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Rock, Paper, Local: County Officials Still Wield Great Influence Over Elections

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[Image courtesy of talknerdytomelover]

Lately, the news has been full of debates and discussions about the impact on election administration of decisions made by federal and state government. These are, to be sure, important questions but two recent stories have reinforced the enduring power of local government - and in particular, local election officials.

In Waukesha County, Wisconsin, embattled county clerk Kathy Nickolaus (who figured prominently in last fall's hotly-contested campaign for the state Supreme Court) agreed to relinquish her election duties after encountering difficulties with tallying the returns from the state's April 3 primary.

What's significant is that the pressure for Nickolaus' action came from an individual who, technically, has no power to remover her: the Waukesha County Executive. Last week, he said that he would publicly call for Nickolaus' resignation unless she agreed to allow a deputy and outside consultants to handle the upcoming high-profile recall votes in Waukesha:

"I am responsible for the efficient operation of the county," he said. "It's not easy sitting behind the county executive's desk, so when I see a part of our operation that needs attention I'm not afraid to take action. It's not just about Tuesday. It's something that has built up in past elections. It's been an issue that's been building."

Contrast that with the the building controversy in Douglas County (Omaha), Nebraska, where election commissioner Dave Phipps is under fire for his plan to close nearly half of the county's polling places both as a result of redistricting and in an effort to save funds. That decision led the Nebraska Secretary of State to send the Governor's office an email about a month ago expressing concern about the impact of the poll closures, but recently the Secretary conceded that Phipps' decision was not illegal and thus he saw no reason to investigate:

"While hindsight would now suggest that a more cautious change would have been a wiser choice in Douglas County, there is no indication of illegal conduct or malicious intent," [he] wrote.

Note that in both of these cases, the local election official was not required to follow the lead of a technically superior official; indeed, such protections are part and parcel of insulating local elections from partisan control. What differentiates the two cases, I think, is the perception that Nickolaus was unable to perform her legally assigned duties properly, while Phipps is under fire for decisions which are legal but with which others disagree.

Either way, however, it's clear that notwithstanding the ongoing debates about the power of federal and state officials over the election process, the real power in most communities still lies with the local election official who (more often than not) is the last word on how, when and where their citizens can cast a ballot.

1 Comment


  • Great article, and I think you highlighted a very important topic that many people don't realize - the real power of election officials lies at the local level. They make decisions every day that will have an impact on elections to come.

    My question is, do you think this will continue? There seems to be a gradual "federalization" of elections in this country, for better or worse. Many states are switching from their "bottom-up" model or "nebulous-somewhere-in-the-middle" model to "top-down" approaches. Do you think the power of the local election official is as strong as it was 10 years ago? 5? I most certainly feel it is waning.

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