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The 2020 vote and its aftermath have left many election workers beleaguered

Election workers accept mail-in ballots from voters at a drive-thru site in Houston during the 2020 election. Houston's Harris County experimented with new voting methods during the 2020 race — ideas that were later prohibited by GOP lawmakers.
Go Nakamura
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Election workers accept mail-in ballots from voters at a drive-thru site in Houston during the 2020 election. Houston's Harris County experimented with new voting methods during the 2020 race — ideas that were later prohibited by GOP lawmakers.

Isabel Longoria runs elections in Harris County, which is where Houston is. She says she loves her job and thinks most people who do that kind work feel the same way.

"I am an election nerd and I don't know a single other elections administrator who is not an election nerd," Longoria says. "We geek out, literally, on having the coolest job in America that we get to run the founding principles of this country — which is free and fair elections."

But since the 2020 presidential election, and amid the false allegations that followed claiming it was stolen, local election officials have faced increased scrutiny. Some have been harassed and gotten death threats. Some are leaving the job altogether.

Longoria is not. She started her job as the county's elections administrator in 2020, during the worst of the pandemic and ahead of a contentious election. She came up with a lot of ideas on how to make voting safer — ideas that were later criticized and prohibited by Republican state lawmakers.

Longoria says she's been doing what she can to help people understand what she does, but she's finding that some people cannot be satisfied.

"That is what is concerning to me. It's not that people hold us accountable, not that people have questions about how elections are happening, but that they are now trained to say that if there is an answer that is acceptable, that is true, it must be a lie," she says. "And so, at what point then do people accept the truth?"

In some cases, this kind of distrust has led to harassment of local election officials. In Texas, an election official in heavily Republican Hood County, outside of Fort Worth, resigned following pressure from some Republican voters.

Virginia Kase Solomón, CEO of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, says this is a nationwide problem.

"What we have seen is increasing threats of violence and aggression," she says. "It's really, really sad. These are some of the most patriotic roles anybody can play and they have now been politicized and it's just really sad for our country."

Election experts say they've already seen a rise in the number of beleaguered officialsretiring early.

A move away from elected officials running elections

At this point there hasn't been an exodus of election officials in Texas leaving their roles. Though there is another trend happening.

Elections in the Lone Star State are run almost entirely by county officials, with the work of voter registration and election administration historically split between elected county clerks and tax assessors. But in the past several years more and more counties have consolidated both of those elected roles into one appointed position, often referred to as an election administrator.

Out of the 254 counties in Texas, about half have switched to election administrator positions, says Remi Garza, president of the Texas Association of Election Administrators. It's a switch that mostly larger counties in Texas have made, but Garza says lately smaller counties have begun switching to appointed positions as well.

"I think there are a lot of different factors that they consider," he says. "It could range from a budgetary cost or just that elections are becoming more complicated."

It's not just technology that is getting more complicated, Garza says; state laws are also changing more often. He says that means there are more expectations and rules to follow.

"And there are additional repercussions for when things go wrong that people are going to want to turn to those individuals that specialize in this type of government function," Garza says.

And those "additional repercussions" in Texas will soon include a slew of new penalties created by a massive voting bill that was passed earlier this year, following months of tension between Democratic and Republican state lawmakers.

What do the changes mean for accountability?

As to whether it's a good thing that fewer voters in Texas are directly electing the people who run their elections, Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas, says it kind of depends.

"You know, it really can go both ways," he says. "I mean you see some election administrators who do a really good job because they are professionals who stay in that job — for decades, in some cases."

But Gutierrez says sometimes appointments can be pretty political.

For example, he says, Gov. Greg Abbott recently appointed a new state elections chief who was part of former President Donald Trump's legal team trying to overturn 2020 election results in Pennsylvania.

Gutierrez says in those situations, voters can't weigh in at the ballot box to vote someone out. He says this is why he thinks for this model to work, there needs to be transparency.

"With this type of appointment system you really need to have citizens involved, you need to have a public, transparent interview process where you have multiple candidates that people can interact with," he says.

Harris County's Longoria says she thinks this appointment model in Texas actually creates more accountability because there's only one person voters look to for answers.

"It's one job you hold me accountable for," she says. "From soup to nuts, I am the person who has to make that happen. And therefore voters have much more clarity on holding me accountable."

In Cameron County on the state's southern border, Garza says he thinks that as the pressure mounts, election administrators like him are in a good position to take things in stride.

"There are always going to be some level of changes that we are going to address and we are not easily scared off to performing these types of tasks," Garza says. "I think election administrators are made of stern stuff."

He says the hardest part of the job will always be the nuts and bolts of getting polling sites up and running — and election results released.

But experts worry getting those results released efficiently and accurately could be harder if the public continues to place such strain on election workers.

Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez joined KUT in January 2016. She covers politics and health care, and is part of the NPR-Kaiser Health News reporting collaborative. Previously she worked as a reporter at public radio stations in Louisville, Ky.; Miami and Fort Myers, Fla., where she won a National Edward R. Murrow Award.