Secretaries of State Shun Harris’ Model

Posted September 8, 2004 at 6:29pm

By all accounts, Election 2004 is shaping up to be as close as Election 2000 was.

But in at least one way, this year’s presidential vote may be less likely to provoke controversy: Most secretaries of state in battlegrounds are steering clear of the partisan linkages that made Florida’s then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris (R) so controversial during the month-long 2000 recount.

Four years ago, critics — predominantly but not exclusively Democrats — noted that Harris was responsible for overseeing the hotly disputed Florida recount even though she had served as the titular co-chairwoman of George W. Bush’s presidential campaign in Florida. She had stumped for Bush in New Hampshire, and had recruited retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, then a prominent Bush backer, to star in a state-funded television commercial that promoted voter turnout.

This year, the backlash against Harris’ actions has sunk in.

In interviews with secretaries of state or their aides in 15 of this year’s most crucial battleground states, eight tell Roll Call that they will not serve as an honorary co-chairmen for either Bush or Democratic nominee John Kerry. Nor will these secretaries be making endorsements or appear jointly with their party’s presidential candidate. In doing so, at least three of these eight — two Democrats and one Republican — are effectively reversing the policy that they or their predecessor had abided by in 2000.

Only three election overseers — Nevada’s Dean Heller, Arizona’s Jan Brewer and Ohio’s Ken Blackwell, all Republicans — plan to endorse or appear with their party’s presidential candidate this fall.

Two other secretaries of state say they are taking part in political activities because their office, unlike Harris’, has no direct role in overseeing elections. Doug La Follette, the Democratic secretary of state in Wisconsin, said that he supports Kerry and has “strongly criticized the Bush environmental record” in several states in recent months, while Michigan Republican Terri Lynn Land is serving as a Bush campaign co-chairwoman, said spokeswoman Kelly Chesney.

In two other states, Missouri and West Virginia, the secretaries of state plan to be active in the presidential race, but such partisanship will be merely a footnote for each this fall: Both secretaries, one Republican and one Democrat, are themselves running for governor.

“Certainly the lesson of Florida is that perception is everything,” said Meredith Imwalle, the communications director for the National Association of Secretaries of State. “It’s important to our members that the voters are confident that they have access to free and fair elections. In that spirit, it seems that the secretaries are not showing any interest in participating in campaigns this year.”

Officially, NASS has no position on whether secretaries of state (or lieutenant governors, who oversee election departments in some states) should take part in partisan activities, including the presidential race. In large part, this is because opinion among secretaries of state following the 2000 recount was not unanimous and some Democrats and some Republicans seeing politicking as being a legitimate part of the job, and others arguing that it was more important for the credibility of the office to abstain.

What may have turned the tide this year is the ongoing debate over how states and localities should handle the switch to electronic balloting systems, given the problems exhibited by the decades-old punch-card technologies used in many Florida counties four years ago. As evidence, Imwalle pointed to the public outcry that followed a comment — since retracted — by the head of voting-machine manufacturer Diebold that he could deliver the state of Ohio for Bush. Critics of the way the technological upgrade has been handled seized upon that as evidence that election systems are still not fully reliable.

The biggest change has taken place in Florida itself. There, former Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood — appointed secretary of state by Gov. Jeb Bush (R) to succeed Harris, who was elected to Congress in 2002— has pledged to stay out of partisan politics, even though she has a long history of running as a Republican and helping build her party.

“I don’t think that is my role in this job,” Hood told reporters in April.

Two other secretaries of state have chosen to be abstemious this year.

In 2000, Oregon secretary of state Bill Bradbury co-chaired the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore. This year, Bradbury will be filling no role in the presidential campaign, even though he is running for another term in office.

“Bill feels very strongly that, as the state’s chief elections officer, you can’t be seen as fair and impartial if you’re seen as taking sides,” said Anne Martens, Bradbury’s chief of communications.

In New Mexico, three-term Democratic Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron has decided to change her policy on campaigning because of shifting circumstances, said Ernest Ortega, her press secretary.

Vigil-Giron serves as president of NASS, a bipartisan organization, and believes that taking sides politically would be incompatible with that role. In addition, Vigil-Giron is no longer the highest-ranking elected Democrat in the state, as she was in 2000, when she worked to elect Gore. With Gov. Bill Richardson and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish able to take more prominent campaigning roles, Vigil-Giron is under less pressure to carry the Democratic banner, Ortega said.

Other secretaries of state are trying to limit their activities while not eliminating them entirely. Nevada’s Heller is not serving as a formal co-chairman of the Bush campaign, but he did speak on Bush’s behalf when the president stopped in Reno recently.

“He was being a loyal Republican,” said Heller spokesman Steve George.

Republican Matt Blunt of Missouri, who’s running for governor and who is also the son of House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), has done much the same, avoiding serving as a state co-chair but appearing at a rally with Bush in St. Charles, said spokesman Spence Jackson. In the meantime, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, a Democrat who is also running for governor, openly supports Kerry, spokeswoman Lara Ramsburg said.

The most active secretary of state this cycle is likely to be in the closely contested state of Ohio. There, Republican Blackwell serves as chairman of the African-American steering committee for the Bush-Cheney campaign and as a state co-chairman, said Carlo LoParo, the director of media and voter services with Blackwell.

In Arizona, Republican Jan Brewer “has taken an oath with the people of Arizona to do her responsibilities, but in Arizona, she is not precluded from participating on her own,” said Deputy Secretary of State Kevin Tyne. “So she is participating in the campaign somewhat, by helping out where appropriate. But she is doing everything according to statute.”

Other secretaries, however, say that’s not good enough. Mary Kiffmeyer, Minnesota’s Republican secretary of state, said that she has maintained her neutrality in politics since being elected in 1998, even though she was the state’s top-ranking Republican for part of that period. In 2002, Kiffmeyer had the difficult task of overseeing the aftermath of the plane crash that killed Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone just days before he was up for re-election.

“I think perception is important,” Kiffmeyer said. “You’re kind of like a referee in a ball game, so you don’t want to be seen as being on someone’s team.”

For secretaries of state and voters, Kiffmeyer said, the Florida recount “made a big impact. I think it still resonates, and will for decades to come. Secretaries of state have become seen as political tools.”