Part 2 of this two-part series exploring the negative repercussions of partisan election administration on the nation.
by Alex Weddon and Patrice Johnson | October 4, 2023
In the intricate tapestry of American politics, attention is increasingly drawn to the pivotal role of the Secretary of State (SOS) in overseeing elections. Over the past few decades, a growing concern revolves around the encroachment of partisan influences into the fundamental machinery of the voting process, threatening the foundational principles of the republic.
In 2014, former secretaries of state, Phil Keisling (D-Oregon) and Sam Reed (R-Washington), joined forces to write an article sounding the alarm on the disconcerting trend of partisanship seeping into SOS races. They highlighted the worrisome picture painted by external financial influences infiltrating crucial elections, warning that vital election offices might deviate from their intended role as independent election watchdogs. The consequence, they cautioned, could be a degradation of these offices into third-world-like political landscapes.
Fast forward to October 6, 2023. The 2023 Student Voting Summit at Oakland University has intensified the issue. According to State Senator Jim Runestad, the event, orchestrated by SOS Jocelyn Benson, is aligned with a leftist group, limiting Republican participation. Runestad's office is spearheading a protest, aiming to prevent the use of taxpayer dollars for what he deems leftist indoctrination and censorship of Republican participation.
The Heart of the Problem
The U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 4, Clause 1) and the Michigan Constitution (Article 2, Section 4) emphasize the critical role of elections. Both require the elected state legislature to determine the "times, places, and manners of elections." The Founding Fathers, aiming to prevent undue government influence, structured the government with three limited parts to keep judges, lawmakers, and presidents in check.
Democracy versus Republic
The distinction between democracy and a republic becomes crucial. In a republic, citizens elect representatives; while in a democracy, every citizen has a direct voice. Our nation, a constitutional republic, operates under the rule of the Constitution. Plato's concern about the pitfalls of large democracies is echoed, emphasizing the risk of mob rule and the emergence of tyrannical leaders.
The Article 1, Sec. 4, Clause 1 in the U.S. Constitution underscores the importance of handling elections with neutrality and fairness. The Elections Clause, as it is called, requires elected state legislatures, not the governor or courts, to determine the “times, places, and manners of elections.”
In a representative republic, accountability lies with representatives to act in the best interests of constituents and in accordance with the Constitution. The speed of decision-making is measured, with representatives listening to the will of their constituents. This process stands in sharp contrast to pure democracies where decisions are streamlined, potentially leading to mob rule and the silencing of minority voices, smaller citizen groups, and individuals.
The same risk-of-democracy argument applies to election law. In 2018 and 2022, ballot petitions were used, in violation of the Election Clause, to modify the state’s constitution in regard to election law. A multi-page, tiny-print bill, falsely marketed as “enshrining Voter ID” tricked voters into approving constitutional amendments to federal elections, a process explicitly prohibited in the U.S. and state constitutions.
The Republican System as a Safeguard
The republican system serves as a safeguard against the pitfalls of a democratic system that is prone to mob rule and tyrannical leaders. Citizens elect representatives to defend liberties and protect property, preventing the majority from becoming elitist and abusing power. However, the risk arises when the will of the citizenry goes unrecognized, and a small number of unchecked government officials abuses their power to subjugate the citizenry or undermine the integrity of elections.
The Challenging Path Forward
Recent developments, exemplified by the 2023 Student Voting Summit, highlight the infusion of partisan influences, jeopardizing the neutrality and fairness of election administration. Senator Runestad's concerns about taxpayer funding and an assault on free speech add to the growing apprehension.
The organized influx of outside money into SOS races has transformed elections into battlegrounds for partisan interests. This poses a danger, as Keisling and Reed envisioned, compromising the independence of these offices. Chief election officers, entangled in the demands of re-election campaigns, risk becoming political animals rather than judicious representatives.
The troubling partisanship in SOS races, exemplified by Michigan's recent events, serves as a stark reminder of the fragility of the democratic process within our constitutional republic. The call to action resonates in the imperative to preserve the independence and integrity of our electoral process.
The U.S. Constitution underscores the role of elected state legislatures in determining election logistics, while the separation of powers is crucial to avoiding undue executive influence. Election administration is a core function requiring accountability, and elected representatives, operating within the Constitution, act as safeguards against government overreach.
In conclusion, the potential consequences of the secretary of state engaging in partisan politics emphasize the importance of maintaining the neutrality and fairness of election administration. A call to action encourages the election of officials with proven records of independent judgment and nonpartisan behavior. Officials deviating from their responsibilities should be held accountable to the same civil and criminal standards as ordinary citizens.
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