Guardrails For The Guardians: Reducing Secretary of State Conflict of Interest

September 1, 2020

Report Summary

Although many secretaries of state perform exemplary public service, party allegiances built into these positions make the United States a global outlier in election administration and create risks that need to be addressed.

To assess these issues, Election Reformers Network has released Guardrails for the Guardians: Reducing Secretary of State Conflict of Interest and Building More Impartial U.S. Election Administration. This first-of-its-kind analysis examines the track record of elected and appointed chief election officials in 40 states from 2000–2020, finding that while the vast majority have conducted elections fairly and have maintained independence in practice, gaps in our system have occasionally allowed these important figures to attempt to influence election results. In addition, voter trust appears to be damaged by assigning partisan affiliations to these key election posts.  

ERN recommends a number of potential reforms to these positions, including changes to how we select election officials, and creating new ethical standards for administering elections impartially.

Why do we worry about the current system? 

In 33 U.S. states, the position of chief election official is held by the secretary of state (or a similarly titled official), who is elected in partisan elections and takes office with allegiance to a political party. In seven states, the governor or the legislature appoints the secretary of state, which likewise results in a state chief election official with strong ties to a political party.

No other democracy in the world selects its most senior election officials in this manner.

Regardless of their neutrality in practice, these structures create inherent conflicts of interest between the secretaries’ responsibility as chief election officials to administer elections neutrally and their personal and professional interest in the success of a party fielding candidates. For example, in states with elected secretaries of state, these individuals are frequently candidates themselves, whether for re-election or for higher office.

Collectively, these conflicts of interest undermine voter confidence in elections, and they can lead to situations where partisan motivations affect election results. While concerns over secretary of state conflict of interest have arisen from time to time, the issue has not been deeply studied, and this report aims to address that gap.

Research for this report focuses on the structural sources of secretary of state conflict of interest and on the track record of partisan acts by secretaries serving over the past 20 years. This report also evaluates how most other democracies in the world restrict partisan behavior by senior election officials and foster norms of impartial administration.

Our findings and complete recommendations are linked below.