In recent months, we have gotten such a crash course that our election system is now dangerously vulnerable to partisan interference and disorder. Many candidates for secretary of state deny the results of the 2020 election, including many who are or are likely to be candidates for their own party. Party workers are recruiting partisan election workers to give an edge to their side.
Last week’s events in Otero County, NM – which houses one of the nation’s largest missile chains – highlight another troubling threat. There, the Republican-led county commission refused to substantiate the results of the June 7 primary election, citing general concerns about voting software and “gut feelings”, without specific evidence and the accuracy of the system. In defiance of confirming safety tests.
Following a lawsuit filed by the secretary of state, the state’s Supreme Court ordered the commission to certify, which it did with a 2-1 vote shortly before the state-mandated deadline. State law establishes specific circumstances under which such commissions may question results submitted by the county clerk, none of which pertain to the case, the Supreme Court found. Appropriately, the rule of law took precedence over the personal views of the commissioners.
But there is no guarantee that future attempts to use the certification process to hold the election hostage will fail so quickly – especially after a hotly contested vote where partisan tensions are running high. This raises a bigger question: is it playing with fire, in our ultra-partisan era, of elected politicians signing election results.
We almost got burned in 2020. Then, two Republican members of a bipartisan campaign board in Michigan’s largest county initially refused to substantiate the results, before eventually softening. The pressure on party candidates to bid for the party in the next presidential election is likely to be even greater.
In most democracies, election officials also certify results, and for the most part they are independent, non-partisan professionals. But in the United States, many states require certification by county commissions or canvas boards, which are made up of individuals either nominated by a political party or elected under its banner. In most states, the certification phase is not the place to judge concerns about elections; Courts are based on the evidence presented by the candidates. So the Supreme Court of New Mexico quickly ordered the board to be certified.
But that doesn’t mean that county action like this isn’t dangerous. As we have seen in Otero County, an attempted conflict can act as a flashpoint for entrepreneurs to exploit, incite anger and potential violence and further destabilize our systems. Last week’s election protests in New Mexico’s Sandoval County were apparently inspired by Otero County conflicts.
Complicating the problem is the fact that the laws of some states are not as clear as they need to be regarding the discretion of these officers and when their role is purely administrative. The manipulation of such ambiguity was a significant driver of the January 6 chaos.
It may at once make sense to put elected parties and party candidates in charge of proven results. Progressive-era reformers devised these structures to provide some protection for political parties (though only the two largest parties) when Supreme Court precedent bypassed federal courts. But precedent-changing rulings beginning in the 1960s changed the landscape, taking the courts center stage where they belong, and removing the need to always ensure Republican and Democrat representation in the outcome certification process.
And today, fair elections face a very different threat: manipulation by out-of-control partisans and ideological extremists. To counter that threat, we need to ensure that a key role in our election process is delegated to non-partisan experts, that the rules are clear about where discretion lies, and, as far as possible, concerns over consequences for the courts. are assigned to.
If we don’t, partisan opportunists can’t spend much time calculating that a dispute over certification can be used to instigate a conflict that benefits their side. We should not give them that chance.
Kevin Johnson is the Executive Director of the Election Reformers Network. ©2022 Fulcrum. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.