I have spoken on occasion about American politics to groups of foreign visitors, and they're always astounded to hear some of the bizarre factoids about our imperfect democracy.
Recently, for instance, somone asked me, "I hear that, in America, the state officials who supervise elections are actually partisans who have close ties to political parties. Is that really true?" To which I said, "Absolutely. In fact, some of these supervisers even work for the candidates who are running in the elections that they are supervising!" Looking aghast, the guy refused to believe my explanation of the dual loyalty tradition. I assured him that it was true.
I saw it confirmed last week in Connecticut, when the entire '06 state Democratic ticket assembled for a unity pep talk, and Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz (a Democratic candidate herself) was up there nodding and applauding all the anti-Bush rhetoric. Nobody in attendance, including the local press, seemed to think there was anything wierd about that.
I recalled all this today while reading this piece by Jill Lawrence of USA Today. She highlights an underreported story: Because, in our democracy, secretaries of state are openly identified as partisan Republicans or Democrats, and indeed because they get elected while wearing partisan labels, they have increasingly become political footballs. In the wake of charges that Katherine Harris in Florida and Ken Blackwell in Ohio both aided the GOP on ballot issues in 2000 and 2004 respectively (while both were holding positions in the Bush campaign), a number of Democratic groups are pushing hard this year to tilt the future playing fields by helping to finance secretary of state candidates in key battleground states. Those states include Iowa, Ohio, Colorado, Nevada (all pro-Bush in 2004), as well as Michigan and Minnesota (pro-Kerry).
The article quotes '08 presidential prospect Tom Vilsack, the governor of Iowa: "There's a growing concern about whether votes are cast and if, so, whether they're properly counted. We have to restore people's confidence in the system." Meanwhile, John McCain reportedly has been aiding GOP secretary of state candidates in Michigan, South Carolina, and New Mexico (the latter went narrowly for Bush in 2004, and narrowly against him in 2000).
New Mexico was a battleground in 2004, because the state GOP charged at the time that the secretary of state -- a Democrat -- was aiding her party by pushing rules that made it too easy for newly registered voters to participate. The Democratic secretary of state in Iowa was also hit with GOP complaints that he was bending absentee voting rules to drive up the Democratic vote. On the other side of the coin, I recall that the Republican secretaries of state in Nevada, Arizona, and Misouri were openly active in Bush's re-election campaign. In Ohio, Blackwell had two jobs: chief election official, and co-chairman of Bush's state campaign.
Maybe Blackwell was just being professional that year when he insisted that new voter registrations should not be accepted unless they were submitted only on paper stock of a certain weight. Or maybe not. The point is, secretaries of state with partisan labels are bound to rouse suspicions, particularly in a highly polarized environment. The perception problem is inescapable, and it will grow as national campaigns further their efforts to target those jobs for political gain.
Not long ago, a bipartisan group offered these comments: "We cannot build confidence in elections if secretaries of state responsible for certifying votes are simultaneously chairing political campaigns....To minimize the chance of election meltdown and to build public trust in the electoral process, nonpartisan structures of election administration are very important, and election administrators should be neutral, professional, and impartial....States could select a nonpartisan chief elections officer by having the individual subject to approval by a super-majority of two-thirds of one or both chambers of the state legislature. The nominee should receive clear bipartisan support. This selection process is likely to yield a respected consensus candidate or, at least, a nonpartisan candidate."
So concluded the Commission on Federal Election Reform, co-chaired last autumn by Republican James Baker (the famed Bush family fixer), and Jimmy Carter (the famed Democratic one-termer). It's also worth pointing out (as noted here) that the nonpartisan election supervision model is employed by Canada, Spain, most emerging democracies...and Afghanistan. But in Washington, blue-ribbon reports are generally destined for oblivion. The current targeting of secretary of state races is evidence of that.