State election officials steer neutral in 2008

By: - August 22, 2007 12:00 am

( Endorsements chart updated 2:27 p.m. EDT, Aug. 27)

At least a dozen states are determined to avoid one of the political minefields exposed by the cliffhanger 2000 presidential race.

Whether by law or choice, state officials who oversee local and national elections in these states are declining to serve on political campaign committees or publicly endorse candidates to assure the public that elections referees don’t have a stake in the outcome.
Still, in Indiana, Arizona and Rhode Island, there’s no question who the top state election official hopes will win the presidency in 2008: Their secretaries of state have endorsed presidential candidates.
Most states have few restrictions in this area, and contenders for the White House covet endorsements of statewide officials, including secretaries of state and governors who have political networks and connections to donors.
Up until 2000, secretaries of state were relatively obscure statewide officials. That changed when then-Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris made a series of decisions regarding the recount in the nation’s tightest presidential race while serving as co-chair for the George Bush campaign in Florida.
Four years later, in Ohio, where a win was crucial for President Bush’s re-election, J. Kenneth Blackwell came under fire for his actions regarding voter challenges while he served as secretary of state and chairman of Bush’s re-election campaign there. Blackwell tried to quell possible conflict-of-interest concerns when he ran for governor in 2006 by delegating key duties to the assistant secretary of state. Blackwell lost to former U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, who is now Ohio’s governor.
“It just doesn’t make sense to have the state’s election administrator being involved in partisan politics. The perception of conflict of interest can be too great,” said Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause, a lobbying watchdog group.
Deborah Goldberg, program director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program at New York University Law School, said more needs to be known about the role of chief election officials in recent campaigns. “This is an issue ripe for more research. … People don’t fully understand the partisan nature of the secretaries of state we’ve had.”
Current secretaries of state have voluntarily refused to serve on political campaign committees or to publicly endorse candidates for office in Connecticut, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Vermont, according to a recent National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) survey of members in which 25 offices responded.
Four other states – Colorado, Massachusetts, Ohio and Virginia – limit their chief election officials’ political activity because of new restrictions put into place within the last year, says Boyle of Common Cause.
Wisconsin is the only state with a law requiring the chief state election official and all state board of elections staff to be nonpartisan, according to Kay Stimson, a NASS spokeswoman.

Besides the four states that acted within the last year, Georgia, Louisiana and Nebraska have ethics codes that restrict secretaries of states from serving on political campaign committees and publicly endorsing candidates, according to NASS. Maine’s secretary of state is prohibited from forming or being involved with a political action committee. New Mexico has a newly appointed ethics task force exploring the issue.

Those top elected officials who have shown their partisan colors on the Republican side include Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita, who is backing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, while Arizona Secretary of State Jan Brewer is stumping for U.S. Sen. John McCain of her home state. Rhode Island Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis has endorsed fellow Democrat U.S Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York.
The top election official in Utah – Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert (R) – is backing Romney. Utah is one three states without a secretary of state (Alaska and Hawaii are the others).
South Carolina Secretary of State Mark Hammond, a Republican also has endorsed McCain, but Hammond does not serve as the state’s top election official.
While most secretaries of state are responsible for overseeing elections, 11, like Hammond, are not. Other duties include licensing businesses, registering corporations and trademarks, and serving as their state’s chief notaries. In some states, the job involves heading up the state boxing commission.
Of the country’s 47 secretaries of state, voters elect 35 (Alaska, Hawaii and Utah don’t have the position and tap their lieutenant governor to assume the duties).
Of the nine secretaries of state who are appointed by the governor, three serve as chief state election officials – Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas. (The other states in which governors make the selection are Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma and Virginia). Legislatures in Maine, New Hampshire and Tennessee make the selection in their states.

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