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The Perseverance of Public Administrators When Faced With Election Fraud

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

By Sean L. Ziller
March 2, 2019

North Carolina Capital Building

The importance of ethical administrators operating in the public sphere, and the often-overlooked significance of our daily work, is unfortunately typically a notion only revived in the national consciousness when stories of unethical behavior begin to drive headlines. Nowhere is the increasing value of transparency and accountability on behalf of those entrusted with public service more apparent than in viewing the prolonged election debacle in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. Critical to resolving this case of alleged election fraud is seeking an equitable and fair outcome where the public can regain its faith in the democratic process.

Regardless of political persuasion, this is an ideal that all citizens would agree be strived toward. It is a concept that has been previously discussed extensively as this situation has unfolded. However, while the main players embroiled in North Carolina’s scandal will continue to dominate any future headlines, we must not fail to recognize those hardworking state and local officials who, from one election to the next, have strived to maintain the trust of the people despite those countervailing winds. Furthermore, regardless of who ultimately secures that congressional seat, it’s vital that we–as leaders and policy makers in this field–use this as a teachable moment; understanding how this occurred and what administrators on the ground can do when possibly faced with it in their own corner of the country.

Michael Bitzer, professor of American politics, law and public administration and policy at Catawba College in North Carolina, provides several crucial takeaways from the ongoing investigation into the 9th District election in his Washington Post article entitled, “Three Lessons from North Carolina’s Tainted Election–and What Comes Next.” As highlighted by Bitzer, by first recognizing and defining instances of election fraud versus what is typically assumed to be occurrences of voter fraud, we can begin to understand the level of direct impact on the public administration profession. Ballot harvesting, for example, puts greater onus on the methods and staff employed by individual candidates, procedures utilized by election auditors and the mechanisms of public administrators who ultimately oversee county-by-county operations. Bitzer notes the work of political scientists Michael Alvarez, Thad Hall and Susan Hyde in their book Election Fraud: Detecting and Deterring Electoral Manipulation. Namely, he notes their summation that detecting election fraud requires greater transparency and a reflection on tangible data rather than purely subjective conclusions–the latter often guided by breaking news.

Data transparency and the ability to measure trending election irregularities is key in swiftly detecting instances of fraud and determining areas wherein these conditions may likely emerge again. However, as M.V. Hood and William Gillespie write in their 2012 article in Social Science Quarterly, “They Just Do Not Vote Like They Used To: A Methodology to Empirically Assess Election Fraud,” transparency in elections isn’t inherent. Being transparent in the processes of establishing and overseeing election procedures is important, but a citizen is also entrusting officials with their private information and, ultimately, to be stewards of their vote, whether it be for legislative referendums or candidates themselves. Personal privacy, above all, needs to be the continued pursuit of officials in this unique area of public service.

As technology expands and corresponding legislation geared toward election policy is devised at all levels of government, those looking to subvert our democratic process will likely begin to become more calculated in response. Hood and Gillespie, as a result, have highlighted the importance of new methods of data mining, wherein historical and public record data maintained by state agencies can be linked with the work being done by researchers post-election. This will be central in detecting new methods of election fraud in future races. While the authors in this article employ their methodology in exploring individual cases of voter fraud, their study establishes a framework through which increasingly robust statistical analysis can inform strengthened election policy—policy that would aid in curbing fraud coming from a wide variety of foreign or domestic sources.

Vital to the conservation and possible expansion of election laws is the inclusion of a certain measure of whistleblower protection for public service workers. By also making public administrators more knowledgeable about the growing mechanisms of potential election dishonesty, backed by empirical data that can help to point toward tangible indicators, those same officials can begin to promptly detect the warning signs and know the processes for responsibility reporting them. This could particularly be worthwhile as it pertains to absentee and early-voting procedures, as in the case of North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District.

However, taking these precautions is not a cause for concern that should be overblown, namely for political purposes. Instances of election-related fraud, during both midterm and presidential elections, have been determined to be statistically low. It is nonetheless important for election commissions and commissioners to begin to adapt their way of thinking. This will help to continue to ensure voter protection and vote preservation while keeping in mind strict regulatory limitations. Public administrators need to be the forces that, while acknowledging political pressures, are able to withstand those that seek to negatively influence a still-trusted American process.

Author:Mr. Sean L. Ziller is a policy analyst and consultant with Conduent State and Local Solutions, Inc. in Philadelphia. He possesses a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from King’s College (Wilkes-Barre, PA) and a Master of Public Administration degree from Pennsylvania State University, with graduate certificates in Public Budgeting and Financial Management and Public Sector Human Resource Management. All opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer. He can be reached at [email protected].

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