The Dangers of Partisan Incentives for Election Officials
A report by the Bipartisan Policy Center and Election Reformers Network
Election administrators are expected to perform their duties in a nonpartisan manner, even when the elections they administer lead to outcomes they do not personally endorse. Many election officials are elected in partisan elections or selected by members of political parties. This party affiliation means that these individuals experience motivation or encouragement derived from their party, a dynamic that we will refer to as reactions to partisan incentives.
Americans expect that elections will result in legitimate winners—individual candidates gaining elected office because they receive the most votes in a fair contest. Rising polarization and ongoing, unsubstantiated attacks on the 2020 presidential election have moved us away from this democratic ideal. We now risk approaching the moment when a losing candidate could be declared a winner by election officials acting within their statutory obligations yet following partisan incentives that undermine the true results.
The growing susceptibility to partisan incentives in election offices undermines the expectation that elections will result in legitimate winners. While, in the past, the individuals administering the elections process operated with relative obscurity, party leaders have targeted them and their offices in the hopes of controlling the voting process. This amplified attention may incentivize extreme partisans to attempt to subvert, undermine, or overturn an election. Acting with political self-interest, partisan officials could use their power to undermine legitimate and fair elections and overturn the will of the people.
The threat is no longer theoretical. If Americans intend to maintain a democratic system of government, we must reimagine election administration to reduce or remove partisan incentives and strengthen the firewall between politics and the administration of the voting process.
Partisan Incentives Over Time
The U.S. is the only country that elects most of its election officials and one of very few to allow high-ranking party members to lead election administration.
All 50 states rely on partisan processes to select the individuals or boards in charge of directing elections at the state level. Thirty-three states elect their chief election official (usually the secretary of state). In other states, the governor or legislature appoints a chief election official or a state board. While some state boards include representatives of both Democratic and Republican parties, no state has a nonpartisan board or a board that represents stakeholders outside the two major parties.
Figure 1: Who Runs Elections in Each State? Source: Election Reformers Network
At the local level, most election officials are selected in a manner that is inherently partisan, meaning the candidate runs for the office with a party affiliation or is appointed to a partisan board. A minority are hired without consideration for party affiliation or are elected in nonpartisan races. Research conducted in 2006 indicates that roughly 60% of local election officials are elected or appointed in a partisan manner.
Figure 2: Elected vs. Appointed Local Election Officials. Source: Kimball and Kropf, 2006
These structures make the U.S. an outlier in the democratic world. Constitutionally independent bodies run elections in more than 70 countries, and many others rely on technocratic government agencies distanced in some manner from political influence. The U.S. is the only country that elects most of its election officials, and one of very few to allow high-ranking party members to lead election administration.
The partisan incentives arising from these selection processes have long been a vulnerability of the U.S. election system. Historically, with single-party rule common in much of the country, election positions have been controlled by a dominant party, and election officials have faced incentives to favor the locally dominant political party.
For example, in the Jim Crow south, party dominance dovetailed with racism to incentivize election officials to discriminate against Black voters, even beyond the discrimination embodied in state legislation. In Texas, scholars estimate 100,000 counted votes “simply did not exist” in the 1960 presidential election under the “Lyndon Johnson machine.”
For much of U.S. history, candidates and voters facing fraudulent elections had little legal recourse. Party machines often controlled local, and state courts, and Supreme Court precedent stymied federal action.
In the 1960s, however, precedent-changing decisions from the Court and the Voting Rights Act enabled the transition to the broad protection of fair elections we expect in a modern democracy. Election administration in recent decades has achieved a kind of equilibrium, with partisan-selected individuals still in charge, mostly acting in good faith, committed to maintaining the status quo. Recent research finds that politically affiliated local election officials do not noticeably advantage their party.
Significant exceptions illustrate the vulnerability of this equilibrium, perhaps most notoriously, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris’ handling of the 2000 presidential recount. Harris was the co-chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign in the state, and many of her actions were seemingly intended to put a fellow Republican in the White House.
Eleven other secretaries of state have co-chaired a presidential campaign in their state since 2000, and 50 have endorsed candidates in elections under their supervision. By one estimate, 20% of secretaries of state lost lawsuits in circumstances where the secretaries’ actions appeared to favor their political party.
These data illustrate a dangerous lack of constraint on holders of the office. State conflict of interest laws, according to a 2019 study, cannot prevent secretaries of state from “advancing the interests of a political party, candidate, or ballot initiative outcome in an election under their oversight.”
In 2020, election officials at the state and local level came under immense pressure to change or not certify the results of the presidential election. In 2022, candidates professing disbelief about the accuracy of vote counts will vie for state chief election officials in at least 16 states. Most subscribe to fringe conspiracy theories, and have stated they would have attempted to subvert the 2020 results if given the opportunity. Many of these candidates are well-funded or endorsed by prominent politicians, and fundraising for 2022 secretary of state races is already outpacing recent cycles by 250 percent.
Similar threats are emerging at the local level, where most of the core election functions of registering voters, administering polling stations, and tabulating results take place. According to reporting from ProPublica, thousands of “election deniers” have mobilized to take over GOP precinct-level positions, which in some states affect the selection of poll workers and members of boards that oversee elections.
These developments put the norm of “partisans acting in good faith” at significant risk, and suggest that we reevaluate these norms to determine whether Americans can continue to rely on individuals selected through partisan processes to run the elections that anchor our democracy and our country.
Current Dangers of Partisan Incentives
1. Bias and Conflicts of Interest
Partisan selection processes result in individuals running elections who have some form of personal allegiance to, or personal interest in, a political party. This context creates an inherent conflict of interest between election officials’ party ties and their responsibility to serve equally the interests of all voters, candidates, and parties. Yet, to date, the vast majority of election officials remain committed to maintaining the status quo, without regard for their political affiliation.
The conflict of interest between party affiliation and responsibility to the voters is exacerbated by a set of incentives that can sway election officials away from strict neutrality, incentives that appear to be increasing in intensity.
A high-profile elected election administration post such as secretary of state can serve as a valuable steppingstone in a political career, and consequently can attract individuals focused on developing clout within their party. At the local level, county clerk, recorder, and registrar positions can similarly launch future political careers in local or state government. Partisan selection processes tend to reward political skills, networks, and extreme rhetoric as much, if not more, than understanding of election administration.
Accordingly, senior election officials sometimes join with other party leaders to endorse party candidates despite the violation of neutrality such endorsements represent. In addition, election officials often aim to build name recognition with their party’s voter base, which can lead to public positions at odds with neutral service and neutral information to the public.
Politically oriented election officials may also have strong views on policy, which can bias these officials, even unknowingly, to want one side to win and to act accordingly. The phrasing of ballot initiatives is one domain where there have been accusations of bias by secretaries of state
Election officials have long had ties to parties; now, they have ties to parties that view each other as existential threats to the nation and its democracy.
At the local level, a new problematic incentive may be at play. Some individuals gaining local election roles belong to activist communities that are increasingly seeking to control election positions explicitly for partisan advantage. Election officials have long had ties to parties; now they have ties to parties that view each other as existential threats to the nation and its democracy. Even inherently moderate election officials may have trouble fighting back against growing mis- and disinformation demanding action against unsubstantiated claims of fraud and voter suppression.
It is important to make clear that partisan incentives for election officials do not make electoral malfeasance inevitable. Well-detailed election processes with built-in redundancies and transparency, and the threat of litigation, all reduce the likelihood of acts that favor one party or candidate. But these guardrails vary in effectiveness across different phases of the election process.
For example, the fundamental election function of tabulating vote counts in polling stations and centralizing these local counts is generally very well-protected, but other areas are less so. Some areas left to the discretion of local officials, such as the decision-making power over where polling stations are located, can significantly impact voter turnout. In many states, secretaries of state determine policies on important issues such as acceptance of provisional ballots, signatures for third-party candidates, and voter list maintenance protocols. Secretaries of state can also play a role to impede or support state election legislation that affects voter access.
2. Risks to Fair Results
Local election officials have the most direct influence in the voting process. While there is some variation between and within states, local election officials are responsible for the day-to-day operations of administering an election: conducting voter education and outreach, carrying out voter registration, managing mail and in-person voting, collecting and counting votes, and auditing and certifying results.
The results reporting and certification process is particularly vulnerable to partisan manipulation. Results reporting takes place in several stages:
- Unofficial results reporting. As soon as the polls close, state and local election workers begin the unofficial results reporting process. Typically, results are aggregated first at the individual precinct level, then funneled up to the local or county election authority, and ultimately shared with the state. The period between the close of polls and the reporting of results is vulnerable to mis- and disinformation. Results released on election night are always unofficial, and discrepancies become fertile ground for rumors about election fraud or illegitimate activity.
- Canvassing. In the days after the election, local election officials rigorously double-check results and make corrections to the unofficial totals that reflect the ballots as cast. This process, known as canvassing, begins in earnest at the close of polls on Election Day and extends for days or weeks after voting is complete, depending on the jurisdiction.
- Certification. Certification is the final and official confirmation of election results by the relevant authoritative body in the state once the canvass is complete. All jurisdictions have state-level certification, and some jurisdictions also complete local or county certification.
Certification was long considered a formality, a way for someone other than the local election official to confirm that the results are correct. This started to change in 2020. In November of that year, two members of Michigan’s Wayne County Board of Canvassers voted against certification, drawing backlash from the public and support from former President Trump. Their vote resulted in a 2-2 tie, interrupting statewide results certification. The decision would have been sent to the Board of State Canvassers to resolve, had the dissenters not reversed their vote mere hours later amid public scrutiny. This back-and-forth occurred during a nationwide effort to undermine the results of the election, and mounting pressure from partisan actors to resist certification. While in this case the results were ultimately certified, it demonstrates how local officials can be pressured by their party into interfering with the orderly resolution of election contests.
For decades, local election officials have demonstrated their commitment to maintaining free and fair elections despite persistent partisan incentives to advantage one party over the other. However, the continued controversy surrounding the 2020 election has intensified concerns that threats to results, like those seen in Wayne County, will become more common. For example, last year, Colorado’s Mesa County clerk and recorder was stripped of her duties and indicted by a grand jury for election tampering and misconduct. It is alleged that she used her authority as a local election official to engage in illegal behavior, specifically to provide access to unauthorized individuals to secure voting machinery. Despite the pending case against her, she is running for secretary of state on a platform of securing the voting process.
Many local and state offices are up for election in 2022, and local officials’ direct involvement in the casting and counting of votes makes them a particular target for partisan actors hoping to undermine the electoral process. Making matters worse, recently enacted state laws and shifts in political dynamics may now allow partisans who are intent on contesting the results of an election a louder voice in election certification processes.
In Michigan, some local parties are filling canvassing boards with hyperpartisan individuals. In Wisconsin and Arizona, recent attempts at legislation seek to divert the authority of election officials and boards to the partisan legislature, leaving the certification of the vote up to partisan legislators, who may themselves be on the ballot. If this or similar legislation were to pass, it is possible that election results could be denied purely because the results do not reflect a partisan legislature’s beliefs.
Compared to local election officials, secretaries of state—our nation’s chief election officials—have less direct involvement with counting and certification, limiting their ability to interfere with results. That said, their high-ranking position gives them considerable influence over policy decisions pertaining to the integrity of results reporting, such as the extent to which a local election official can undergo sensitive actions (for example, providing access to voting machines) without another election worker present. Additionally, secretaries of state are typically the faces of their states’ election efforts, enabling them to shape the narrative around valid results and election practices. In the aftermath of 2020, secretaries of state banded together to defend the integrity of the election. Moving forward, politically motivated secretaries could instead use their platform to undermine it.
3. Impact on Voters and Public Trust
Public confidence in elections is already low. Only 58% of Americans said they trust that elections in the U.S. are fair, putting the U.S. near the bottom among established democracies. A 2010 survey found that only 38% of voters said a close and disputed election would be resolved fairly. Still, Americans trust their local election officials more than they do their state level-election officials.
Candidates commonly complain of perceived unfairness in the process. These complaints become more concerning when they question the legitimacy of electoral outcomes. When those making such claims are themselves the people in control of the voting apparatus, such criticism becomes fundamentally destabilizing.
In 2018, two candidates in the Georgia gubernatorial race spoke out against the election system to the detriment of voter trust. Stacey Abrams claimed to have lost the election because of voter suppression, sowing distrust and confusion among her supporters. Then-Secretary of State and gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp ordered an investigation into allegations (later found to be baseless) that Democrats were trying to hack the state’s voter registration files. In other words, an election official sworn to uphold the state constitution made claims that undermined confidence in the election system.
For voters, candidates’ new incentives to use extremist arguments make finding accurate information more difficult. Claims of systemic errors—real or imagined—cause voters to lose faith that their votes are being counted fairly and accurately, especially when the candidates are also the election officials overseeing the election.
The problem is metastasizing. Recently, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice, now Special Counsel to the Wisconsin Legislature, released a 136-page report claiming that the 2020 election results were fraudulent and asserting that the Wisconsin Election Commission should be disbanded. The claims have been widely rebuked. In another action prompted by partisan incentives, the Louisiana Secretary of State made the decision to withdraw the state from the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a collaborative, interstate effort to provide a secure and accurate way for states to share voter registration and other data across state lines. The decision was prompted by unfounded allegations that partisan actors may have access to ERIC network data for political purposes, potentially undermining voter confidence.
These allegations against ERIC are false, but that holds little weight in today’s politically polarized environment. Ultimately, false allegations about ERIC influenced state policy in Louisiana. Election policy experts agree that secure and accurate list maintenance improves the voting experience by ensuring that only eligible voters are casting ballots.
The harm done to voters, as in the case of Louisiana’s withdrawal from ERIC, diminishes trust in the security and accessibility of election procedures. State voter rolls are less accurate and complete when a state leaves the ERIC program.
An inability to trust primary sources of election information could be the result of decisions made without voters’ best interest in mind. Voters whose political beliefs do not align with partisan election officials will feel less able to trust the results of an election. This poses a real and imminent threat to voter confidence.
Impactful change starts with a thorough examination and analysis of the partisan influence problem in election administration. In our analysis, we have identified areas where partisan incentives clash with election administration best practices. Concerns arise when partisan influence damages neutral decision-making and undermines election fairness. Actions taken by partisan officials in the interest of pleasing their voter base reduce voter confidence in elections. Finally, legislative and partisan micromanagement of election processes sow doubt that the results of an election will be accepted by all relevant stakeholders.
We recommend three core principles to guide reform: incorporating ethical norms into law, reconsidering elections as the mechanism for selecting election officials, and exploring alternatives to direct party involvement in election administration.
Ethical norms that have previously been assumed now need to be fixed into law. Such guidelines can prohibit election officials’ openly endorsing or campaigning for candidates and can set criteria for election offices to increase the professionalism of those in office, such as career experience or completion of certification programs.
In addition, elections as a mechanism for selecting election officials should be viewed with caution. There are good reasons why no other democracy elects election officials and why so many states have turned away from elections for another position requiring neutrality: state judges. Merit selection models can be considered as an alternative but also pose risks if not properly structured. Nonpartisan elections may be appropriate, but would require policies for candidate criteria and public campaign financing options to limit the advantage of party-affiliated candidates.
A primary concern around the shift to fully nonpartisan election officials is the possibility that the individuals in those roles could receive no support from either party, making it impossible to find political backing for policies they endorse. For this reason, reforms that make election officials nonpartisan should also strengthen their ability to conduct elections efficiently by defining and expanding the elements of the election process over which they have decision-making authority.
Finally, while the U.S. has had a surprising degree of success with election administration that directly involves political parties, this model is highly unusual internationally and should be reexamined as parties become more intent on victory at all costs. There are many options for systemic reform. One idea is to reduce the privileged status of the Democratic and Republican parties by incorporating other stakeholders in the election process. Another is to codify bipartisan collaboration between parties at all levels of election administration. A third option is to implement neutral tiebreakers in evenly split bodies to ensure no party tries to take advantage of the system.
Though risks have been evident for a long time, concerns about election subversion are now a part of mainstream conversation. Escalating partisan incentives and top-down unsubstantiated claims about elections have created new openings for bias and conflicts of interest, risks of unfair results, and voter distrust in the legitimacy of outcomes and elected officials.
There is no simple solution, yet policymakers can mitigate partisan incentives by reinforcing election system safeguards, affirming fair electoral outcomes, and ensuring that political power does not come at the expense of election integrity.
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