Connecting state and local government leaders
The standards call for better communication and more transparency. Secretaries of state and other election administrators on hand for the announcement also detailed the challenges they are facing leading up the November general election.
As state and local election officials prepare to administer a hotly contested presidential contest and other down-ballot races, they face increased scrutiny following the 2020 election and the false claims made by former President Donald Trump that it was stolen. Any mistake, real or perceived, could be interpreted by some as evidence of malfeasance.
For elections officials, it might feel like being in the eye of a hurricane. But some secretaries of state, who descended on Washington, D.C., and this week participated in a panel discussion on election administration, said they see the increased scrutiny on elections officials as something of a good thing.
Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, for instance, said when he first ran for election in 2019, he was often asked what the office was responsible for. Adams said he does not hear that question as much anymore. Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes explained that greater understanding of local elections is part of a “long, slow rolling civics lesson” underway in the U.S. over the last several years.
“We’ve learned a lot about the law,” Fontes said during the panel discussion at the National Press Club. “We've learned a lot about the role of local government election administration. I think a lot of what has happened is really a lot of light has been shed on how important our election administrators are.”
The secretaries of state and other election officials were on hand to unveil new enhanced standards of conduct in an effort to build trust with constituents ahead of spring primaries and the November general election.
The optional standards of conduct from The Election Center, also known as the National Association of Election Officials, include pledges for elections officials to adhere to the law and stay current on any changes to it, hew to proper procedures, be transparent about their decisions and act as a nonpartisan resource for lawmakers.
Elections officials who sign on to the standards of conduct promise to continue to build their and their staff’s knowledge through continuing education and self-improvement, treat the public fairly and equally, and build relationships through open communication. They also promise not to use their office for “personal or partisan gain,” something that has come under greater scrutiny in recent years as secretaries of state of both parties have not recused themselves as they run for higher office.
In addition, The Election Center provides a toolkit to help elections officials publicize their pledge through the media and their social media channels.
The standards of conduct are underpinned by a promise to operate elections and the offices responsible for them with integrity. And while the authors of the standards said they are nothing new, having them all contained in one place lets the public know they take their jobs seriously.
“Election officials across the country have been following these principles for decades, but across the profession it is clear that offices need more support in discussing what it means to be ethical with their communities and navigating complex ethical challenges as they arise,” said Hilary Rudy, chair of the Election Center’s Committee on Ethics in Practice and deputy director of the Colorado Department of State’s Elections Division.
Monica Holman Evans, executive director of the Washington, D.C., Board of Elections, welcomes the standards of conduct. Elections officials, she said, should be “proactive” in explaining their procedures to the public, quickly owning any mistakes they make and being as transparent as possible. Holman Evans said she tries to answer questions about how the city runs elections “before they are asked.”
In addition to unveiling the standards, the secretaries of state also discussed the issues they are navigating ahead of the November general election. This year promises to bring plenty of challenges, especially given the turnover in elections offices at all levels of government. Fontes noted that of the more than 550 elections officials across Arizona, more than 230 are new this year.
“These are folks who are coming in with eyes wide open, they want to do this, they're motivated to help because they know how important this is,” he said.
Adams said one challenge he faces in Kentucky is ensuring there are enough open polling locations. Schools and other community centers are increasingly reluctant to host the public on Election Day for fear of violence or other bad actors, he said.
And political pressure is never far away, either. Mark Coakley, general registrar for Henrico County, Virginia, said more than 130 election-related bills are pending in the Virginia General Assembly, so there are often law changes that need to be reckoned with, positive or negative.
Adams added that it is “getting harder and harder” to work with legislators in Kentucky, as he has fewer allies and more lawmakers who question election results. Fontes said he has “made some headway” by building personal relationships with Arizona lawmakers, but still must “bust through” more fringe theories and beliefs about the work he does.
Holman Evans faces a challenge unlike any other: direct oversight from Congress, which approves the district’s budget and can vote to repeal laws. One allowing noncitizens to vote went into effect despite opposition in the House, and while Holman Evans said she tries to educate lawmakers about what the office does and how elections work in the city, the politics is still difficult to navigate.
“At the end of the day, I have a job, and I'm determined to perform my job to the best of my ability,” she said. “It's hard to get the arrows and darts, and you feel as though you're a target. But that does not in any way deter me from our core mission. We are like any other elections jurisdiction, we have the same goals, and we hope to be treated with the same respect and levels of effort that other elections jurisdictions enjoy.”