There's no degree in how to run an election.

But a new program at the University of Minnesota aims to help fill in the gaps with a first-of-its-kind certificate in election administration.

The online course, which started Tuesday for the second year, gives election administrators in Minnesota and across the country the first university-approved graduate level course ever in elections management, helping them handle new challenges in an increasingly scrutinized field.

"There was no place people across the country could go for a nationally recognized course on election administration," said Doug Chapin, director of the program. "We're hoping we can make it the next big thing."

The pioneering online course comes as the profession has evolved from a clerk-like role to a major managerial position, requiring everything from overseeing polling staff to addressing the media and running new technology.

It's also in response to a federal report that says the United States faces an urgent need for highly trained election administrators. The 2014 report urged university curriculum to include election administration, especially since so many people end up in the job from other areas of government.

That's what Ginny Gelms did.

She's election manager for Hennepin County, the first county in Minnesota to send a staff member through the U's program. Like others in the state, which has one of the highest voter turnouts in the nation, Hennepin previously relied on on-the-job training.

"It's really trial by fire," Gelms said. "Nothing can prepare you for your first election cycle."

This year, she's joining about a dozen others enrolled in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs program, which takes at least two years to finish.

"It would have been nice to have back when I started my career," she said.

Gelms said the U's program already has helped her learn how laws differ across the United States, which can help Minnesota improve its election laws. She's learned more about the history of election law, campaign finance and election technology, she said.

With the American system so decentralized, it's been up to states or groups to provide training. But national election reform after the disputed 2000 presidential election has triggered a need for a university-supported training, Chapin said.

"Election officials across the country are by and large doing their jobs professionally," he said. "What it lacks is a profession."

A behind-the-scenes job

Gelms fell into the career partly by accident.

"It's a niche profession," she said. "It's not something 6-year-olds say they want to grow up to be."

With a degree in English and linguistics, she got a job with a software company before seeing an ad for an election technician with a county. She took it, and a couple of years later, she landed a similar spot with the city of Minneapolis, then moved up to interim director and then the county's deputy elections manager in 2011.

Now she's in the county's top job, overseeing seven full-time elections staffers and 80 seasonal voting workers. The department trains election clerks, handles absentee ballots, programs voting equipment, designs ballots, maintains the county's voter registration rolls and aggregates results online.

November is showtime. And this presidential election is expected to draw a historic number of absentee votes plus a typical turnout of about 80 percent, or at least 680,000 voters in Hennepin County.

The county is also rolling out new technology with an e-pollbook. On the big day, she and her staff will troubleshoot technology issues, take media or voter calls and process absentee ballots.

"It's like putting on a play; you have the plan, you've gone through rehearsals, but it's the big show," Gelms said. "Someone misses a costume change and you've got to be prepared. It's sort of an adrenaline rush."

As soon as one election concludes, it's on to planning the next. Throughout the year, she and her staff are working on improving training or the voting process, putting together campaign finance reports, preparing for legislative changes and getting ready for special city, county or school board elections that can crop up.

"When people find out what I do, they ask, 'Is that a full-time job? You do it every year?' " she said.

Expanding the program

Now, she hopes the new emphasis the U is putting on elections management will spur more people interested in public service to consider it as a career. And, someday, she said, maybe there will even be a degree in the field.

Chapin agrees, hoping to expand the program, which has four courses this fall. He hopes to draw more people in the field, current students trying to decide what career to pursue and others who want to better understand elections.

"The voting booth is where Americans turn their opinions into action. We want people who are good at their jobs and help American voters," he said. "It's just as fundamental as the people we elect on Election Day."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141