Originally published in Election Law Blog.
It’s no secret that trust in U.S. elections is worryingly low. But a new survey points the way towards a promising area for bipartisan reforms to shore up confidence in our elections: impartial election administration.
The nationwide poll of 1,498 likely voters — commissioned by Election Reformers Network (ERN) and released last week — delves more deeply into how voters think elections should be run. Its findings offer important insights into how to build a realistic and achievable long-term strategy to protect fair elections in our hyper-partisan era.
To start, the poll found wide partisan differences in perceptions over whether elections are run fairly — no surprise to regular ELB readers. But, when respondents were asked how election officials should act, large majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike all said it’s very important that election officials act impartially. In addition, over two thirds of respondents (again, including large majorities of D’s, R’s, and I’s) said it’s difficult to trust the impartiality of election officials who are elected with the support of a party. And, perhaps most striking, there was strong support for stricter rules to ensure election officials are impartial and qualified for their roles. This includes impartiality rules like barring election officials from publicly endorsing candidates or hosting political fundraisers, and qualifications rules like requiring the state’s chief election official to have prior election administration experience.
In sum, the poll makes clear that voters of all stripes care deeply that elections are run impartially, don’t believe that’s currently happening, and like the idea of reforms that would move us in that direction. This is valuable (and rare) common ground in an increasingly polarized but critical reform space.
To be sure, reform won’t happen overnight. And it is absolutely vital that we support, protect, and fund election officials currently working on the frontlines of democracy even as we pursue more fundamental reforms. The overwhelming majority of Democratic, Republican, and Independent/Unaffiliated election workers regularly put country before party and proudly administer professional, accurate, and secure elections that deserve the public’s trust. Incremental reforms can and should codify existing best practices for impartial administration, accelerate the trends towards professional administration that are already underway, and help make it easier for current officials (including party-affiliated officials) to do their jobs by reducing outside partisan pressures and bolstering voter confidence. By adopting reforms that de-emphasize partisanship in election management, we can strengthen voter trust in the short term and lay the groundwork for more transformative change over the long term.
What does this incremental path look like? ERN’s model ethics legislation and model qualifications legislation would leave in place the system of partisan elections that most states use to pick their chief election official, while making important improvements. The ethics bill would bar election officials from the most troubling and explicitly partisan acts, like publicly endorsing other candidates or holding political fundraisers. And the qualifications bill would require that candidates for chief election official have some experience or expertise in running elections — a simple, common-sense rule that would have disqualified almost all of this year’s election denier candidates.
Both bills would begin the process of shifting the candidate pool for chief election officials away from partisan politicians and toward independent professionals. Both bills take steps that respondents to the survey said they support. And both bills lay key groundwork for more fundamental reforms.
Of course, we shouldn’t lose sight of those longer-term goals. Ultimately, states should do what nearly every other advanced democracy does: use non-partisan experts to run elections. One promising approach for choosing them would be to give the task to an independent commission modeled on the judicial nominating commissions already used by a number of states. This may seem far off from our current reality – but so too were independent redistricting commissions not too long ago.
And there are good reasons to think that the prospects for this path to reform are real.
First and foremost is the urgency of the threat. With election deniers potentially in line to become chief election officials in several states, it has become clearer than ever how entrusting these crucial posts to partisan politicians can pose risks to fair elections or, at the very least, public confidence in the fairness of our elections. Simply put, the risks of inaction are now too great.
In addition, the survey findings confirm that many voters deeply distrust our current system, and support exactly these types of changes. This reform energy is also reflected in the growing number of states — Michigan, Colorado, New Mexico, Missouri, and Wyoming, to name a few — that are exploring ways to make their election systems less vulnerable to partisan manipulation.
But perhaps the greatest sign is that these reforms command such widespread support across party lines. Like the potential for reforms to the Electoral Count Act, incremental reforms to enhance and advance impartial election administration are something that almost everyone can agree on. And in that the survey offers a bit of something we all need: hope.