For most Americans the election has been over for two weeks, but for the state and local officials tasked with administering elections the process continues. Most jurisdictions are involved in the certification process, during which vote totals are confirmed, absentee ballots are tabulated and the status of provisional ballots are determined. Over half the states conduct a post election audits of some ballots. And of course some jurisdictions are involved in recounts of close contests. Most of the time the demanding work of election officials goes unnoticed and unacknowledged until something goes wrong or comes under the microscope in the politically charged atmosphere of a recount.

In many ways the election administrators role presents unique challenges. In most mission-oriented organizations there is a hierarchy of responsibility that is more or less identical to the hierarchy of authority. The person at the top is often held entirely responsible for success or failure of the mission, and for that reason is able to demand – and usually gets – full authority to accomplish it (within the law, within reason, and within budget.) The top person therefore has to have authority access to any relevant information, make and enforce policy, make any personnel changes, and it is even generally accepted that he or she has wide latitude to spin or hide mistakes and problems in order to protect the mission. Most people who become election officials, or any other kind of official, bring this organizational mindset to the mission of running an election.

But the election “mission” is unlike any other in a democracy, and has different organizational imperatives. One of the highest values is protection from insider error or malfeasance, and that must include the officials themselves. So election officials are charged with creating an organization and system that they administer but that even they do not have the power to manipulate, at least not alone. Even though they trust themselves, they have to act and create policies based on the idea that they do not, and they must require others to do the same.

Since public confidence in the outcome dictates that part of the election administrator’s mission is transparency, they have to do what almost no other mission organization has to do–work with the public looking over their shoulders to such an extent that there is very little scope for hiding, disguising, or spinning problems. They simply have to trust that the criticism they get–and they will always get some–will be fair, and that they will be judged according to reasonable standards.