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Exodus of election officials in one county rings alarm for US democracy

It was the perfect story and Donald Trump pounced.

In the final weeks of the 2020 election, officials in Luzerne county in north-east Pennsylvania had discovered nine mail-in ballots in the trash. Several of them were cast in favor of Trump, who had been railing for months that the election was rigged against him. William Barr, then the attorney general, briefed Trump on the matter before it was public and Trump immediately began spinning it.

“They were Trump ballots – eight ballots in an office yesterday in – but in a certain state and they were – they had Trump written on it, and they were thrown in a garbage can. This is what’s going to happen,” Trump said at the time. In an unusual move, the justice department quickly announced it was investigating the matter. Months later, it would announce the incident was caused by human error.

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Several months later there was a new election director in place. But there was also a new problem. When Republicans went to the voting machine in the primaries, a header popped up on their ballot telling them they were voting an “official Democratic ballot”.

When the midterm elections came around in 2022, there was another new election director . Again, there was a problem. Just after the polls opened, many precincts quickly reported they did not have enough paper to feed the voting machines, prompting delays and forcing some voters to be turned away.

All three incidents were caused by unintentional human error, exacerbated by a high level of turnover in the election office of a politically competitive county in a battleground state. (Trump won the county by 14 points in 2020, a five-point drop from his 2016 margin.) Between 2016 and 2019, the median experience for staffers in the office was between 17 and 22 years, according to an analysis by the news outlet Votebeat, which has reported extensively on the election office’s turnover. In 2022, the median level of experience was just 1.5 years.

“It’s a good example of an office that hasn’t been invested in and it shows,” said Jennifer Morrell, the CEO and co-founder of The Elections Group, an election administration consultancy that worked with Luzerne county to improve processes in 2021. “I think there are a lot of other offices like that maybe haven’t had the public problems, but it’s probably because they’re kind of holding things together by a thread. Or more likely by duct tape.”

While the turnover in Luzerne county has been exceptionally high, it is emblematic of a larger crisis facing American elections. Experienced election officials, long underresourced and underpaid, are leaving the profession as they face a wave of threats and harassment, seeded by Trump and allies who have spread the myth that US election results can’t be trusted. About 20% of local election officials are projected to be working their first presidential election in 2024, according to an April survey by the Brennan Center for Justice. Nearly 70 election directors or assistant directors in 40 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties have left since 2020, according to Al Schmidt, the secretary of state.

With this exodus comes a massive loss of institutional knowledge. The people who know exactly how to proof a ballot, test election machines, or troubleshoot problems on election day won’t be there. The result is a toxic cycle, where a lack of experience produces human error, fueling distrust in elections and anger, then pushing election officials to leave.

“Any wrinkle in an election process is immediately the subject of conspiracy theories,” said Robert Morgan, who served as Luzerne county’s election director for most of 2021 and was in the role when the ballot header issue occurred. “If you experience that level of turnover, there is a concern that you may not be as experienced, and you may not have handled this, or handled something this large, and yes, that doesn’t help. That doesn’t build confidence.”

Luzerne county manager Romilda Crocamo
The Luzerne county manager, Romilda Crocamo: ‘What we need to do is make sure that we prepare for everything that we can control.’ Photograph: Sait Serkan Gurbuz/AP

As the county heads into another election year, it’s under the magnifying glass. Officials know that any error can lead to more distrust and skepticism of elections. The county is now seeking to improve its internal election processes to regain trust of its residents.

“There’s certain things that we can’t control. But what we need to do is make sure that we prepare for everything that we can control,” Romilda Crocamo, the county manager, said. “We still hear from people who don’t trust the election. And you’re not going to get people’s trust overnight. We’re going to have to have a series of clean elections.”

As the justice department investigation found, for example, the ballots Trump seized on in 2020 weren’t discarded because of a nefarious plot to steal the election, but rather because a temporary worker who had been on the job for a few days made a mistake. The worker appeared not to realize they were military ballots, which can arrive in different envelopes than regular mail-in votes and discarded them. The discarded ballots were quickly discovered by Shelby Watchilla, the county’s director of elections. Federal prosecutors and the FBI would later say there was no evidence of criminal intent.

You’re not going to get people’s trust overnight. We’re going to have to have a series of clean elections

Romilda Crocamo, Luzerne county manager

Still, the damage was done. After the ballots were disclosed, Walter Griffith, a county councilman, had organized a protest outside the county office and criticized Watchilla as incompetent. She resigned in December, shortly after she filed a defamation lawsuit against Griffith.

Public meetings of the election board became more heated in the aftermath of the 2020 election. “There were no filters for some people. They would immediately assume everybody was incompetent in the process and that sort of stuff because of what had happened in 2020,” said Morgan, who took over in 2021. “And you know it’s tough to operate in an environment like that.”

Recent election directors in Luzerne county have also been paid $64,500 per year, according to Votebeat, among the lowest salaries in similarly sized counties across the country. “You’re making $65,000 and you’re going to work and people are publicly abusing you? And you’re receiving threats. That’s not an incentive to get out of bed and get to the office,” Crocamo said.

And as distrust built after the discarded ballots in 2020, another error from the election office only further escalated mistrust.

When Morgan started his job as the election director in 2021, the elections office was already in the process of proofing the ballot for the upcoming primary. There wasn’t a manual or protocol to follow.

“It was basically an oral history tradition. It was a little frustrating. Because sometimes the stories weren’t told in the order they might have been otherwise,” he said. “I knew a lot of things, but I didn’t know anywhere near all the things that needed to go into it. It’s a huge logistical process.”

Stacks of paper too thick for Luzerne county’s election equipment are seen in the county’s warehouse in Wilkes-Barre.
Stacks of paper too thick for Luzerne county’s election equipment are seen in the county’s warehouse in Wilkes-Barre. Photograph: Sait Serkan Gurbuz/AP

When election day for the primary came around, Morgan made a mistake. When a representative of Dominion programmed the county’s election machines, Morgan didn’t catch that the representative had programmed the first page of all ballots to say it was a Democratic ballot. Polls opened at 7am and by 7.15am the office was swamped with phone calls. “That was not fun,” Morgan said.

“We should have caught it. But we didn’t. You never proofread your own work and a lot of times when you proofread you’re looking for the highlights,” he added. “The problem is in a heightened situation where people don’t feel you’re credible and you make a simple error like that and it just lights the fire for everything everyone thought they were getting cheated by last time.”

Morgan resigned that fall to take another job, a decision that he said was unrelated to any harassment he faced.

By November of last year, Beth Gilbert McBride, a city councilperson in Wilkes-Barre, was running the elections office. She started as a deputy in July 2022 and took over three months before election day when the elections director stepped down, according to Votebeat. Weeks before election day, the deputy director texted McBride that the county was low on paper but probably would be OK for the election. McBride said she would order more paper.

That order never materialized and shortly after polls opened, several precincts reported they were running low on paper. County officials initially delivered extra paper from a warehouse to precincts with a shortage, but then had to take it back when a Dominion representative expressed concern it might not work with the machine. The county ultimately had to make a same-day order for the correct paper.

There were immediate accusations that the paper issue was an attempt to suppress the vote in Republican areas of the county. Republicans on the elections board refused to certify the election, causing the county to miss the state’s certification deadline (it ultimately certified after a lawsuit). The accusations went national – the US House administration committee held a hearing in March of this year focused on the paper shortage that was titled: “Government Voter Suppression in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania.” Representative Bryan Steil, a Republican from Wisconsin, said that one-third of precincts had been turned away.

But an extensive investigation by the district attorney’s office found that wasn’t true: 16 of the county’s 143 polling locations had a paper shortage, and just four election judges reported a stoppage in voting.

“The evidence shows that the failure to provide paper to the polling places was not a deliberate act, but rather a catastrophic oversight,” the district attorney’s report said, noting it was overlooked “amid the flurry of activities involved in the newly hired parties managing the election”.

The review offered a thorough, public audit of what went wrong in 2022 and how to fix it. That kind of transparency will be required to rebuild trust, said Morrell, the elections consultant. “You address the mistake, you don’t brush it under the rug. You be transparent about why it happened and then ‘What can we do to ensure it doesn’t happen again?’” she said.

Crocamo, the county manager, said there was little doubt the issues the county has faced have had to do with turnover.

“We had individuals who worked in the bureau who were very good, very competent, but who were being abused. They were being verbally abused by board members. Some government representatives. People in the public coming to meetings. Some of them were receiving threats,” she said. “If there were individuals who worked in the bureau and had institutional memory and they were gone. That was gone as well. All that was gone.”

This year, she’s determined not to have the same issues happen again. The county brought in a lawyer with expertise in elections to officially record its election procedures. Crocamo published a calendar of what needs to be done each week and expects an explanation if a deadline isn’t met. And the county is doing extensive outreach for poll workers at high schools and senior centers.

The new election director, Eryn Harvey, 28, has experience in the office – she left in 2022 to run for elected office, but returned.

During an interview in mid-November, Crocamo was especially optimistic. Luzerne county had just pulled off largely successful municipal elections – a hugely complicated endeavor because of the wide variations in local races that can appear on a ballot.

“I mean, I’m not gonna convince everybody. That’s impossible. There are people out there who want us to fail. But I think we can convince most of the people, most of the voting public, that they can have trust in our elections in Luzerne county,” she said.

She took a long pause. “Absolutely believe it.”