Voters are the most important people when it comes to elections: There’s no doubt about that. Legislators set election policy: There’s no doubt about that, either.
Then there are the advocacy groups asking either for more access or for more integrity—it’s hard to forget about them.
It can be easy, though, to overlook another key group: election administrators. County, city and town clerks, election directors, registrars of voters, auditors and probate judges all pay attention to the choices legislators make, because as policy goes, so goes their workload.
That means that in every state, there are at least some election officials who are laser-focused on legislative action.
“Legislators can rely on the fact that the input received from us is not affected by partisan bias.”
—Christina Tvedten, elections manager, Ramsey County, Minn.
The usual quip is that legislators know how to run for office, but that doesn’t mean they know how to run an election. That’s OK, though—knowing the folks who do have the expertise can be a boon.
“No one knows the needs of local election offices and the voters they serve better than local election officials,” says Christy McCormick, the chairwoman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, or EAC. “Their knowledge of election administration is an important resource when legislation impacting elections is considered.”
A new guide, “How to Work With State Legislatures,” gives election officials an overview of the legislative process, tips on how to build relationships with legislators, effective communication strategies and more. Created by the EAC and NCSL, the guide can help the officials who implement policy connect with the people who make it.
“We try to be present at the legislative committee that is hearing the bills so we can testify in person,” says Kathy Montejo, the city clerk and registrar of voters in Lewiston, Maine. Speaking for her state’s association of election officials, she adds that the “legislators have gotten to know us, and we have been able to establish a personal connection, which has developed the trust and respect they have for us and our insight and opinions.”
For election officials, attending hearings and being responsive is great; having a set of ready-to-go “asks” is even better.
“When you’re going to see the legislative staff, or your members of the legislature, and you hand them a list of 25 or 50 things, they always ask, ‘What’s important to you?’” says David Stafford, the supervisor of elections in Escambia County, Fla., which includes Pensacola. “You start by ranking those things—which are the one or two most vital requests?”
Engaging with legislators is good, but getting involved politically is a big no-no for most election officials. They know their lane: administering the laws in a nonpartisan manner. And they know lawmakers’ lane: making tough choices in a highly political world.
“Given our current environment, we really try not to get involved,” says Christina Tvedten, the elections manager in Ramsey County, Minn., which includes the state capital, St. Paul. “We are not partisan.” She speaks for her peers when she says, “Legislators can rely on the fact that the input received from us is not affected by partisan bias.”
For example, they can provide input on whether an idea will improve accuracy, reduce costs or speed up reporting.
All they ask is that they be consulted—and they believe sooner is better when it comes to weighing in on the unintended consequences and possible costs of doing things in a new way. When it comes to elections, talking to administrators can get you to win-win.
Katie King is a policy analyst in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program; Wendy Underhill directs the program.