An Indiana county hires yet another election supervisor, hoping she'll stay

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — An Indiana county lost its top election official nearly every other month over the last year after a longtime supervisor resigned following a counting error in the November 2022 tally.

Voting advocates hope fears of a rocky election year will ease now that Monroe County has named a supervisor who is vowing to stay. The county clerk promoted a 24-year-old elections office assistant to the top job on Feb. 12, just 12 weeks before Indiana’s May 7 primaries to choose candidates for U.S. Senate, governor and president.

“Given the national mood, public confidence in this election will likely be tested,” the League of Women Voters of Bloomington-Monroe County said in a January letter urging county officials to quickly fill the role.

Voting advocates and local party chairs say enormous responsibilities and relatively low salaries have made it difficult to keep recent hires in Monroe. As home to Indiana University and the college town of Bloomington, the county is a Democratic island in overwhelmingly Republican Indiana.

Increased scrutiny around elections and threats to election workers have prompted waves of retirements and resignations from local election offices across the country since former President Donald Trump led efforts to challenge the 2020 vote counts. The resulting loss of institutional knowledge in the midst of many changes in voting laws is making 2024 a challenging election year.

“Not having somebody who’s experienced in doing this and familiar with our county and how things have been done in the past makes the job heavier on the people who do have to do the work,” said Debora Shaw, spokesperson for the Bloomington-Monroe League of Women Voters.

The turnover in Monroe began in early 2023 when Karen Wheeler, the supervisor since 2017, resigned following pressure that came mostly from her fellow Republicans over a mistake during the Nov. 2022 vote count. About 6,600 ballots were not added until the next morning, after unofficial results had already been sent to the Secretary of State.

Wheeler, 67, told The Associated Press that the early voting results had been kept on a digital storage device and were added to the unofficial tally by 9 a.m. that Wednesday. She said she took the blame and resigned to avoid being fired by the Democratic county clerk, but stands by the performance of her staff.

“Some people are always suspicious of elections, but people who know who we are had a lot of confidence,” Wheeler said.

The county clerk, Nicole Browne, did not return the AP’s phone and email messages requesting comment.

Wheeler said an election training specialist hired before her resignation was prepared by the county to succeed her, but she quit just weeks after Wheeler left. Three others then briefly filled the job — one stayed only a month.

Wheeler said she both loved and hated the job. She administered eight elections and oversaw more than 80 workers during early voting and 300 each Election Day. Wheeler described the role as liaison between candidates, the media, vendors, the state and the public. The election supervisor also writes ballots specific to each precinct.

“It’s an extremely difficult job,” Wheeler said. “And with Monroe County the pay was pretty low” — around $37,000 for the full-time, year-round work.

The starting pay was increased to $55,674 for the latest hire, according to a county job posting.

Elections are becoming increasingly complex, the laws governing them change regularly, and the high turnover means officials stepping into these roles are less likely to be aware of resources that can help them, said Liz Howard, a election expert with the Brennan Center for Justice.

In Indiana, for example, a bill proposed this year would add a proof of residency requirement for first-time voters registering in-person.

“Many people are unaware of the complexity and all the work that it takes to make that process so easy for voters,” Howard said.

None of the Monroe officials reported being threatened, but such incidents are up sharply around the nation. Indiana lawmakers may join other states in increasing criminal penalties for threatening election workers, and the Justice Department formed a task force to address threats.

Monroe’s party chairs, Democrat David Henry and Republican Taylor Bryant, praised Wheeler and lamented the office turnovers after her departure.

“That institutional memory is really hard to replace and replicate in a short period of time," Henry said.

While Shaw, who has worked with the newly promoted supervisor before, said she is glad Kylie Moreland is reliable and has some experience, there is always a chance that a presidential election won’t go smoothly.

“It would be an awful job if you just got thrown in,” Wheeler said.

Moreland developed a passion for election law and the process last fall, and wants to build a lifelong career at “election central.” Despite lacking years of experience, she feels well prepared after working the November election and has support from the Indiana Elections Division, she said.

Indiana Secretary of State Diego Morales announced this year that more than 60 counties will split $2 million in federal funding for election security and other projects. Monroe County is not among them. His office said additional funding opportunities are being discussed.

As for Wheeler, she works now for the county parks and recreation department and volunteers to teach voter registration training.

“I have a much easier job and I get paid the exact same,” she said.

Isabella Volmert, The Associated Press