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Partisan election officials don’t advantage their own party

New research shows that nonpartisan election administration may be the norm.

- April 18, 2024

In the United States, elections are often administered by directly elected local officials who run as members of a political party. Do these officials use their office to give their party an edge in elections? Using a newly collected dataset of nearly 5,900 clerk elections and a close-election regression discontinuity design, we compare counties that narrowly elect a Democratic election administrator to those that narrowly elect a Republican. We find that Democrats and Republicans serving similar counties oversee similar election results, turnout, and policies. We also find that reelection is not the primary moderating force on clerks. Instead, clerks may be more likely to agree on election policies across parties than the general public and selecting different election policies may only modestly affect outcomes. While we cannot rule out small effects that nevertheless tip close elections, our results imply that clerks are not typically and noticeably advantaging their preferred party.

That’s the abstract of a new paper by Joshua Ferrer, Igor Geyn, and Daniel Thompson (ungated version here). Many states do not elect partisan election officials, but a substantial number do. 

Below is a map showing the range of the authors’ data.

Professionals first, rather than partisans?

They find that the election of a partisan local election official doesn’t lead to more vote share for that party’s presidential candidate or a different level of turnout (i.e., because a local official might try to increase turnout by their party or reduce it among the other party). This is true across several different election years and in different types of counties.

They also find that the election of a partisan official does not affect a long list of policies, including the number of polling places sited per voting-age resident, the registration rate, the registration removal rate, and voter wait times.

What’s particularly interesting is that election officials don’t put a thumb on the scales when it would be easier to do so. For example, they don’t seem to advantage their party during their last term in office, when they don’t have to worry about reelection. 

So why wouldn’t officials try to help their party? 

The authors find that Democratic and Republican officials have similar views on several issues and policies related to election administration. One interpretation (mine, to be sure) is that officials think about their work more as professionals than as partisans.

The authors also note that it may simply be hard for officials to meaningfully affect election outcomes. Small tweaks to election administration don’t necessarily change who wins. That may create some disincentive even to try.

The authors are appropriately careful about what their results can and cannot show. Although there is no average effect of partisan election administration on election outcomes, they write that “we cannot rule out small differences between Democratic and Republican officials that could determine very close elections. We also cannot rule out rare but very large effects.”

I’m not sure there is any great reason to have partisan elections for local election officials. But it is some comfort that these officials aren’t simply working to benefit their own party.