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Needed for 2012: A Steady Hand at the Wheel

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[Image courtesy of Books for Boys]

Early indications are that the 2012 presidential election will match or surpass 2008 for the kind of challenges facing election administrators. New laws and aging technology demand attention, and the spike in turnout that always accompanies a presidential vote will test the system's limits.

In this environment, states and localities need someone in charge of elections who can improvise, adapt and overcome whatever an election cycle brings their way.

Sailing into the rough seas of 2012, two neighboring states seem to be in very different places with regard to who's at the wheel.

Last week's news from Kentucky that the State Board of Elections had removed state election director Sarah Ball Johnson - who had worked for the board for 17 years including 8 years as Director under Secretaries Trey Grayson and Elaine Walker - was disappointing to those of us who have worked with her and have come to admire her skill and expertise. The move appeared to come as part of the handover of the board to its new chair, incoming Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

I'll admit that the notion of election administrators as partisan appointees makes me nervous - especially when it raises the possibility of political professionals skilled at winning elections being tapped to oversee the process of running elections, which is very different.

But it's really hard to be too critical of the change when Secretary Grimes' choice to run elections is Mary Sue Helm, a 23-year veteran of Kentucky election administration who is so well-respected that she was former Secretary Grayson's choice to take his place when he resigned in early 2011 to take a job at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. In other words, while the role of partisanship in election administration is disconcerting, at least Kentucky's partisans appear to have a deep and talented bench of non-partisan administrators from whom to choose.

There's no such luck in Indiana, where a messy situation has left the state with the prospect of having one of the following individuals at the wheel in 2012: GOP incumbent Charlie White, who is under indictment for voter fraud stemming from allegations he illegally used his ex-wife's address for voting purposes; and Democrat Vop Osili, who lost the 2010 election to White by 300,000 votes.

After a year of litigation that has raged through the State Recount Commission and the courts, a judge recently ruled that White is ineligible to serve as Secretary because of the residency issue and ordered that Osili - who, by state law, is the candidate with the next highest number of votes - should take the seat. Yesterday, however, that same judge ruled that White can keep his office until the state Supreme Court can hear his appeal - which hasn't yet been filed, and once filed will likely take months to resolve. White could be out sooner, however, if he is convicted on any of the felony counts against him. That trial begins January 30.

Indiana's situation is admittedly extreme, but whatever the reason it's pretty easy to say that Kentucky's in a much better place as it sails into 2012.

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