Putting Elected Officials in Charge of Elections Is a Recipe for Corruption: Evidence from U.S. States

One of the stories that figured prominently in last November’s U.S. elections was that of Brian Kemp, then Georgia’s Secretary of State and now the state’s new Governor. As Secretary of State, Kemp was responsible for administering the state’s elections—but in 2018 he was administering the very election in which he was running for governor, which creates an inherent conflict of interest. Indeed, there was plenty of evidence that Kemp used his position as Secretary to increase his odds of winning the election: He attempted to close polling locations in neighborhoods likely to vote for his opponent, promulgated abnormally stringent voter registration rules that put thousands of voters’ eligibility into question, and launched what most observers considered to be a groundless investigation into his opponent’s campaign in the week before the election. Ultimately, after ignoring calls for him to recuse himself, Kemp announced that he would resign as Secretary of State two days after the election, while the votes were still being counted. Kemp was eventually declared the winner, though his opponent, Stacey Abrams, never fully conceded, vowing to sue Kemp for “gross mismanagement of the election.”

It’s hard to see how an election administrator’s use of his power to benefit his own political campaign is anything other than corrupt. Indeed, Kemp’s controversial election illustrates how the U.S. electoral process is particularly vulnerable to this sort of corruption. (And, it’s worth noting, while Kemp drew most of the attention, there were two other candidates in the 2018 elections that found themselves in the same position, with one choosing to recuse himself from the recount process back in August 2018 during a close primary.) In most U.S. states, the Secretary of State (who is responsible for administering the state’s elections) is an elected official, and in over half of the states, Secretaries of State can run for public office while serving as Secretaries. This is out of step with most of the developed world, where election administration is independent and apolitical. Reformers have called for changes to this system before, so far without much success. But the atmosphere may now be ripe for anticorruption advocates to propose referenda to create new, independent, and non-partisan systems for election administration. A well-designed system could eliminate the clear conflicts of interest raised by people like Brian Kemp, while also tackling the more insidious and less obvious forms of corruption that arise when party members use their power over election administration to ensure that their party stays in power.

What might such a system look like? Canada may provide a useful model, given its similarities to the U.S., particularly with respect to its federalist structure. In Canada, each province is responsible for administering its provincial elections, while the Canadian national government administers national elections. The Canadian election administration systems share a few key components that keep the electoral commissions independent and non-partisan, and that all U.S. states should adopt:

  • First, the head of the electoral commission should be appointed for a set term, and should not be removable before the expiration of that term without good cause. In Canada, electoral commissions (at the provincial and federal levels) are run by an independent, non-partisan Chief Election Officer (CEO). An all-party committee, including representatives from various political parties and civil society groups, appoints this individual for a set term (10 years in the Federal system) and he or she can only be removed from office for cause. Past efforts to increase independence in electoral administration in the U.S have involved creating bipartisan boards with an equal number of representatives from both political parties (for example, the New York City Board of Elections or the Federal Election Commission). However, these commissions have been marred by inaction and are often seen as ineffective as the members are stuck in a stalemate. Appointing one leader every 10 years could allow the commission to remain efficient and effective in overseeing elections while still being independent.
  • Second, the election commission’s financial independence should be ensured by providing it with statutory sources of guaranteed funding, so that the commission is accountable to government institutions and not the government of the day. In Canada, the election commission is guaranteed a minimum level of funding by law; this funding cannot be altered by the national parliament or the provincial legislative assembly. This prevents lawmakers who disagree with the commission’s decisions from defunding it. (That being said, in Canada, the salaries of election officers are still controlled by the Parliament, which leaves some room for political influence, a characteristic of the system that should not be adopted by American states.)
  • Third, the election commission should be staffed with civil servants rather than political appointees. In the U.S., there’s been too much emphasis on making electoral administration a bipartisan endeavor, when what we really should do is make election administration a nonpartisan In Canada, aside from the CEO, the employees who staff the electoral office are civil servants. Even the CEOs come from a background in civil service. Shifting control over election administration from partisans to civil servants can help prevent partisan officials from corruptly using their public office to benefit their party.

The debate over electoral administration in the U.S. is at a turning point. Anticorruption advocates should build on the newfound attention brought by Kemp’s run for Governor to tackle this longstanding issue, state by state. We can all agree that the current system is vulnerable to corruption. It’s time to get serious about fixing it.

1 thought on “Putting Elected Officials in Charge of Elections Is a Recipe for Corruption: Evidence from U.S. States

  1. Good article. Living in Canada for the past 30 years I have only seen one instance where politicians tried to influence the outcome of a election. In 2011, the Harper government removed the right to vote for Canadians living outside the country for more than 5 years. At the time, some critics argued it had the ulterior motive of improving the odds of the Conservative Party to be re-elected because most expats were more inclined to vote Liberal. Last week, the Canadian Supreme Court restore such right by repealing the law under the argument that “the disenfranchisement of these citizens not only denies them a fundamental democratic right, but also comes at the expense of their sense of self-worth and their dignity”

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