This week’s super close results in a handful of state primaries and special elections have highlighted a longstanding problem in our democracy: the officials overseeing the vote count and recounts can occasionally be candidates in those races — or their appointees.
Exhibit A for this conflict of interest, with all of its repercussions for public confidence in the process, is the nation’s most notorious voter suppression-endorsing secretary of state, Kansas Republican Kris Kobach. He leads incumbent Gov. Jeff Colyer by fewer than 100 votes out of more than 300,000 cast in Tuesday’s Republican gubernatorial primary.
As KansasCity.com reported, “No law requires Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to recuse himself from a recount in the governor’s race, but legal and political experts say he should to maintain trust in the election.” Later on Wednesday at a campaign event, Kobach said that he would not recuse himself.
“The recount thing is done on a county level, so the secretary of state does not actually participate directly in the recount,” he said. “The secretary of state’s office merely serves as a coordinating entity overseeing it all but not actually counting the votes.”
You might think that there could be no clearer example of why non-partisan election administration should be a standard in American democracy. But the conflicts of interest in Kansas only deepen as one digs into the mechanics of the process — despite Kobach’s contention that he’s at arm’s length.
That’s because in Johnson County, where Kansas City and its suburbs are located, elections are overseen by Johnson County Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker, who was appointed by Kobach in February 2016, as KansasCity.com noted in another report. “Before he became election commissioner, he was chairman of the Johnson County Republican Party and a state representative.”
That’s not all. On Tuesday, Johnson County used 1,000 new voting machines in 192 polling locations for the first time. Beyond underestimating turnout, deploying too few machines and thus causing long lines, there was confusion about how to transfer the computer-tabulated precinct counts on memory sticks to a central office.
“What should have taken seconds at first took minutes, and then minutes turned into half hours,” Metsker told local reporters.
The incumbent, Gov. Colyer, wasn’t conceding and issued a statement saying he would wait until provisional ballots are counted. These are given to people not listed on voter rolls, but are counted if county officials find they were correctly registered. In 2016’s GOP gubernatorial primary, Colyer’s campaign said there were 6,333 provisional ballots.
This sequence of events — the state’s top election officer is running for governor and will oversee the recount in his primary; with a person he appointed overseeing the process in a problem-plagued big county — wasn’t created by Russian intelligence agents seeking to undermine public confidence in American elections. This is a homegrown mess that underscores the layers of problems associated with partisan officials running elections.
This pattern isn’t confined to Kansas. In Georgia, voting rights groups have called on Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp to resign—rather than oversee the November general election where he is the GOP nominee for governor.
Common Cause Georgia Executive Director Sara Henderson noted that other previous secretaries of state have stepped down when seeking other offices. But a spokesman for Kemp told the Washington Post he has no plans to do that, citing other officeholders who didn’t resign when seeking another top government job.
But there’s a difference when you’re the senior state election official overseeing your own race, as opposed to another elected official running for another office. Common Cause Georgia and others, like the Georgia NAACP, demanded that Kemp step down, in part, after “an app for the office of secretary of state included links to Web pages associated with his campaign,” the Post noted. “Kemp has since removed the links.”
Most advanced nations have non-partisan officials running their elections. But not the world’s self-proclaimed greatest democracy — and Russia has nothing to do with this.