Secretaries of State shouldn’t be in charge of their own elections

Empower Wisconsin | Nov. 16, 2022

By Bangor Daily News Editorial Board

It has taken some time to determine the winner in the race for Arizona governor. It has been clear for a while, however, that one of the candidates should have recused themself from their current job during the campaign.

That person is Democratic candidate Katie Hobbs, who also happens to be the current Arizona secretary of state. That means Hobbs has been the top Arizona election official while also running to be the state’s chief executive.

Like far too many secretaries of state across the country, past and present, that means Hobbs has essentially been overseeing her own election. The appearance of a conflict of interest can be just as detrimental to voter confidence as an actual one, and the apparent conflict of interest here is painfully obvious. The same was true in 2018 when Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, then secretary of state, declined to recuse himself in his first matchup against Democrat Stacey Abrams.

One of the notable voices calling on Kemp to step down as secretary of state or recuse himself during that gubernatorial campaign was former President Jimmy Carter. The Democratic former commander in chief wrote a letter to Kemp highlighting several factors that he worried would threaten voter confidence, including that “you are now overseeing the election in which you are a candidate.”

“In order to foster voter confidence in the upcoming election, which will be especially important if the race ends up very close, I urge you to step aside and hand over to a neutral authority the responsibility of overseeing the governor’s election,” Carter told Kemp. We think a recusal from Kemp could have served the same purpose as a resignation, but Carter was absolutely right about the substance: The idea of someone overseeing their own election is questionable on its face.

This is not a Democratic or a Republican problem; it is an establishment problem. Like the matter of members of Congress being able to trade individual stocks, it is a clear good governance issue that is begging for reform.

According to the nonprofit Election Reformers Network, 15 secretaries of state, both Democrats and Republicans, were on the ballot last Tuesday. Most of them were running for reelection to their current posts. The organization called on those officials to recuse themselves from any recount that might occur in their own race or from certifying themselves as the winner in any close race.

“In recent decades, there has been growing recognition of the potential risks and conflicts of interest inherent in our system of partisan election administration,” Election Reformers Network Executive Director Kevin Johnson said in a Nov. 7 statement. “But research conducted by ERN found that out of 51 secretaries of state who ran for higher office from 2000 to 2020, only three publicly recused themselves in any manner. And no state requires recusals in these circumstances. ”

Without a recusal requirement, we’ve seen official after official rebuff legitimate requests that they step aside from administering their own election. A common but insufficient response from officials in this position has been to express confidence in their team of other election administrators. It was insufficient when Kemp gave a version of it in 2018. It was even insufficient in 2012 here in Maine, when then-Secretary of State Charlie Summers said something similar, and said that he took steps to eliminate conflicts of interest, when he was the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate.

Since most secretaries of state seem unwilling election after election to do the obvious thing and officially recuse themselves from overseeing their own elections, state legislatures should take the obvious step of requiring them to do so.

“States should begin to pass laws to require such recusal and to plan to whom officials should recuse,” Johnson, from the reformers network, said last week.

We agree. Officials and candidates from both parties have made this a clear necessity.

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