A Looming Issue — Partisanship and Election Administration

Recently I was the guest on a segment of KCET’s “Life and Times” show, talking with host Val Zavala about the upcoming campaign over California’s Proposition 77, a ballot measure that would dramatically alter California’s redistricting process. You can read the transcript of the show, or watch it in RealAudio. One of the most significant things that Proposition 77 would do is move California’s redistricting process out of the hands of state legislators, to an appointed, nonpartisan panel of retired judges.

While it is unclear at this point how Proposition 77 will do in this fall’s special election (it currently is trailing in the polls), the argument for nonpartisan election administration — in all areas of administration, including both state and local election officials — is gaining momentum.

Recently Thad and I wrote a report based on a national poll we conducted in March 2005. Currently a majority of states have chief election officers who are elected and partisan, and an untold number of county and municipal election officials are partisan and elected. However, our poll found that:

  • Election should be run by nonpartisan, not partisan, officials.
  • Elections should be run by election boards, nto by a single election official.
  • These election officials should be elected, no oppointed.

As we concluded in our report, “the public supports having elections run by nonpartisan boards. Most importantly, less than one percent of Americans support the current combination of having elections governed by a single partisan elected official.” We applied these ideas earlier this year to the specific context of California’s election administration, in an opinion piece published by the Sacramento Bee , where we called for turning California’s election administration over to an independent state Electoral Commission.

Rick Hasen has also written about this problem. In a paper titled “Beyond the Margin of Litigation; Reforming U.S. Election Administration to Avoid Electoral Meltdown”, he notes that “The kind of mistrust we saw in the 2004 election is likely to continue unabated, with partisan election officials (and their discretionary decisionamking) a lightning rod for criticism and litigation. After the 2004 election ended, California’s elected Democratic Secretary of State resigned while under investigation for, among other things, routing HAVA funds to support Democratic Party causes and supporting his own campaign coffers” (page 62). Hasen’s proposal focuses on developing appointed, executive state election officials (nominated by a governor and approved by some large legislative supermajority), who are insulated in various ways from direct partisan pressures. Hasen draws heavily on the cases of Australia and Canada, both examples of nonpartisan election administration (though the Australian case relies upon an election commission and the Canadian case relies upon an appointed executive official; both have handy organizational charts, see the Australian model and the Canadian model.)

Soon the Moritz School of Law is having a conference on this issue, so this is a subject we will keep readers posted on as additional research and reports come along in the future. This is an issue that we doubt will disappear, and much research is needed on the current situation regarding the structure of election administration in the United States — and how these various structures in turn influence a wide variety of “output” measures, like voter satisfaction and voting system performance.