I. In Focus This Week
Doing a nonpartisan job in a hyper-partisan world
Elections officials work to put job over politics
For 11 years Sherre Toler made sure the residents of Harnett County, N.C. had everything they needed to cast a ballot on (or before) Election Day.
She enjoyed the work she was doing and although one can never tell what the future may hold, she could have envisioned herself retiring from there someday.
But on January 3, 2012 Toler resigned from a job she loved because she could no longer remain impartial. A constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage will appear on the May 2012 primary ballot.
“This issue has been debated in the past but has never before been placed on the ballot so I had an opportunity to think about it before it actually happened.” Toler said. “However, when the vote was announced, I knew there was no way I could conduct a vote such as this.”
Toler said she spoke with friends and family about her decision and that they were supportive of her decision. She also said that her colleagues in Harnett County have been supportive as well.
“My board and staff have been incredibly supportive and have all wished me well,” Toler said. “I have nothing but respect for the elections community as a whole, and I know that the overwhelming majority of elections officials work hard to make sure that all elections are conducting fairly and honestly.”
In today’s society when everyone seems to wear their emotions and beliefs on their sleeve — or express them in 140-characters or less — how do elections officials put whatever feelings they may have aside in order to conduct fair and efficient elections?
“Not only is it possible for election administrators to be nonpartisan; it should be a job requirement,” said Richard L. Hasen, Chancellor’s Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of California as well as editor of the Election Law Blog.”
Hasen noted that in other countries, the norm is that election administrators have their allegiance to the integrity of the process and not to a political party or an ideological belief. He pointed out that in the U.S., this norm is followed only some administrators.
"The importance is basic. The umpire shouldn't be member of either team. How to get there from here? In some states we need to change the rules on how we pick our election referees. Until then we must hope that virtue and integrity overcomes partisan pressures," said Edward B. Foley, Isadore and Ida Topper Professor of Law and director of Election Law @ Moritz.
In Delaware, Elaine Manlove, commissioner of elections for the state of Delaware, said it’s not just about doing her job, it’s about the law.
“Delaware law requires that I as well as my staff and all of the Elections employees in the three county offices be non-partisan. We can't do anything political from putting a bumper sticker on our cars to signs in our yards to campaign contributions,” Manlove said. “Having this law as a backdrop is a constant reminder to us as well as to the politicians we interact with that we remain non-partisan. It’s more than being ethical – it’s the law.”
Some elections officials, like Maryland’s Linda Lamone, felt that there are standards in place to ensure that officials remain professional and impartial.
“I think you are over-thinking this. Most election officials are very professional and adhere to the principles and standards as set out in the two documents…from the National Association of Election Officials.”
It’s not always easy for even the most impartial elections to stay out of the line of fire of partisan politics.
Recently, Kevin Kennedy, who heads Wisconsin’s nonpartisan Government Accountability Board has faced the glare of the media as the state struggles through a series of hyper-politicized elections administration issues including voter ID and numerous recalls.
For Kennedy, it’s not been about politics, it’s about doing a job that he was hired to do. He noted that his focus is on applying the law as given to him by the legislature and the courts. The political polarization he encounters is a reminder to him that decisions are not made in a vacuum.
“I think the touchstone for addressing these issues is to look at the fact this is my job. I have been entrusted with a responsibility to administer a set of duties that lies at the heart of what our government is built on,” Kennedy said.
“I have a responsibility to fairly and transparently administer elections to ensure confidence in the integrity of the electoral process. As a result, my commitment is to the voters, the candidates and the election officials to do my job in a fair and impartial manner. Anything less and I am not honoring the trust that has been given to me by the people through my appointment by the members of the Government Accountability Board.”
Johnson County, Kan. Elections Commissioner Brian Newby makes sure that his impartiality even trickles into his personal life. Even on the most social of all social media sites, Facebook, Newby is cautious about who he friends.
“I have a goofy internal policy that I won’t accept a social network friend request or connection if the person is a candidate at the time. I understand that once connected, an elected official can later become a candidate or a friend may later run for an office and I don’t defriend them,” Newby said. “I just wouldn’t want anyone to think I was in cahoots with a candidate by buddying up socially with a candidate. Many don’t know I have this policy so they probably think I’m just rude and also heartless when I accept a losing candidate’s request the day after the election.”
Newby won’t even affiliate with candidates for cake! He noted that recently, a good friend of his had a 50th birthday party and the friend was a candidate for office and so Newby gave his regrets because he didn’t want any perception that his attendance meant any kind of approval of his friends candidacy.
Sarah Ball Johnson, former director of elections for Kentucky emphasized the importance of shutting out the background noise that comes with being an elections director.
“It is even more important to be a-political now than in the past. Every little decision is made under a microscope in the election world, but that is not necessarily bad. The more open and transparent we are the better to counter act the misinformation that spreads like wild fire,” Ball Johnson said. “There is no place for partisan answers when answering questions on elections or voting.”
Ball Johnson also had some parting advice for elections officials at all levels:
- Follow the law not the rhetoric;
- Never make a decision based upon the party affiliation of the inquirer;
- Be consistent...always review the law, case law, and policy before making a decision;
- Be proactive, never ever wait for something to blow-up before you address it. If you know there is a weakness in procedure or law, work to fix it before it becomes a problem. You never want to be in court or in the media admitting you knew it was a problem but failed to try to fix it. Paper trails are your friend;
- Train, Train, Train and then Train again! I am a firm believer in constant and redundant training in all areas of election administration. Train yourself, your staff, local registrars, public, party officials, candidates and anyone else you can think of on the proper procedures for conducting elections;
- Always attend local, state, and national election groups conferences/training sessions. I get some of my best ideas from my colleagues. No need to reinvent the wheel, borrow an idea and make it your own; and
- Be accessible to media and never say "no comment" or refuse to return their phone calls. The media can be your friend or your enemy. Remember it takes minute for someone to say "I was disenfranchised" but it will take you several minutes to explain why they were not disenfranchised.
II. Election News This Week
- This week a bipartisan group of North Carolina election officials asked the state to release $4 million in HAVA funds. The officials said the money is necessary accommodate a large voter turnout in 2012. According to the News & Observer, the money typically covers the cost of voting machine maintenance, poll-worker training and early-voting sites, but in order for localities to get the money, the state must allocate an additional $644,00 to the state board of elections to meet federal guidelines. The paper reports that Republican lawmakers are reluctant to release the additional money. Election officials from more than 85 counties sent a letter last week to House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger asking for them to address the situation in the Feb. 16 legislative mini-session. The signers include Republican board members from 40 counties, organizers said.
- Voter ID Update: The nationwide debate over voter ID continued this week on several fronts. In South Carolina, the state’s attorney general officially filed suit against the U.S. Department of Justice that had blocked the state’s voter ID law in late 2011. The suit argues that the law “will not disenfranchise any potential South Carolina voter…” The Missouri House has once again approved a measure to require voters in the Show Me state to show some photo ID in order to cast a ballot. It’s the seventh time in eight years that the bill has been brought up in the General Assembly. The bill received an initial approval on a party-line vote of 104-54. Like lawmakers in Missouri, lawmakers in New Mexico once again considered voter ID legislation this week. However, unlike Missouri, the New Mexico lawmakers once again voted down the measure in committee before it even made the House floor. With the state’s lieutenant governor serving as the tie-breaking vote, the Virginia Senate voted this week to approve voter ID. While the Senate bill requires some form of identification for all voters, it does not require that ID to be a photo ID. Acceptable forms of identification include a voter registration card, Social Security card, driver’s license or other government-issued ID, photo ID from a private employer, utility bills, paychecks, bank statements, government checks or a current ID from a four-year college. The House passed a similar bill last week. The Maine legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee voted to conduct a study of the state’s election system, a move that eliminated legislation to require photo ID in Maine.
- Around 2 a.m. on Saturday Feb. 4, a Hamilton County, Ind. jury found Secretary of State Charlie White guilty of six of seven felony charges including voter fraud. Following the ruling, Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) appointed Jerry Bonnet, White’s chief deputy, to serve as interim secretary of state. Following his conviction, White indicated that he would ask the judge to reduce his felony convictions to misdemeanors which would make him eligible to keep his job as the state’s top elections official. Meanwhile, the Indiana Democratic Party is working on a court filing asking a judge to replace White with Vop Osili, the Democrat who lost to White in the 2010 election. The state’s attorney general has said he would object to any legal move and on Tuesday, the state Supreme Court denied a request by the state Democratic Party to install Osili in the office. Osili could still be installed in office if the state Supreme Court upholds a Marion County judge’s ruling that White was ineligible to be a candidate. The court has set oral arguments for Feb. 29. White’s sentencing hearing for the felony convictions has been scheduled for Feb. 23.
- Personnel News: Longtime Flint, Mich. township clerk Sheri Goyette retired at the end of 2011 after serving the residents of Flint for 25 years doing everything from creating the township’s first website to purchasing the town’s new voting equipment. Twenty-three Pinal County, Ariz. employees were awarded election officer certificates this week for completing a two-day recertification or a one-week certification class. After 18 years on the job, Mercer County, N.J. Board of Elections Chairman Dominic Magnolo retired. Magnolo was on the board for 18 years and served as chair for 16. He was one of two of the longest-serving elections officials in the state of New Jersey. Adjusting to a growing and changing population, the Monterey County, Calif. elections department added a bilingual services program manager position to the department. Melissa Semsa has been hired to fill the position.
III. Research and Report Summaries
Election Administration by the Numbers – Pew Center on the States, February 2012: This is the first-ever report to analyze the completeness, strengths, weaknesses, and usefulness of elections data from sources such as state election divisions, the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and its Election Administration and Voting Survey, public opinion surveys, and expert assessments.
The Canvass - National Conference of State Legislatures, February 2012: This edition of The Canvass examines state ballot access laws, ballot readability, and research about state election websites.
Missouri: Voting machines
New Hampshire: Voter cards
New York: Voting districts
Ohio: Election reform bill
Pennsylvania: Voter ID
Texas: Military and overseas voters
West Virginia: Vote fraud
**Some sites may require registration.
V. Job Openings
Communications Coordinator, Brennan Center, New York City — works with the Director and the Deputy Director of Communications and Brennan Center staff to maintain an energetic communications department that can speak strategically, as well as quickly and effectively, to mass audiences and members of the press. Responsibilities include: Proactive media relations; reactive media relations; producing and promoting publications; helping craft and execute communications strategies; assisting with all aspects of event planning; assist with online content generation and maintenance, including both drafting and editing web site content; assisting with administrative activities, including press list maintenance and organization and planning of public advocacy events, among other things. Qualifications: Bachelors or advanced degree; substantial work experience in communications and media relations work; strong writing skills and media savvy; enthusiasm about democracy reform and social justice; excellent inter-personal skills and tested ability to negotiate between people with different training and different approaches to problems and communication; and openness to evolving responsibilities. Salary: Commensurate with experience Application: For more information and how to apply, click here. Deadline: Open until filled.
Deputy General Registrar, City of Richmond, Va. — provides administrative assistance and management support to the general registrar. The position is responsible for budget development and monitoring, personnel, payroll, purchasing, e-pollbook management, inventory monitoring and control, staff supervision, and some training. The position works within broad policy and organizational guidelines, independently plans and implements projects; reports progress of major activities through periodic conferences and meetings. Assumes the duties of the General Registrar in the absence of the General Registrar. Qualifications: Requires, Bachelor's degree in public administration, business management, organizational development, project management or a related field; two years of experience in a public setting performing related duties; and 1 year of supervisory experience: OR, High school diploma; five years of progressively responsible administrative experience in a voter registration or election office, or closely related field; and three years of supervisory experience; or, any equivalent combination of training and experience (as approved by the department) that provides evidence that the applicant possesses the necessary Applicant traits. Prior experience in voter registration or elections preferred. Successful candidate must be a resident of the Commonwealth of Virginia and qualified to register to vote at the time of appointment. No Special License or Certification required. Salary: $43,771-$71,898. Application: For complete job listing and application, click here. Deadline: Open until filled.
Senior Associate, Election Initiatives, Pew Center on the States — senior associate’s primary responsibilities involve assisting the director and project manager with strategic planning and coordination of project activities, including public meetings and convenings, development of Board documents, internal and partner communications, and various other rapid response duties. Senior associate will be responsible for assisting the director and project manager in the team’s core functions; serving as a hub to connect the four election initiatives to ensure open communications between the projects and clear coordination, quality control and sequencing of budgets, contracts, fundraising, publications, and messaging. Responsibilities will include managing consultants, maintaining internal and external communications and writing for reports, memos, policy briefs, 50-state scans and other research products that are highly relevant to policy deliberations. The associate may also undertake special projects aimed at improving the overall operation of Election Initiatives and other projects in the PCS elections portfolio as their workload permits. The project and position are approved through March 2013 with the possibility of renewal depending on the initiative's progress, board approval and continued funding. Qualifications: Bachelor's degree required; advanced degree preferred; four to Eight years of relevant professional experience, including demonstrated research, administrative and writing skills. Experience in public policy and election administration preferred; ability to write clearly and cogently for multiple audiences including policy makers, the media and public; ability to synthesize and summarize large amounts of information and to focus quickly on the essence of an issue, as well as to identify, understand and synthesize different policy perspectives; strong systems skills including Microsoft Office products required: word processing (Word); spreadsheets (Excel); presentations (PowerPoint); and workload management (Outlook). Application: For more information and to apply for this job, click here. Deadline: Open until filled.