The United States is unique in the world of democracies in relying on partisan elections to fill the most senior election administrative positions. As a result, chief election officers (the secretary of state in most states) are often leading members of a competing political party and often compete in the elections they supervise. The potential for conflicts of interest is mitigated to some extent by our decentralized election structure and by the ethical standards of our election administrators. Nevertheless, these potential conflicts can pose risks to citizen confidence in the electoral process.
The 2018 gubernatorial election in Georgia drew attention to this issue and led some reform organizations to argue for reforms. Ideas that have been proposed include legislation requiring secretaries of state to recuse in certain circumstances and transitioning the secretary of state position to a nonpartisan status.
Election Reformers Network has launched a multi-year effort to evaluate chief election officer conflicts of interest and to assess these and other proposals. ERN has won a $100,000 grant for the project from the Democracy Fund (established by Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar), and has received substantial pro bono legal research support for the project from the law firm of Ropes & Gray.
Drawing on its roots in international election monitoring and democracy support, ERN’s is well positioned to conduct a balanced, neutral, and knowledgeable assessment of these issues.