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Nonpartisan Election Administration Is the Norm in Other Democracies. Why Not Here?

As a new Arizona survey shows, voters want to take the partisanship out of how top state and local election officials are chosen. The system we use now erodes public trust.

Maricopa County election worker
A Maricopa County, Ariz., election worker examines ballots on Nov. 9, 2022, a day after the midterm election. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
America’s system of election administration has come under increasing and heated scrutiny over the past two decades. Once a largely stable arrangement that could claim the consent of the governed, elections have begun to devolve into bitter cycles of distrust and polarization.

How do we rebuild confidence in our election system?

To better understand what changes and adjustments might increase voter confidence in our election system, this spring our Center for an Independent and Sustainable Democracy at Arizona State University interviewed 1,063 of the state’s registered voters. The sample was proportionally divided among Republicans, Democrats and independents and reflected the state’s ethnic, education and age makeup.

In many respects, Arizona is a unique state to focus on nationally. It is a true swing state, one of the few battleground or purple states that could be won by a Democratic, Republican or independent candidate in a statewide election. It has a growing Latino population that now comprises over 20 percent of registered voters. And its electorate is roughly evenly divided among Republican, Democratic and independent or unaffiliated voters.

What we found was that Arizona voters strongly supported requiring top state and local election officials, defined as positions such as secretary of state and county recorder, to be elected in a nonpartisan manner, unlike the state’s current system. Further, registered voters of all party identifications — fully 92 percent of survey respondents — felt that top election officials should be required to take an oath to function in a nonpartisan manner.

Voters took a dim view of election officials overseeing decisions that might impact their own elections, publicly endorsing candidates or raising money for other candidates for office.

It is important to note that this study comes on the heels of intense scrutiny and controversies surrounding Arizona’s election processes, rules and vote counting. A cybersecurity firm called Cyber Ninjas was picked from relative obscurity to conduct an unprecedented review of ballots in Arizona in response to baseless claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Additionally, while around the country the 2022 midterm election results were largely certified without issue, Arizona was an exception: The state’s super-close races for governor, attorney general and other offices led to final tallies not being released until weeks after the election, fueling many conspiratorial claims. A number of lawsuits were filed questioning the election results; all of them were eventually tossed out.

The degree to which these activities may have influenced responses from Arizona’s registered voters is not fully known. Nevertheless, it seems highly likely that surveys of voters in other states would turn up similar support for nonpartisan election administration. That is the norm in other Western democracies, where the administrators running the system have no stake in the outcome and electoral agencies are legally and administratively shielded from partisan actors.

That’s not the way things work in most places in America. While there is a good deal of variation on how chief election officers are chosen in each of the states, most are selected through explicitly partisan processes, such as partisan elections or political appointment by a legislature or governor. Those who seek election to their positions often conduct highly partisan and polarizing campaigns. Yet then, if they win the election, they are expected to be seen by the public as trusted, neutral arbiters of election information and the electoral process.

While it may not solve the distrust in elections percolating throughout the United States, moving to a nonpartisan election system might lessen it and increase overall confidence in our election system.

The partisan control of election administration in the United States now serves to erode public trust and intensify partisan gamesmanship, which in turn further erodes public trust. Perhaps it is time for the U.S. to join other democracies and implement its own nonpartisan election system.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
A professor in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University, a former chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education and a former county manager of Clark County, Nev.
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