State officials who administer fair, accessible, and secure elections have always operated quietly without attracting public attention. Elections are held, votes are counted, winners are declared and democracy progresses.
But since 2020, secretaries of state and other state officials who oversee elections have come under increasing scrutiny and been exposed to increasing abuse.
Studies showed that Democratic and Republican state election officials oversee elections with similar partisan results, turnouts, and administrative policies. And despite the fact that most of these officers are selected through explicitly partisan processes, the majority of them behaved in a non-partisan manner to ensure fair and safe elections.
But given the increasingly polarized and hostile political environment in the United States, is the country about to experience an election day filled with conflict, contested election results and untrusted election officials?
What theyre doing
The Decentralized American Electoral System is managed by state and local government officials. State election officialsthe title most often given to the system’s top official, has ultimate authority over elections in the state and oversees voting processes before, during, and after an election.
There is a lot of variation on how Chief Electoral Officers are selected in each of the states. Most are selected through explicitly partisan processes, such as partisan elections or political appointments by a legislature or governor.
The the responsibilities of these election officials include ensuring that state and federal election laws are followed by local authorities, implementing state plans to register those eligible to vote, and maintaining the state’s voter registration database.
Additionally, they are responsible for training local officials in the conduct of elections and providing a process for testing and certifying voting materials in the state.
Most of these Chief Electoral Officers have also other important roles in state government. They may be responsible for administering business documents and licenses in a state and enforcing campaign finance regulations. They can also occupy a highly political role, as a successor to the governor.
How the system works
Certificate of electionthe official count of the results of the votes in person and by mail, involves many steps and includes a number of post-election activities.
The first stages of election certification take place at the local level and then at the state level. The United States has more 10,000 local election administration jurisdictions. It is officials in these local jurisdictions who manage the day-to-day operations of elections where votes are initially counted.
After the polls close, local election officials are responsible for counting the ballots. This includes mail-in and mail-in ballotswhich in some states may be accepted a few days after Election Day if postmarked first.
Officials then process the provisional ballots. Provisional bulletins are those expressed by voters who arrive at the polls on polling day and whose eligibility to vote is uncertain.
Then the officials do what is called a solicit. It is the tabulation, double checking and transmission of the results from the local jurisdiction to the state.
The certificate finalizes the results based on canvassing.
While the exact procedures vary by state, a state canvassing commission, election official, or small group that may include the governor and other state officials signs an election certificate for all candidates and ballot measures .
Undermining a process of trust
I am a public sector governance specialist and former local government official. I believe there are worrying signs related to our highly partisan election administration system that could erode public confidence in the neutrality of elections.
General mistrust in the neutrality of the electoral process is high, and voters are lose confidence in the US elections. Allegations that the 2020 election was fraudulent have been repeatedly refuted by exhaustive audits, recounts, reports and reviews. Yet, despite this fact, constantly on 70% of Republican voters suspicion of electoral fraud.
This has led some states to change the role of the election officer. Some states have past legislation that transferred aspects of election administration to partisan bodies such as state legislatures or predominantly partisan election commissions. Where responsibility for any aspect of an election is so altered, can intensify the partisan gamefurther eroding public confidence.
Further affecting their reputation for neutrality, from 2000 to 2020 almost 30% of State Chief Electoral Officers publicly endorsed a candidate participating in a race under their supervision.
Additionally, in the upcoming 2022 midterms, candidates for Chief Electoral Officer in three swing states — Arizona, Michigan, and Nevada — are running as negationists.
Their platforms include eliminating mail-in voting, ballot boxes and even the use of electronic voting machines while empowering partisan election observers and expanding their roles. Vote by mail makes voting more accessible to large groups of individuals and reduces the cost of elections. Eliminating this practice may make it more difficult for certain groups of people to vote. Extend the role of partisan election observers can lead to vote intimidation.
Secretaries of State or Chief Electoral Officers alone cannot alter the results of an election, but they can certainly undermine this system on several fronts.
They can refuse to certify the results of an election, triggering the intervention of the governor or the courts. They can also allow multiple audits by internal and external entities of the results of the elections and promote general distrust of the electoral process and its results by making public comments on the election results that signal that the public should not trust the election result.
Disturbance from outside
Chief Electoral Officers also face extreme partisan groups seeking to disrupt and exploit the electoral administration system before, during and after elections. This includes endless post-election challenges the accuracy of the election results.
During the elections, problems can be expected as extremist partisan groups have moved towards appoint supporters, poll workers and observers to disrupt voting centers, tamper with equipment or question voting procedures, as encouraged by Trump loyalist Steve Bannon. And even before Election Day, election officials see a coordinated campaign of demands for 2020 voting records, in some cases crippling preparations for the midterm election season.
The changing nature, role and perception of state election officials undermines their ability to administer fair elections. The end result: Democracy is weakened in the United States
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