For more than 20 years, Steven Hines, has worked in election administration in North Carolina. He served as an elections director in five counties — Pitt, Forsyth, Greene, Carteret counties and most recently, Lenoir County, where he resigned in August 2023.  

“The pay for elections directors is not equitable to what they’re having to do,” Hines said. “A reliable person may step out and do something else because they’re tired of having to deal with animosity and the issues to say, ‘Well, heck, I can get paid to be the nighttime manager at my local 7-Eleven.’”

In addition to pay disparity, the treatment and scrutiny of elections directors by some counties, politicians and the public contributes to high turnover among elections directors in North Carolina, according to Hines. 

“Who are you going to get to replace them that’s trustworthy enough and can have the knowledge, experience and the ethics to do the job fairly?”

While other states have had similar problems, North Carolina has seen a steep recent uptick in its loss of experienced county elections directors, which has led to concerns from state officials.

During the virtual state canvass meeting for the 2024 primary in March, Karen Brinson Bell, the N.C. State Board of Elections’ executive director, who also serves as the vice president of the National Association of State Election Directors, raised concerns about the high turnover among North Carolina county elections directors and the loss of “institutional knowledge” in election administration.  

Since January, 10 N.C. counties have lost elections directors. Three county board of elections directors resigned, one left the role for a position with another county department and five retired, so far, with a sixth retiring by the end of the year, according to data CPP received from the state board. 

“This continues to be an ongoing problem,” said Brinson Bell of the departures. 

In the past five years, the 100 counties in the state have changed elections directors 61 times, according to the state board. Since 2019, 38 directors retired, 21 resigned, one died and one was terminated.

Of those who left their roles as directors, just four took a position with another county board of elections. Four took a position with the state board, two took a position in another county department and one took an elections position in another state. 

One county, Wilson, has yet to fill its vacant position, according to the state board. Duplin County is in the final stages of finalizing a candidate to fill the position there. Dare County will also have a new director, but hasn’t yet posted the job, as the current director is retiring on July1, according to the state board’s public information director, Patrick Gannon

“As a state agency, we’re charged with oversight of all 100 counties and what I’m flagging is that the turnover has a trickle-down effect to other demands on resources and services that we need to provide in order to ensure that we’re able to carry out elections for every North Carolinian to cast their ballot,” Brinson Bell said.

This article is the first in the three-part investigative series Elections Brain Drain from Carolina Public Press, examining how pay disparities and working conditions for North Carolina county elections directors are leading to high turnover, resulting in a loss of experienced and knowledgeable people willing to do this job, which is essential in keeping the state’s democratic system working properly. 

Later articles in the series will also examine the systemic problems that affect what counties can afford to pay in order to recruit and retain elections directors and possible solutions to these issues.


This map shows the pay levels for elections directors in North Carolina counties. The annual rate for Hyde County is an estimate based on an hourly rate and a theoretical 20 hours per week. The darkest green are the highest paid. Scroll over each county for additional information. Data on pay rates and tenure comes was provided by the counties in response to a spring 2024 Carolina Public Press public records request. Gray counties did not provide this information. Population figures are the most recent estimates available from the State Demographer.
Graphic by Mariano Santillan / Carolina Public Press

In order to understand the dynamics of county elections director pay and tenure on the job across the state, CPP issued public records requests to all 100 counties over a two-month period in spring 2024.

A total of 68 counties, just over two thirds of the state, provided responses, though a few counties only responded in part. Despite multiple emails and calls, the other 32 counties did not comply with CPP’s request in time to be included in this report. 

NC Elections Director pay disparity

“I think perhaps if the pay were better, you would entice candidates to come and actually stay,” said Sara Lavere, president of the North Carolina Association of Directors of Elections and elections director in Brunswick County. 

“If you get someone making a pretty decent salary where they can live comfortably, they’re going to think twice about running for the hills when things get tough.”

New Hanover County poll worker Jane Hughes manages the ballot distribution table at the Eaton Elementary polling station in Wilmington on Nov 14, 2022. Mark Darrough / Carolina Public Press

Salaries in the counties that provided data to CPP, vary anywhere from an hourly wage in one, at $19.28-an-hour for an unspecified number of hours, to up to about $200,000 a year. In addition to the pay disparity that exists among county elections directors, many described increased responsibilities, high pressure and dealing with incidents of harassment while on the job. 

In North Carolina, the salary for elections directors must be comparable to what counties that are similar in size, population and the number of registered voters are paying their directors, according to state statute. The state also sets a minimum for pay in the statute, requiring counties to pay directors an hourly wage of at least $12 along with benefits. Legislators last adjusted that pay level in 1999.

An elections director's skills weren’t viewed as part of a specialized skill set before, the way they are today, according to Christopher Cooper, a professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University. 

“It’s a more complicated job than it used to be,” Cooper said. “I don’t think their pay is reflective of the increasing responsibility they have.”

Some elections directors are highly experienced and have worked in election administration for years. Among those who provided data to CPP, five have served more than 20 years. But the median tenure of an elections director among responding counties was just 5 years, with 20 having served less than half of the median. 

Based on that data the median yearly salary for county elections directors is $68,750, which is what Rowan County pays its director. While a few counties paid more than twice that level, many paid much less. 

In 12 of the counties that provided data, elections directors made less than 75% of the median, or under about $51,000 a year, including in Hyde, Graham, Madison, Perquimans, Chowan, Washington, Vance, Alleghany, Anson, Greene, Swain and Richmond counties. 

Joe Danison speaks with Madison County elections workers before voting at Madison High School in Marshall during the May 6, 2014, primary. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

The lowest yearly salary for an elections director, based on the data CPP received from counties, is $40,186 in Graham County. But the lowest pay for elections directors in the state, overall, is the $19.28 hourly wage for the part-time director in Hyde County, which is also the only county that pays an hourly wage for the position. 

“Personally, I work two jobs so the part-time schedule doesn’t bother me as much,” said Viola Williams, the elections director in Hyde County, but “because of the demands of this job, I really think it needs to be a full-time job.”

Both Graham and Hyde counties are some of the least-populated counties in the state, a deciding factor in the pay for elections directors, according to state law. 

“When you look at how department heads in county administration are paid or their pay scale, the elections department heads tend to be on the lower tier,” Lavere said.

In Alexander County, for instance, Elections Director Patrick Wike is one of the least-paid department heads in his county. The next lowest, the library director, earns almost $3,000 more than the elections director. Salaries for department heads range from 173,939 for the county manager to $42,410 for the senior center director. 

“The county elections director is one of the lowest-classed department heads in Alexander County,” said Wike, who earns $55,643. 

The highest paid of those provided data is Wake County, where the elections director earns a yearly salary of $197,852.

Seven counties for which CPP received data, including Wake, Buncombe, Cabarrus, Forsyth, Gaston, Johnston and Mecklenburg counties, pay elections directors more than $100,000 a year.

Elections directors in 13 counties that provided data received neither a raise nor a cost of living increase this year. 

Even among raises and salary adjustments for elections directors a disparity persists. In most counties where directors received an increase, it was typically a cost-of-living adjustment, though some directors received merit raises.

While the median raise or adjustment this past year was $3,000, CPP found that these increases varied from $100 to more than $30,000 among the counties. In Gaston County, the elections director earns $123,600 and received a $138.47 raise this year.

Bobby Hammond hands his photo identification to a Gaston County poll worker on May 14, 2024, before casting his vote in Cramerton, for the second primary election. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press

Whereas, in Cabarrus County, the elections director earns $116,584 and received a $33,550 increase, but this included a cost-of-living adjustment, performance raise and grade change. 

Directors in 14 counties told CPP they are not expecting a raise or a salary adjustment this year. 

How elections director pay correlates to turnover

CPP analyzed data from the counties that responded to its records request and found a strong, if indirect, correlation between pay levels and turnover.

The counties that paid the least or paid the least in relation to their population, tended to have elections directors in place for the least amount of time. Counties with the highest pay levels, especially in relation to their populations, tended to have the highest-tenured directors.

Dashboard-Bar Graph

This bar graph compares the pay levels of elections directors in North Carolina counties. The annual rate for Hyde County is an estimate based on an hourly rate and a theoretical 20 hours per week.Scroll over each county for additional information. The data was provided by each county in response to a spring 2024 public records request from Carolina Public Press. The counties that are not included did not provide information.
Graphic by Mariano Santillan / Carolina Public Press

Exceptions to these trends are also easy to find, which shouldn’t be surprising. Many factors affect tenure, including retirements, firings and deaths of previous directors who may not have voluntarily left their positions. And even when a director does decide to leave, many factors besides pay are likely to play some role.

Still, the overall finding was strong. For instance, in 20 counties in which directors have been in place 2.5 years or less, 65% of them paid the median level or below. While 35% of the high-tenure counties paid above the median level, only 5% of the low tenure counties paid as much as 25% above the median or more.

The same trend holds on the opposite end of the spectrum. CPP identified 20 counties that had directors on the job 11 years or more, which is at least twice the median tenure for counties that provided data. Of those, 60% paid above the median level, with 35% of these counties paying 25% above the median. Only 40% of these high-tenure counties pay below the median level, with just 15% that paid less than 75% of the median.

Directing elections for an entire county is a big job, but generally the job involves greater responsibilities proportional to the population of the county. Cost of living is also typically higher for more populous counties. For that reason, CPP also examined pay level for elections directors in relation to population. While this didn’t correlate as closely to tenure, generally counties with the lowest tenure paid poorly per capita and counties with the highest tenure paid well per capita.

If a director decides to leave a county because of the pay level, it could be simply because the director simply wants to make more money. But it could also be because the director believes the job is not paying enough for the size of the county, which is a factor the statute says counties should consider when setting pay levels. 

CPP evaluated both of these factors together and found an overall pattern of counties that had both higher pay and higher pay per capita being more likely to retain directors for longer and those with lower pay and lower pay per capita being more likely to have more recently replaced their directors.

Working conditions

In addition to requesting public records on salaries and tenure, CPP asked North Carolina counties about working conditions. 

A few of the counties that provided other information didn’t address working conditions, but overall most respondents, 32, described positive working conditions at their county boards of elections. These counties often said they had a favorable relationship with county management to help facilitate adequate resources and funding of their election boards, since directors depend on county commissioners for this.

However eight counties, Alexander, Carteret, Caswell, Chatham , Hyde, Iredell, Pasquotank and Swain, described working conditions as being demanding or fast-paced. 

A line of primary voters winds through the hallway and out the door at Northwest High School near Pittsboro in Chatham County around 11:30 a.m. on March 5, 2024. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press

Workload is heavy year round, according to Elections Director Wike in Alexander County. 

“Most people don’t understand all the logistics and yearlong preparations in order to have accurate and efficient elections,” Wike said. 

Since 2020, elections work has become very demanding and stressful, according to Robert Webb, the elections director in Caswell County. Webb holds the only full-time position on his county’s election board.

 “A lot of long hours, frustration and at times you do get to a point that it feels like there is no way you can do it all, but someone has to do this work,” he said. 

Pandora Paschal, the elections director in Chatham County, said that while working conditions are hectic, it is the nature of the job. But, the job has “become more hectic because of legislative law changes that require more work administratively and the political climate has changed drastically,” Paschal said. 

Two counties, Randolph and Polk counties, negatively described their working conditions. 

“We love what we do, but the temperament of voters and campaigners is more negative since the 2020 presidential election,” said Melissa Kirstner, the elections director in Randolph County. “It is a more tense, negative environment for staff and precinct workers” Kirstner has worked in her role for more than 13 years. 

“We get one chance to do it right and cannot afford any mistakes in an ever-changing and unforgiving environment,” said Cliff Marr, the elections director in Polk County. Marr described working conditions as very stressful.  

In another group of eight counties, directors described having limited office space. Those included Chowan, Halifax, Hoke, Macon, Person, Stanly, Watauga and Wilkes counties.

Incidents of harassment  

While some counties reported increased instances of harassment, 49 counties reported none. But this doesn’t mean incidents did or did not take place, only that they didn’t report any issues to CPP.

In Haywood County, Robert Inman, the elections director, didn’t report any incidents, but said people from the public call and frequently leave voicemails. 

voter id
Haywood County precinct Chief Judge Debbie Stamey interacts with David Cairnes as he presents a photo ID at the Canton Public Library to vote in the 2016 primary election. Voter ID was not required to vote in North Carolina at that time, but began to be required in 2023. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

“It ranges from election denialism to criticizing a specific voting mechanism and people are often parroting what they have heard from the media,” Inman said. But, he added, “all of us in this profession consider safety and incidents of harassment a lot more now than in years past.”

Increased threats against elections directors may also be a reason why many are choosing to leave, said WCU political scientist Cooper. 

“I think it's … a more politicized job than it was and it's a harder and more dangerous job than it was before,” he said. “I think it makes sense to me that people are dropping out.”

Nine counties reported incidents to CPP — Ashe, Carteret, Caswell, Durham, Halifax, Iredell, McDowell, Onslow and Randolph counties. Only one county reported an incident that escalated physically and resulted in a police report. 

Kim Welborn, the elections director in McDowell County, said a poll observer who wasn’t complying with the rules threatened her. 

“I was threatened physically and hands were laid on me, a police report was made, but I chose not to file charges,” Welborn said. She said she’s worried about an increase in these incidents. 

Lanie Hamrick, left, and Destinee Terry, both students at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, check in to pick up their primary election ballots at the Old Fort Wesleyan Church polling place in McDowell County on March 3, 2020. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press
Lanie Hamrick, left, and Destinee Terry, both students at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, check in to pick up their primary election ballots at the Old Fort Wesleyan Church polling place in McDowell County on March 3, 2020. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

Ashe County, a small mountain county with only about 27,000 residents, reported 10 minor incidents, usually during voting and largely having to do with trust in the election process. 

“We do our best to educate, unfortunately once someone has made up their mind there’s not a lot you can do to change it,” said Devon Houck, Ashe County elections director. “I feel like most people are just venting their frustrations or are just misinformed about the process.”

In Carteret County, five to 10 incidents take place yearly, according to elections director Caitlin Sabadish

“Members of the public cuss us out for ‘election fraud, disinformation, and a lack of understanding of laws and procedures,’” Sabadish said. 

In Caswell County, Webb said he’s faced incidents of harassment both in person and electronically, but did not want to disclose specifics. 

“I have had someone threaten my position from a specific group,” Webb said. “I try to counter all hostility with kindness, honesty and proof that my words are tempered with the laws.” If things escalate and the individuals don’t leave freely, he gets help from a sheriff’s deputy along with some charges, he said. 

Derek Bowens in Durham County described an anonymous participant in a Zoom session calling Bowens, who is Black, an offensive racial term during the 2020 general election. But Bowens said he hasn’t experienced any harassment in person. 

A voter shows her “I voted” sticker as she exits the KIPP Durham College Prep Public School polling site in precinct 18 in Durham on primary Election Day, March 5, 2024. Mehr Sher / Carolina Public Press

In Halifax County, Kristin Scott didn’t cite specific incidents but said they “usually occur as we get close to the election, more so countywide elections.”

Election officials in Iredell County deal with harassment from the same people and groups who frequently make accusations, Elections Director Susie Jordan said. 

While only some counties reported incidents and many did not, most of the counties with which CPP spoke discussed an increased awareness of the dangers that elections officials face and an increased concern for safety, especially during elections.

“The hostility, the expectation of perfection, in a very human driven process is just so great that their willingness to continue to make personal sacrifices to face hostility and harassment is just not enough to sustain the passion that they have for this profession,” said Brinson Bell, the executive director of the state board.

Sometimes harassment and pay levels can go hand in hand. 

In the past, election directors’ pay in some counties has been used to threaten them to meet demands that may be unrealistic or even illegal. 

Two years ago in Surry County, amid a growing presence of election deniers, people began questioning the results of the 2020 election that Michella Huff had administered. The chair of the Surry County Republican Party, William Keith Senter, led efforts to get the county commission to cut her pay and even to get her fired if she didn’t meet demands to let him access voting equipment. 

Senter messaged the commissioners, under the influence of election activists, to get her to cooperate or to cut her salary to $12 per hour, as per the law. 

Huff did not meet those demands.

Even though the State Board of Elections reported the threats against Huff to state, federal and local law enforcement, no one was ever charged.

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

Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.

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