Kevin Johnson opinion for The Fulcrum:
In recent months, we’ve gotten a crash course in the ways that our election systems are now dangerously vulnerable to partisan interference and disorder. Numerous candidates for secretary of state deny the results of the 2020 election, including several who are, or likely will be, their party’s nominee. Party operatives are recruiting biased poll workers to give their side an edge.
Events last week in Otero County, N.M. – which happens to be home to one of the nation’s largest missile ranges – highlight another troubling threat. There, the Republican-led county commission refused to certify the results of the June 7 primary election, citing general concerns and “gut feelings” about voting software, without specific evidence and in disregard of security tests confirming the system’s accuracy.
After a lawsuit filed by the secretary of state, the state Supreme Court ordered the commission to certify, which it did, with a vote of 2-1 shortly before the state-mandated deadline. State law establishes specific circumstances under which such commissions can query results submitted by the county clerk, none of which pertained in this case, the Supreme Court found. Appropriately, the rule of law took priority over the personal views of the commissioners.
But there’s no guarantee that future efforts to use the certification process to hold an election hostage will fizzle out so quickly — especially after a hotly contested vote where partisan tensions are running high. That raises a bigger question: whether in our hyper-partisan era, having elected politicians sign off on election results is playing with fire.
We almost got burned in 2020. Then, the two Republican members of a bipartisan canvassing board in Michigan’s largest county initially refused to certify the results, before ultimately relenting. In the next presidential election, the pressure on the party nominees to do the party’s bidding is likely to be even greater.
In most democracies, the officials who conduct the election also certify the results, and for the most part they are independent, nonpartisan professionals. But in the U.S., many states require certification by county commissions or canvass boards composed of individuals either nominated by a political party or elected under its banner. In most states, the certification step is not a venue to judge concerns about elections; the courts are, based on evidence presented by candidates. That’s why New Mexico’s Supreme Court quickly ordered the board to certify.