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Voting Should Not Be a Wedge Issue

Let’s take partisan rancor out of voting administration.

July 31, 2015

Hillary Clin­ton launched her summer of policy speeches last month with a stir­ring call for voting rights, includ­ing over­due expan­sions of early voting and auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion. I happen to agree with everything she said. I’m just worried she’s the one saying it.

The stir­ring call, coming from the presumptive Demo­cratic pres­id­en­tial nominee, inad­vert­ently escal­ates partisan rancor around what should be a ques­tion of routine civil admin­is­tra­tion.

Bring back the boring. Add a dash of bland compet­ence.

Amer­ica needs less partis­an­ship in voting. But in her kick-off policy speech, Clin­ton took the gloves off to fire up her base, taunt­ing Repub­lican pres­id­en­tial contenders by name for their attacks on voting rights: Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie. They have “under­cut [a] funda­mental Amer­ican prin­ciple.”

They counter attacked. “She just wants an oppor­tun­ity to commit greater acts of voter fraud around the coun­try,” New Jersey Gov. Christie barked. Her efforts “defy logic,” asser­ted Wiscon­sin’s Gov. Walker, adding that early voting and auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion repres­ent “extreme views…­far outside the main­stream.”

Elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion in the United States should not be polar­ized, fraught or risky.

Too often now elec­tion offi­cials look to crim­inal laws to help them do their jobs. Instead of promot­ing voter turnout, partisan elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors have recently taken on the role of Inspector Javert obsess­ively hunt­ing for voter fraud commit­ted by the polit­ical oppos­i­tion.

This month Kansas Secret­ary of State Kris Kobach received unpre­ced­en­ted author­ity to bring crim­inal cases against alleged voter impro­pri­et­ies. No other such figure has such power. Kobach only secured the capab­il­it­ies after local prosec­utors — most of them Repub­lic­ans not known for being soft on crime — declined to bring voter fraud incid­ents referred to them by Kobach.

Kobach is now trawl­ing for crim­inal cases. Just call Kansas’s Stop Voter Fraud hotline, 800–262–8683.

Down in Geor­gia, Brian Kemp, the Repub­lican in charge of over­see­ing the state’s elec­tion laws, let his partisan interests show in a speech just before the elec­tions last fall, “Demo­crats are work­ing hard…re­gis­ter­ing all these minor­ity voter­s…If they can do that, they can win these elec­tions in Novem­ber.”  So Kemp launched felony invest­ig­a­tions into groups that enroll minor­ity voters. One group faced crim­inal accus­a­tions because it failed to let people know that they could turn in their own voter regis­tra­tion forms.

Kobach and Kemp are empowered by a voting admin­is­tra­tion system that is struc­tur­ally partisan. In 39 states, the top elec­tion offi­cial is directly affil­i­ated with one of the polit­ical parties. The remain­ing 11 states and Wash­ing­ton, DC, have boards, some of which are partisan.

This has led to some unsa­vory conflicts of interest in the past: an Ohio Secret­ary of State over­see­ing the elec­tion system at the same time he was running for governor; a Flor­ida chief elec­tion officer also serving on a pres­id­en­tial candid­ate’s campaign commit­tee.

This June, offi­cials in Flor­id­a’s Broward County — yes, that Broward County — learned that their elec­tions admin­is­tra­tion lawyer had made campaign contri­bu­tions to local candid­ates. The Super­visor of Elec­tions does not have a conflicts policy. Accord­ing to the agency head, it’s no prob­lem if employ­ees admin­is­ter voting laws by day and work on campaigns by night.

If we look to the north, we would see an elec­tion system that tries to suck out the partisan poison. In Canada, a Chief Elect­oral Officer is appoin­ted for ten-year terms by the nation’s House of Commons. It’s not a perfect system, but much of the anim­os­ity and dysfunc­tion present in the United States is notably absent in Canada.

One of the few efforts in the US to replic­ate Canada’s system, Wiscon­sin’s Govern­ment Account­ab­il­ity Board, is now  under with­er­ing attack. The Board, created in 2008, consists of six members, all former judges with staggered terms. It has its flaws, but it is never­the­less a prin­cipled effort to dimin­ish polit­ical control of voting.

This month, Wiscon­sin’s governor and Repub­lican pres­id­en­tial candid­ate Scott Walker called for the Board’s abol­i­tion. The normally right-lean­ing Milwau­kee Journal-Sentinel chas­tised Repub­lic­ans for trying to make the system “more subser­vi­ent to…par­tisan interests.”

The last thing we need is to inject more partis­an­ship into voting. Let the Repub­lican and Demo­cratic parties define them­selves and rally their bases. But not by harden­ing partisan posi­tions on voting. It should not be a wedge issue.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.

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