In three states, the referee for the midterm elections is also on the field as a player.
Elected secretaries of state in Georgia and Kansas — who in their official capacities oversee the elections in their states — are running for governor. Ohio’s secretary of state is running for lieutenant governor. All are Republicans.
They have faced scattered calls to resign but have refused to do so. Election reformers say the situation underscores the conflict of interest when an official has responsibilities for an election while also running as a candidate.
“There is just too much of a temptation if a political party is in a position to run the mechanics of an election to try to tilt it, and it’s a temptation we ought not to encourage,” said former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who spent 34 years on Capitol Hill. “This is not nuclear physics.”
While the three secretaries of state are Republican, concerns about inappropriate actions by partisans who hold the office transcend parties. An independent counsel earlier this month began investigating Kentucky’s Democratic secretary of state, Alison Lundergan Grimes, over allegations that her office accessed voter registration data to check the party affiliation of job applicants. Grimes may seek higher office next year.
Grimes father was indicted in late August for trying to funnel money into his daughter’s failed 2014 bid to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp faces charges of voter suppression in his state, while Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has become an emblem of a political warrior. A former chairman of the state’s Republican Party, Kobach organized the Prairie Fire political action committee to attack moderate Republican candidates while serving as secretary of state.
Issues about his dual hats swirled around Kobach during the Aug. 7 primary in Kansas when he was locked in a tight race for the Republican nomination with Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer. It marked one of the closest primary races in U.S. history and came down to counting provisional ballots.
After an uproar, Kobach stepped back and put his deputy, Eric Rucker, in charge.
Even the Republican seeking to succeed Kobach as secretary of state has distanced himself. “Whether you like it or not, Kris has been distracted with lawsuits. He was an early part of the president’s transition team and running for governor for several years,” Republican candidate Scott Schwab said in a forum earlier this week.
Political scientists say lawsuits and perceptions of favoritism are bound to arise as the post of secretary of state is seen as a stepping stone to higher office.
“You don’t want to have a misperception that you are placing a thumb on the scale of your own election,” said Michael P. McDonald, a University of Florida elections expert who heads the United States Elections Project, a nonpartisan research and information service.
In the case of Ohio, where Secretary of State John Husted is running for lieutenant governor, a spokesman said Husted’s office is not directly responsible for counting votes.
“That is done at the local level by the bipartisan boards of elections,” spokesman Sam Rossi said. “If any issues were to arise regarding Secretary Husted as a candidate, he would recuse himself and defer that decision to the deputy secretary of state who is a former election board director in Franklin County (Ohio).”
A fourth secretary of state, Shantel Krebs, a Republican in South Dakota, ran for a seat in the U.S. House earlier this year but lost in the primary.
The issue of electoral influence goes beyond what unfolds when votes are counted.
“Election officials have a lot of discretion,” said Daniel P. Tokaji, an authority on electoral law at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, adding that a variety of legal questions inevitably arise during campaigns.
“Just to give you a few that have arisen in years past, in a state that has a voter ID law, what forms of voter ID are acceptable and unacceptable? Often the statute doesn’t spell that out with perfect clarity,” Tokaji said.
“Where and when should early voting and absentee voting be allowed? Under what circumstances should provisional ballots be counted? What should be the practice when it comes to removing voters from the rolls?”
Allegations of voter suppression roil the campaign of Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state, as he runs for governor against Stacey Abrams, who seeks to make history as the nation’s first black female governor.
Several federal lawsuits were filed in the past week charging Georgia authorities with rejecting a disproportionate number of absentee ballots and with discrimination in verifying new voter registrations.
The second dispute centers on nearly 53,000 voter registrations that have been placed on a pending list because they do not satisfy an “exact match” requirement with a person’s Georgia driver license or Social Security card. The Republican-controlled general assembly last year approved the exact match requirement.
Kemp tweeted on Wednesday that he is defending the state from foreigners who would cast votes: “I don’t know what’s worse: Actively working to undermine the rule of law by letting illegal immigrants vote or lying to hardworking Georgians about it.”
A former Georgia secretary of state criticized Kemp for not stepping down.
“When I decided to run for higher office, I stepped down from my position as secretary of state because I recognized that it would not be fair to Georgia voters if I oversaw an election in which I was a candidate for higher office,” former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, a Democrat who served as secretary of state from 1983 to 1996, said in a statement.
Neither major political party has pushed to remove partisanship from election administration.
Tokaji said U.S. states are outliers among global democracies in allowing parties to control election administration.
“People from other countries, when they hear about how we run our elections, that we have players for one of the teams serving as umpires, this is shocking,” he said. “Almost every other country has people running their elections that are insulated from partisan politics.”
Chuck Williams, William Douglas and Bryan Lowry contributed to this report.