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Local election officials let partisan color$ $how

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Voter entering polling placeAt least 26 officials who will be supervising tomorrow's election in three battleground states have made political donations in the last four years, the Sunlight Foundation has found.

The thousands of dollars donated by elections officials in Ohio, Florida, and Colorado illustrates an under-appreciated fact of American political life: Election officials are often political partisans who either run for office in the same elections they supervise or owe their jobs to people who do. 

A comparison of names of the nation's 8,920 local elections officials with a list of 2010 and 2012 campaign donors compiled in Influence Explorer yielded 1,599 matches for contribution total of nearly $1 million. But because many names are common, we can't be sure that all of the political donors we found are in fact the same people as the elections officials on our list.

Even so, some positive identifications are possible: Nationwide, we found 241 donors identified themselves as elections officials in the donor database, listing their occupation as "board of elections supervisor," "county/town clerk," or "elections manager." The percentage of giving by these self-identified local election officials is seven times the national rate of giving: Less than half of one percent of voting age Americans made political contributions in the current election cycle.

Nor is it likely our study caught all the donations: On federal level, only political donations over $200 are required to be reported to the FEC while state campaign finance laws vary widely in terms of what needs to be disclosed, including employment information. Influence Explorer relies on information reported to the Federal Election Commission and state officials, captured by the Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute of Money in State Politics.

Much has been made about the partisan political profiles of secretaries of state, who in 36 states serve as the top elections official. One of the most famous controversies involved Katherine Harris, later a Republican member of Congress, the secretary of state in overseeing the Florida recount that sent the 2000 presidential election to the Supreme Court.

Far less attention has been focused on local elections officials, who literally hold the keys to the elections machines. They are the front-line enforcers in what is a highly decentralized voting system in the United States. Their responsibilities include voter registration, processing and counting absentee ballots, recruitment and training of poll workers, maintenance and modernization of election equipment and Election Day operations.

In an interview earlier this year, Rick Hasen, an elections law expert on the faculty of the University of California's Irvine campus, recounted how elections officials in one small California town steamed open absentee ballots to "see if they were votes for incumbents," tossing out the votes that were not.

Most of the donations Sunlight matched to names of local elections officials found relatively modest, ranging from the single digits to $5,000. They appeared to be nearly evenly divided by party: 46 percent of the names we matched to local elections officials supported Democratic candidates or causes, compared to 52 percent for Republicans. Recipients ranged from state and federal candidates to local party organizations.

There is nothing illegal about elections officials making political donations or engaging in politics; the Supreme Court protects such activities as a form of free speech. One local official who has made donations, William Shubat of Bellaire, Ohio, insisted they do not create a conflict of interest.

"Not at all. I give to my party. I don't usually give to candidates," Shubat told Sunlight. "My job is such that I don't do any campaigning or anything of that sort. I don't know how it is in other states, but here in Ohio you take an oath to uphold fair voting standards when you take office as an election official."

Others see it differently.  Last week, a respected non-partisan civic watchdog group in Philadelphia issued a sharp rebuke when the chair of the commission that oversees that city's elections sent an email urging support for President Barack Obama and the rest of the Democratic ticket. 

"This sends a really bad message to voters," said Zack Stalberg, head of Philadelphia's Committee of 70, "because it suggests that the person in charge of elections -- the chairwoman -- really has a very direct result in the outcome."

Browse to see whether your local election official has made a political donation. 

(Contributing: Anupama Narayanswamy and Becca Heller; Photo credit: YinYang via iStockphoto.com)

 

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