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Chief Election Officials In Many States Are Partisan, Baffling Experts


All right. So you had Brian Kemp in Georgia. You had Kris Kobach in Kansas. You had Rick Scott in Florida. All of these candidates ran for office in this year's midterm elections, and all either directly oversaw the voting process in their respective states or appointed someone to oversee it. If that seems a little off to you, well, you're not alone. NPR's Miles Parks has more.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: When Ohio State elections law professor Dan Tokaji tells experts from other parts of the world about how America picks election officials, he says they're stunned and, quote, "not in the good way."

DANIEL TOKAJI: Just about everyone recognizes that it's inherently unfair for the umpire in our elections to be also a player on one of the two teams, Democrat or Republican.

PARKS: But that's exactly how election administration works in much the United States. At the state level, two-thirds of states elect a chief official - in many cases, a secretary of state - who oversees voting, and the vast majority of them are partisans. About half of all local election officials are also aligned with a political party. That's according to Martha Kropf. She's a professor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte who studies the issue.

MARTHA KROPF: Having local officials that are elected on a partisan basis running elections seems fishy.

PARKS: That was highlighted by this year's midterms, especially in Florida and Georgia. In Florida, Republican Governor Rick Scott narrowly won his race for the Senate seat there. But his votes were still being counted. He called out the election supervisors in Broward County and Palm Beach County, Democrats Brenda Snipes and Susan Booker, and he claimed without evidence that there may be rampant voter fraud in those places.


RICK SCOTT: Tonight, I'm asking the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate this immediately, and I am considering every single legal option available. No ragtag group of liberal activists or lawyers from D.C. will be allowed to steal this election from the voters in this great state.

PARKS: In Georgia, Secretary of State Brian Kemp won his race for governor, but many of his office's policies were viewed by Democrats as thinly veiled attempts at voter suppression. Here he is in an October debate.


BRIAN KEMP: No one has made it easier to vote and harder to cheat in our state. And it's really outrageous that while we're talking about all these voting issues on both of these folks up here, I've actually taken the lead on these issues.

PARKS: In general, partisan election officials can't really change the rules of an election. There are laws and regulations, but Kropf says the interpretation of those rules, such as around provisional ballots, matters when the margins are tight. To be clear, in the vast majority of jurisdictions with partisan election officials, in Florida and elsewhere, there aren't issues. But to Dan Tokaji of Ohio State, it's about the appearance of fairness as much as anything else.

TOKAJI: Do we have a democracy that's really worthy of our confidence, our full confidence, when there's the perception and sometimes the reality that election officials are running elections in a way that's designed to favor themselves and their party?

PARKS: Polling shows that when most voters consider the issue, they want partisanship out of elections. But because of the decentralized nature of elections, changing the system would require changes in individual state laws across the country - something Kropf doesn't see happening.

KROPF: Will Kemp - will what happened in Florida affect what we do going forward? I think we're going to be a little bit excited for a while, but I don't think it's going to result in much.

PARKS: That means in a closely divided, highly polarized country, you can expect the political beliefs of those in charge of elections to come up again in 2020. Miles Parks, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRIOSENCE'S "OUT OF REACH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.