Report: Highly partisan US election administration should become nonpartisan to preserve democracy

Study of voting oversight in 30 states shows how 2 major parties prioritize power at exclusion of others, authors say

Thom Reilly, professor, ASU, School of Public Affairs, nonpartisan, election, administration

Professor Thom Reilly, ASU School of Public Affairs. Photo courtesy ASU

If you were to read through the electoral code of any particular state, you might imagine finding a dry recitation of rules for how elections should be conducted to ensure a fair and impartial outcome.

You would be wrong, writes an ASU professor of public affairs and three other authors in a new report.

"Election Administration In America – Partisan by Design," a recently released report from the Center for an Independent and Sustainable Democracy at Arizona State University and Open Primaries, a national election reform organization, indicates electoral codes in the United States are rife with rules for how the two major parties – Republican and Democratic – prioritize their power at the exclusion of everyone else.

“There is virtually no firewall between electoral competitors and electoral administrators, leaving the voting public at the mercy of shifting partisan currents,” according to the report, co-written by ASU School of Public Affairs Professor Thom Reilly and colleagues. “The escalating controversies over election outcomes — over who won and who lost and whether the system is rigged — would not be possible but for the fact that the system is already profoundly partisan.”

The report is based on examining the electoral codes of 30 states with partisan voter registration systems.

Nonpartisan election administration is the norm in most Western democracies, but not in America, say the report’s authors, who found the United States is the only democracy in the world that permits partisan contests for election officials. In other democracies, elections are run by independent commissions or governmental agencies shielded from political influence, the authors say.

In an op-ed appearing July 28 in The Hill, Reilly and co-author Jeremy Gruber, senior vice president of Open Primaries, call for radical change in U.S. election administration to preserve democracy. This would be accomplished by implementing a nonpartisan status for each state’s chief election official (usually the secretary of state) and the individuals who staff election boards at the municipal, county and state levels, they wrote.

The authors say they believe America’s system of election administration puts our democracy at risk, and that there is a need for a conversation about how we fundamentally restructure election administration in America and move to a more nonpartisan system.

The School of Public Affairs is part of ASU’s Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions

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