Bill would require election officials to resign before running

Friday, February 1, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 5
By Sheila Burke

Democrats in the state legislature are pushing a bill that would force the secretary of state to vacate the office if that official decides to run for public office.

The move follows several recent contests in which secretaries of state have been accused of gaming the electoral systems they oversee while running for office. The most notable controversy was in the Georgia governor’s race, when Democrat Stacey Abrams lost her bid last year to become the state’s first African-American governor. She ran against then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp.


Democrats accused Kemp of using his office to suppress voter turnout, particularly among minorities, and of perpetrating fraud. Kemp has denied the allegations.


If the bill becomes law, Tennessee could become the first state to ban a statewide administrator over elections from holding that position and running for another office, says Dylan Lynch, a policy associate with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Under the measure, which is being sponsored by Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, the coordinator of elections also would also be required to vacate the office if that official decided to run for public office.

In Tennessee, the legislature elects the secretary of state, and that official appoints the coordinator of elections.

Is Gilmore’s bill a response to the Georgia race.

“It certainly got me thinking about it,” she says, adding hers is a non-partisan bill introduced in the interest of transparency and avoiding the appearance of any conflict of interest.

Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett appointed Mark Goins, the coordinator of elections. Both men are former Republican state lawmakers.

Gilmore says her bill was not aimed at Hargett personally.

“I have no reason to think that our present secretary of state would not be honest,” she says. “Everything I’ve seen from him, he appears to be a very honest man.”

Georgia’s secretary of state is not the only one whose integrity has been called into question.

Former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach recused himself from a vote recount during the Republican primary for governor after his opponent demanded he step aside. The opponent, former Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer, had alleged that Kobach had been illegally advising county election officials not to count certain ballots.

Former Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted successfully ran for lieutenant governor last year while overseeing state elections. Husted has been accused of disenfranchising voters by purging massive numbers of people from the rolls.

He’s defended himself, saying it was necessary to preserve the integrity of the ballot.

Conflicts of interest in election management are endemic, say Dan Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State University who researches elections.

Any time you have a party-affiliated elected official there’s a conflict of interest, he says, and that person has an incentive to make decisions that are beneficial to their party.

“Now the conflict is heightened, it’s more severe, where an election official herself is a candidate. In other words, where the election official is both player and umpire,” Tokaji says. “But you can really say that player-and-umpire situation exists in any situation where you’ve got a party-affiliated election official. The player may not be up to bat, but he’s still on the team.”

Tokaji adds he believes that an impartial board should pick an administrator to handle elections in each state.

The secretary of state isn’t involved in the actual counting of votes, so it’s not clear what difference the proposal would make in the Volunteer State, says Christopher Acuff, an assistant professor of public administration at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. County officials appointed by state election officials are in charge of counting votes, he adds.

“I don’t know how much of a direct impact it would have other than someone else certifies the results (of the election),” Acuff says of the proposal.

Gilmore says Hargett has told her he would not lobby against her bill. Jennifer Donnals, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state, said in an email the office does not have any comment on the proposal at this time.

It’s not clear how hard she has to lobby Republicans to get on board with her bill.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, says the bill isn’t necessary.

“I believe this legislation is a solution in search of a problem,” Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, wrote in a statement. “Our election process has many checks, balances and safeguards. I have every confidence that any secretary of state, Republican or Democrat, could fulfill the constitutional duties of the office while appearing on the ballot.”

That type of thinking comes as no surprise to Acuff.

“I would think if there hasn’t been an issue in Tennessee where the integrity of the secretary of state has been called into question, I might see state legislators thinking that this isn’t a top priority, especially since they’re the ones who chose the secretary of state, so presumably they believe in the integrity of that person holding the office,” Acuff adds. “But we’ll see.”