Who Certifies Elections in the U.S. and Abroad?

International Resource
September 1, 2022
Election Reformers Network

Report Summary

In recent years, a handful of officials tasked with certifying election results have temporarily refused to do so, raising concerns that the process of election certification could become a platform for partisan conflict that puts voter trust at risk.

To address this issue, ERN has conducted twin studies aimed at evaluating the results finalization process domestically and abroad.

  • The first study finds that in the United States, political parties play a major role in deciding who certifies election results, creating the potential for political conflict in our hyper-partisan era.
  • The second, conducted by International Democracy Consultant Andrew Ellis, finds that almost all of our peer democracies limit the role of political parties to observing the process and bringing challenges in court.

These twin studies suggest a need to protect election certification from being politicized or undermined, while providing a proper avenue for election disputes in the judicial system.

Political parties have major influence on who certifies elections in nearly every state

An ERN analysis of the election certification processes of all fifty states finds that U.S. states use a combination of three systems that give political parties control or influence over who certifies results:  

  1. In many states, appointed election boards, canvass boards, or similar bodies have responsibility for certification, and the members of these bodies almost always represent the two largest parties. Some board members are appointed directly by the parties, while others are appointed by elected officials from lists of party nominees.
  2. Many states rely on elected officials for certification, such as the secretary of state, governor, or a combination of individuals at the state level. Likewise, at the local level, some states give the responsibility to elected county commissioners, sheriffs, or other elected officials. Elections for these positions are largely conducted on a partisan basis, with candidates running under the banner of a political party and relying on party funding and infrastructure.
  3. In some states, partisan-elected officials directly appoint the people responsible for state or local certification.

A handful of states use less partisan approaches to certification that could provide models for reform. For example:

  • In Missouri, judges selected by a nonpartisan judicial nominating commission make up the majority of the State CanvassingBoard.  
  • In Hawaii, certification is overseen by a nonpartisan chief election official, who is appointed by the state-level elections commission, an evenly split bipartisan body with a nonpartisan tie-breaking member agreed upon by members of both parties.  
  • Arizona and Nevada both give prominent roles in certification to elected, nonpartisan state supreme court justices.  
  • In Kentucky, the county clerks’ association plays a role alongside the political parties in naming members of the state’sBoard of Elections, which is responsible for certification.

How other democracies run elections and count results

ERN commissioned an analysis of the election processes of 12wide-ranging peer democratic countries, all of which have a record of democratic elections stretching back at least thirty years: Australia, Bulgaria,Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, India, the Netherlands, Poland, SouthAfrica, Spain, and the U.K. Several common themes about organizing and counting credible and legitimate democratic elections emerged:

  • The phrase “certification of results” does not appear in the electoral code of any of the 12 countries studied. None of these countries set aside a separate step for a separate body or individual to officially check and confirm results, as is common in the U.S. Instead, results are declared by the election officials, and then any challenges to their work, to the accuracy of their math, or to the fairness of their procedures, are decided in court.
  • In all but two of the 12 countries studied, political parties have no role at all in the declaration of results, aside from their right to observe the phases of counting and to challenge results in court. The exceptions are Bulgaria andPoland, both of which employ elements of a “mutual policing” model, incorporating party representatives into election administration, which was common in the first elections in Central and Eastern European countries following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The use of this system is in decline in the region.

Full findings in both reports are linked below. Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash.