My article in this morning’s Argus Leader took a look at Secretary of State Jason Gant, who endorsed a legislative candidate this year. That candidate’s opponent said it’s inappropriate. I took a look both back in time (Gant’s two predecessors said they intentionally didn’t get involved in politics like that) and across the country, talking to secretaries of state from North Dakota and Minnesota for their thoughts.
I also checked in with the National Association of Secretaries of State for a nationwide perspective. The group’s spokeswoman said it’s not uncommon for secretaries of state to get involve in primaries, though it’s also not uncommon for them to refuse to do so.
She also sent me over, too late to make it into the article, a 2007 survey the organization did of its members about this very issue. Some of the results are out of date due to changes in the law or turnover in office — for example, South Dakota is listed as a state where the secretary voluntarily refuses to make endorsements, which was the case under then-Secretary of State Chris Nelson but not under Gant.
Despite that change, I’ll present the results verbatim with the caveat that some of this may no longer be fully accurate:
Summary of NASS Survey on State Election Official Ethics Laws & Practices
The States & Chief State Election Officials
Apart from the incomplete nature of this survey (25 total state responses), any examination of state ethics laws and practices should take into account the jurisdictional differences that exist between secretaries of state, as well as those that exist between secretaries of state and other chief state election officials.
Thirty-six secretaries of state serve as chief state election official. Alaska and Utah, two of the three states that do not have a secretary of state position, assign elections oversight duties to their lieutenant governors. All of these officials are affiliated with a political party. However, some are elected, and others are appointed.
Of the nine secretaries of state who are appointed by their governor, three serve as chief state election official: Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas. In Maine and New Hampshire, the state legislature elects the secretary of state (Tennessee uses this process as well, but while the secretary of state oversees the state elections office, the state elections director serves as the legally-designated chief state election official). Wisconsin, which does not designate any election responsibilities to the secretary of state, is the only state in the nation that requires election officials and all state board of elections staff to be nonpartisan officials.
State Ethical & Legal Guidelines for Chief State Election Officials
In addition to the official oath that each secretary of state takes to uphold his/her state laws and constitution, some are taking additional steps to publicly demonstrate a commitment to fairness and neutrality, including the following:
- Some adhere to strict ethical codes that exceed those for other state office holders, including restrictions from serving on political campaign committees (i.e. Colorado, Georgia, Louisiana, Nebraska, Ohio, and Virginia).
- Some secretaries of state voluntarily refuse to serve on political campaign committees, or to publicly endorse candidates for office (i.e. Colorado, Connecticut, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota).
- North Carolina has adopted a law designed to limit local election officials from making public endorsements of candidates, as well as an oversight system for handling conflict of interest complaints.
- In Maine, the secretary of state may not form a PAC or be involved with decision-making related to a PAC.
- Some secretaries of state work with election directors who can make decisions independent of the secretary of state in the event of a contested election, often times under the protection of civil servant status (i.e. Maine and Vermont).
The National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) affirmed its collective commitment to fair and impartial election administration by unanimously adopting a bipartisan statement on the subject in 2005. In February 2007, the association added similar language to the ethics section of its constitution. All materials are available online at www.nass.org.
States that responded to this survey (or submitted pertinent information as part of previous surveys):
AZ, CO, CT, GA, ID, LA, MD*, ME, LA, MS, NC**, ND, NE, NH, NM, NV, OH, OK*, PA, SD, UT, VA*, WA, WI*, WV.
*State Board of Elections; Not a Secretary of State Office