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“You want your candidates to get elected”

Thursday, August 2nd, 2007

That quote appeared in yesterday’s New York Times and comes from the Democratic secretary of state of Maine, where election officials are appointed by the State Legislature, not elected alongside other statewide officeholders.

The Times continues its focus on election reform this week, with a front page story about new efforts to limit corruption and partisanship in election administration. Discussion of how an election could be “stolen” by election officials or voting machine companies in the United States is by some immediately filed in the same category as UFO sightings. But reporter Ian Urbina explains why and how it’s possible and how talk of how to prevent election administration corruption – or even the appearance of conflict – is now becoming more mainstream.

While federal ethics rules require lawmakers to wait a year after leaving office before they can take a job lobbying their former colleagues, no such rules exist for election officials, creating a revolving door between election administration and the voting machine industry. In recent years, top election officials in at least five states have moved from government posts directly into jobs as lobbyists for the voting machine industry, which itself grew immensely after Congress allocated billions of dollars to help states update equipment.

[snip]

The issue of potential conflicts in election administration first came to wide public attention in the 2000 presidential election, when the Florida secretary of state, Katherine Harris — who was a chairwoman of George W. Bush’s state campaign committee — certified the election despite demands for a recount.

As a result of that disputed election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, spending more than $3 billion in part to help states buy better voting machines. That money, however, also created an industry that brought with it significant political power and potential conflicts of interest.

“So, now, when the U.S. promotes democracy abroad and provides funding to help other countries vote, we have standards that we don’t apply at home,” said Dr. [Robert] Pastor, of American University. “We don’t require the people running our own elections to maintain strict independence from powerful financial or partisan interests.”

But efforts to adopt new rules have met with strong resistance.

Representative Susan A. Davis, Democrat of California, has introduced a bill prohibiting chief state election officials from serving on the political campaigns of federal candidates. When Ms. Davis submitted the bill to the National Association of Secretaries of State for its support, she said she was initially told that they would present it for discussion at the annual convention. Later, however, she was told that it would not be because opposition was too strong.

“No one likes anyone to meddle in their jobs,” she said. “But you can’t be both a player and a referee at the same time.”

Urbina mentions laws passed in Colorado, Massachusetts, Ohio and Virgina recently to “limit political activity of election officials.” North Carolina and New Mexico are also experimenting with how to prevent potential conflicts. But there is no federal regulation of state election officials who wish to participate in partisan political campaigns, and the head of the National Association of Secretaries of State is wary of excessive oversight.

“Just because you are elected to office doesn’t mean you check your constitutional right to free speech at the door,” said Todd Rokita, the Indiana secretary of state and the new president of the secretaries of state association. In April, Mr. Rokita became the co-chairman of the state finance committee for Mitt Romney, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination.

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