Politics

High-profile elections officials leave posts after a tumultuous 2020


The exits come as experts say a wave of departures could be on the horizon, as elections officials reach retirement age or leave jobs that have become increasingly targeted in partisan political battles. Secretaries of state have broad portfolios, ranging from election oversight to registering corporations. The day-to-day responsibilities of administering elections generally fall to officials at the county and city level.

Indiana’s Secretary of State Connie Lawson, the state’s longest-serving elections chief, announced Monday her plans to resign, saying “2020 took a toll on me.” On Tuesday, the Fulton County, Georgia, elections board voted 3-2 to remove elections director Richard Barron from his post in the state’s largest county, citing the need to modernize elections. (His future is in flux after a county commission failed to ratify the election panel’s decision.)

And Pennsylvania’s top election official Kathy Boockvar, who became a familiar face across the country as she oversaw an intensely scrutinized presidential contest last November, resigned this month after her agency mistakenly failed to advertise a proposed constitutional amendment — an error unrelated to the 2020 election.

Potentially a quarter of local election officials in some of the country’s largest jurisdictions are planning to retire before 2024, according to a survey of 857 officials in all 50 states by the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College.

Overall, the survey showed a majority of election officials — about 90% — shared that the work they do is personally satisfying, but that the stresses of balancing the work and resource requirements are hard. Of those officials surveyed, less than 50% felt the workload of their job was reasonable and were able to leave their problems at work.

Reed College political scientist Paul Manson said the election officials surveyed cited two reasons most often for their departures: They had “served their time” and “the political environment.”

“That is part of what we think is going on here: that the focus on what was sort of more classically a clerical role is now becoming a more political role,” he said.

At the county level in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, some 25 senior election officials have left their jobs in the last year, state officials told legislators at a recent hearing. That’s left critical openings at roughly a third of the commonwealth’s 67 counties.

Across the country, election officials faced challenges like no other in 2020 as they helped a record numbers of Americans — nearly 160 million people — cast ballots in the middle of the pandemic.

Lawson, whose term expires in early 2023, said she was stepping down to focus on her health and family. Her spokeswoman Valerie Warycha declined to elaborate further.

A replacement in Michigan

The 2020 election — and then-President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of widespread election fraud — brought intense scrutiny to even little-known officials who played largely ministerial roles in certifying results.

In the battleground state of Michigan, a Republican member of the state canvassing board, Aaron Van Langevelde recently lost his seat on the four-member panel. The job is largely unpaid, save for a $75-per-meeting stipend.

Van Langevelde did not respond to a CNN interview request this week.

The lowkey Republican attorney gained national attention when he joined two Democrats last November in voting to grant the state’s 16 electoral votes to Joe Biden — amid intense pressure from national and state Republican officials to delay the certification. “We must not attempt to exercise power we don’t have,” Van Langevelde said at the time in voting to certify the results.

Van Langevelde’s term expired last month, and the state’s Republican Party did not renominate him after his pivotal vote. He was replaced by Michigan conservative activist Tony Daunt, who praised his predecessor’s “honor and integrity.”

In Pennsylvania, in what the state’s Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf described as “human error” in Boockvar’s office, election officials failed to advertise an amendment to the state constitution that would have extended the timeline for survivors of child-sexual abuse to pursue legal action against their abusers. Boockvar resigned February 5.

Wolf said Boockvar’s departure was not related the administration of the 2020 election, which he described as “fair and accurate.” But he said the mistake was “heartbreaking for thousands of survivors of childhood sexual assault.”

Fulton fracas

In Georgia, the decision by the elections board on Tuesday to terminate Barron was a direct outgrowth of the 2020 election and has set off a scramble over who is in charge of elections in a county with roughly 800,000 voters.

Barron oversaw a June primary plagued by long voting lines and complaints that voters had failed to receive their absentee ballots by mail. Subsequent elections, including the January 5 Senate runoff elections, however, appeared to operate more smoothly.

In voting Tuesday to remove Barron, board members cited the need to improve the administration of elections. “This is not political,” said Kathleen Ruth, a Republican appointee on the elections board. “This is a bipartisan vote. The department needs new leadership that can take Fulton to the next level.”

Barron did not respond to interview requests after Tuesday’s vote. But in a recent interview with CNN, he said he was discouraged by the criticism after a 21-year career. He described racial taunts against his staff and harassment of election workers as they ran multiple elections amid the coronavirus outbreak.

“No matter what we did, no one was happy with anything,” he said.

Barron had been particularly outspoken about the conspiracy theories that arose around voting in Fulton County once Biden won the presidential race in Georgia. A prosecutor in Fulton County recently announced she was investigating Trump for his “attempts to influence the administration of the 2020 Georgia general election.”
The probe stems from a call Trump made to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger that urged the Raffensperger to “find” votes. In the call, Trump made repeated references to unproven allegations of fraud in Fulton County.

This week, Carter Jones, a nonpartisan monitor assigned to review Fulton County’s operations, told the state elections board that he uncovered signs of “systemic disorganization” in the election office. But Jones said he found no evidence of “illegality, fraud or intentional malfeasance” and added that firing Barron was “not a shortcut to fixing” mismanagement issues.

A county spokeswoman said Barron remains in his post for the time being, after the county’s board of commissioners deadlocked by a 3-3 vote Wednesday on whether to ratify the elections board’s decision.

The county commission is expected to revisit Barron’s future at its next meeting on March 3.

CNN’s Haley Burton contributed to this story.


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