Louisiana is making progress towards ensuring free and fair elections for all voters. In addition to taking steps towards replacing its vulnerable electronic voting machines, the state has moved to re-enfranchise some people with criminal convictions. These steps are vital in ensuring that all Louisianans have confidence in the fairness and impartiality of its elections.
In recent years, however, a new threat has arisen that could undercut that confidence. Secretaries of state across the United States have increasingly showed a willingness to use their official powers to influence their own election contests. When public officials use their power to tilt the playing field in their favor, they weaken public confidence in elections, which undergirds our democratic system. This can’t be allowed to happen in Louisiana.
That’s why this week, the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice and Protect Democracy sent a letter to Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, who is running for re-election this fall, asking him to make a pledge. Recognizing that Ardoin has immense power to influence elections, we asked him to pledge that 1) he will not use public funds to give his campaign an unfair advantage, 2) he will not misuse the power of his office to influence the election, and 3) he will recuse himself from all decisions related to administration of his election.
To be clear, we are not accusing Ardoin of committing any inappropriate acts. We asked him to make this pledge to avoid even the appearance of impropriety during this fall’s elections. As other secretaries of state increasingly place their thumbs on the scale in election contests, we aim to ensure that Louisiana voters, at least, can enjoy confidence in the fairness of our elections.
Last year in Kansas, a close Republican primary election for governor resulted in an ethics crisis. Secretary of State Kris Kobach and incumbent Governor Jeff Colyer were separated by a mere 191 votes, requiring a recount. Initially, Kobach refused to recuse himself from overseeing the recount, which is a duty of the secretary of state. He eventually bowed to public pressure. Though no law required him to recuse, experts successfully argued that doing so would help “maintain trust in the election.”
In Georgia, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who was running for governor, purged voters from the state’s voter rolls, held up 53,000 voter registration applications, and used the official secretary of state website to accuse Democrats, without evidence, of trying to hack the state’s voting system. He was sued by voters and his opponent. (Full disclosure: Protect Democracy represented the plaintiffs in the Georgia case). In Ohio, Secretary of State Jon Husted purged more than 2 million people from the voter rolls in advance of his successful campaign for lieutenant governor.
In Louisiana, Ardoin is planning to do a similar voter purge in advance of this year’s elections. We urge him to hold off on that effort until this year’s cycle is complete, and avoid potentially disenfranchising thousands of Louisianans.
Secretaries of state are integral players in election administration, which gives them many opportunities to impact the outcome. Even when there is no wrongdoing, the conflict of interest present when a secretary of state oversees his or her own election can be enough to cast doubt in the minds of voters about the fundamental fairness of the process. It is an age-old principle that no one should be the referee in their own game. By making this pledge to voters, Secretary of State Ardoin has the opportunity to safeguard faith in Louisiana’s elections. We hope that he takes it.
Ashley K. Shelton, executive director of the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, is based in Baton Rouge. Jessica Marsden, counsel with Protect Democracy, is based in Carrboro, North Carolina.