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Loss of dozens of experienced election officials could mean trouble for Pennsylvania’s 2024 election

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Carter Walker, Votebeat

This article was originally published by Votebeat, a nonprofit news organization covering local election administration and voting access.

As the presidential election approaches, Pennsylvania is facing a deficit of experienced election directors, increasing the risk of errors that could cause difficulties for voters, disenfranchise their votes, and ignite disputes over results.

In total, 58 officials who served during the November 2019 election have left. Compared with experience levels during the 2019 election, the state has lost a combined 293 years of experience among the top county election officials as of this publishing date, according to a Votebeat and Spotlight PA analysis of county data. The state currently has 21% fewer years of experience than it did for the November 2019 election.

Recent ballot printing and administration errors in Greene and Luzerne counties, among others, show that having less-experienced county administrators can result in more problems occurring in an election. One of Greene County’s errors last year was an incorrect instruction telling voters to vote for up to three candidates in a commissioner race that allowed only two selections, which would have invalided their votes if they had done so.

“I think the loss of experienced election directors at the county level is one of the biggest dangers we face,” Secretary of State Al Schmidt said at a recent event in Lebanon County. “That turnover creates an environment where it’s more likely for mistakes to be made.”

The Department of State is hoping training programs and guidance on the highly technical aspects of running an election will help smooth the transition for new directors.

Chart: Kae Petrin / Votebeat  Source: Votebeat and Spotlight PA analysis of county data

Just in the past four months, the state lost three directors with roughly 45 combined years of experience. One of those directors was Jerry Feaser, Dauphin County’s director of more than a decade who was well-respected by his colleagues in the state. Feaser, 57, said that his December retirement was pre-planned for several years but that the changes to the job since 2019 reinforced his decision not to serve through another presidential election.

The combination of new voting machines in 2019 and the introduction of no-excuse mail-in voting already presented a challenging environment for the 2020 presidential election, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, “the wheels started falling off the bus.” Then allies and followers of Donald Trump started questioning the outcome and election administration process itself.

“It was just like, OK, I’ll put my 10 years in and then I’m heading off,’” he said. “It really took it out of me.”

Two more years and he would have qualified for his county pension, but Feaser joked that “those two years, I don’t know if I’ll live through them.”

He wasn’t alone in feeling overwhelmed.

Of the 58 county administrators who oversaw or helped run the November 2019 election and have since left, half departed in 2020. Long-term administrators have continued to leave in the years since, but not at such a level.

Kathy Boockvar, who was the secretary of state for the 2020 election, said the challenges Feaser mentioned — plus the calls for audits, recount petitions, and influx of records requests — created a demanding new work environment for administrators. “It’s not hard to see why there’s been such an exodus,” she said. “It’s been such a challenging few years.”

High turnover risks an increase in mistakes

Some departures, like Feaser’s, were retirements. But regardless of their reason for leaving, data and case studies bear out the intuitive notion that the less experience a county has in its election office, the more errors are likely to occur.

Errors such as instructing voters to vote for the wrong number of candidates, candidates or races being left off the ballot, or improper ballot return instructions have been increasing since 2019.

Four of the five counties with the most ballot and administrative errors since 2019 — as identified through research by Votebeat, Spotlight PA, and the Open Source Election Technology Institute — also were among the counties with the highest turnover.

County and state election officials agreed this past fall that the sharp increase in ballot errors seen in 2023 was due to election official turnover.

And in Luzerne County, where a ballot paper shortage in the 2022 midterm elections prompted outcry from residents and national scrutiny, an investigation by the district attorney determined turnover and the staff’s inexperience were at the heart of the issue.

Luzerne’s most recent director, Eryn Harvey, who returned to the director position in 2023 after that debacle, is departing, leaving the office again with an acting director as it heads into the primary.

“If you’ve never worked in an election, it is difficult to come in that office,” Feaser said.

Feaser’s replacement, deputy Chris Spackman, had the benefit of working closely with Feaser over the past two years, knowing he would be the director when Feaser retired. Other counties are adopting this peer-mentoring strategy as well.

In Snyder County, the former long-time director Patricia Nace has been brought back in a consultant role to help advise Devin Rhoads, the new election director who began in May. Rhoads said she has helped fill in gaps in his knowledge.

When Rhoads first began, there was a lot to learn, and the information coming from the Department of State wasn’t always clear because it contained abbreviations that new directors might not understand.

“Sometimes I wish it would be more like a cookbook,” he said. “So that’s one of the hardest things is we’re just new to this and we don’t know what all these abbreviations and things mean.”

But, since May, things have improved. The Department of State is also tapping into the hands-on experience of election administrators to provide support. It recently hired Dori Sawyer, an election director with roughly two and a half years of experience from Montgomery County, to lead training for new directors.

“I think they finally realized ‘Oh my, we have all these new people and they don’t know what to do,’ ” Rhoads said. He recently joined the state’s trainings on its voter roll management system and mail-in ballot applications.

Schmidt said the department established its training unit to help with transferring institutional knowledge, and it hired a former election director because they wanted someone “who’s been in the trenches” that “can speak from experience.”

In addition to the training unit, the department has created a calendar for directors that identifies pre- and post-election duties and deadlines for 2024, released a new version of its ballot review checklist for counties to use as a resource, and bolstered its county liaison program, among other initiatives.

Schmidt said in his experience he has found that directors are invested in running elections right in all counties because they understand that errors will give “bad actors” something to take advantage of. Schmidt, a Republican, was a city commissioner in Philadelphia during the 2020 election, and achieved national prominence for pushing back against Trump’s claims of fraud.

Still, there is room for improvement.

Boockvar, who now runs a consultancy on election security, said the legislature should act to provide more resources for training and provide better standards for universal practices like poll worker training and pre-election equipment testing.

“This is something where there should be help given by the Department of State,” she said. “But for the DOS to do that well, there needs to be statutes to support them and there also needs to be funding to support them. … If the statutes don’t actually dictate what is a best practice, who has the responsibility?”

The state’s Election Code limits the authority of the secretary of the commonwealth to dictate policy statewide. Some observers have complained that it leaves county directors unsure of how to approach many issues, and the effect is non-uniform voting policies from county to county.

Major election law reform is unlikely to occur in a presidential election year, so for now new directors will have to make due with the rules and resources in place.

Feaser, the recently retired Dauphin County director, recommends new directors study ballots from past cycles, learn about the positions on the ballot, work closely with their solicitors, reach out to neighboring counties’ directors, and take advantage of the County Commissioner Association of Pennsylvania’s listserv for election officials, where directors share resources and ask questions.

“You need to be able to understand and explain the process,” Feaser said. “Because if you can’t explain it, it undermines faith in the process.”

Carter Walker is a reporter for Votebeat in partnership with Spotlight PA. Contact Carter at cwalker@votebeat.org.

Votebeat is a nonprofit news organization covering local election integrity and voting access. Sign up for their newsletters here.