PUBLIC OFFICIALS of the YEAR

Counting of Fairness 2009 HONOREE

Sam Reed, Secretary of State, Washington State

Sam Reed

This decade has seen an unusual number of close elections, drawn-out recounts and litigation over final results. Such contests usually put a secretary of state in an uneasy position. The office requires administering elections in the fair manner a democracy demands. On the other hand, most secretaries of state are elected officials themselves and belong to a political party. So when an election teeters on a razor's edge, they may be tempted to use their powers to nudge the result.

Sam Reed didn't do that. In November of 2004, Reed, a Republican, presided over the closest election for governor in Washington State's history. After an automatic machine recount, Republican Dino Rossi held just a 42-vote lead over Democrat Christine Gregoire. Democrats demanded a hand recount, as allowed by state law, and Reed gave it to them. But he refused their demands to reexamine all rejected ballots. Then, when heavily Democratic King County discovered 573 uncounted ballots, Reed didn't hesitate: They were to be counted. Republicans cried foul, but Gregoire came out on top.

What's most telling about how Reed handled the situation is that both parties were angry at him at one time or another. He followed instincts for fairness, not gamesmanship. Reed proved his independence again in a debate over changing how Washington State's primary elections are conducted. The parties favor "closed" primaries, open only to party members. Reed successfully championed a "top two" primary, whereby the two highest vote-getters, regardless of party, go on to the general election. It's a system, he likes to say, that allows citizens to vote for the person — not the political party.

— John Buntin
Photo by Dan Lamont