Enduring Outcomes of 2020: State Control And Local Elections

by Liz Avore

July 25, 2023

Local election administration is fundamental to functioning American elections. Our decentralized model of election administration across the United States ensures that election officials come from the communities they serve. This helps to optimize the voter experience. 

However, in recent years we’ve seen new efforts by state lawmakers attempting to take more control over local election administration through legislation and rule-making. These efforts are sold to the public as a way to increase confidence in elections, but often have the opposite effect. Increased state control of elections deprives local voters of the specialized knowledge of local administrators, increases partisanship in the voting process, and chases experienced local officials from their positions.

In this month’s Hot Policy Take, we take a closer look at state lawmakers’ efforts to assert greater control over local election administration ahead of the 2024 election.

Election Lies Lead To Partisan Takeovers

Since the 2020 election, state legislators and executives in several states have ramped up efforts to seize control of local election administration. Generally, the officials seeking greater control will cite claims of widespread election irregularities without proof to justify their efforts. However, these efforts at providing greater “security” have often led to lawmakers injecting partisan control over local elections and officials, and at times, led to voter intimidation.

These attempts to increase state control over elections threaten to deprive voters in affected areas of the benefit of local experience and expertise in local voters’ unique needs provided by local officials. Additionally, the general air of distrust has doubtlessly contributed to the increasing pace of the exodus of experienced election administrators at the local level. This has likely contributed to a decrease in overall confidence in elections.

Most Legislative Action is in Battleground States

Unsurprisingly, the closest battleground states from the 2020 election have seen the bulk of this legislative action. In these states, lawmakers have been trying several different methods to usurp local election control. Often, the efforts are focused closely on more populous and diverse counties with growing populations of voters of color. 

Georgia: The Peach State was one of the first states to weather a takeover attempt after the 2020 election. 2021’s S.B. 202 created a process for the state election board to initiate investigations of county election superintendents that could include and lead up to their replacement. The state board quickly acted on its newly-granted authority by investigating Fulton County, Georgia’s most populous county. Though the board ultimately decided not to recommend a state takeover at this time, they did release a 19-page report detailing perceived issues with election administration in the county, leaving the possibility of future state action in place.

Florida: At the urging of Governor Ron DeSantis, the Florida legislature passed S.B. 524 in 2022 and established the Office of Election Crimes and Security. This board consists of law enforcement officers and prosecutors that lawmakers intend to assign statewide authority to investigate and prosecute allegations of election irregularities. These officials can make investigative and prosecutorial decisions from the state level that override the discretion of local officials. So far, all investigations and arrests by the office have implicated returning citizens with allegations of illegal voting. The subjects of these arrests are disproportionately voters of color, subjected to arrests at gunpoint for alleged violations of which they were unaware. Ultimately, several of the early arrests eventually resulted in dismissals, but the threat of possible arrest for unknown charges remains to haunt local election officials and voters alike.

Texas: Lawmakers entered this year’s legislative session with a singular goal of greater state involvement in Harris County election administration, the state’s largest county by population. More than 20 bills were introduced in 2023 that would result in either greater state oversight of local officials or a loss of authority or discretion for local election officials. Ideas discussed included eliminating the current local election administrator in several counties and creating a process of active oversight of election offices in all 254 counties. 

Ultimately, two bills targeting Harris County were prioritized. S.B. 1750 eliminates the position of election administrator in Harris County only. Local election administration would be divided between the elected county clerk and county collector-assessor. Harris County officials recently filed a lawsuit to prevent the enforcement of this law. The other bill, S.B. 1933, creates a process for people to file administrative complaints that can lead to Secretary of State-led investigations and administrative oversight of election administration in Harris County. The Secretary has the authority to initiate the removal of a local election official if, after a period of oversight, they deem a “recurring pattern of election irregularities” exists.

North Carolina: This year, North Carolina lawmakers introduced S.B. 749, which has already passed the Senate. This legislation would give the state legislature sole authority to appoint the members of the state and county boards of elections. Currently, that authority resides with the governor and state board of elections (for county board appointments). The bill would also give the legislature explicit authority to select the county board chair if the board is unable to do so itself. 

Other recent examples of state lawmakers seeking greater control over elections include the state senate in Wisconsin attempting to force a vote to remove the nonpartisan administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission before the 2024 election. In Arizona, Governor Katie Hobbs vetoed legislation that would give the state legislature more control over the Election Procedures Manual (S.B. 1213).

Local Election Officials Are Targeted

Beyond these explicit attempts for state legislatures to take more direct control of local election administration, many states have passed legislation since 2020 to limit the discretion of local officials to create solutions to meet the needs of their voters. States have limited the ability of local election officials to solicit voter registration and mail ballot applications, provide extra hours of early voting, and accept private donations to assist with nonpartisan election administration. Some states have even opted to enforce these prohibitions with criminal penalties.

Growing hostility towards local election administrators has led to a mass exodus from the work. Many voters will have less experienced local election officials in place as they head to the polls for the 2024 election. In the absence of experienced officials, election administration guided by state control places our democracy at a crossroads.

Keep up on updates to this issue through our State Voting Rights Tracker here.