Supporting Election Officials With Ethics Policies

February 1, 2023
Heather Balas

ERN recommends model legislation to create impartiality, conduct, and disclosure requirements for senior election officials.

States must ensure that election officials not only act ethically, but that voters are confident in officials’ impartiality. Often election officials are put in unfair conflicts of interest, being asked to endorse or fundraise for other candidates. Election Reformers Network’s model bill creates clear guardrails for officials, helping them avoid appearances of favoritism, and giving voters greater trust in the system. The bill was developed with support from the Campaign Legal Center.  

The Problem

The U.S. is unique among major democracies in the control it gives to political parties over election governance and rule making. The vast majority of state and local election officials overcome this structural problem and perform their roles impartially and with high integrity. But growing polarization has caused voters to look more closely at links between parties and election officials and sometimes to jump to wrong conclusions. Today, long-serving, highly ethical election officials receive unprecedented threats and harassment. And less ethical newcomers to the field are running for election posts while effectively promising to help their side win. These bad actors fuel voter worries about election administration.  

In this hyper-partisan era, states must take steps to ensure that: a) current officials are protected from threats and intimidation; b) future election officials will act impartially; and 3) voters are confident that election administrators are doing their jobs without partisan bias. Across the nation, states (i.e., MI, WA, ME, VT, NM) are already promoting important reforms to prevent election worker intimidation. State leaders of both parties should also pass legislation that further supports election officials by removing concerns about partisan bias and by preventing infiltration of elections by partisan loyalists.  

Concern #1: Election officials and poll workers face dangerous intimidation.  

In recent years, secretaries of state, election officials and front-line poll workers experienced increased partisan pressure, harassment, and even death threats. Since 2020, county clerks and state election officials have continuously reported intimidation from conspiracy theorists and other extremists, and the U.S. Department of Justice released a preliminary read-out of data regarding election threats. States across the nation are considering legislation that toughen penalties against such treatment.

Concern #2: Voter trust in neutral elections needs to be reinforced. 

In a 2022 poll, only 17% of voters said they were highly confident in U.S. election systems, down 19 points from one year before. Only 55% of voters nationwide told pollsters they believe election officials would handle a disputed election fairly. With political polarization increasing, partisan election of state and local election officials is a growing source of this distrust. Two-thirds of likely voters agree that it is difficult to trust the impartiality of election officials who are elected with the support of a political party.  

Concern #3: Risks are growing of partisan loyalists infiltrating local election administration.

Across the country, states including Michigan, New Mexico and Arizona are experiencing an increase in dangerous local acts of partisanship that pose threats to integrity of results and to voter confidence. These developments reflect the growing polarization of the nation along with local mobilization of extremist partisan organizers. Structural change in how election officials earn their positions is worth exploring for the longer term, and ERN’s model study commission bill can help with that exploration. In the near term, increasing the ethical standards for all election officials is needed to stop the still small number of bad actors.

Concern #4: State laws don't adequately protect election from party loyalists.  

A groundbreaking 2019 study conducted for ERN found that no state in the U.S. has adequate conflict of interest laws to stop top election officials from using their position to influence a race (their own or another candidate’s). Similar shortcomings exist in the ethics requirements for local election officials in most states.

We CAN fix this.  

Ethics standards model legislation prepared by the nonpartisan Election Reformers Network with support from Campaign Legal Center can help. The ethics bill’s purpose is to:  

  1. Protect senior election officials from growing partisan pressures so they may continue to faithfully execute their duties and serve the best interest of the voters
  1. Prevent any senior election official from using their position to influence an election to the benefit or detriment of any candidacy or party, including their own
  1. Safeguard voter confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the state’s election administration by ensuring that the conduct of senior election officials is beyond reproach.  

The bill includes prohibitions against senior election officials endorsing candidates, fundraising for candidates, knowingly propagating falsehoods about election results, or taking “any official action that shows partiality or discrimination toward or against any political party, any candidate for any political office, or any ballot question.”  

Many election officials tell us they personally commit to similar guidelines and support codifying these principles into law. Additionally, our nationwide survey of nearly 1,500 likely voters found that 82% say it is very important that election officials act impartially.