[Image via UMN]

I wrote last week about the debut this fall of a new course in election design as part of our Certificate in Election Administration program. There’s actually another course launching this fall as well – and it prepares students to appreciate artistry of a different kind: surviving and thriving as a nonpartisan election professional in a partisan policy environment. It’s taught by my friend and colleague Professor Larry Jacobs, a political scientist who holds the Walter F. and Joan Mondale Chair for Political Studies and serves as Director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the Humphrey School. We sat down recently to discuss his class – and why it’s so important for current and future election officials.

Tell me about your new course, “Strategic Management for Election Administration.”

How can election officials be effective in advancing their work?  Election officials need to master the law and administration of elections.  They also need to think of themselves as strategic actors maneuvering among politicians, journalists, and advocates who each harbor their own agendas. 

What kinds of skills are you hoping students will take from this course?

The most important take away from the course is that election officials need to be equipped to engage in “political reasoning” – in addition to their technical expertise.  The course specifically prepares election officials to navigate the legislative process, the media that are drawn to political conflict, legal advocates looking to use courts to promote their agendas, and political consultants brought in to contest close elections.  The course combines short lectures, interviews with prominent experts on election administration, and innovative simulations and games.

You’re someone who’s well-known in Minnesota and elsewhere for handicapping campaign horse races – why do you think that perspective is important to election officials who seek to steer clear of politics?

Steering clear of partisan politics and its demands to “take sides” is essential for election officials to secure and protect their status as impartial administrators.  And, yet, it is also true that no election administrator wants to find their budget and requests for statutory changes buried in the legislature, or end up in the middle of a media feeding frenzy, or tied down in a bruising legal case.  Election officials can inadvertently stumble into these quagmires because they didn’t understand the worlds they were entering into.  The bottom line: remain a non-combatant in today’s partisan rumble but learn how today’s process of politics works so you can use it to do your job effectively.

What’s one piece of advice you would give – right now- to election officials hunkering down for the 2016 election?

The fall election is likely to be the most negative we’ve seen in decades, as each major party candidate demonizes the other as a frightful choice.  Several implications:  #1. Elections officials should expect higher than expected turnout.  Fear is ugly but it is a heck of a motivator.  #2. Election officials will become targets – even more than in the past.  Cross the “t’s” in preparation because advocates will be searching for openings to make election administration the “bad guy” to generate news stories and gin up contributions, and prepare your press operation to fend off attacks.

Anything else I should have asked but didn’t?

More than ever, the professionalism of election administration is needed.  It’s a bulwark against the infection of partisanship.  It is also a needed path to fiscal prudence and improved operations.  Effectiveness requires the mastering of election law and its rapid shifts as well as following the steady improvement of election procedures and technology.

Larry’s course is the third of three required courses for the Certificate – and it will be eye-opening and valuable to anyone who works (or hopes to) as an elections professional in our current challenging partisan policy environment. We are still accepting students for the Fall semester – check us out at this link!

BONUS COVERAGE – We also got a nice write-up in Governing Magazine from another friend and former colleague Dan Vock, who wrote about how Humphrey is helping people “get[] schooled” in election administration:

Like many elections administrators, Ginny Gelms learned most of what she does for a living through on-the-job experience. She held various posts in Iowa and Minnesota for a decade before taking over as elections manager for Hennepin County, the most populous county in Minnesota.

But now Gelms is going back to school … The online program through the University of Minnesota connects Gelms and colleagues across the country in graduate-level seminars about the finer points of running elections.

The program, which launched just last year, comes at a time when the business of running elections is becoming more technical, more complex and more scrutinized.

“It’s a good opportunity for me to take time to step back to talk about, think about, write about the larger issues at play in our field. That’s something you don’t often get a chance to do in the day-to-day of your work,” said Gelms.

The demands on election administrators have been growing in recent years.

Federal laws passed in the wake of the Florida recounts in the 2000 presidential election imposed new requirements on everything from voting equipment to provisional ballots to voter databases.

States have added to the complexity, too. Some have imposed voter ID laws that require election officials to apply a new layer of scrutiny on would-be voters. Others have added to administrative duties by expanding early voting, increasing access to absentee ballots and starting Election Day registration.

Meanwhile, social media and the 24-hour news cycle can easily turn a local bureaucratic snafu into a national news story — like when voters in the Phoenix area had to wait hours to cast votes in this year’s presidential primary.

Sharing expertise in the field has been difficult, but Doug Chapin, the director of the University of Minnesota’s election administration program, hopes they can fix that.

“Because elections are so localized in this country, people tend to become experts on how things work in their own jurisdiction,” he said. “This program allows them to put it in a larger national and thematic context. It’s the first step in creating what I like to think of as a profession of election administration.”

Because the program is online, it allows elections officials from across the country to connect with one another. The diversity of their experiences is important, said Gelms, because states handle various issues differently. And even in the same state, populous areas face a whole unique set of problems from spread-out rural areas.

An introductory class covers broad themes, including what Chapin characterizes as the three central tensions in election administration: central control vs. local control; access to the ballot vs. integrity; and fairness vs. finality. Other courses explore law, design, communication and even transportation — and how they affect election administration.

The certificate requires 12 hours of coursework and a capstone project. Students can choose their own pace but can complete the curriculum in two years. Chapin, the program’s director, said the courses are intended both for seasoned election officials and for graduate students interested in public policy. Students can take individual courses without committing to completing the certificate program.

Aside from the actual coursework, the program offers election administrators a chance to talk frankly about the problems they confront, in ways they may not feel comfortable discussing with local officials or voters.

“Because we have to maintain an impeccable public persona, it can be a little bit difficult to have discussions that are candid about the issues with our profession and how to fix them,” said Gelms. “Anything we say publicly can be taken the wrong way.”

These are exciting times for our program … thanks to Larry for taking the time to talk and Dan for sharing the news.

Can’t wait to see what’s next … stay tuned.