With Super Tuesday upon us, we're reminded that the intensity of a presidential-election year brings increased scrutiny for the nation's election administrators. Presidential primaries, state primaries and the general election in November will beget a sharp focus on those whose job it is to make our democracy work. Their efforts will be watched closely by political campaigns, advocates, voters, the media and even conspiracy theorists.
In most cases, election administrators work hard to be fair and transparent and to promote integrity. But a large percentage of election officials are elected to their offices on a partisan ticket or appointed on partisan basis. This can lead some to believe that these officials will favor one political party over another in their decisions.
Even the best-written laws, regulations, policies or standards will pale in comparison to the personal ethics of an election administrator and the cultures of the offices they run. It's imperative that election administrators ask themselves if they and their offices can withstand enormous scrutiny. This mandates trustworthy personnel and clear ethics policies.
Overall, ethics in elections includes five elements: independence, transparency, integrity, competence and fairness.
Independence: Like other elected officials, some election administrators must raise campaign contributions. In the course of their work, some might be called on to make decisions affecting contributors. Hallmarks of independence include avoiding conflicts of interest and treating all parties fairly by adhering to the law.
Transparency: Candidates and voters have a right to know how an elections office conducts its business. All election business should be transparent, whether it is ballot design or the procuring of voting systems. Emails and other communications should be housed in secure servers with a permanent record kept for quick compliance with open-government requests. Oversight boards should be subject to open-meeting rules, along with requirements for bipartisan representation. And once the polls close, where possible the counting process should be livestreamed.
Integrity: An election office with a high level of integrity limits opportunities for an administrator to act with unchecked discretion. These opportunities include decisions about when and where registration and early voting are conducted and what information (such as pre-election turnout) is given to a candidate or party. An election administrator should never use his or her office to express partisan support or opposition, and also should avoid doing so on personal social media accounts.
Competence: There have been elections where too few paper ballots have been available, polling stations were not practical or accessible, or poll workers were not equipped to meet challenges on Election Day. How an election official serves all precincts, with equitable attention to detail, is a true test of competence.
Fairness: Good communication can mitigate potential issues of unfairness. Election administrators should reach out to stakeholders in the community before making decisions that could be perceived as biased or insensitive. Ask for buy-in, give it the appropriate weight, and then explain how that dialogue affects election-management decisions.
How can an election official support these principles? Here are some effective ways:
• Avoid endorsing or giving money to candidates or organizations that support or oppose ballot issues.
• Maintain high standards in contracting for services, including an open and competitive bidding process.
• Establish a written a code of professional conduct and ethics for employees and volunteers. Appoint an ethics compliance officer trained in rules, laws and procedures.
• Set up transparent and secure processes so that voting fraud can be prevented, detected and reported.
• Reach out to the administrator's or office's harshest critics to understand and deal effectively with their concerns.
Overall, election administrators not only manage the process of voting but also an office. Leadership sets the tones. The goal is always trust, which is generated by embracing the principles of integrity and making ethical decisions. This is essential, lest voters become disillusioned not only with elections but with democracy itself.