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Throwing a Yellow Flag at Election Officials

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At the beginning of the 2012 NFL season Brian Stropolo was probably somewhat nervous, and more than a bit excited, about his new job. After all, he was going to the big leagues -- serving as a replacement referee in the NFL until a contract could be negotiated with the referees' union and the normal officials came back to work. As a long time New Orleans Saints fan, Mr. Stropolo was particularly thrilled with the opportunity to work the Week 2 game between the Saints and Carolina Panthers. Until he posted about his excitement on Facebook and the NFL heard about his team loyalties, which led to his immediate removal from officiating that game due to "an appearance of impropriety."

No one faults the NFL for removing the official from that crew. Officials must be neutral. Despite what Mr. Stropolo's Facebook friends seem to believe, it would be very bad for the game if he had actually been "nice with those yellow flags for our Saints." But even if he had called the game fairly, the mere "appearance of impropriety" would have been a problem -- enough of a problem for the NFL to take action, and rightly so.

Of course, the NFL isn't the only competition in the United States right now -- it isn't even the most important one. After all, it's election season; time for political candidates all across the nation to go out and compete for our votes. And just like an NFL game, there are officials whose job it is to set and enforce the rules of our elections.

So who are the people who manage the voter registration rolls, who make sure that the polls open on time, and who ensure that the ballots are counted fairly? Poll workers themselves tend to be volunteers, but their bosses -- the people who make all the important decisions -- are themselves elected officials or appointees chosen for their political loyalty. In many cases, they are in charge of counting ballots upon which their own names appear.

That's right, ladies and gentlemen, the NFL removes an official from a game for merely being a fan, and yet our elections are being officiated by the players themselves.

This, of course, has consequences. Secretary of State Jon Husted, the highest election official in Ohio, is considered an up-and comer in the Ohio Republican Party. He has been accused of extending early voting hours in Republican parts of the state, but forbidding their extension in Democratic parts of the state. And this isn't a problem limited to Republicans. Mr. Husted's predecessor as Ohio Secretary of State was Democrat Jennifer Brunner, who once tried to throw out thousands of (likely right-leaning) absentee ballots because they failed to check a box that wasn't required by law to be checked.

And this isn't just an Ohio problem. Secretary of State Marc Ritchie (D-MN) was accused of manipulating the 2008 Senate race in which Al Franken (D) defeated Norm Coleman (R) by less than 300 votes. Secretary of State Mike Coffman (R-CO) was accused of manipulating the 2008 elections while he himself was running for the House of Representatives in one of those elections. Secretary of State Katherine Harris (R-FL) was accused of manipulating the 2000 election in which George W. Bush won the presidency, and in which Ms. Harris had served on Mr. Bush's campaign staff.

In none of those cases was there clear evidence of illegal election tampering. In fact, in the vast majority of cases, even the most partisan election officials try to follow the law and be as fair as they can be. But one of the central lessons of psychological science over the past few decades is that people are biased, unaware of their bias, and unable to overcome their biases. Putting a partisan politician in the position of making decisions that could affect the outcome of an election is as unfair to the politician as it is to the system. No matter how hard politicians try to be neutral, they will never succeed at making truly impartial decisions.

Of course, if it can ever be proven that a Secretary of State or other election official acted in an overtly partisan manner to rig an election, he or she could be subject to jail time. But even the NFL -- the same NFL which botched the referee negotiations in the first place, which mishandled the Saints bounty scandal, which spent decades doing nothing about mounting evidence on concussions -- even that reactive and tone-deaf NFL didn't wait for proof that a Saints fan official had thrown an inappropriate flag in a Saints game to discipline him. The NFL took preventative action to make sure that the conflict of interest never arose in the first place -- thereby preserving the integrity of the competitive process.

We should demand the same integrity from our election officials. Election officials should be removed for having any affiliations with a campaign or party -- just like Mr. Stropolo was removed for being a Saints fan. Their terms should be off-set from the election cycle, so that their appointments are not made during the passions of campaign season. They should never run for election -- after all, their job is to adjudicate elections -- and instead should be appointed by the legislatures or governors. Removing these officials should require impeachment, not unlike removing a judge, so that no individual politician can fire them for a failure to act in a partisan way. Election officials should be subject to frequent background and records checks, to make sure that they remain untainted. Decisions should be made by small committees of such individuals, to further ensure that any one individual's bias is unlikely to taint an election.

This won't be easy. The states might have to look long and hard to find qualified, competent, and non-partisan election officials. But the integrity of our democracy is surely worth the cost. Any competitive environment must be free from the "appearance of impropriety." If the NFL can figure this out, why can't American democracy?

Danny Oppenheimer is an associate professor at UCLA Anderson School of Management. Mike Edwards is the founding contributor of Leftfielder.org, a blog on politics and media. Both are co-authors of Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn't Work at All Works So Well.