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Bob Beatty: Secretary of state isn’t partisan job

  • Published Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, at 5:53 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, at 5:53 p.m.

We’re almost two years away from the 2014 general election, but Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach already has an opponent. Asserting that Kobach is “out of control,” Democrat Randy Rolston, a Lenexa businessman, immediately put $200,000 of his own money into his nascent campaign.

Rolston said he would put a lot more of his money into the race and, with the help of donors, could foresee spending more than $1 million. If Kobach matches that sort of fundraising – and outside groups decide they’ll plunk hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting one of the candidates – it not only could be the most expensive secretary of state race in Kansas history, but in U.S. history.

During his tenure Kobach has talked about preserving the integrity of elections in Kansas, and as such he has helped pass legislation putting in place voter-ID laws and a new law requiring proof of citizenship when registering to vote. Most recently, he has asked the Legislature to give his office the power to prosecute voter-fraud cases.

However, if we are concerned about the integrity of Kansas elections, there is one big question that needs to be asked, and addressed, that may matter much more than voter-registration rules: Should a partisan political figure be in charge of elections?

On the face of it, it is absurd to have a partisan party member running elections, as it creates an inherent conflict of interest. Kobach, for example, is the former chairman of the Republican Party and in 2012, while secretary of state, operated a political action committee that donated money to specific candidates running for office.

Imagine the head referee of the next University of Kansas-North Carolina basketball game being the former Tar Heel coach and having thousands of dollars bet on the North Carolina players to do well. Nobody would stand for it in basketball, and we should not put up with it in our elections.

So what are the other options? One option would be to take away the election duties of the Secretary of State’s Office. The secretary of state would be in charge of filing, recording and certification of all official and business documents in the state. The business of elections could then be run by a state board. This is how it is done in several states, including Oklahoma, New York and Wisconsin.

Does this mitigate partisanship? It certainly can, depending on the model.

In Oklahoma, the largest political party gets two members of the three-member board. In New York, both major parties get two members of the four-member board. Wisconsin’s governor chooses former judges to serve on an election board from a list selected by current state Appeals Court judges; board members must be confirmed by the State Senate. In Wisconsin, judges cannot be affiliated with a political party, and to serve on the election board a judge must have served six years to be eligible.

The simplest solution might be the best: Keep an elected secretary of state but ban him or her from involvement with partisan political activities (no campaign donations, no attending state or national political conventions, etc.). Better yet, make the secretary of state unaffiliated with a party. Since 30 percent of all Kansans are registered unaffiliated, I doubt we would lack for qualified candidates, and the referee would not be cheering for a winner during the game.

Bob Beatty is a political science professor at Washburn University.

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