The U.S. is unique among major democracies in the degree to which senior elections officials have close ties to a competing political party. Moreover, most U.S. states lack rules to prevent these election officials from publicly backing candidates or helping their own party win. In normal times, the U.S. model has worked reasonably well because election officials, despite their partisan backgrounds, operated in good faith. But in this hyper-partisan era, states must take steps to ensure election officials act ethically and impartially.
CONCERN #1: VOTERS HAVE LOST TRUST IN THE NEUTRALITY OF ELECTIONS.
Election officials influence public trust in our democracy. Just this year, as few as 17% of voters told pollsters they are very confident that elections in American reflect the will of the people. This percentage has been falling in recent years, with notable distrust in the most recent election. And trust is especially low among voters who do not belong to the party of their chief election officer.
CONCERN #2: ELECTION OFFICIALS HOLD STRONG LOYALTIES TO THEIR PARTY.
Most secretaries of state are elected in statewide partisan elections, for which political party funding and infrastructure can be critical. They therefore enter office with close ties to a political party and its candidates. Similarly, the vast majority of state or county election board members and local election officials are elected or appointed through partisan processes and with stated major party affiliations.
CONCERN #3: STATE LAWS DON’T PROTECT VOTERS FROM PARTY LOYALTY.
A groundbreaking 2019 study of state laws by ERN found that no state in the U.S. has adequate conflict of interest laws to formally constrain secretaries of state from using their position to influence a race (of their own or another candidate). Of the secretaries of state serving since 2000, one third endorsed a candidate running in a race under their supervision, and about one in ten co-chaired a presidential election campaign.
CONCERN #4: ELECTION OFFICIALS AND POLL WORKERS FACE INTIMIDATION.
In recent years, many election officials and front-line poll workers experienced partisan pressure, harassment, or even death threats. Election officials deserve the protection of new laws that toughen penalties against such treatment. Additionally, establishing neutral election administration separate from the political fray may reduce risks by strengthening voter confidence in election results.
We CAN fix this.
For starters, election officials can publicly affirm their commitment to democracy, impartiality, and the rule of law by taking the following oath:
“I, ____(name)____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully and impartially discharge the duties of ____(name of office)____ to the best of my ability; that I will place loyalty to the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution and the laws of the ____(state/commonwealth)____ above private gain or party affiliation; that I will not give preferential treatment to any private organization, political party, or individual; and that I will ensure that every party, candidate, voter, and other participant in the election process is treated in a way that is fair and just, so help me God (or so I do affirm).”
States can pass statutory ethics codes for election officials that codify this oath and prohibit some particularly problematic actions that undermine voter trust: fundraising for other candidates; endorsing or opposing candidates; and failing to recuse themselves from oversight of decisions in their own races.
Model legislation prepared by the nonpartisan Election Reformers Network with support from Campaign Legal Center aims to do just that. Additionally, states that want to toughen their election worker protection laws can pair our model with legislation suited to their legal code.