Elections in the Hands of the Partisan and Incompetent

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Over the weekend, Doug Preisse, chair of the Republican Party in Franklin County, Ohio, explained that he had no interest in “contorting” early voting rules in his county to “accommodate the urban–read African-American — voter turnout machine.”

The sentiment was not unusual coming from a partisan Republican but the context was: Preisse also serves as a member of the county’s election board, along with another Republican and two Democrats. He had voted against extending early voting. The board sets many of the rules for the counting and casting of votes and resolves election disputes. Ohio Secretary of State, Jon Husted, a Republican elected official, breaks election board ties throughout the state.

The battle over voter identification laws is only one front in the voting wars. Today, we turn our attention to the issue of who runs our elections and how they do it. We are one of the only mature democratic nations to allow partisans to run our elections, and to give local officials, often underfunded and sometimes incompetent, control over key aspects of the voting process.

Back in 2000, Democrats rightly criticized Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris for the way she handled the dispute between George W. Bush and Al Gore over who was entitled to Florida’s electoral votes and therefore the presidency. Harris, an elected Republican who also served as honorary chair of Bush’s reelection committee, consistently made decisions which helped Bush and hurt Gore.

But Harris was hardly the only partisan actor in Florida. Counting boards in Democratic counties used more forgiving standards for counting disputed ballots than in Republican counties. Democratic election officials were much less likely than Republican officials to use Florida’s controversial purge list as a basis for removing felon voters. Republican counting boards used much more forgiving standards for counting overseas military ballots than Democratic boards, with Republican officials in two instances even counting as valid overseas votes ballots faxed from Maryland after election day.

Since Florida 2000, states have not moved away from this model of partisan election administration. The states which had partisan officials in 2000 still have them. Florida moved from having an elected Secretary of State to a Secretary appointed by the governor, arguably making the position even more political. (Kurt Browning, the former appointed Florida Secretary of State, may have resigned from office because he was not comfortable with the latest voter purge ordered by his former boss, Florida Governor Rick Scott.)

As detailed in The Voting Wars, in Ohio, Democrats roundly criticized Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell for a series of controversial decisions in 2004 which appeared to favor Republicans, such as not accepting registration forms on paper of less than eighty-pound paper weight. His Democratic replacement, Jennifer Brunner, had her own controversies, including a fight in 2008 to prevent local officials from accepting absentee ballot applications prepared by Republicans and the McCain campaign when a voter had not checked a box indicating the voter was a citizen. The box was not required by state law.

Husted, the current Secretary of State, started off looking to be less partisan than his predecessors, going against his party’s attempts to impose tough new voter id rules. But recently he’s followed the Republican line. After breaking ties on county boards to cut back on early voting hours, he imposed uniform early voting dates across the state–but he barred weekend voting, in a move that nonpartisan observers think will help Republicans. He’s also expressed interest in using a controversial DHS list of citizens to purge nonctizens from the rolls–with a significant risk of improperly purging eligible voters.

Democratic and Republican election officials administer elections differently, and often make decisions which tend to help their parties. It is only Republican officials who want to use federal citizenship data to purge voter rolls of noncitizens. Democrats oppose such purges even though noncitizen voting is a real–if small–problem, out of fear that eligible voters will be mistakenly removed in the process.

Decisions are made in ways which seem to line up with each party’s interests. Republican officials take steps to make it harder to register or vote, in the name of election integrity and cost savings. Democratic officials, in the name of voter enfranchisement, take steps to make it easier to vote. Some Democrats are worried not just about actual disenfranchisement, but also about casual voters who will be less likely to vote if voting is not very convenient. Some Republicans are just as happy if these casual voters don’t vote, seeing them as not sufficiently invested in the process to deserve a vote, and of course likely to vote for Democrats.

The problem is not just partisanship and a different view of the purposes of voting, but also one of competence. While many local officials do a good job running elections, even without adequate resources, there are some very weak links.
The Voting Wars begins with a Waukesha County, Wisconsin election official, Kathy Nickolaus, who forgot to include the vote totals for an entire city in a hotly fought race for Wisconsin state supreme court justice race. She had kept the totals stored on her personal laptop. The inclusion of the city’s votes flipped the race from Democrat to Republican. Democrats accused Nickolaus of foul play because she used to work for the Republicans in the state legislature. The Democrat charged with looking over Nickolaus’s shoulder later said she was 80 years old and knows nothing about computers. She confessed she was “very, very confused” by the vote counting. Some watchdog!

As mentioned Monday, a major problem in Ohio is voters sent to vote in the wrong precinct because of poll worker error. The parties are fighting in court over whether voters in November should be penalized for election worker incompetence. A voter should not be disenfranchised because a poll worker thinks “798” is an odd number and sends the voter to the wrong voting table.

This partisanship and incompetence has a corrosive effect on our election system. In the event of a very close election, all of these issues come to the fore, and partisans on the wrong end of a close election attribute election official incompetence and value judgments about how to administer the election to malfeasance.

There has got to be a better way, and tomorrow I will turn to possible solutions.

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