Dan Schnur says he’s running for Secretary of State to “rebuild the political center,” and also to be a neutral referee of elections. A chief election official can either boost one segment of the political spectrum or be an impartial election administrator. But, you cannot do both simultaneously.
The political center deserves representation in California politics. Indeed, the more solidly the Tea Party and radical left stake out opposing viewpoints, the more room there is for a vibrant political center. Ensuring that ideas from the right, left, and center are well represented in Sacramento increases the likelihood that we’ll make sound public policy choices.
While promoting centrist candidates and centrist policies is a laudable goal, it’s not an appropriate one for a chief elections official. Can you imagine the response if Bill Jones had dedicated his tenure as Secretary of State to rebuilding the political right, or if Debra Bowen ran on a platform of boosting the political left?
Dan Schnur likes to say that the chief election official should not wear the uniform of any party. But, as we’ve seen with Russian soldiers in Crimea who were not wearing uniforms, actions matter more than outfits.
As a neutral elections referee, a Secretary of State should not cheer for any team or player. Yet, after announcing his intention to run for Secretary of State, Dan Schnur urged Michael Bloomberg to run for president as a centrist reformer. If Bloomberg actually runs, what would happen if he won the state of California by 537 votes like George W. Bush won the state of Florida by in 2000? Would voters have any more faith in a recount administered by a Secretary who had urged Bloomberg to run than they had in Republican Katherine Harris’s handling of the Florida recount?
Further, candidates for Secretary of State do not yet have the job of referee. When they are sending in their resumes, candidates should be transparent about their own political views, rather than pretending they don’t have them. This allow voters to assess whether they think a Secretary of State will be fair and in line with their values when deciding whether to elect them.
Full disclosure of a Secretary of State candidate’s personal views during the campaign also allows voters to asses a Secretary’s actions once in office, to see if a Secretary’s personal views on an issue like transgender bathrooms or public employee pensions effect their treatment of ballot initiatives that deal with those subjects. With some exceptions, such as his views on Israel, Dan Schnur is refusing to tell voters where he stands on substantive issues. Non-partisanship is not the same thing as non-transparency.
Dan has embraced a bill by Republican Assemblymember Jeff Gorell that would conceal the partisan preferences from Secretary of State candidates on the ballot. But hiding this information from voters will, if anything, make it easier for highly partisan people to run for Secretary of State; voters simply won’t be the wiser. Tom Torklakson, for example, ran for the office of Superintendent of Public Instruction without disclosing his long-time credentials as a Democratic elected official on the ballot. That didn’t make him any less of a partisan Democrat, it just meant voters didn’t know.
The true test of non-partisanship is whether you will stand up for something that is contrary to your political views because it is the right thing for democracy. Pete Peterson, for instance, has demonstrated his impartiality by supporting reforms such as Same Day Voter Registration which would expand voter participation in California despite the fact that his fellow Republicans voted against the idea when it passed the legislature. Similarly, in 2008, I worked with Common Cause to lead the campaign to pass redistricting reform and create an independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. I found myself at odds with the Democratic Party of California, which controlled the legislature and wanted to maintain control of the redistricting process.
One way to make sure that a Secretary of State isn’t factoring in political calculations when they make decisions about election administration is to prevent them from running for any office for which they serve as the chief elections official. Remember that Katherine Harris was rewarded with support from George W. Bush in her successful run for Congress in 2002 while still serving as Florida’s Secretary of State. Dan Schnur has promised not to run for any other office in 2016 or 2018, but this leaves the door open for him to run for another office as Secretary should he be elected to a second term. If he’s serious about being non-partisan, he should extend his pledge to apply to anytime he is serving as Secretary of State.
Derek Cressman is running for Secretary of State while transparently disclosing his partisan preference as a Democrat.