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Who's The Boss? Arkansas, Florida Debate State Power to Discipline Local Election Officials

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In recent weeks, two states have engaged in fierce debates over whether or not state election officials can engage in oversight and/or discipline of local election officials:

+ In Arkansas, Gov. Mike Beebe (D) has vetoed a series of bills that would have consolidated authority at the state level, including giving the State Board of Election Commissioners the power"to remove a county election commissioner if not qualified or for failure to perform duties."

+ In Florida, an election reform bill that just passed the Senate on a party-line vote includes a provision that would allow the Secretary of State to put a county election supervisor on "noncompliant status" under state law. That status would allow the state to dock a supervisor's pay for problems associated with the election process.

What's especially interesting about both of these bills is that they have generated nearly unanimous bipartisan opposition from local election officials. The concern among the local election officials - who with very few exceptions are elected by their local voters - is that state officials (especially an appointed Secretary of State in Florida) should not have the authority to pre-empt local oversight by engaging in discipline of local administrators.

The counter-argument at the state level is that under-performing election officials can have a serious impact on voters; therefore, state officials need to be able to hold election officials accountable. Such authority does exist in places like Ohio, where the Secretary has the ability to discipline - even remove - members of county election boards, though there the boards are appointed and clearly subordinate to the Secretary under state law.

Moreover, the fights in Arkansas and Florida are part of a growing trend of friction between state and local policymakers, seen elsewhere most recently in Colorado. It isn't clear if these fights are an extension of the partisan divisions seen in the last election cycle, a state/local turf fight or a combination of the two - but they are likely to reverberate for some time.

They're also not over yet; the Arkansas vetoes will almost certainly be challenged with an override vote in the GOP-controlled legislature, while majority Republicans in Florida's two chambers will reconcile competing versions of the reform bill with hopes of sending it to Gov. Rick Scott (R) for his signature.

You can bet local election officials in both states will be doing everything they can to keep the disputed provisions out of state law. Time will tell if they succeed.

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