Editors’ Note: Miles Rapoport has been on the democracy beat for all of a long career. As a community organizer, a state representative and secretary of state in Connecticut, and for the last 15 years as President of Demos and then of Common Cause, a vibrant and inclusive democracy has been his passion and work.
Miles recently became the Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy at the Ash Center of the Kennedy School at Harvard. Today he begins a biweekly column on democracy issues for the Prospect, where we are also glad to have him as a board member.
The National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) met February 16 and 17 on Pennsylvania Avenue, two blocks from the White House. Ironically, despite irresponsible claims of massive voter fraud and legitimate worries about voter suppression, participants in the NASS Conference and its sister group, the National Association of State Election Directors (NASED), had a fair amount to feel pretty good about. They could reflect upon an Election Day in November that in a procedural sense went fairly smoothly—not a description often applied to the 2016 election.
The chaos and conflict at the polls that was feared by many did not materialize. The incidence of long lines and polling place problems was significantly reduced from 2012, and the gaps between the experiences of voters in white precincts and precincts in communities of color narrowed as well, according to MIT Professor Charles Stewart, based on the Survey on the Performance of American Elections conducted immediately after the elections.
Two issues, however, were too fraught with partisan conflict to achieve any consensus on the part of the assembled secretaries of state: Russian hacking and calculated interference in the election, and the president's claim of massive voter fraud.
On the Russian issue, after the election, in response to the intelligence community’s confirmation of Russian cyber efforts to manipulate our elections, the Department of Homeland Security designated our election system a part of the country's “critical infrastructure,” which means that it gets the highest attention and defensive control from our national intelligence agencies. The designation was made by President Obama’s Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, but Trump's new secretary, John Kelly, recently indicated that he did not plan to reverse the designation. At the meeting of the NASS Elections Committee, Connecticut Secretary of the State and NASS President Denise Merrill proposed a task force to study the issue and work collaboratively with federal agencies to examine the vulnerability of voting systems to hacking. But Republican members, led by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, redirected the proposal, adding a resolution of strong opposition to the designation.
The biggest elephant in the room was the claim by Trump that three million to five million people voted fraudulently in the election, and then doubling down by saying he is going to name a commission, headed by Vice President Pence, to examine voter fraud. The media, Democrats uniformly, many Republicans, and every study that has been made of this issue have rejected this claim emphatically. Nevertheless, he persists.
For the secretaries and their election directors, it is a particularly painful charge. After all, this is their bailiwick, and overall they have been remarking, publicly and privately, on how well it went. For the Democratic secretaries, the response is obvious: outrage. But for the Republicans, it is far more complicated. One the one hand, they are insulted, and privately, pretty much to a person, they reject the charge. Some of them have said so publicly, but have treaded carefully, even more so as a Pence-led investigation is likely.
Bill Gardner has been secretary of state in New Hampshire for 41 years, reveling in New Hampshire's role in the primary, proud of the fact that the state ranks consistently in the top five states in terms of turnout, and very protective of the integrity of his elections. So when Trump insisted, and White House aide Stephen Miller repeated, that “anyone who has done any work in New Hampshire” knows that buses of illegal voters from Massachusetts come to New Hampshire every election, Gardner was really angry. But he says he doesn't want to just categorically deny it; he wants to show Mike Pence and the president: “Appoint a fair commission with Pence at the head, no election officials on it,” Gardner said. “Come to New Hampshire. Look at everything, everywhere, including the pictures we take of anyone who votes without a picture ID. See what fraud you find. And if you don't find any, please stop saying it.”
Iowa Secretary Paul Pate and Colorado Secretary Wayne Williams were more circumspect. They both said that they do not see anything like the kind of fraud the president alleges, but if anyone can produce evidence that there is, they will look at it carefully. So when California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the chair of the elections committee, circulated a resolution criticizing Trump and defending the integrity of the elections, the buzzing and huddled conversations began. There were efforts to soften the language, and the Republicans drafted a counter-resolution. But when the motion was made to consider the resolution, a Republican secretary immediately moved to adjourn the meeting, blindsiding Padilla. The motion carried, the meeting ended, and the silence was loud and sullen,
The irony is that despite extensive voter-suppression efforts in many states, and bogus advance warnings of Election Day fraud, the November election went off surprisingly well. And even though the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions is no friend of defending the franchise, it bodes well for American democracy that competent state and local administration kept the system largely intact.
David Becker, who tracked election administration for years at the Pew Charitable Trusts and now continues his work as the founding director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, said that the 2016 election overall was the smoothest and best-run election yet.
In addition, the secretaries could note real progress in the adoption of processes making the elections more accessible and efficient, many adopted in red and blue slates alike. Online voter registration, a relatively new development, is now in place in 34 states. ERIC, the Electronic Registration Information Center begun by the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2012, has now been joined by 20 states, and the information sharing has made lists more accurate and up to date, with safeguards against excessive purges.
A number of Republican secretaries, too, in different ways, have adopted energetic efforts to encourage participation. John Merrill of Alabama conducted major outreach efforts including videos from Charles Barkley and Deontay Wilder, world heavyweight boxing champion from Tuscaloosa. Paul Pate of Iowa made a major outreach effort to the disability and veteran communities. And Wayne Williams of Colorado has implemented the state's broadened election processes in collaboration with voting advocates.
At the same time, restrictions on registration and voting have passed in Republican-led legislatures around the country, sometimes supported or even led by secretaries of state. It is certain that these efforts will intensify in the legislative sessions now underway. In fact, simultaneous with the meeting and a few hundred yards away, a hundred voting-rights advocates, organizers, and litigators, convened by the Democracy Initiative and the AFL-CIO, gathered to plan strategies to resist voter suppression efforts in the legislative sessions, and seek opportunities to advance voter-encouraging reforms where that is possible.
NASS’s partisan makeup is now 33 Republicans and 21 Democrats, including secretaries (and in some cases lieutenant governors) from the states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. territories. And it has grown more sharply divided along partisan lines over recent elections—no surprise.
In addition to partisan division over alleged voter fraud and real voter suppression, there was tension over the role of the Election Assistance Commission (EAC). The EAC was created in 2002 by the Help America Vote Act. It was weak by design, but its purpose was to help states with money and technical assistance to replace old voting machines, set standards for the new machines, and promote best practices among state election officials.
The history of the EAC has been very uneven, hampered by rampant vacancies, partisan fights, and criticisms by secretaries of state, among others. In 2012 NASS passed a resolution urging its abolition. But recently, under the leadership of Thomas Hicks, Matt Masterson, and Christy McCormick, the EAC has functioned better, and has been increasingly useful to states. The attitudes toward it from election directors and secretaries have changed; however, over on Capitol Hill, House Republicans recently passed H.R. 684, to eliminate the EAC.
Election administration should be beyond partisanship. The secretaries’ work will continue, as they begin to prepare for the elections of 2018. They’ll continue to innovate and collaborate; and many predict that technically, the 2018 elections will see further improvements.
How they respond on the issues of the EAC, cybersecurity, and a Pence Commission on voter fraud will evolve over the next several months. But it is a sad reflection on the politics of the moment that what could have been a positive gathering reflecting on accomplishments was tarnished by the president’s lies and the bitter division in our nation’s capital.
This story has been updated and corrected.