Election officials across the country are leaving their jobs at the highest rates in decades, according to new research shared first with NBC News, putting thousands of new officials in place to oversee a tense and high-stakes 2024 presidential contest.

At least 36% of local election offices have changed hands since 2020, following a similar exodus in the run-up to the midterms in 2022, when 39% of jurisdictions had new lead election officials from four years previously. Both points in time represented the highest four-year turnover rates in two decades, a development that worries election experts and officials who say such jobs are complex and come with a steep learning curve and no margin for error. And 2024’s turnover rate could continue to rise as the year goes on.

Election workers have been exposed to unprecedented scrutiny, threats and harassment following the presidential election in 2020, when Donald Trump falsely claimed the election was stolen and made baseless claims of voter fraud. And as Trump seeks the presidency for the third time, he has continued to predict voter fraud — seeming to lay the groundwork to again claim the election was stolen if he loses in November.

While the turnover rate has jumped in recent years, researchers found that it has been gradually rising for years, suggesting that both new and long-standing challenges are driving administrators from their jobs. From 2000 to 2004, about 28% of local election officials left their jobs. Four years later, 31% of election offices had changed hands.

Experts say that dynamic only reinforces the need to provide better funding and support for election workers to ensure the smooth administration of future elections.

“This gradual increase that we’ve seen over the last two decades really does highlight the need for comprehensive, coordinated strategies that seek to better fund election administration, that seek to reduce the burdens being placed on these election administrators,” said one of the study’s co-authors, Rachel Orey, senior associate director at the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Elections Project. “Because clearly, this isn’t something that only happened back in 2020.”

The research was conducted by UCLA researchers Daniel M. Thompson and Joshua Ferrer, who spent years collecting lists and directories of election officials in counties and municipalities around the country to produce the most accurate and expansive picture of election worker turnover available yet. Their data was analyzed and published in partnership with the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank, in an effort to better understand turnover as election administrators face harassment, violent threats and increasingly complex and heavy workloads.

The data for 2024 is current through January and is preliminary.

Turnover surged in populous jurisdictions after 2020

The 2020 election appears to have escalated and shifted the trend in turnover, which researchers found was consistent across geographic and partisan lines.

Until recently, the bulk of the turnover was driven by the resignations of election officials in small towns and counties, where election officials must wear many hats and oversee all parts of the election process with limited help and staffing. After 2020, officials from larger jurisdictions began leaving their jobs at a higher rate: Districts with at least 100,000 voting-age residents had a turnover rate of 46% from 2018 to 2022.

Trump and his allies have particularly focused their baseless fraud allegations on large cities like Phoenix, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Detroit. His supporters have seized on the claims, protesting near and harassing officials and poll workers, suggesting that election denialism may be fueling departures in large jurisdictions. Still, there was no clear tie between areas where more threats have been reported — like the states Joe Biden narrowly won in 2020 — and higher turnover, according to the data.

In Georgia, a key battleground state, many election offices have been flooded with voter challenges, public information requests and frequent harassment and threats. All four election offices in Georgia’s most populous counties, all in and around Atlanta, have changed hands since 2020, with many lower-level staffers following, too.

“I got here in August ’21. By the time we ran our first election in May of ’22, I think it was something like 75% of the staff had never run an election before,” said Zach Manifold, Gwinnett County’s elections supervisor.

Since then, he said, turnover has slowed in his office, making everyone’s lives a bit easier. He said camaraderie has developed among the new election chiefs in the Atlanta area as they talk about their shared experiences.

“I’m part of the new generation of election administrators,” said Tate Fall, Cobb County’s new elections director. Fall, 30, started in December — “baptism by fire,” she called it — after having worked in elections in Virginia and studied election administration in graduate school.

“We’ve heard so much about the great resignation and people retiring and stepping down, and I definitely see why — this job is exhausting. It’s draining,” she said. “We have seen our predecessors, our mentors, the people that we’ve seen speak at conferences for years, stepping down, and understandably so, but we’re not afraid to step into those positions. We’re not going in blind.”

And the next generation is entering the top jobs with a significant level of experience, the researchers determined after having drawn on data from a survey of local election officials last year conducted by the Elections & Voting Information Center at Reed College in Oregon. On average, new election officials had eight years of experience; in large jurisdictions, new officials had an average of 11 years of experience.

Public attacks and heavy workloads

In interviews, election officials who have left their jobs in recent years said that their decisions were based on many factors but that public attacks and scrutiny particularly weighed heavily on their experiences.

“I still love elections to this day,” said Teresa DeGraaf, the former clerk of Port Sheldon Township, Michigan. “But it changed. I’ve never had a job where I had so many sleepless nights. I would wake up at 3 in the morning, and you feel like you’re under the microscope, and you feel like everything you’re doing is being watched. We had folks that sat in our parking lot at 2 in the morning to watch our ballot box before the election.”

In Charleston County, South Carolina, Joe Debney, 44, resigned from running the county’s elections in December 2020.

“After 2020, you could go home and people would question you in your own household. Your family members around Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas time are like, well, we trust you, Joe, but we’re not so sure we trust the rest of the United States,” he said.

Another factor that may be driving resignations is that the work has become more complicated and time-consuming.

Many states’ election codes have been overhauled repeatedly over the last few years, including changes to mail voting and new restrictions driven by unfounded fear of fraud.

Isaac Cramer, who succeeded Debney in Charleston County, said South Carolina’s election code doesn’t consolidate special elections onto the existing elections calendar, leaving officials in his state running multiple elections per week at times. He said it’s burning out election workers, and after a spate of resignations this year, he said, he knows few other election directors in the state because so many have resigned.

Cramer said that after three years in the top job, he believes he’s one of the most senior officials in the state. When nuances in the law arise, he said, there isn’t anyone more experienced to ask.

Debney said: “There’s a learning curve. Thank God we have people like Isaac who are reaching out to those counties and trying to work with them and give them the tools in order to succeed.”

Debney, who had previously worked with the South Carolina Election Commission, said there was a similar exodus of election directors when the state upgraded its voting system. He went across the state, training and supporting officials, talking through nuances and best practices.

“If those things don’t occur, I think, there could be some pitfalls,” he said.

Debney now runs a local YMCA and serves on the Board of Elections in his home county, Dorchester, South Carolina. On Election Day in November, he’ll be in the field supporting his county’s election director.

“I really do miss it,” he said. “What I did was good. It helped not only our community but our state and nation as a whole.”

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