Heavy Lifting: Emotional Labor and Election Administration

AuthorAmanda D. Clark,Christina S. Barsky,Monica A. Bustinza
Published date01 February 2023
Date01 February 2023
Subject MatterPerspectives
Administration & Society
2023, Vol. 55(2) 308 –325
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00953997221133497
Heavy Lifting: Emotional
Labor and Election
Amanda D. Clark1, Christina S. Barsky2,
and Monica A. Bustinza1
The American democratic system depends on the regular execution of free
and fair elections, delivered by front-line public workers. Local election
officials (LEOs), their staff, and temporary election workers are tasked
with providing excellent constituent service and expertise with a high
degree of professionalism. Following the 2020 U.S. presidential contest,
the very institution of elections has been under attack. This exploratory
study investigates the impact of emotional labor on election workers in this
atmosphere. The authors uncover the presence and nuances of emotional
labor in election administration and raise questions about what this means
for the future of election administration.
emotional labor, election administration, democracy, front-line workers
“We are hiring smiling faces for all of our office locations and our ware-
house.”—advertisement from Palm Beach County, Florida Supervisor of
Elections Office
1Florida International University, Miami, FL, USA
2University of Montana, Missoula, MT, USA
Corresponding Author:
Amanda D. Clark, Department of Public Policy and Administration, Florida International
University, 11200 S.W. 8th Street, PCA 257, Miami, FL 33199-2156, USA.
Email: amaclark@fiu.edu
1133497AAS0010.1177/00953997221133497Administration & SocietyClark et al.
Clark et al. 309
Elections in the United States (U.S.) are administered at the local level by
local election officials (LEOs) with about 10,000 different election jurisdic-
tions across the country (NCSL, 2020). The vast majority of LEOs in the U.S.
are women; in fact, a white woman over the age of 50 is the predominant
profile (Manson et al., 2020). Prior scholarship shows that occupations domi-
nated by women are often those that require a high level of (uncompensated)
emotional labor (Guy & Newman, 2004; Hochschild, 1983; Meier et al.,
2006; Newman et al., 2009). LEOs are full-time public employees responsi-
ble for overseeing all aspects of America’s immense election infrastructure.
In 2020, election workers1 were tasked with providing more than 209 million
registered voters access to their democracy, ultimately processing more than
161 million votes (Election Assistance Commission, 2020). These public ser-
vants successfully managed the highest voter turnout of any election in recent
history while navigating the dark cloud of a dangerous global pandemic and
extreme partisanship.
Election administration is not immune to the shift towards a more
customer-centered public administration (Smith & Huntsman, 1997). LEOs,
their employees, and even temporary election workers must adhere to an
expected level of positive interaction and emotive display in which the citi-
zen-customer must be satisfied (Goodsell, 1981). Fundamentally, the elec-
toral process necessitates an army of citizen agents, trained in election
processes but who also have a degree of discretion in managing their duties,
thus affecting the citizen’s views of the state itself (Hall et al., 2009). Elections
are distinct public encounters in that they are generally service-oriented (e.g.,
providing polling locations and supplies) but initiated by the citizen; yet, the
state and its agents are in a position of power not just in implementing proper
election laws but also using their discretion to allow or deny the vote to cer-
tain individuals or groups (Goodsell, 1981; Hall et al., 2009). Discretion has
sometimes been used to discriminate in election administration (e.g., women,
people of color, and persons with disabilities) (Atkeson et al., 2010; Zacka,
2017). Consequently, the tone of these public encounters is essential to build-
ing stable relationships within communities foundational to democratic gov-
ernance (Bartels, 2013; Maynard-Moody & Mushenko, 2003).
In the 2020 U.S. presidential election, voters were served at approximately
132,556 polling locations, staffed by about 775,101 temporary election work-
ers, and supported by 8,000 full-time election employees. The election was
marred by election violence, both implicit and explicit, and an increased level
of misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation (MDM). This paper
explores how LEOs performed emotional labor during and after the 2020
election cycle and discusses its impact “in providing the human touch in the
citizen-state encounter” (Choi & Guy, 2021; p. 184). It seeks to understand

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