This campaign cycle, even election rules were grounds for partisan fighting. Republican Ken Detzner, Florida’s secretary of state, attempted a purge of the voter rolls, prompting accusations of discrimination. In Colorado, Secretary of State Scott Gessler, also a Republican, tinkered with a similar effort. Pennsylvania’s Secretary of the Commonwealth Carole Aichele, another Republican appointed by Governor Tom Corbett, openly supported the state’s voter-ID law. Most famously, there was Jon Husted, Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, whose decision to limit early-voting hours to keep them consistent across the state prompted cries of outrage.
All of the partisan wrangling makes Wisconsin, which has a nonpartisan model for running elections, look pretty appealing. In 2008, the Badger State created Government Accountability Board, a group of retired judges approved by members of both parties who administer elections for the state. While it doesn’t stop legislative tinkering—the state did pass a voter-ID law only to see it knocked down by the courts—the GAB can more easily advocate reforms without the appearance of benefitting one side or another.
But though secretaries of state complain a lot about the partisan politicking around elections, plenty actually prefer having a partisan affiliation.
I first asked Washington State Secretary of State Sam Reed, a Republican, and Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, a Democrat about making election officials nonpartisan. Both were speaking on a panel at a conference on voting in 2012 held by the Pew Center on States this week. The conference featured a number of elections officials, and just about all of them complained about the difficulties of working with state legislatures.
Both officials have been reasonably successful at gaining trust from both parties. Reed in particular has garnered praise from across the political spectrum for his work increasing registration options and providing online resources for voters, as well as moving his state to an entirely vote-by-mail system. However, they each described frustrating partisan roadblocks that blocked reforms like online registration, early voting and other ways of expanding options.
Still, neither thought moving to nonpartisan models was a good idea.
Carnahan didn’t like the idea of a non-partisan commissions or panels because they weren’t as visible to voters. “Having accountability and knowing who to be mad at when something goes wrong has a lot of value,” she said. “The problem with a commission, of course, is that you don't know who to be mad at and you don't know how to kick those people out when they do a bad job.”
Reed focused on the problems with nonpartisan elected officials. “We know, people who are running in nonpartisan positions, what their parties are,” he said. “Generally though I don't see where that makes a whole lot of difference.”
California’s Democratic Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who got attention for starting an online voter-registration system in the state that yielded hundreds of thousands of new voters, concurred with Reed and Carnahan. Without the partisan labels, she said, insiders would know a secretary’s loyalties, but voters might not. “It becomes secret partisanship, not nonpartisanship,” she explained. “It's better for voters to know and to be able to hold their secretaries of state accountable.”
Across the conference, which featured more than a dozen chief elections officers, there seemed to a surprising amount of agreement that elected, partisan officials offered the most small-"d" democratic option for voters.
The appeal of nonpartisan commissions still remain. Throughout the two-day conference, election officials complained frequently about convincing lawmakers of what they needed—more money for training poll workers, better machines, better technology. They said logistical decisions, like cutting off early voting to allow more time for poll workers to process ballots or expanding voter registration options, were always perceived as benefitting one side. By relying on retired judges, Wisconsinites can actually trust that decisions are made for the right reasons and not for partisan gain.
In most cases, voters have no idea of the fights over election rules unless things get controversial. And then, there's undoubtedly advantages to being able to vote folks out of office. The goal should probably be preventing the controversy in the first place.