A commissioner of a federal elections agency recently spoke at a secretive conference of conservative voting activists and Republican secretaries of state and congressional staff — a step that election experts call highly improper for an official charged with helping states administer fair and unbiased elections.
U.S. Election Assistance Commissioner Donald Palmer, the former chief election official in Virginia, was a panelist at a February conference organized by conservative groups working to impose new voting restrictions, including the Heritage Foundation.
Ten chief state election officials, as well as elections staff from three additional Republican-led states, attended the confab, which was described by one prominent organizer as a “private, confidential meeting.”
The existence of the conference, including its agenda and list of attendees, was first reported by The Guardian U.S. and the investigative journalism site Documented.
In a statement to States Newsroom, Palmer defended his appearance, calling it “an important opportunity to engage.” Palmer, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, is one of two Republican members of the four-member commission, which by law is divided evenly between the two main political parties.
Though the EAC has no ethics code to guide commissioners or staff, it’s one of several agencies subject to heightened restrictions on political activity via the Hatch Act — the U.S. law that restricts federal government employees from involvement in partisan politics.
Amber McReynolds, the former elections director for the city of Denver and a prominent election administration expert, said commissioners should be barred from partisan events.
“With elections, the standard has to be higher. The professionalism has to be higher. The transparency has to be higher,” said McReynolds, who sits on the Board of Governors for the U.S. Postal Service. “[EAC commissioners] should not be participating in partisan activities.”
“I do think it’s important for them to engage,” added McReynolds, who is politically unaffiliated. “But do so with equal access in mind and high ethics in mind, and certainly not in private meetings.”
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, went further, suggesting Palmer should step down.
“Election professionals across the spectrum are deeply disappointed that (a commissioner) of this federal agency abused the trust we placed in his ability to be professional and unbiased in supporting election administration,” Benson said in a statement. “His inappropriate and poor judgment calls into question his ability to continue in his role in the future.”
“It’s the perception of appearing at a highly partisan group that isn’t transparent,” said Thom Reilly, the co-director of the Center for an Independent and Sustainable Democracy at Arizona State University. “In a time when there is so much that’s problematic about how people are viewing elections, I think this is going to add to that. I think it’s problematic.”
In a statement sent via an EAC spokesperson, Palmer responded:
“The Heritage Secretary of State Meeting was an important opportunity to engage with chief election officials and key staff. It was a forum to discuss the national security implications of voting system standards and testing, federal legislation and funding, and interstate voter registration data sharing, and I appreciated hearing from states and answering their questions.”
Trey Grayson, a Republican former secretary of state of Kentucky who served on the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration created by President Barack Obama, said he doesn’t have a problem with Palmer’s appearance at the event.
“I don’t think the rules of the EAC require him to step back from being an active Republican,” said Grayson. “Don has extensive election administration experience which he brings to the job as commissioner. He also maintains strong relationships with Republicans across the country. That can help him do his job better. It is possible to still be a partisan and do your job well.”