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NC counties losing elections directors. Concerns point to lousy pay, voter hostility

Vote here sign
Ely Portillo
A polling place at Sardis Presbyterian Church in southeast Charlotte.

Over the past five years, North Carolina counties have changed elections directors 58 times, according to the North Carolina State Board Elections, with seven already this year.

The state board’s executive director, Karen Brinson Bell, raised concerns about departures of so many county elections directors during a March 26 virtual state canvass meeting for the 2024 primary election. 

Since the beginning of 2024 four directors have retired and three resigned. Four of these positions have been filled in Chowan, Rowan and Currituck counties, while three remain vacant in Burke, Greene and Vance counties, according to data Carolina Public Press requested from the state board.

The departures of county board of elections directors create a loss of institutional knowledge and pose challenges for election administration on the county level in a presidential election year, Brinson Bell said. 

The job has become more challenging in recent years with additional responsibilities and increasing hostility towards county elections directors, according to the president of the North Carolina Association of Directors of Elections, Sara Lavere, who also serves as the elections director for Brunswick County. 

“Sometimes the fuel is not in the fuel tank anymore, because of some of the hostility, because of some of the pressures and a lot of change that happens in the administration of elections in North Carolina,” Brinson Bell said of the departures of county elections directors, during the virtual meeting.

“How do we compensate for that loss of institutional knowledge?”

Since 2019, 36 directors retired, 20 directors resigned, one died and one was terminated, according to data that Brinson Bell presented to state board members during the meeting. 

Each county hires its elections director and the salary is an amount recommended by the county board of elections and approved by the board of county commissioners.

The salary amount, according to North Carolina statute, must be on par with what is being paid in counties that are similar in size, population and number of registered voters. The state does require counties to pay directors an hourly wage of at least $12 along with benefits. 

County level directors have a complex job and have to keep up with the many changes to elections rules, according to Brinson Bell. “I make a plea, often, but not often enough to county commissioners to please recognize these folks should be paid more and appreciated more,” she said. 

Being a county elections director is an exhausting job, Lavere said. “Serving as an elections director 20 years ago was not what it is today,” she said.

“Elections are designated as critical infrastructure by the federal government now and we are expected to be public information officers, security experts and think about cybersecurity, computer safety and physical safety and all of these other things.”

These new duties have to be carried out with no room for error, Lavere said. 

“As soon as any mistake is made, it’s kind of thrown in our faces, like oh the elections are not accurate, but directors may have made a mistake,” she said, “ and people don’t really give us room for that.”

County elections directors are working in a difficult environment. “There is a hostile environment aimed at election administrators now,” Lavere said.

“Directors who have experienced harassment directly, are probably thinking about it all the time and thinking is there somebody out here waiting for me or watching me,” she said. 

Brinson Bell spoke to the state board to raise some of these issues more broadly during the state canvass meeting and to work toward determining what has led to the departures, how the state board can address them and support county elections directors.

Board members did not comment on the issue during the virtual meeting.

This article first appeared on Carolina Public Press and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.