Many New Faces Head Elections Offices

Turnover among election administrators in the nation's largest counties since the 2000 presidential stalemate has been unusually high with, by one expert's count, at least 20 top officials leaving office.

While individuals have cited various reasons for departing, many have faced greater scrutiny because of the 2000 race and new demands to fix long-standing problems, but haven't been given the resources to make effective changes, said Richard Smolka, an election expert who compiled the list.

The elections director in Ohio's Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) quit in a dispute over buying new voting machines; the elections superintendent in King County, Wash., (Seattle) was fired over missing absentee ballots. Others just retired.

"I've heard supervisors tell me that 'I don't need this. I'm not going to put up with this anymore.' It's kind of discouraging because of what we do and how much we love it," said Kurt Browning, the election supervisor in Florida's Pasco County, who has stayed in his post.

Some officials also worry that turmoil at the top could make new problems more likely this November, since local administrators are the ones responsible for making sure balloting run smoothly on Election Day (search).

The 20 jurisdictions where administrators have left include New York City, and counties that encompass Houston, Seattle, the Chicago suburbs (though not the city itself) and several Los Angeles-area counties, among others and account for more than 35 million people, according to Smolka, a political science professor emeritus at American University.

Few who retired would acknowledge directly that they left because of the 2000 election (search). But many say it's been a driving factor for others who've left.

"The administration of elections is becoming so complicated, and so risky for one's reputation and one's integrity, I think we've seen a lot of people leave for those reasons," said Ernie Hawkins, the registrar (search) in Sacramento County, Calif., who retired last year after 39 years with the county.

Hawkins said he retired because of a new boost to his retirement package. Now he's helping his old deputy prepare for this election, just on a contractual basis.

At the local level, elections are administered in a various ways. Around Houston, for example, elected clerks are in charge, but the elections are actually run by hired administrators; in some areas, commissions hire administrators; and in Florida, administrators are elected directly.

Pam Iorio, who oversaw the 2000 elections in Florida's Hillsborough County -- but left in 2002 when she was elected Tampa's mayor -- said elections always have their difficulties. But the last presidential race, when the outcome in Florida was in doubt for more than a month, dramatically raised the pressure.

"I do think the 2000 presidential election just changed the whole focus of election administration," Iorio said. "The media has a different take on it. The public has a different take of what they're going to accept and not accept."

For instance, more than a quarter of Florida's county election supervisors who served in November 2000 -- or 18 of 67 -- have since left office, according to state records.

Local officials also have complained for months that electoral reform money promised from the federal government has been slow to arrive. That leaves local administrators on the hook to make changes without the resources to do it, Smolka said.

"It's not a pleasant place to be right now," said Smolka, who writes a newsletter for election administrators.

He says that many of the new officials have solid experience as deputy administrators or as top officials elsewhere. But others say the turnover will only create more problems, as new officials come to grips with rising expectations for the voting system.

"I think it will get worse before it gets better," said Hawkins, in Sacramento. The pressure isn't easing up, he said, noting that his county has had a very difficult time finding a new chief deputy since promoting his former deputy to the top post.

"People just don't want the job," he said. "They just don't want the responsibility for the job."