New Models For Keeping Partisans Out Of Election Administration

International Resource
January 15, 2022
ERN and Carter Center

Report Overview

In at least six swing states, elections in 2022 for secretary of state featured well-funded “stop-the-steal” candidates who appeared ready to overturn future election results to help their side win. Similar threats are emerging at the local level.  

The U.S. is the only country in the world that relies on partisan elections to select its election officials, and one of very few to allow high-ranking party members to lead state election administration. By contrast, 73 countries deploy constitutionally independent bodies run their elections.

Two promising reforms exist in the U.S. to reduce partisanship in elections:  

  1. Appointment of judges (rather than electing them)
  2. Independent redistricting of district boundaries

Judicial Nominating Commissions  

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia appoint supreme court justices and some lower court judges with guidance from a judicial nominating commission, and another 10 states use these commissions in some manner. Judicial nominating commissions receive applications, interview candidates, and produce a short list of approved nominees. In the best versions of this system, the governor can only appoint a judge from this list and must do so within a given period; otherwise, the commission names the judge.

Independent Redistricting Commissions

Redistricting commissions outside of the legislature play a role in state legislative redistricting in 16 states and congressional redistricting in 10. The most important of these bodies are the four independent citizens commissions in Arizona, California, Colorado, and Michigan, each led by diverse groups of citizens who determine district boundaries completely independently from the state legislatures. Key attributes of these commissions include detailed criteria to guide their mapmaking, guidelines for transparency and conflicts of interest, and a mechanism for review or appeal to the state supreme court.

Promising Attributes of Commissions  

Summarized below are seven key attributes of these commission types that can provide model
approaches for reforms to state election administration:

  1. Appointment processes prevent control by one or both political parties, while providing
    meaningful input from them.
  1. Appointment processes involve relevant stakeholders such as civil society organizations,
    professional associations, political independents, and third parties.
  1. Commission membership guidelines prevent or limit member conflict of interest.
  1. Explicit criteria help guide the work and output of the commissions.
  1. Commissions are required to work transparently.
  1. Commission processes include mechanisms for review by, or appeal to, branches of state
  1. Commissions have constitutional status, providing protection for their functions and

Recommendations for Reform  

  • States should make the state chief election official position nonpartisan.
  • States should consider establishing broadly representative “election official nominating
    commissions” to select nonpartisan chief election officials and other positions.
  • As an alternative to nominating commissions, nonpartisan elections for chief election officials
    should be established carefully.
  • State election boards should be redesigned to reduce control by party-affiliated members,
    leveraging lessons from independent redistricting commissions.
  • Reforms should strengthen the authority of state election officials and establish their roles in
    state constitutions.
  • At the local level, states should consider a nominating commission role for some local election
    positions and should carefully increase the use of nonpartisan elections.

The full report includes a proposed structure for an election official nomination commission and for revising state election boards. The proposal incorporates representation of election officials, political parties, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders.