Statement from ERN Executive Director Kevin Johnson:
In Tuesday’s elections, fifteen secretaries of state (listed in the table below) who serve as their state’s most senior election administrator are themselves on the ballot in contested races, either for re-election or for governor. Although many secretaries of state manage such situations of potential conflict of interest with integrity, the current environment of partisan animosity and voter distrust calls for proactive efforts to ensure voter confidence in results.
ERN therefore calls on the officials listed below to recuse themselves from:
Playing any role in a recount of their own race;
Certifying themselves as winner in a close election. (This pertains in 13 of the 15 states in which their duties include certification, see table below for detail.)
ERN recommends that secretaries of state consult with a state ethics commission or similar body to select someone with election expertise (but no current role in partisan politics) to recuse to, such as a retired elections director or a retired state Supreme Court justice.
In recent decades, there has been growing recognition of the potential risks and conflicts of interest inherent in our system of partisan election administration. But research conducted by ERN found that out of 51 secretaries of state who ran for higher office from 2000 to 2020, only three publicly recused themselves in any manner. And no state requires recusals in these circumstances.
Since September 2020, ERN has urged secretaries of state to recuse themselves from decisions that might affect, or appear to affect, their own candidacies. ERN’s model ethics legislation would, among other steps, bar chief election officials from overseeing races in which they’re running.
States should begin to pass laws to require such recusal and to plan to whom officials should recuse. Over the longer term, states should consider a selection method for their chief election official that protects them from partisanship and conflict of interest. For this reason, ERN has proposed a State Election Official Nominating Commission, modeled on the successful merit selection method of state supreme court justice nomination used in many states.
Our current hyper-partisan era, in which we face an urgent need to bolster confidence in elections and results, especially when the outcome is close, should serve as a spur to act.