The office of Oregon secretary of state is one that most of us don’t give too much thought to. Even for those of us who do consider the position, it’s a job the majority of us know very little about.
Our current secretary of state is Republican Dennis Richardson, a former lawyer and state legislator who took office in Oregon on Jan. 2. And he’s got a major change in mind already: Turning the job into a nonpartisan position.
Richardson won the 2016 general election against Democratic candidate Brad Avakian. He succeeded Democrat Jeanne Atkins, who took over the job for two years when then-Secretary of State Kate Brown was abruptly elevated to governor when John Kitzhaber resigned that post in early 2014.
The secretary’s job is pretty clearly defined. According to the state’s “Blue Book” website (Oregon’s official almanac), the secretary of state is “the auditor of public accounts, chief elections officer, chief records officer and custodian of the Seal of the State of Oregon.”
When you read this job description, the reason why this is a partisan political office isn’t exactly clear to the average person. There is no real sweeping policy being made, no funding assignments, no real reason that this couldn’t be done by someone the state just plugs into to do the job.
The fact that this position is one that doesn’t seem to call heavily to the right or the left, politically, in its duties doesn’t take away from the fact that the election battles for them are just as partisan, politicized and expensive as any other political office in Oregon.
According to numbers from the Register Guard newspaper in Eugene, Richardson and Avakian spent over $3.5 million in their 2016 election race.
That the public might be better served with a nonpolitical position is something a lot of people are aware of – even the current occupant himself.
During his campaign, Richardson claimed again and again that he would be running the position as a nonpartisan.
At one point, he even said “As a secretary of state, I will be functioning as an Oregonian. It is my commitment that you will not know whether I have an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ by my name.”
It was a key selling point for the conservative Republican – since no GOP candidate had won statewide office in Oregon since 2002. For years, Democrats have held the upper hand.
And it’s important since as “chief elections officer,” the secretary of state is overseer of the elections process across all of Oregon. Giving that kind of position to a highly partisan official is kind of like asking a child to manage a candy store. You can’t guarantee that there will be some shenanigans going on, but there is a large possibility for trouble to arise.
Looking at the recent presidential election tells us that if there is any whisper of a doubt when it comes to vote tampering, there can be major implications and widespread outrage.
When we look at this particular position at face value, an elected official in charge of officiating elections where his own party is nearly always one of the two finalists practically screams “conflict of interest.”
On the flip side, a possible reason in favor of keeping this position as it is might be as clear as looking at our current governor. The secretary of state is the next in line if the current governor is unable to continue his/her term, and making this an office that isn’t filled through the party system might cause unforeseen problems.
This leaves us with some thinking to do. We have a political position in charge of elections, and that could be tempting for many of us. At very least, we need to be vigilant – we need to make sure everything stays on the up-and-up for all involved.
In short, as a state, we need to decide what is best for Oregon. Is that a change in the policy? That’s not clear at the moment, but we need to remember that our government is fluid. We the people have the right, and the duty, to change what doesn’t work and we owe it to ourselves to take a long, hard look at things as they are and ask ourselves: Is this where we need to be?