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The 2020 elections could be among the most challenging in American history. Think of the high turnout, the political tension, the partisan conspiracy theories and the very real fear of foreign interference, which means that highly qualified election officials will be essential. So it matters that some experienced election officials are leaving their jobs. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: When Virginia voters went to the polls earlier this month, Edgardo Cortes did something he couldn't do for a very long time.
EDGARDO CORTES: Waking up and going to sleep at a normal time (laughter).
FESSLER: As state election commissioner for four years and a county registrar before that, Cortes often had to work around the clock to make sure voting went without a hitch.
CORTES: In Virginia in particular, there are elections going on every year, multiple times a year. And so it was definitely a huge time commitment.
FESSLER: So with a new baby on the way and the governor he worked for about to leave office, Cortes decided last year, it was time to move on. He's not the only one. Elaine Manlove and Gary Poser, longtime election directors for Delaware and Minnesota, respectively, both retired this year. A couple of weeks ago, Michigan's election director, Sally Williams, announced that she, too, was leaving after 34 years in the field. Not everyone's retiring, though. Nikki Suchanic is resigning from her job running elections in York County, Pa., to spend more time at home and to find a new line of work.
NIKKI SUCHANIC: With the stress and the constant pressure of the job, I just want to put more of my energy into my family versus my career at this point in my life. And I think I'm just ready to move to a career that's maybe not so much under the spotlight or the microscope.
FESSLER: She says her decision has nothing to do with the controversy that erupted in her county this month over problems with new voting equipment, but it probably didn't help. Election officials say they're under pressure to do more and more with limited resources, even as public scrutiny intensifies.
JOE HOLLAND: Quite frankly, elections officials are exhausted.
FESSLER: Joe Holland is the registrar of voters in Santa Barbara County, Calif., and heads the state association of county election officials. Holland says running elections used to be pretty routine. But every year now seems to bring new demands, from upgrading machines to expanding absentee and early voting, to guarding against cyberattacks.
HOLLAND: Any one of these things is, maybe, not all that significant. But when you heap them on top of each other, it just is approaching overwhelming.
FESSLER: Especially when budgets and salaries remain relatively low. A recent survey found that local election officials, who are overwhelmingly female, are paid on average about $50,000 a year. Mary Bedard, who oversees elections in Kern County, Calif., thinks that's why she's had trouble retaining entry-level workers and replacing four longtime staffers who retired this year.
MARY BEDARD: It's hard to get people with elections experience. If they don't come up within your own ranks, you know, you have to try to steal in from another county. And so many of the other counties, in fact, are having retirements and turnovers.
FESSLER: She convinced her county to raise salaries to be more competitive, which definitely helped. But she's also worried about how polarized the public is.
BEDARD: I know in 2016, we would get phone calls coming in from the public, accusing us of rigging the election or things like that.
FESSLER: Some officials fear this erosion in public confidence will lead to more departures, which, in turn, might mean more problems at the polls as those with the most experience leave. Mitchell Brown of Auburn University, who has trained local officials around the country, isn't so sure about that.
MITCHELL BROWN: I've never met an election official who didn't want to do a good job.
FESSLER: She says they're a pretty resilient group and will rise to the challenge. Brown also thinks the turnover rate is pretty normal, although no one knows for sure. And she says some turnover is understandable as the job of running elections becomes more specialized, with greater focus on election law and cybersecurity.
BROWN: You see more people with JDs, with master's degrees, occasionally a Ph.D. getting into this type of work. And so the field itself is slowly professionalizing.
FESSLER: Which, of course, brings new challenges. Such experts are more inclined to switch jobs, looking for higher pay and more opportunity. Brown says, if the country wants good elections, it should be prepared to pay a little more. Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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