Last week’s criminal indictments against her father and campaign consultant may render Alison Lundergan Grimes a political has-been. But questions about the oversight and security of Kentucky’s elections will remain relevant even after Grimes finishes her final term as secretary of state next year.
So relevant, in fact, that an independent commission should be convened to study and make recommendations about what may seem esoteric matters but that ultimately are key to public trust in elections.
If this controversy leaves you confused, we understand: An executive director and assistant executive director of the state Board of Elections — a Republican last year, a Democrat this year — have accused Grimes, a Democrat, of abusing her authority and interfering in matters that should be the purview of the bipartisan board. The Board of Elections, which the secretary of state chairs, responded last year by firing the first to complain and, after the most recent complaint, last month issuing a unanimous vote of confidence in Grimes.
So, if the Board of Elections is not concerned that its independence is being usurped, why should the rest of us worry?
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We’re not sure the board is seeing beyond the personalities and politics to more fundamental concerns. (We won’t even try to sort out the personalities and politics — suffice it to say, plenty of grist for gossip and speculation.)
Especially important, at a time when Russians have hacked voter registration systems in other states, is the question of who should have access to voter registration records and who, if anyone outside a county clerk’s office, should have access that allows them to change those records.
One of the criticisms of Grimes lodged last year is that five staffers in the secretary of state’s office briefly had the ability to change records in the voter registration system. No one has accused Grimes or anyone else of trying to mess with an election. One of the best defenses against interference in U.S. elections is their decentralized administration. At the same time, the more access points there are to a voter registration system, the more opportunities for phishing incursions. Manipulating voter registration records could create chaos at the polls and disenfranchise voters.
A whistleblower lawsuit and a complaint with the Executive Branch Ethics Commission have been filed against Grimes. But safeguarding election security is a lot to ask of any ethics commission.
Grimes is accused of misusing her office, for example, by demanding a list of poll workers’ addresses and sending them thank you letters, perhaps in hopes of enlisting them as supporters. Letters from the state Board of Elections would be more appropriate, if thank-yous are even necessary. Then again, politicians using their elected offices for self-promotion are hardly rare.
Congress has made the secretary of state the state’s chief election officer, responsible for enforcing federal elections laws. At the same time, it’s a partisan elected office, so checks and balances are necessary. The voter registration system is made up of largely public records that also are sensitive and must be shielded from cyber attacks. Changing technology further complicates the picture.
The time is ripe for an independent bipartisan panel to take a look at the systems that protect the vote in Kentucky. We’d like to see former secretaries of state, county clerks, members of the League of Women Voters and other voting rights groups, and cyber security experts dig into not just the issues raised by Grimes’ critics but into larger questions of election security, including funding and lines of authority. It would be great if such a panel also issued recommendations on how to increase voter participation in elections.
Legislative leaders or the state Board of Elections could convene such a panel. If they’re not interested, the League of Women Voters, which has tackled other tough public policy questions, could step up.