The U.S. is the only democracy in the world to select most senior election officials through partisan elections, a system that inevitably creates strong allegiances between officials and political parties they must oversee. Secretaries of state, county clerks, and other election officials have generally risen above the partisan affiliations attached to their names to administer elections fairly and impartially, voluntarily adhering to norms of ethical behavior. But norms are not laws. Less ethical newcomers to the field are winning election posts and effectively promising voters to help their side win. This new reality, coupled with diminishing trust in elections by some voters, points to the need for reforms that enshrine the standards of professionalism and impartiality we all expect in the heart of our democracy. ERN has led the development of ethics legislation and fresh models for broadly representative election leadership, drawn from worldwide best practices, in this new era of American elections.
This collection of model legislation offers a starting point for state lawmakers and advocates interested in drafting reforms to strengthen elections and democratic institutions. Models feature ethics legislation, qualification thresholds for senior election officials, and a task force study bill.
We must remove partisanship from election administration, say voters of all political stripes in a national poll commissioned by Election Reformers Network. The survey asked people’s views on our election system and on changes aimed at bolstering voter trust; 71% believe candidates for election official positions should be required to have experience running elections.
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 c) voters are confident that election administrators are doing their jobs without partisan bias. This ERN policy brief addresses how, including model legislation.
An example of a possible bill to secure trusted and impartial elections by providing for oversight by an independent state board of elections and election administration by a nonpartisan professional.
With the help of ERN and coalition partners, Michigan became the eighth state, and the second swing state, to pass legislation bringing its laws into compliance with the historic Electoral Count Reform Act (ECRA).
Although most 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.
As election administration comes under increasing scrutiny from both sides of the political spectrum, an increasing number of researchers, scholars, lawyers, organizations, writers, and editorial boards have come out in favor of the concept of "impartial election administration."
Former White House Counsel and Law Professor Larry Schwartztol cited ERN research in his opinion piece on impartial elections for The Atlantic. The article explains that nonpartisan, professionalized election administration is the norm in many other democracies; the American system of allowing partisan politicians to run elections is an outlier.
This in-depth look at the Canadian model of election administration explains how delegating authority to independent professionals overcame widespread fraud and established a system that won the trust of voters.
Senior election officials often have to balance political party affiliations on one hand and impartial administration on the other. Our nation’s election officials deserve a better system that makes their neutrality and professionalism clear to all sides.
In 33 states, the chief election official position is held by the secretary of state (or other state officer) who is elected in partisan elections and takes office with allegiance to a political party. No other democracy in the world selects its most senior election officials this way.
The Carter Center joins with ERN to release this joint report on how proven models for impartiality in redistricting and the judicial system can be used to ensure that our election leaders are independent, professional, and accountable.
Though implications for the abortion ballot initiative in November have dominated news coverage of August’s Issue 1, the leadership failure atop the state’s election system should not be ignored. Ohio elections need neutral referees just as much as sports do.
As a result of the decentralized nature of elections in the United States, election administration structures vary greatly state-by-state. In ten states the state-level leadership is the responsibility of an election board or commission. These types of boards, if structured correctly, can reduce concerns about partisanship in election certification processes.
In the 2022 cycle, 28 states held elections to select their chief election official (usually the secretary of state). At least 33 candidates for these statewide offices ran while questioning or denying the results of the 2020 presidential election — raising questions about whether they would conduct their work impartially if elected.
“A politicized, partisan secretary of state can completely distort public understanding of a ballot question through their control of the summary language,” says ERN Executive Director Kevin Johnson.
Voters need to know that the election system protects them from rogue behavior. Even modest changes in law and practice could go a long way.
The election certification process was thrown into the partisan fray in 2020 and 2022. ERN has conducted twin studies aimed at comparing the certification process domestically and abroad so that we can glean best practices and keep this important process neutral.
"Americans deserve election officials who, in all aspects of the job, act as unbiased public servants, not partisans, who simply serve the voting public." -- Op-Ed by ERN team members Heather Balas and Amber McReynolds for TalkingPointsMemo.
ERN’s model qualifications bill offers a legal pathway to ensure that future chief elections officials bring adequate knowledge and expertise to the job – before they get elected.