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Should Democrats and Republicans Be in Charge America’s Elections?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ian Hutcheson
October 15, 2020

Observers of the 2020 United States presidential election may be forgiven for overlooking one characteristic of American elections that has garnered less attention during this cycle but has been no stranger to controversy in the past: The partisan affiliations of most state Chief Elections Officers (CELOs). The fact that most of the officers overseeing the voting of Democrats and Republicans into office are themselves members of either party has generated intense debate in recent decades.

The supervision of a notionally impartial electoral system by politically partial officials is worrisome to many concerned with the administration of just and fair elections. Although there is evidence to suggest that partisanship does interfere with an objective system of voting and may be perceived as undesirable by the public, there is not widespread evidence that partisan CELOs have produced unjust and unfair elections systems in the United States.

Partisan Warfare

Simmering skepticism over the partisan loyalties of CELOs across the United States has occasionally exploded to the surface. Most remarkable was the case of Katherine Harris, who as the Republican Secretary of State for Florida during the 2000 presidential election, was inexorably linked with George W. Bush’s White House ascendancy when he was awarded the state’s 25 Electoral College votes. Harris faced allegations of partisan bias following the election given her prominent role in Bush’s Florida campaign and her management of the state’s election and recount.

Such controversies can be found outside elections too. When Democrat Kevin Shelley resigned as California’s Secretary of State in 2005, he was strained under investigations into his alleged misuse of federal elections aid money for expenses related to Democratic Party events. Such cases illustrate how the partisan alignment of state CELOs has occasionally served as a distraction from their offices’ roles as independent arbiters of the democratic process.

Provisional Discredits

Allegations against CELOs of naked partisanship in administering elections are difficult to substantiate. On a more subtle scale however, skepticism over partisan bias appears well-founded. Authors David C. Kimball, Martha Kropf, and Lindsay Battles express such skepticism in their 2006 article for the Election Law Journal, “Helping America Vote? Election Administration, Partisanship, and Provisional Voting in the 2004 Election.” They investigate the 2004 presidential election and the acceptance rate of provisional ballots which allow citizens to conditionally vote pending their successful registration. The analysis reveals that a Democratic official was more likely to validate provisional votes in a Democratic-leaning area, and a Republic official was less likely to.

While provisional voting will not often swing an election decisively, such activity reveals that the partisan affiliations of CELOs can conflict with their responsibility to conduct elections free from party partiality.

Looking the Part

Whether or not these officials actually allow party interests to influence their elections responsibilities, they will always risk appearing that they do in contentious elections. The problem is not necessarily that CELOs are elected officials, but rather that they execute their duties as members of a political party and cannot help but be perceived on some level as partisan by the public and the media.

In their report, “Public Attitudes about Election Governance,” published by the University of Utah, authors R. Michael Alvarez and Thad E. Hall explore public preferences about state and local CELOs. The respondents show significant support for elected and nonpartisan boards of officials to oversee elections, as opposed to a single individual. Such findings support the idea that public confidence in the ability of partisan CELOs to discharge their duties impartially is weak among Americans.

Disputed Results

While other democracies throughout the world have found success in nonpartisan elections administration, such a system is unlikely in the United States without a broad acknowledgement of the problem and a deep consensus on an alternative. Harvard University’s Electoral Integrity Project (EIP) produces a biennial report which surveys experts on the condition of each of the 50 states’ elections system. The 2018 Perceptions of Integrity Report reveals that among the six general structures of elections administration that all states conform to, the top performers include some of the systems which in principle permit partisanship a greater influence, while the group of nine states which use a bipartisan commission to govern elections perform below average.

While the partisan influence in elections administration may have a subversive capacity, in general it would appear that most partisan CELOs take seriously their role as impartial arbiters of the democratic process.

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The fiercely partisan nature of the 2020 United States presidential election may create an opening for national controversy surrounding the party membership of state CELOs that has not been witnessed since the early 2000s. The influence of partisanship in elections administration is treated seriously by many who see it as problematic that most CELOs are partisan figures. Although party allegiance does seem to detract from the impartial judgement of CELOs in some instances, and nonpartisan boards may be the public’s preferred form of election governance, there is convincing evidence that partisan CELOs oversee America’s highest performing elections systems and are perhaps not the democratic bugaboo they are sometimes made to seem.

Author: Ian Hutcheson, MPA is a Management & Budget Analyst for the City of Oklahoma City and the President-Elect of the ASPA Oklahoma Chapter. He is a 2018 graduate of the Master of Public Administration program at the University of Kansas. Ian’s professional areas of interest include city management, finance and budget, economic development and urban design. Contact: [email protected]. Twitter: ihutch01

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