I. In Focus This Week
Election boards’ impact on administering elections
Turnover and inexperience often biggest hurdles
By M. Mindy Moretti
While so much post-November 2012 Election attention has focused on legislation and how “to fix that,” in the months leading up to the election and the months since there has also been a lot of movement on local election boards that no amount of current legislation will address.
Elections boards have clashed with each other, state officials and their administrators over everything from early voting to performance to reviewing voter rolls for noncitizens.
In Ohio, both before and after the election there have been a lot of changes to local elections boards. Some of those changes proved to be quite contentious.
“I would say being a swing state puts the local officials more in the spotlight, so it also puts pressure on board members of the opposite party of the secretary of state to vote against the secretary of state,” said Edward B. Foley, Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer Professor for the Administration of Justice and the Rule of Law at the Moritz College of Law.
“In other words, there is a greater likelihood that the party will want its representatives on the board to act in a partisan manner, to protect the party’s interests. Consequently, this cuts both ways, for and against the secretary of state.”
In the past, we’ve discussed the difficulties of doing a nonpartisan job — administering elections on the state level — in a hyper-partisan world, but what about locally?
“I actually think that for local election boards, competence is a much bigger issue than partisanship,” said Daniel P. Tokaji, Robert M. Duncan/Jones Day Designated Professor of Law; Senior Fellow, Election Law at Moritz College of Law.
Tokaji, speaking specifically about Ohio, said that he thinks the make-up of the boards in Ohio — two representatives of each of the two major parties — the partisanship tends to balance itself out. He said the bigger issue of partisanship comes from the state level.
“The much bigger problem is the partisanship with the secretary of state’s office,” Tokaji said. “I believe bipartisan boards can work pretty well, but it doesn’t work well at the state level because that’s where the policy is made.”
In an interesting way to prove Tokaji’s point, recently in Lenior County, N.C. all three members of the county elections board — two Democrats and a Republican — resigned en masse.
Although the resigning board members cited a variety of reasons for stepping down, the all three had recently clashed with the State Board of Elections that had denied a petition to allow the board to fire Elections Director Dana King.
Rokey Suleman, who has worked for elections boards in Ohio, Virginia and the District of Columbia and is currently a sub-contractor for the Carter Center working in Nepal, said an administrator’s interactions with elections boards really varies from board to board.
“For the most part, boards stay out of the way administratively,” Suleman said. “Each board is a different dynamic however. Once a board member changes, the board goes through learning curves and growing pains.”
Suleman said the most difficult part for him as an administrator, in any of the three states, was when a new board member would come in with their own agenda.
“It’s tough for an administrator when boards change constantly and priorities change constantly amongst the board,” Suleman said by cell phone from Katmandu. “The best board members, and this is really, really selfish of me, are the ones that come on and ask the administrator questions and try to learn from the administrators. The worst are those who want to change things and yet have never run an election.”
Candace Hoke, associate professor at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law said the impacts of partisan elections boards aren’t just potentially tough on the elections administrators, they can also prove difficult for the voters.
She pointed specifically to the fight over early voting in Ohio during the 2012 election.
“It varies but the types of disputes in 2012 included early voting hours, which had a direct, negative impact on voters,” Hoke said. “This partisan strategy to restrict early voting and eliminate it entirely on the weekend before the election backfired, however, because it was widely painted as deliberately contrived to disenfranchise urban and racial minority voters. Turnout escalated as a result. I wish ‘lessons had been learned’ about not twisting early voting and other election rules for partisan gain but cannot.”
In 2009 there was quite a shake-up in Tennessee when election commissions became majority GOP after the party won control of the statehouse. Numerous election administrators, some who had been on the job for decades, were fired.
Even though county election commissions remain majority Republican, recently in Davidson County, Tenn. all three GOP members of the election commission were dismissed with the local GOP planning on replacing them with three new members.
No announcement has been as to who will replace the three commissioners, but Albert Tieche, election administrator for the county told The Tennessean that he would be ready for whatever comes his way.
“Those are my bosses, and I look forward to working with who’s assigned,” he told the paper.
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