Administration at the State Level

By federal law, each state has a designated chief election official who oversees elections in the state.

  • In 33 states, voters elect the chief election official. In most of those states, the elected chief election official is the secretary of state, but in Alaska and Utah the role is held by the lieutenant governor.
  • In six states—Delaware, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia—the governor appoints the chief election official. In all but Delaware and Virginia, the chief election official is called the secretary of state. In Delaware and Virginia, the chief election officials are known as commissioners of elections.
  • In four states—Maine, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Tennessee—the chief election official is selected by the legislature. Both chambers have a role, except in Oklahoma where responsibility lies solely with the state senate.
  • In seven states—Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina and Wisconsin—and Washington, D.C., the chief election official is appointed by the state board or commission of elections.

Seventeen states and Washington, D.C., have a board or commission that oversees elections in the state or jurisdiction.

  • In nine states—Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin—and Washington, D.C., a board or commission oversees elections, and the state chief election official is a member of the board or commission. Appointments to election boards are usually made by the governor and confirmed by the senate, and boards are most often structured to be bipartisan, with a certain number of members from each of the major political parties.
  • In seven states—Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Rhode Island, Tennessee and West Virginia—election responsibilities are shared between a secretary of state and a board or commission.

Duties of the chief election official or election board 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 be the responsibility of a secretary of state or state elections board—or even a separate ethics commission.

When both an elected individual and a board or commission are charged with elections, the division of duties varies. Rhode Island is one example of shared responsibilities. There, the secretary of state’s office manages 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 or town before an election; troubleshoots technical issues on Election Day; and receives and tabulates statewide results.

State-level responsibilities 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 also 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.

The table below contains information about the chief election official in each state.

Table 1: State Level Election Administration

State

Chief Election Official

Selection Process

Election Board or Commission

Alabama

Code of Ala. § 17-1-3

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

n/a

Alaska

Alaska Stat. § 15.10.105(a)

 

Lieutenant Governor

 

Elected

 

n/a

Arizona

Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 16-142(A)

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

  

n/a

Arkansas

Ark. Const. amend. LI, § 5(b)(1), A.C.A. § 7-4-101

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

Board of Election Commissioners

California

Cal. Elec. Code § 10(a)

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

n/a

Colorado

Colo. Rev. Stat. § 1-1-107(1)

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

n/a

Connecticut

Conn. Gen. Stat. § 9-3(a)

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

n/a

Delaware

Del. Code Ann. Tit. 15, § 202 § 301-302

 

State Commissioner of Elections

 

Appointed by the governor

 

State Board of Elections

District of Columbia

DC ST § 1-1001.03, 1-1001.05

 

Executive Director

 

Appointed by the Board of Elections

 

Board of Elections

Florida

Fla. Stat. § 97.012

 

Secretary of State

 

Appointed by the governor

 

n/a

Georgia

Ga. Code Ann. §§ 21-2,30, 21-2-50, 21-2-50.2

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

State Election Board

Hawaii

Haw. Rev. Stat. § 11-1.6, 11-2, 11-7

 

Chief Election Officer

 

Appointed by the State Elections Commission

 

State Elections Commission

Idaho

Idaho Code § 34-201

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

n/a

Illinois

10 ILCS 5/1A-7, 5/1A-8

 

Executive Director

 

Appointed by the State Board of Elections

 

State Board of Elections

Indiana

Ind. Code § 3-6-3.7-1, 3-6-4.1

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

State Election Commission

Iowa

Iowa Code § 47.1

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

n/a

Kansas

Kan. Stat. Ann. § 25-2504

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

n/a

Kentucky

Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 14.025(4), 117.015

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

State Board of Elections

Louisiana

La. Const. art. Iv, § 7

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

n/a

Maine

Me. Const. art. V, § 1 and Stat. tit. 21-A

 

Secretary of State

 

Appointed by the legislature

 

n/a

Maryland

Md. Code Ann., Elec. Law § 2-101, 2-103

 

Administrator of Elections

 

Appointed by the State Board of Elections

 

State Board of Elections

Massachusetts

Mass. Ann. Laws ch. 50, § 1

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

n/a

Michigan

Mich. Comp. Laws §§ 168.21,

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

n/a

Minnesota

Minn. Const. art. vii, § 8; Minn. Stat. §§ 200-12

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

n/a

Mississippi

Miss. Code Ann. § 23-15-211.1

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

n/a

Missouri

Mo. rev. Stat. § 28.035(1)

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

n/a

Montana

Mont. Code Ann. § 13-1-201

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

n/a

Nebraska

Neb. Rev. Stat. §§ 32-201-203

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

n/a

Nevada

Nev. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 293.124

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

n/a

New Hampshire

N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 652:23

 

Secretary of State

 

Appointed by the legislature

 

n/a

New Jersey

N.J. Stat. Ann. § 19:31-6a

 

Secretary of State

 

Appointed by the governor

 

n/a

New Mexico

N.M. Stat. Ann. § 1-2-1

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

n/a

New York

N.Y. Election Law § 3-100, 3-102

 

Co-Directors

 

Appointed by the State Board of Elections

 

State Board of Elections

North Carolina

N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 163-19, 163-82.2, § 163-27

 

Director

 

Appointed by the State Board of Elections

 

State Board of Elections

North Dakota

N.D. Cent. Code Ann. § 16.1-01-01

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

n/a

Ohio

Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 3501.04

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

n/a

Oklahoma

Oklahoma Const. §3-2, 26 Okl. St. § 2-101, 2-101.6, 107

 

Secretary of the State Election Board

 

Appointed by the state senate

 

State Election Board

Oregon

Or. Rev. Stat. § 246.110

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

n/a

Pennsylvania

Pa. Stat. And Cons. Stat. § 2621

 

Secretary of Commonwealth

 

Appointed by the governor

 

n/a

Rhode Island

Title 17 R.I. Gen. Laws Ann. § 17-6-1.3; 17-6-1, 17-7-2

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

State Board of Elections

South Carolina

S.C. Code Ann. § 7-3-10, 7-3-20

 

Executive Director

 

Appointed by the State Election Commission

 

State Election Commission

South Dakota

S.D. Codified Laws § 12-4-33

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

n/a

Tennessee

Tenn. Code Ann. § 2, 2-11-101

 

Secretary of State

 

Appointed by the legislature

 

State Election Commission

Texas

Tex. Code Ann. § 31.001

 

Secretary of State

 

Appointed by the governor

 

n/a

Utah

Utah Code Ann. § 20A-2-300.6

 

Lieutenant Governor

 

Elected

 

n/a

Vermont

Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 17

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

n/a

Virginia

Va. Code Ann. § 24.2-102

 

Commissioner

 

Appointed by the governor

 

State Board of Elections

Washington

Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 29A.04.230

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

n/a

West Virginia

W. Va. Code Ann. § 3-1A-1, 3-2-3

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

State Election Commission

Wisconsin

Wis. Stat. § 5.05, 15.61

 

Administrator

 

Appointed by the State Elections Commission

 

State Elections Commission

Wyoming

Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 22-2-103

 

Secretary of State

 

Elected

 

n/a

Election Administration at the Local Level

Elections are usually administered at the county level, though in some New England and Midwestern states this duty falls to cities or townships. All told 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 fewer than a thousand registered voters and the largest jurisdiction in the country, Los Angeles County, with more than 5.5 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.

In 34 states, the responsibility for administering elections at the local level is unified within a single individual or entity. There can be some variability within each state, and this categorization reflects the most common situation in each state.

  • In 26 states of those states, elections are administered at the local level by a single individual, usually a county clerk. The election official is typically elected, but this can vary across the state.
  • In 8 states, elections are administered at the local level by a board or commission. These are typically bipartisan, with appointments made either at the state or local level, or a combination of the two, and with input from political parties.

In 16 states, the responsibility for administering elections at the local level is shared between two or more individuals or entities.

  • 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 varies greatly.
  • As an example of divided responsibilities, in Arkansas an elected county clerk runs the day-to-day operations of registration and voting, including absentee and early voting. 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) deals with Election Day procedures, including appointing election officials, delivering supplies to the polls, counting ballots and canvassing returns.

While most local election administration structures are uniform across a state, 16 states have varied structures within the state. Often this variation is based on jurisdictional size. Smaller jurisdictions are more likely to have elected election officials—such as a county clerk, recorder, registrar or auditor—serve as the election official in addition to conducting other county duties. Larger jurisdictions may have an election administrator or supervisor whose sole responsibility is the administration of elections. In Washington, for example, all but one county has an elected county auditor who is responsible for elections, licensing, recording and finances. King County, Wash., the most populous county in the state, has an elected elections director. Some states may also have an individual who administers elections in most jurisdictions, but an election board in larger cities.

The table below provides details on the structure of local election administration for each state.

Table 2: Local Level Election Administration


State


Unified or Shared Responsibility for Elections


Uniform or Varied Local Structure Across the State


Local Election Official

Alabama

Ala. Code § 17-1-2(1), 17-1-2(6), 17-1-3, 17-3-2, 17-11-2

 

Shared

 

Uniform

Probate Judge

Clerk of Circuit Court

Board of Registrars

Sheriff

Alaska

AS § 15.10.11

 

Unified

 

Uniform

 

Election Supervisor

Arizona

A.R.S. § 16, 16-131

 

 

Shared

 

 

Uniform

County Recorder

Elections Director
 

Note: The County Board of Supervisors has statutory authority but appoints the Elections Director; appointment processes vary by county and are not in statute.

Arkansas

Ark. Code Ann. §7-4-107, 7-5-401

 

Shared

 

Uniform

County Clerk

County Board of Election Commissioners

California

West's Ann. Cal. Gov. Code § 26802, 26802.5

 

Unified

 

Varied

Most counties: County Clerk

13 counties: Registrar of Voters

Colorado

Colo. Rev. Stat. § 1-2-202

 

Unified

 

Uniform

 

County Clerk

Connecticut

C.G.S.A. § 9-150b, 9-190

 

Shared

 

Uniform

Town Clerk

Registrar of Voters

Delaware

15 Del.C. § 211

 

Unified

 

Uniform

 

County Director

Florida

West's F.S.A. § 98.015

 

Unified

 

Uniform

 

County Supervisor of Elections

Georgia

Ga. Code Ann., §15-9-30, 21-2-2(35), 21-2-40, 21-2-70, 21-2-212

 

Varies by county, with unified responsibilities in some and shared responsibilities in others

 

Varies

Most counties: Board of Elections and Registration

Some counties: Probate Judge and Board of Registrars

Few counties: Election Supervisor and Registrar

Hawaii

HRS § 11-2

 

Unified

 

Varies

All counties but Honolulu: County Clerk

Honolulu: City Clerk

Idaho

I.C. § 34-206, 34-208

 

Unified

 

Uniform

 

County Clerk

Illinois

10 ILCS 5/1-3(8), 5/1-3(9), 5/4-4, 5/6A-1

 

Unified

 

Varies

101 counties: County Clerk

1 county: County Election Commission

6 jurisdictions: Municipal Election Commissions

Indiana

I.C.A. § 47.2

 

Unified

 

Uniform

 

County Commissioner of Elections

Iowa

I.C.A. § 47.2

 

Unified

 

Uniform

 

County Commissioner of Elections

Kansas

K.S.A. 25-2504

 

Unified

 

Varies

Most counties: County Clerk

4 largest counties: Election Commissioner

Kentucky

KRS § 117.035

 

Unified

 

Uniform

 

County Board of Elections (includes the County Clerk)

Louisiana

LSA-R.S. 18:422, 18:51

 

Shared

 

Uniform

Clerk of Court

Registrar of Voters

Maine

21-A M.R.S.A. § 1.38, 505

 

Shared

 

Uniform

Registrar of Voters

Municipal Clerk

Maryland

MD Code, Election Law, § 2-201

 

Unified

 

Uniform

 

County Board of Elections

Massachusetts

M.G.L.A. 50 § 1, 51 § 15, 51 § 16A, 51 § 17, 54 § 60

 

Shared

 

Varies

All jurisdictions: City Clerk

Jurisdictions then have either a Board of Registrars or a Board of Election Commissioners

Michigan

M.C.L.A. 168.23, 168.24a, 168.25, 168.26, 168.27

 

 

Shared

 

 

Varies

County Clerk

Board of County Election Commissioners

Board of County Canvassers

City or Township Clerk

Board of City or Township Election Commission

Minnesota

M.S.A. § 200.02, Subd. 16, 204B.28

 

Unified

 

Varies

Most jurisdictions: County Auditor

Some jurisdictions: Town or Municipal Clerk

Mississippi

Miss. Code Ann. § 23-15-213,23-15-221, 23-15-223

 

Shared

 

Uniform

County Board of Election Commissioners

County Registrar (Clerk of the Circuit Court)

Municipal Election Commission

Missouri

V.A.M.S. 115.015, 115.017

 

Unified

 

Varies

Most jurisdictions: County Clerk

Few jurisdictions: Board of Election Commissioners

Montana

MCA 13-1-101(13)(a), 13-1-301

 

Unified

 

Uniform

 

Election Administrator

Nebraska

Neb.Rev.St. § 32-207, 32-218

 

Unified

 

Varies

Counties smaller than 100,000 people: County Clerk

Counties larger than 100,000 people: Election Administrator

Nevada

N.R.S. 244.164, 293.044

 

Unified

 

Varies

All but 2 counties: County Clerk

Clark and Washoe Counties: Registrar of Voters

New Hampshire

N.H. Rev. Stat. § 652:14-a, 652:15, 659:60

 

Shared

 

Uniform

City or Town Clerk

Moderator

Supervisors of the Checklist (includes Board of Registrars)

New Jersey

N.J.S.A. 19:6-1, 6-26, 13-3, 14-1, 14-12, 31-2, 32-1, 48-4, 53c, 62-2, 63-17

 

Shared

 

Varies

All jurisdictions: County Clerk

All counties: County Board of Elections

Some jurisdictions: Superintendent of Elections

New Mexico

N. M. S. A. 1978, § 1-1-16, 4-8, 4-9, 4-11, 4-12, 4-34

 

Shared

 

Uniform

County Clerk

Board of Registration

New York

McKinney's Election Law § 3-200-226

 

Unified

 

Uniform

 

County Board of Elections

North Carolina

N.C.G.S.A. § 163-30, 163-33, 163-35

 

Unified

 

Uniform

 

Director of Elections (appointed by the County Board of Elections)

North Dakota

NDCC, 16.1-01-01(4)

 

Unified

 

Uniform

 

County Auditor

Ohio

R.C. § 3501.06, 3501.11, 3501.13

 

Unified

 

Uniform

 

Director of Elections (appointed by the County Board of Elections)

Oklahoma           

26 Okl.St.Ann. § 2-110

 

Unified

 

Uniform

 

County Election Board

Oregon

O.R.S. § 246.200

 

 

Unified

 

 

Varies

Most jurisdictions: County Clerk

Multnomah and Washington Counties: Elections Director or Manager

 

Note: No statute explicitly authorizes the use of an Elections Director or Manager, but counties with home rule charters may choose to appoint election directors.

Pennsylvania

25 P.S. § 2641

 

Unified

 

Uniform

 

County Board of Elections

Rhode Island

Gen.Laws 1956, § 17-8-1

 

Unified

 

Uniform

 

Board of Canvassers

South Carolina

Code 1976 § 7-5-10

 

Unified

 

Uniform

 

Board of Voter Registration and Elections

South Dakota

SDCL § 12-1-3(9)

 

Unified

 

Uniform

 

County Auditor

Tennessee

T. C. A. § 2-12-101, 2-12-116, 2-12-201

 

Unified

 

Uniform

 

Administrator of Elections (appointed by the County Election Commission)

Texas

V.T.C.A., Election Code § 31.031, 31.044, 31.045, 31.071

 

Shared

 

Varies

Most counties: County Clerk

Some counties: County Elections Administrator

Few Counties (only when power has been transferred from the County Clerk): County Tax Assessor-Collector

Utah

U.C.A. 1953 § 20A-1-102(23), 2-301, 2-304, 2-304.5

 

Unified

 

Uniform

 

County Clerk

Vermont

17 V.S.A. § 2103(35), 2451, 2452

 

Shared

 

Uniform

Town Clerk

Board of Civil Authority

Virginia

VA Code Ann. § 24.2-101, 24.2-106, 24.2.110

 

Shared

 

Uniform

County and City Electoral Boards

County and City General Registrars

Washington

West's RCWA 29A.04.025

 

 

Unified

 

 

Varies

All but 1 county: County Auditor

King County: Election Director

 

Note: No statute explicitly authorizes the use of an Election Director, but counties with home rule charters may appoint or elect an Election Director.

West Virginia

W. Va. Code, § 3-1-19, 2-4, 2-16, 2-17, 4a-10

 

Unified

 

Uniform

 

Clerk of the County Commission

Wisconsin

W.S.A. 7.10, 7.15, 7.20

 

 

Shared

 

 

Varies

County Clerk

Municipal Clerk

Cities with populations over 500,000: Municipal Board of Election Commissioners

Counties with populations over 750,000: County Board of Election Commissioners

Wyoming

W.S.1977 § 22-2-103

 

Unified

 

Uniform

 

County Clerk

Professionalization of Election Administration

The job of an election administrator has evolved from a largely clerical position to become a multifaceted managerial position with lots of moving parts, from managing registration and multiple methods of voting to providing voter education and serving as IT and communications managers. Given the complexities of the role, states and other organizations are seeking to provide the training and support election officials need to perform effectively.

  • Every state election office provides some level of support for local election officials, ranging from publishing digests of election laws to voluntary trainings or even 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.
  • The U.S. Election Assistance Commission 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.
  • 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. Electionline maintains a list of these associations.
  • The National Association of Secretaries of State and the National Association of State Election Directors provide opportunities for state election officials to exchange information and best practices.
  • The Election Center (aka the National Association of Election Officials) conducts 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.
  • The International Association of Government Officials (an organization created by a merger of the International Association of Clerks, Recorders, Election Officials & Treasurers and the National Association of County Recorders, Election Officials & Clerks) holds events and disseminates information in support of local election officials.
  • The University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs conducts an online certification program in election administration.

Additional Resources