Guide Helps Election Officials Handle Intense Job Stress

  • Election workers check in voters at a desk.

    Election workers in the United States are often subject to abuse and unfounded accusations. Many are choosing to stop serving as a result. (Photo: M. Schwarz/The Carter Center)

Being an election official is hard. Not only is there a never-ending stream of deadlines, but there also is a constant crush of complaints and criticism that sometimes escalates to stalking or death threats.

As the United States enters another presidential election year, election workers’ jobs will only get more difficult. The Carter Center has created a resource guide to help them cope.

“I was talking to people at an election officials conference a couple of years ago, and when I would casually ask them how they’re doing, some of them would just start crying,” said Avery Davis-Roberts, a former associate director in the Center’s Democracy Program. “They were telling me all the things they had been experiencing since the 2020 election, all of the threats they'd been enduring and the impacts of that experience on their lives, on the lives of their children, their parents, their spouses. These are just people doing a job that they thought was going to be one thing — administering elections — and now it’s also requiring that they withstand this onslaught.”

Bill Gates is a member of the Board of Supervisors of Maricopa County, Arizona, which has 2.5 million voters. One of the board’s duties is election supervision. After the 2020 presidential election, Gates endured so much harassment that his family went into hiding and he experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. He credits his wife for persuading him to seek treatment after he lost control of his emotions in public.

“That was the worst moment, and that’s when my recovery started,” he said.

The help he received allowed Gates to serve through the chaotic 2022 Arizona gubernatorial election.

“That was a challenging time, but I felt I was in a really great position for it,” he said. “When we’re struggling with trauma and the effects of the trauma, we need to get help.”

Without help, the job and the abuse can seem impossible to endure.

“Tragically, I’m just one of many who have gone through this over the past three years,” Gates said. “It’s driving people from the profession, which I think is sad.”

Indeed, a 2023 survey by the independent Brennan Center for Justice reveals a high turnover rate among election officials. Eleven percent of current officials surveyed said they are very or somewhat likely to leave their posts before this year’s election. If they do, that means close to 2,000 officials will have left the profession between the 2020 and 2024 elections, the Brennan Center reported.

Although her jurisdiction in bucolic Defiance County, Ohio, is much smaller than Gates’ (just 26,000 voters), Tonya Wichman almost became one of those casualties. Her office recently administered four elections in 10 months. Two full-time officers and four part-time clerks handled all the voter registrations, changes of address, candidate filings, electronic ballot programming, petition filings, absentee and overseas ballots, provisional ballots, early voting, poll worker recruiting and training, Election Day operations, and vote counting and tabulation — four times over.

“It was kind of overwhelming,” Wichman said. “Our poll workers are tired.”

On top of that, she and her crew had to deal with shadowy people trying to intimidate them, and a perpetually angry voter who on Election Day questioned the integrity of the voting process, made threats, and brought election workers (including Wichman’s mother) to tears. A dispirited Wichman wrote a resignation letter, which the board refused to accept.

“I took (the abuse) really personally,” she said. “We work so hard to make sure it’s right that I did take it personally. And everybody’s like, ‘Just ignore that.’ Well, I can’t, because I really believe in what I do.”

Stories like these are why The Carter Center created Taking Care of Yourself to Serve Others: A Well-being Resource Guide for Election Officials.

The guide, co-developed by the Center’s Democracy and Mental Health programs, lists signs and impacts of trauma, outlines techniques for promoting resiliency and recovery, provides links to mental health support services, and offers security tips and toolkits.

“Stress takes a tremendous toll on a person’s physical and mental well-being,” said Eve Byrd, Mental Health Program director. “We developed this guide to direct election officials to resources that may help them navigate the unique challenges that come with serving at the front lines of democracy.”

Wichman shared the resource guide with her staff and with the president of the Ohio Election Officials Association, who distributed it across the state.

“The biggest thing about this guide is the fact that The Carter Center saw there was a problem, that someone was acknowledging the stress that election officials go through,” Wichman said.

Davis-Roberts advised election workers to practice self-care and take pride in the important work they do.

“While we're in this period of hyperpolarization, we just have to take care of ourselves and each other,” she said.