Report: Party Control of Elections is a Risk to Democracy

Griffiths is the national publisher of Independent Voters Newswhere a version of this story first appeared.

Partisan machinations increasingly undermined confidence in the integrity of the electoral process. The Holocaust deniers were just the start, but things escalated to the point where some election administrators – loyal to their party – refused to certify election results for political reasons.

A new analysis from the Election Reformers Network warns of the growing danger and chaos that will result from parties having too much control over who certifies elections – and how they do it – as polarization spirals out of control.

“We are already seeing efforts by American supporters to exploit the certification,” writes ERN Executive Director Kevin Johnson. “In 2020, Republican Party officials in Wayne County, Michigan’s largest, refused for several hours to certify presidential election results, briefly throwing the competition in a key state into turmoil. One of their counterparts on the state board — the same panel that last week leveled accusations of political bias when it down-the-party rejection of a proposed ballot measure for protect reproductive rights – threatened to do the same.

In 2022, there were incidents in New Mexico and Pennsylvania where local election commissions refused to certify election results without cause or evidence of fraud or impropriety. Partisan Arizona lawmakers hired an inexperienced private firm to conduct a statewide election audit, despite a lack of evidence that one was needed.

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Voters should prepare for further disruption in November from the very people tasked with overseeing the elections – a job that voters expect to be carried out impartially. But, the administration and certification of elections cannot be truly impartial when teams control who referees the game.

The risk is ubiquitous, and it is not limited to a handful of states.

In its analysis, ERN found that 39 states gave exclusive control over election certification to partisan-controlled councils or partisan officials. And, every state except Hawaii involves named, nominated, or elected partisan figures in the certification process in one way or another.

These are people who signed up for a team and pledged their support to that team. They have every interest in “their camp” winning.

Independent candidate for Washington secretary of state, Julie Anderson, noted in a June interview that it’s “very hard for voters to believe that once you step into” an election administration role “you get rid of those team bonds”.

In her own state, she thinks Republican Kim Wyman – who quit earlier this year – may be the last person voters trust completely to be a party member and oversee elections. Party leaders will no doubt scoff at this claim, but it could carry some weight given that Anderson qualified for the general election over other major party candidates in a nonpartisan primary on 2 august.

ERN conducted parallel analysis to see if peer democracies around the world allow parties to have the same level of control and influence over election certification. What the group discovered is that the United States is almost unique.

Almost all of the 12 democratic systems examined limited political parties to observing the certification process and challenging them in court. The finalization of elections is also conducted by the same professionals – and in most cases non-partisan – who run elections.

It is also rare in these countries for a person running for office to play a role in administering or certifying the elections. The same cannot be said in the United States, where those tasked with overseeing elections can and will run for a different or higher office during their tenure.

Johnson believes it is imperative that voters understand how voter certification works in their state. Many people are unaware that several states have laws that clearly state that the certification process is not the place to challenge election results.

The legitimate jurisdictions are the courts, which increasingly need to intervene to stop efforts to hijack the certification process for political and unfounded reasons. The public’s lack of knowledge has allowed some partisan officials to search for loopholes and ambiguities in state law to insert their own will into election certification.

In the long term, Johnson says the United States should replicate what other democratic systems are doing. He believes that the responsibility for the certification of elections should be entrusted to electoral professionals selected in a non-partisan manner.

“Where commissions are involved, their composition should be changed to emphasize impartiality rather than party representation, for example by including election officials or retired judges,” he writes. “Parties can fully protect their interests through the roles given to them by law: to observe all processes and bring evidence-based concerns to court.”

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