A Profile: Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan
Popular two-term secretary decides not to seek re-election
A life of public service was a natural fit for Missouri’s Robin Carnahan.
She grew up watching her father, the late Senator Mel Carnahan, dedicate his life to the community of Rolla, and to all of Missouri.
She also watched how her father balanced his public life and his private life and learned from that as well.
“I watched as my father moved regularly between elective office and private life…always devoted to his family and to making a positive difference in the community,” Carnahan said when announcing her decision not to seek a third term. “Dad always thought his experience as a private citizen helped make him a more effective public servant and a better governor.”
After serving two terms as Missouri’s top elections official, Carnahan has decided not to see a third term and instead return to private life to “gather new ideas and experiences and a fresh perspective.”
While serving as secretary, Carnahan worked to implement the state’s first statewide voter registration database, created the Missouri Voting Rights Center and launched a new, user-friendly elections website.
In 2010 Carnahan was the Democratic nominee to the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Kit Bond. She was endorsed by the Kansas City Star, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis American. She was defeated by Republican Roy Blunt during a midterm election that saw a wave of Republican victories.
“Robin Carnahan has been a thoughtful and forceful voice on elections since becoming Missouri’s Secretary of State in 2005,” said Doug Chapin, director, Program for Excellence in Election Administration, Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “She has been a strong and consistent advocate for voters in Missouri and nationwide and I look forward to the next chapter of her already impressive career.”
After eight years in office, you chose not to seek re-election. Why did you choose not to run again?
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed serving as secretary of state. We’ve made dramatic improvements for voters, and eight years seems like long enough.
What would you say has been the biggest change you have seen in elections during your tenure?
No question, it had to be implementing the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Replacing punch-card voting machines with precinct-based optical scanners and accessible voting equipment for people with disabilities represented a big change for local election officials, poll workers and voters.
Also, the creation of Missouri’s first statewide voter registration database took an enormous amount of work and training, but the results have been tremendous, giving Missouri the cleanest, most up-to-date voter rolls in the state’s history.
What was the most difficult time/issue you faced during your tenure?
I took office in early 2005, and, by November 2006, we were required to meet the deadline for implementing HAVA with limited resources. Our staff, local election officials and thousands of dedicated poll workers deserve a lot of credit for accomplishing so much in such a short period of time.
The most frustrating issues always involved the time and energy required to prevent partisan nonsense from overtaking commonsense, non-partisan election reforms.
What do you feel was your greatest accomplishment and why?
I think it’s giving voters confidence in the fairness of the election process. It’s the secretary of state’s job not only to ensure the integrity of elections, but also to stand up for the rights of all voters. These days, partisans on both sides try to tilt the playing field to their advantage. I’ve worked hard to strike a sensible balance based on facts, not political rhetoric. So, when members of the legislature attempted to impose a restrictive government-issued voter ID requirement that would limit the voting rights of eligible voters, I spoke out. And when anyone violated an election law, we investigated and referred them to prosecutors. Elections shouldn’t be about Democrats and Republicans, elections are about democracy and reminding people of what is important.
Is there anything specific that you still hope to accomplish as secretary of state before leaving office?
We have two more statewide elections this year, so we’re very focused on ensuring those go well. Ultimately, my goal is to leave the state of Missouri’s elections administration infrastructure much better than I found it and to completely imbed a culture of providing excellent customer service to all the Missourians we serve.
Providing excellent service isn’t just about the size of the project. If something is more convenient for voters, encourages more people to participate and is affordable, I’m for it.
For example, we have vastly expanded on-line access to voting information, whether it’s about registration, polling place locations, sample ballots or results. In fact, our election night reporting system regularly gets mentioned in national media reports as one of the best, most user-friendly in the country.
What will you miss most about being secretary of state?
It’s great to work on issues you feel passionate about. And ensuring that people have faith that their voices are being heard and that their government reflects the will of the people is something that I care deeply about. I’ll also miss simply solving problems and making government work for ordinary people. On any given day, I might help a voter with a registration problem, an entrepreneur trying to start a business or an investor who’s been scammed. As secretary of state, the issues I deal with everyday seldom involve political hot buttons; they’re more likely to be about providing good, cost-effective service to taxpayers. I’ll miss having the chance to do that.
As an expert in the field of elections, where do you see the administration of elections going in this country?
The level of scrutiny surrounding election administration is only going to grow. The advancement of new technology, combined with instant communication networks, means that even more people will be watching and reporting on how elections are administered in every polling place in the country. That can be both good and bad. It’s good in that it can ensure the rules are followed and the playing field remains fair. It can be troubling in that instantaneous reports are very susceptible to being inaccurate or biased, but nonetheless these reports could affect voters and the fairness of the elections. This increased scrutiny will present new challenges for local election officials and poll workers who are already under-appreciated.
Another challenge on the horizon is how to continue making elections more convenient for voters and cost effective for administrators, while still ensuring the security, access and privacy that voters rightly expect. Many states have implemented early voting and vote-by-mail, but I suspect it won’t be long before states begin to experiment more broadly with on-line voting, and once that happens, a lot of changes will follow.
What's next for you, besides being able to sleep in on Election Day?
I’ll continue to look for ways to serve. And for now, that will be outside of holding elective office.
Editor’s Note: In April, electionlineWeekly also profiled Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed who is retiring after 12 years as the state’s top elections officials.