Every four years, in the home stretch of the presidential campaign, troubling stories slip from the sleepy offices of a handful of state officials with an underappreciated but vital job: running the election.
In most places, this officeholder carries the pretentious and frankly misleading title of "Secretary of State." Along with making sure every polling place is open and every vote is counted, he or she is charged with such mundane administrative chores such as licensing businesses and notaries public. The Secretary typically also serves as custodian of the state seal, which he or she is sometimes photographed pressing into ceremonial and official documents.
The Secretary, or whomever runs the election, ought to be nonpolitical, nonpartisan and noncontroversial. But far too often, the job falls into the hands of ambitious up-and-comers who seem more interested in grabbing a headline and promoting themselves than in serving the public interest.
That's when things get interesting, and troubling too. Just look at what's happening with some of these folks around the country in 2012.
In Colorado, Secretary of State Scott Gessler declared his intent to "further the conservative agenda" and has cozied up to "True the Vote," a group of volunteer election watchers which aims to gum up the works on Election Day by flooding polling places in several states with poll challengers. Gessler also recently sat on a panel with representatives of the same organization at a conference hosted by the Conservative Political Action Conference -- not exactly a nonpartisan outfit. Meanwhile, local election administrators across Colorado have sent Gessler a litany of complaints about his administration of the election.
In Ohio, Secretary of State Jon Husted has ordered local election officials not to communicate by phone with voters who've made what appear to be clerical errors in completing their mail-in absentee ballots. In the past, such voters have been given a chance to correct minor mistakes on their ballot forms; now, at Husted's direction, faulty ballots may simply be thrown out and voters disenfranchised.
You may have noticed that these examples come from some of the "swing states," that are likely to decide the presidential election. As the world saw in Florida during the historic embarrassment that was the 2000 election, even a few hundred votes lost to administrative error and partisan policies can be enough to flip a state and determine the national winner.
Much of the controversy in Florida centered on Katherine Harris, who in addition to overseeing the election as Secretary of State, was George W. Bush's state campaign co-chair. Four years later, when Bush narrowly carried Ohio to secure a second term and Democrats complained of a shortage of voting machines and other problems in mostly African-American neighborhoods, Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell was his co-chair for the Buckeye State.
Such partisan entanglements undermine public confidence in and raise fundamental questions about the integrity of our elections. The right to vote is sacred to every American, and the people in charge of our elections should be in the business of protecting that right for everybody, regardless of their personal or political biases.
The 2012 election is likely to be very close. History suggests that controversy and uncertainty about the outcome will follow, and it's a fair bet that both will be exacerbated by questions about the partisanship of election administrators. Whatever the outcome, when the dust settles, every state should take a hard look and start adopting reforms to ensure the kind of voter confidence that flows naturally from truly nonpartisan elections.
Policy options might include regulation or an outright ban on partisan activity by the secretary of state or whatever other official is charged with running the election. Administrators also could be required to swear an oath of nonpartisanship (which Colorado's Gessler this year refused to take), and states could require that all Election Day policies be submitted and finalized well before Election Day itself, to prevent last minute manipulation. New regulations to ensure oversight, transparency and proper checks and balances on election administrators should also be explored.
Secretaries of State like Mr. Gessler have taught us one thing: waiting another four years without working for nonpartisan election administration is not an option.