Conferences, Professional Education and Casablanca

Usual suspectsAs I attend the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials annual conference in Redwood City this week, I am reminded of the importance of professional training, sharing and networking. Professional conferences are an excellent venue for discussing topics of common interest and sharing successful practices particularly in the field of elections. The value of these types of conferences is to reinforce existing professional knowledge and to offer opportunities to look at current practices in a new light. Occasionally conferences provide a window through which election administrators can peer into the future. And sometimes the slow moments during a conference lead one to think of famous lines from classic movies.

As I enjoy renewing friendships and professional relationships with administrators, vendors and members of the broader election community, I cannot help but make a couple of observations about the profession in the US. The first observation is that there is no academic path to prepare a person to be an election administrator. On the job training and the school of hard knocks continues to be the norm. Each new election administrator repeats, to some extent, the same mistakes and learns the same hard lessons as countless of his or her peers. This is not an effective way to train and learn. Conferences augment this learning and occasionally provide tips for avoiding mistakes made by others.

For some time The Election Center has had a professional training program, other professional organizations offer some training and some states have a training and certification program. Nonetheless, the professional education and training of election administrators remains primarily practical, on the job, trial and error based. This tells me that current education and training programs fall short in meeting the needs of election administrators.

The second observation is that there is a group of administrators, members of the elections community and academics that comprise what the French police Captain Renault in Casablanca  refers to as the “usual suspects.” This is the group of a dozen or two people which are inevitably the ones called upon to offer testimony to commissions and hearings, to serve on committees/task forces, to speak at conferences, to make presentations and to be quoted in studies and media reports. While individually these “usual suspects” are highly qualified, have excellent credentials and articulate themselves well; as a group they are not representative of the whole elections community. This small group wields a disproportionate influence on the national discourse on elections as they travel from one event and venue to the next. When the experience and expertise of such a small group is relied on so heavily, there is an inherent loss of diversity in viewpoints and experiences, a loss of competing of ideas, the development of “groupthink” and the assumption of common legal frameworks and policy values.

I am not proposing solutions but rather I am inviting others to consider these observations, weigh their validity and offer their own ideas and observations.

Stay tuned.


6 thoughts on “Conferences, Professional Education and Casablanca

  1. Nice piece, Scott. I look forward to attending CACEO one of these days in whatever capacity. Seems I’m a “usual suspect” on the international electoral scene but either unknown or ignored on the California scene. And as for the US scene, my pieces on The Atlanticand The Hill websites and my notes to Senator Boxer were an effort to at least get my nose under the tent and try to provoke some deeper thinking.

    Best regards,




  2. Fantastic post, Scott! Very insightful. I could not agree with you more. I really enjoy reading your blog. Keep up the good work!


  3. Bonjour,vos analyses contribuent à nous perfectionner,à nous encourager encore plus à un travail commun et qui se différencie par son système.


    1. Merci Idi. Ca me fait plaisir d’entendre des officielles d’autre pays. C’est certaine que nous tous luttons contre les memes concernes et problemes. Merci encore pour les mots d’encouragement.


  4. Great thoughts. The idea of professionalizing the administration of elections through conferences and workshops occurred to me, in 1973, when I became Chief of the Clearinghouse of Election Administration at the GAO. Indeed, that year, I reached out to the American Society for Public Administration but they were not interested. So when I moved to the FEC in 1976, I began such an effort which culminated, in 1980 and 1984, with the first mational conferences on election administation that offered multiple courses offered several times during the course of the conferences. Indeed, I had a total of 40 state and local elections officials who functioned as instructors. Then, I left the FEC and Founded the Election Center, in 1986, where we continued these workshops. One more note. What was the largest group of elections officials who have ever attended a national election conference? The conference I sponsored, in 1987, in Cocoa Beach Florida that attracted a total of 624 elections officisls from all over the US amd overseas.


  5. In states where Election Directors are hired/appointed by elected county officials, as in PA, the one thing they cannot possibly abide is the professionalism of election administration. That ruins the value of a position for use to employ political pawns, and punish them when they too “uppity”.


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