PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – County election offices in Oregon are struggling to retain and recruit staff amid a “toxic” political landscape, inadequate funding, and a rapidly changing workload, according to a new Reed College study.
The study, which was commissioned by the Oregon Secretary of State Elections Division, says many Oregon election offices are at a “breaking point” amid these issues.
After interviewing election officials from 34 of Oregon’s 36 counties, researchers found that recruitment and retention in county election offices are hampered by out-of-date job classifications, salaries, and perceptions of the job. According to the study, current staffing is either at or below staffing levels from a decade ago.
Election workers also described difficulties amid the changing nature of their work. Researchers said, “for larger counties, we heard the need for dedicated technology specialists, staff trained specifically in IT or other technological tools that support the election proves. For smaller counties, this presents a challenge when staff size may only be two people, and dedicating a position is not an option.”
In addition to recruitment troubles, researchers point out that 34% of county clerks have retired or resigned since 2020, noting, “it isn’t clear how this expertise will be replaced.”
Researchers also say that public records requests are increasingly “burdensome” as misinformation sows distrust in election systems and “continues to fuel more frequent and complicated requests for information.”
Another threat to election offices, according to the study, is Oregon’s “inadequate” model for county election funding. Researchers say Oregon’s election office funding is largely dependent on fluctuating interest rates and the real estate market.
“Counties are already laying off workers because of this outdated funding model,” Oregon Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade said in a press release.
The study also points to the “toxic” political environment election staff are working in, saying workers face “unacceptable levels of abuse, threats, and harassment, driving many of them to quit despite expressing their pride and passion for the work,” Griffin-Valade said.
Similar to national trends in politics, researchers explain “politics in Oregon has become increasingly polarized.”
“This report is a grim but realistic look at what our county clerks face,” said Griffin-Valade. “But it’s also a testament to their professionalism and ingenuity.”
The secretary of state says the study was commissioned in order to get a better understanding of the political landscape, noting prior to the study, officials lacked data that captured the needs of election workers in Oregon.
Griffin-Valade says this study is the first step to understanding issues election offices face across the state and says the study could help advocate for more investments in election systems.
“For the last few years, we have heard hundreds of anecdotes about underfunding and understaffing at county elections offices, both here in Oregon and around the country,” said Secretary Griffin-Valade. “Now, we have some real data to back up those anecdotes. We call on legislators and county governments to read this report and consider its recommendations.”
The researchers provided several recommendations for the Oregon Secretary of State’s office and the Oregon legislature to implement.
For starters, researchers recommend creating a liaison position for better communication between clerks, staff, and the Oregon Association of County Clerks.
They also suggest developing a training portfolio for election offices, improving recruitment with broader advertisements for the position, and considering succession planning when recruiting new workers as experienced staff retire or leave their positions.