Why the Office of Secretary of State Should Be Nonpartisan

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Among the many federal, state, and local offices on the ballot this upcoming primary election is the office of Washington Secretary of State. It is considered a partisan office, but should it be?

There are eight candidates on the ballot: five Democrats, including the current, recently appointed Washington Secretary of State, and two Republican legislators. Also on the ballot is a “Non-Partisan Party” candidate, the current Pierce County Auditor, pointedly running as an independent.   

I ran unsuccessfully for Secretary of State in 1972 against a well-known third-term incumbent, liberal Republican A. Ludlow Kramer.   At the time, voters had scant knowledge of the office of Secretary of State’s responsibilities, including overseeing elections.  I remember giving a speech in Spokane to a gathering of elder Democrats who dutifully showed up to learn about the down-ballot office. Some were obviously bored, even some were snoozing.   The office of Secretary of State did not excite people or energize a base of support.  Now, things are very different.

The 2020 presidential election has drastically changed how Secretaries of State around the country are viewed.  Some have become far more politicized – promoting Trump’s claims the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent or stolen, leading to political tactics to hi-jack the office and tilt the outcome in favor of candidates over those who were properly certified.  It’s more than partisanship – it’s a threat to our democracy.

Georgia’s top election official, Brad Raffensperger, has said, “Watch Out:  Four Big-Lie Candidates Running for the Secretary of State.”  President Trump and his MAGA allies relentlessly attacked Raffensperger, hoping to end his career (he defeated a Trump-backed candidate in the primary).  In Arizona. Nevada, Colorado, and other states where the Republican primary is marked with candidates who have been engaged to flip election results. Same is true for some governors’ races, where the governor appoints the secretary of state.

These Trump-endorsed candidates are self-proclaimed election deniers, some participated in the January 6 insurrection while others signed up as alternate electors in 2020 presidential election to overturn the certification of Joe Biden as the next president.  Others are being investigated and indicted yet remain as viable candidates.   These MAGA types running for Secretary of State are beating the drums in battleground states.  If they are elected to preside over the certification of election results, that could  result in overturning the election  outcomes, regardless of the accurate count of ballots.  Here’s an NPR rundown of these races, including those who propose to politicize future elections.

Fortunately, Washington state has been spared this political havoc.  Since 1965, the GOP has occupied the Secretary of State’s office (across the corridor from the Governor’s office).  Kramer and his four successors, including the legendary Ralph Munro, have served in a non-partisan and trustworthy manner overseeing all federal, state, and local elections — well managed with the full confidence of both political parties.

Accordingly, Washington Secretary of State’s office has been a role model for other states, thanks to the recent service of Kim Wyman, who has expanded Washington’s vote-by-mail system, including fully paid postage,and installed a wide network of ballot drop boxes while maintaining strict security measures.  The initiatives have led to more convenient public voting, particularly during the pandemic, and historic voter turnouts.  Wyman’s accomplishments led to her being appointed by the Biden Administration to head the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA), thus becoming the nation’s top election official.

Washington state can again be a role model by making this state elective office truly independent, as candidate Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson exemplifies. She also has 12 years of experience conducting elections. But it is her filing as an independent candidate that can be a precedent to making the state’s top election office truly non-partisan. 

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Don Bonker is a former Member of Congress from Washington’s Third District and former chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Trade. He now lives on Bainbridge Island and consults on international trade issues.

9 COMMENTS

  1. This essay offers no evidence to support its contention that making the Office of the Secretary of State “nonpartisan” would improve our politics or representation in any way whatsoever. I submit that is because removing party labels from the ballot would be counterproductive. It would be taking something away rather than adding anything of value.

    Politics is inherently partisan, especially in this hyperpolarized era, and it’s helpful for people to know what party candidates are aligned with (if any) when they’re considering who to vote for. Scrapping party labels won’t make politics more civil, or reduce the prevalence of conspiracy theories in our discourse, or improve public confidence in elections. The mandatory removal of information from the ballot that voters can use to understand candidates’ values and affiliations is just not a solution to any of the problems we’re currently facing. It could actually make it easier for a candidate who shouldn’t be Secretary of State to get closer to the office.

    Remember, the current setup doesn’t preclude people like Julie Anderson from running as independents, unaffiliated with any party, if they so choose. Right now, voters can see who’s a D and who’s an R, and that matters. Making a position “nonpartisan” doesn’t vanish away people’s affiliations or values, but it does hide that information from voters, making it harder to tell who’s who. Our experience with judicial elections ought to teach us something. When voters can’t tell the difference between a conspiracy theorist and an accomplished jurist, for example, we have a big problem.

    There’s a lot wrong with our politics right now. Let’s avoid making things even worse with bad ideas like this and focus on real solutions that can actually help.

    Secretary Hobbs, who is running as a Democrat, is campaigning on some of those solutions. It is great for voters that people can see he’s a Democrat. It helps those who don’t know him understand what he’s all about.

  2. I agree with the previous commenter. With respect to the author, of whom I’ve supported for public office in the past, there is really no such thing as non-partisan. The concept is largely based upon the simplistic notion that a non-aligned candidate would not be influenced by a party. There is no evidence that supports this in the real world. All candidates have a political leaning and being associated with a party helps the voters to better understand who they are voting for. Voting for non-partisan candidates can be like shooting in the dark … or at least at dusk. It takes a well informed voter to discern where a non-partisan candidate stands on various issue and, as we have seen in recent elections, there is a dearth of well informed voters.

    • Brother, I totally agree. Notice SCOTUS, presently an arm of the GOP.
      While I respect Don and his opinion, the ID after their name causes us to look further into the ethics resulting in their i dependence.

  3. What kind of “well informed” am I, if I notice only that Hobbs is a “Democrat”? The way I understand it, his appointment to fill in as Secretary of State was a crafty move by a Democrat governor, to get him out of the legislature and out of the way of the Democrat agenda. Would I really be voting Democrat here?

    There’s little genuine reason for all politicians to line up on one side or the other of a factional divide that accounts for every single issue. A genuine thinking candidate might lean one way on, say state regulation of police canine tactics, and another on carbon pricing. (Or alternatively, a candidate’s funding prospects might tell the tale.) For me, we could dispense with the parties altogether. How much more so, with something like Secretary of State, where there seems to be little or nothing involved that’s both factional and legitimate.

  4. My concern is nobody is really fooled. Did you know that Seattle City Councilmembers are all officially nonpartisan and no party identification can appear on the ballot? Yet everybody know they are all quite partisan Democrats. And if a moderate independent were to run s/he would be immediately smeared for having voted to a liberal Republican back when such endangered species roamed Seattle.

  5. Appreciate comments, wish to respond.

    My 8 yrs as county auditor and twice the Demo nominee for Secretary of State, have some personal interest. I praised the state’s past 5 Secretaries of State for their exemplary and non-partisan service in that position. That was the past, now a new reality. The NPR survey was about MAGNA types as top contenders for this office, specific mention Arizona. Two of the top GOP candidates, both legislators. One proposed a bill last year that would have allowed the legislature to overturn the will of the voters in choosing presidential electors. The other introduced a resolution to decertify the 2020 election results.

    Having run statewide 4 times – building a base of support, raising mega amounts – I know how candidates/future office holders are beholden to that support base.

    Secretary of State must be independent, rely on credentials suitable for that office. That’s why Julie Anderson is the ideal office and will set an example for other states around the country.

    Otherwise of MAGA candidates in Arizona and the other battleground states are elected, our democracy is in peril.

    Also not advocating that all political offices be non-partisan, only Secretary of State for obvious reasons.

    This is not a problem in Washington state but we can serve as an example for other states that want to move in the right direction.

    • I don’t disagree with your point regarding the need to keep those overseeing elections fair and objective, I just don’t see how prohibiting politically savvy people from officially aligning with a party would do that. The electoral system is based upon some sort of broad political alignment. If you look close at the European systems they may have multiple parties but they typically work in broad coalition on one side of the political spectrum or the other. I just don’t see where we would find someone from some sort of objective center with enough experience serving the public to do the job effectively. In the end it’s up to the electorate to hold the position accountable in terms of an objective electoral process. What party they come from really shouldn’t matter if the voters are on the ball. That may sound simplistic and naïve but it essentially all we have. Call the voters to a higher standard and who get’s elected will take care if its self.

  6. So, all this is just free campaign advertising for Julie Anderson? Noted. Voted for Hobbs, and will do so again in November. To me, “nonpartisan” = chickenshit. I remain unimpressed with Anderson, or with the holier-than-thou mantle of “nonpartisanship” she has wrapped around herself.

  7. The SOS has other responsibilities, not just elections.
    SOS is responsible for our state history – the State Library and State Archives, which hold our collective history. Family history researchers need these institutions up and running, staffed, and with resources available, not warehoused and unavailable, as has happened in some republican run states.

    Please keep that in mind when choosing a candidate. Kim Wyman, Republican, fought hard for funding our history collections. Not certain if a person representing the current GOP would do that.

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