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Many harried election officials are eyeing the exit. But new workers are stepping up

An election worker in Atlanta carries a bin of ballots to be scanned on Jan. 5, 2021, during Georgia's U.S. Senate runoff elections.
Sandy Huffaker
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AFP via Getty Images
An election worker in Atlanta carries a bin of ballots to be scanned on Jan. 5, 2021, during Georgia's U.S. Senate runoff elections.

When Dorothy Glisson, president of Georgia's association of election officials, scanned the room at a conference last month to highlight years of service in voting, there were only a few grizzled veterans with decades of experience under their belts.

In fact, the bustling convention center near the campus of the University of Georgia was teeming with relatively fresh faces from across the state.

"I would say that we've probably got as many first-time attendees as we do all of the others put together, so that tells us something," Glisson said to a crowd of about 500.

The event brought together local board members, election supervisors and staff for three days of training — on everything from conducting post-election audits to verifying absentee ballots under newly passed rules — before frenzied preparations for the state's May 24 primary election begin in earnest.

And the new faces in the crowd underscored that while many election workers are eyeing the exits amid a contentious national environment, a new crop of public servants is stepping in to fill the void.

"You can't complain if you don't ... try and fix it"

2020 was grueling for election workers in the United States. The coronavirus pandemic cut down on available polling places and volunteer workers, and a significant shift to more mail-in voting swamped many election offices. Bad actors emerged who questioned processes designed to keep voting secure and who sought to undermine results.

Many election workers are considering leaving their roles. A recent survey by the Brennan Center for Justice found that 20% of them say they are unlikely to continue working in the 2024 election cycle, citing harassment, stress and other challenges.

Former teacher Mary Kay Clyburn is a new election board member in Georgia's Morgan County.
Stephen Fowler / GPB
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GPB
Former teacher Mary Kay Clyburn is a new election board member in Georgia's Morgan County.

Some people are filling their spots, like former teacher Mary Kay Clyburn in Georgia's Morgan County.

She'd been around elections a long time, serving as a poll worker and manager, but when a call for new election board members went out last year, something clicked.

"No. 1, I was always taught you can't complain if you don't do something to try and fix it," she said. No. 2: False claims of voter fraud made her angry and, frankly, felt personal.

"I knew people in my family talking about what they thought was possible election fraud, and I said, 'You're saying I do that. I'm a poll worker. Do you think I would do that?' " she said.

After the training conference, Clyburn said it was eye-opening to see what goes into the election process that voters never think about and it validated her decision to serve on her local board.

"Even though I was knowledgeable about the process, there are so many things I didn't know," Clyburn said. "I wish there was a way to help the public see some of that — all of the work, all of the different systems that are in place, the checks, the double checks, the triple checks. ... That's pretty cool."

Leading elections in Wisconsin

Wisconsin's Richland Center is a rural community that's home to about 2,600 voters.

Its city clerk and treasurer is Aaron Joyce, who previously worked for the local radio station before joining Richland Center's government as a deputy clerk and then taking on lead election duties in 2021.

Wisconsin, like Georgia, has seen its fair share of election challenges and controversies in that time too. There has been a partisan review of election results, chaos with the state's redistricting process and whiplash over voting rules and things like absentee drop boxes.

Joyce says he wishes more people could see how much work goes into making the voting process easy, smooth and safe.

"All of the people involved with elections are there to ensure that people have the opportunity to vote," he said. "And not the opportunity to vote for who the election official wants to vote for, but who the voter wants to vote for."

In the village of Shorewood, Wis., Toya Harrell was sworn in last November and conducted her first election as clerk on Feb. 15 of this year, when drop boxes were still allowed.

She'd served in other government roles before landing in the 13,000-person suburb of Milwaukee, and she says her job blends her passion for voting with more administrative experience needed to run things.

"I was always that type of person that was always yelling at the masses to get out and vote, and I worked as an election inspector in Madison," she said.

Recent rulings on drop boxes sent Harrell and her office scrambling to communicate the changes and field questions from Shorewood voters who felt inconvenienced — but who appreciated having election officials-turned-customer service help out.

In addition to election administrator, Harrell sees her role as a flexible communicator to sort through rule changes and make the voting experience as simple as possible.

"This job really allows me to think on my feet and to really think outside the box," Harrell said. "And working here, I've learned to work as though there is no box."

To help democracy "carry on"

In Georgia, at the elections training conference, the theme of the week cast attendees as election superheroes.

Tyrell Golden doesn't see himself as a hero, but the 28-year-old, as the new registrar manager of suburban Clayton County, is stepping into a much-needed role.

Tyrell Golden is the new registrar manager of suburban Clayton County, Georgia.
Stephen Fowler / GPB
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GPB
Tyrell Golden is the new registrar manager of suburban Clayton County, Georgia.

"There is just a big turnover in leadership in elections, just like I'm sure there are in other industries," he said. "And so it's just the time now for my generation — and even the ones after me and older than me — to step up into these positions, because without voting and elections, I don't see how democracy will carry on."

The exodus of experienced election officials means a tremendous loss of institutional knowledge that goes beyond following the letter of the law.

But Golden is ready to use his leadership position to show voters that the election process can be trusted.

"The people that are there from 6 a.m. to midnight every day for two or three months straight are the same people you see every day at church and the same people you see at the grocery store," Golden said. "So I just think it's important to extend grace, because at the end of the day, everyone is just there to complete their job, to do so accurately and within constitutional statutes."

In what's shaping up to be a crucial election year in battleground states, these new workers will face their biggest tests yet: Georgia's statewide primary is in May, and Wisconsin's is in August.

Copyright 2022 Georgia Public Broadcasting