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Doing a Nonpartisan Job in a Hyper-Partisan World

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[Image courtesy of Straight Down the Middle]

This story by my colleague Mindy Moretti originally appeared in the February 9, 2012 electionlineWeekly.

For 11 years Sherre Toler made sure the residents of Harnett County, N.C. had everything they needed to cast a ballot on (or before) Election Day.

She enjoyed the work she was doing and although one can never tell what the future may hold, she could have envisioned herself retiring from there someday.

But on January 3, 2012 Toler resigned from a job she loved because she could no longer remain impartial. A constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage will appear on the May 2012 primary ballot.

"This issue has been debated in the past but has never before been placed on the ballot so I had an opportunity to think about it before it actually happened." Toler said. "However, when the vote was announced, I knew there was no way I could conduct a vote such as this."

Toler said she spoke with friends and family about her decision and that they were supportive of her decision. She also said that her colleagues in Harnett County have been supportive as well.

"My board and staff have been incredibly supportive and have all wished me well," Toler said. "I have nothing but respect for the elections community as a whole, and I know that the overwhelming majority of elections officials work hard to make sure that all elections are conducting fairly and honestly."

In today's society when everyone seems to wear their emotions and beliefs on their sleeve -- or express them in 140-characters or less -- how do elections officials put whatever feelings they may have aside in order to conduct fair and efficient elections?

"Not only is it possible for election administrators to be nonpartisan; it should be a job requirement," said Richard L. Hasen, Chancellor's Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of California as well as editor of the Election Law Blog.

Hasen noted that in other countries, the norm is that election administrators have their allegiance to the integrity of the process and not to a political party or an ideological belief. He pointed out that in the U.S., this norm is followed only some administrators.

"The importance is basic. The umpire shouldn't be member of either team. How to get there from here? In some states we need to change the rules on how we pick our election referees. Until then we must hope that virtue and integrity overcomes partisan pressures," said Edward B. Foley, Isadore and Ida Topper Professor of Law and director of Ohio State University's Election Law @ Moritz.

In Delaware, Elaine Manlove, commissioner of elections for the state of Delaware, said it's not just about doing her job, it's about the law.

"Delaware law requires that I as well as my staff and all of the Elections employees in the three county offices be non-partisan. We can't do anything political from putting a bumper sticker on our cars to signs in our yards to campaign contributions," Manlove said. "Having this law as a backdrop is a constant reminder to us as well as to the politicians we interact with that we remain non-partisan. It's more than being ethical - it's the law."

Some elections officials, like Maryland's Linda Lamone, felt that there are standards in place to ensure that officials remain professional and impartial.

"I think you are over-thinking this. Most election officials are very professional and adhere to the principles and standards as set out in the two (1) documents (2) ...from the National Association of Election Officials."

It's not always easy for even the most impartial elections to stay out of the line of fire of partisan politics.

Recently, Kevin Kennedy, who heads Wisconsin's nonpartisan Government Accountability Board has faced the glare of the media as the state struggles through a series of hyper-politicized elections administration issues including voter ID and numerous recalls.

For Kennedy, it's not been about politics, it's about doing a job that he was hired to do. He noted that his focus is on applying the law as given to him by the legislature and the courts. The political polarization he encounters is a reminder to him that decisions are not made in a vacuum.

"I think the touchstone for addressing these issues is to look at the fact this is my job. I have been entrusted with a responsibility to administer a set of duties that lies at the heart of what our government is built on," Kennedy said.

"I have a responsibility to fairly and transparently administer elections to ensure confidence in the integrity of the electoral process. As a result, my commitment is to the voters, the candidates and the election officials to do my job in a fair and impartial manner. Anything less and I am not honoring the trust that has been given to me by the people through my appointment by the members of the Government Accountability Board."

Johnson County, Kan. Elections Commissioner Brian Newby makes sure that his impartiality even trickles into his personal life. Even on the most social of all social media sites, Facebook, Newby is cautious about who he friends.

"I have a goofy internal policy that I won't accept a social network friend request or connection if the person is a candidate at the time. I understand that once connected, an elected official can later become a candidate or a friend may later run for an office and I don't defriend them," Newby said. "I just wouldn't want anyone to think I was in cahoots with a candidate by buddying up socially with a candidate. Many don't know I have this policy so they probably think I'm just rude and also heartless when I accept a losing candidate's request the day after the election."

Newby won't even affiliate with candidates for cake! He noted that recently, a good friend of his had a 50th birthday party and the friend was a candidate for office and so Newby gave his regrets because he didn't want any perception that his attendance meant any kind of approval of his friends candidacy.

Sara Ball Johnson, former director of elections for Kentucky emphasized the importance of shutting out the background noise that comes with being an elections director.

"It is even more important to be a-political now than in the past. Every little decision is made under a microscope in the election world, but that is not necessarily bad. The more open and transparent we are the better to counter act the misinformation that spreads like wild fire," Ball Johnson said. "There is no place for partisan answers when answering questions on elections or voting."

Ball Johnson also had some parting advice for elections officials at all levels:

• Follow the law not the rhetoric;

• Never make a decision based upon the party affiliation of the inquirer;

• Be consistent...always review the law, case law, and policy before making a decision;

• Be proactive, never ever wait for something to blow-up before you address it. If you know there is a weakness in procedure or law, work to fix it before it becomes a problem. You never want to be in court or in the media admitting you knew it was a problem but failed to try to fix it. Paper trails are your friend;

• Train, Train, Train and then Train again! I am a firm believer in constant and redundant training in all areas of election administration. Train yourself, your staff, local registrars, public, party officials, candidates and anyone else you can think of on the proper procedures for conducting elections;

• Always attend local, state, and national election groups conferences/training sessions. I get some of my best ideas from my colleagues. No need to reinvent the wheel, borrow an idea and make it your own; and

• Be accessible to media and never say "no comment" or refuse to return their phone calls. The media can be your friend or your enemy. Remember it takes only a minute for someone to say "I was disenfranchised" but it will take you several minutes to explain why they were not disenfranchised.

Read the rest of this week's electionlineWeekly here; if you haven't already subscribed to the (free!) weekly email, just click "Subscribe" on electionline's homepage.

[Kudos to Mindy for an important story that's been in the works for a while.]

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