Restoring Voter Trust

Posted January 14, 2005 at 5:10pm

Though the 2004 presidential election was, operationally, a rousing success when compared to the debased standards of 2000, American democracy is hardly out of the woods. If anything, voter cynicism is rising, fed by pre-election hollering about rampant voter fraud (according to Republicans) and unreasonable barriers to voting (according to Democrats). In close races, the threat of litigation and simmering outrage now seems permanent. But there are things election officials can — and should — do to reduce public cynicism.

A bare minimum step would be to require secretaries of state — who oversee elections in most states — to recuse themselves from all partisan activities while in office, including endorsing and stumping for candidates. Being out-front cheerleaders for the Bush-Cheney campaign helps explain why Florida’s Katherine Harris and Ohio’s Kenneth Blackwell got into so much hot water in 2000 and 2004, respectively. And it’s hard to imagine how any secretary of state running for higher office — such as Missouri Republican Matt Blunt or West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, both of whom won gubernatorial races in 2004 — can be seen as entirely dispassionate in rulings that affect their own race or those of fellow party members.

However, with damage this severe, it’s unlikely that such a modest step can reassure the nation’s skeptical minds. We’re now at the point where any tough election-related decision made by an official with a “D” or an “R” after his or her name — no matter how reasonable or wise — is immediately considered suspect. In some states, a history of patronage in election administration makes the problem worse.

The only solution is to remove partisanship, root and branch, from election administration. First, the responsibility for elections should be stripped from secretaries of state and given instead to state election boards (which already operate in 11 states and the District of Columbia). These well-compensated, politically insulated boards would be filled by an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, plus one tie-breaking member, such as a judge. All members would need to be confirmed by a wide supermajority of the state legislature, to guarantee the broadest possible legitimacy.

Second, all election administrators, down to local precincts, should be required to gain accreditation from a new national organization modeled after the legal bar or medical societies. To be accredited, officials would undergo standardized technical training (including courses in voting technology) and be required to adhere to a code of ethics and practices — or else have their accreditation pulled. By making election administration a genuine profession, front-line election officials will suddenly have a good (and enforceable) reason to put the interests of democracy above the interests of their party.

Secretaries of state will surely fight such a plan, and Democrats and Republicans will still squabble over the size of the federal role. But the use of a familiar private-sector model — the professional society — avoids the pitfall of blindly grafting the nonpartisan election-administration models of Canada or Australia onto the United States. Perhaps the federal Election Assistance Commission can help craft additional consensus, so that best practices can be established before anyone knows which party will benefit. It’s impossible to make every election run flawlessly. But at the very least, we should be able to eliminate the appearance of partisanship.