Saturday, February 4, 2023 0 comments



I have cancer.

That diagnosis came January 5 of this year, and I can’t type it any more plainly.

After a routine process and colonoscopy, a cancerous tumor was discovered in my large intestine.  With surgery planned for this week, indications from other testing is that the cancer hasn’t metastasized into other organs in my body. 

Hopefully, the surgery will result in elimination of the cancer, but that won’t be known until after surgery.

Working 18 years in election administration, I suppose, it was my time.  I’ve written here before and often  of the physical toll elections take on the people who run them.

This blog was created as a behind-the-scenes account of election administration.  I would not be true to the intent of the blog to not discuss this so directly and openly.

My predecessor in Johnson County is a cancer survivor.

Both assistant election commissioners at the Johnson County Election office when I joined, both who had worked at the office for years, had new cancer diagnoses early during my tenure.

One of them eventually died while still serving as assistant election commissioner.  Another employee, promoted to the same position, found he had lung cancer in the spring of 2014 and died days before the November election.  The Sedgwick County Election Commissioner, who served at much of the same time as I was in Johnson County, also had cancer.

Thing is, with the talk of election officials facing abusive threats from election deniers, there is no denying that the real threat to election officials is the constant stress they feel when administering elections.

The personal threats add to that, of course, but that’s been going on since “Black Box Voting,” a book and HBO special that called out specific election administrators when, in my view, they were doing their jobs under the stress that occurs with election administration.  The “naming names” of career election administrators, nearly universally paid much less than their peers and colleagues in local government, was about the lowest blow someone could take.

Election administrators work at the expense of their own health to ensure the election is administered as close to perfectly as humanly possible. There is no “close enough for government work,” in elections.

The Internet and social media have fueled that stress, and long-term election administrators who have fought for resources often hear as a reason they are denied, “You’re doing a great job.”  Resources come after a meltdown or a crisis, and election administrators aren’t going to let that happen, even if the impact is their health.

Politicians, members of Congress, and former presidential candidates have fanned flames that cause more distress.

Recent blog posts here have tried to stay out of politics, but the political environment for election administration is very simply destructive.

Al Gore lost the 2000 presidential election and after what seemed like an excessive protracted contest, he walked away.  I wasn’t in election administration at the time, but I know I felt that he had created division in our country, and I wished he had exited sooner.

Now, after the last two presidential elections, his behavior seems much more admirable, to me at least.  I have no idea what 2024 will bring in terms of the final presidential candidates or the political factors leading to the election, but, Dear Reader, I think we all feel that the outcome will be contested by the losing candidate and party supporters.

That’s the backdrop local election officials will enter.  Many will decide to exit the profession this year because of that.  Turnover always occurs more in an “off” year, with experienced administrators leaving when they are needed most.  They leave because they know what is coming.

Local and state election official turnover nationwide is more than 30 percent annually.  We have some election offices in North Dakota, for instance, where the chief election official changed between the June and November elections in 2022, and even a couple cases where the top post changed twice in that time.

Bench strength in elections was lost long ago.  The need for Quick Start guides at the Election Assistance Commission, as well as training and patience for those new in the profession, has never been greater.

As an aside, I often think of the Maricopa County (Arizona) Recorder Helen Purcell, who lost in her primary in 2016.  Helen had decades of service and was well-respected among her colleagues.  Her term would end at the end of 2016, voters had told her they wanted someone different in the role, and she was left to administer an incredibly stressful 2016 presidential election. 

Imagine losing the primary in the summer, not for a legislative position, but the actual position of administering elections.  Imagine the disappointment, yet also being expected to lead the administration of, up to that point, what was the most stressful presidential election in anyone’s memory.

That’s service right there.

She didn’t quit.  She probably should have.  I’ve never talked with Helen about this, but I have great admiration for her because of what she did in 2016.  And, I’m not attempting to stir anything up at all, but I do wonder if any of the storyline in Arizona, 2020 and beyond, would have been different if voters would have renewed her service in 2016.

Unlike Helen, many election administrators find their body quits on them before they quit the profession.

That, at least, is a piece of counter-point to the thought election administration leads to cancer.  Election administrators have generally been in the profession for a long time, leading to a simple fact that cancer arrives more frequently as people age.

When I started in elections in 2005, I replaced someone many regard as one of the greatest ever in the profession.  At my swearing in, I stated, “I’m coming to a position where the process is the star.”

Long-time election administrators treat the election process as a piece of art, always polishing or refining it.  New election administrators often are thrown into the job now without that existing process structure, or the wisdom to know when to avoid the temptation that they know better than those in the position before.

That’s the new cancer in election administration—the turnover.  There’s a new group of election administrators lining up with 2024 being their first federal election, let alone their first presidential election.  For the profession’s sake, we need a good number of them to still be leading elections heading in 2040, and that can only begin by providing resources, support, and protection to lead today.