Shantel Krebs may not be an awful Secretary of State, although Jason Gant has lowered the bar so far that we'd probably cheer a trained chinchilla. She's hiring experienced professionals, not political cronies, to help her run elections. She's signaled her intent to seek more authority for the Secretary of State to do her job and review petitions for illegal signatures.
But it remains to be seen whether Krebs will be able to overcome the partisan motives that drove her candidacy and enforce election law fairly. Former Secretaries of State Sam Reed of Washington and Phil Keisling of Oregon say there has been an explosion of partisan fundraising in secretary of state races:
In the 2014 election cycle, two dozen secretary of state offices were in play, and most of these positions included the duties of chief elections officer. As detailed by Politico, the 2014 election cycle also saw the rise of well financed national political action committees, on both the right and the left, focusing on offices once predominately viewed as sleepy administrative backwaters [Phil Keisling and Sam Reed, "The Troubling Partisanization of Elections for Secretary of State," Governing, 2014.12.10].
This increased partisan attention to secretary of state races makes it harder for our election officials to play umpire:
We're certainly not saying we made every call correctly. But we each felt a certain freedom to call it as we saw it without anywhere near the worry that today's chief elections officers will have about the millions of dollars they'll need for their own re-election campaigns. In the end, we'd argue that voters in every state should want exactly these kind of independent judgments from their chief elections officials.
Our nation's secretaries of state certainly can't escape the hurly-burly of politics altogether; with over 20 years of elected statewide office between us, we're not naïve about that. But election administration is a core function in our democracy, and voters rightfully require accountability for the integrity and smooth operation of our voting process [Keisling and Reed, 2014.12.10].
Krebs's campaign does not epitomize the big-money problem over which Keisling and Reed rightly worry. Out-state PACs constituted a single-digit percentage of Krebs's relatively modest campaign kitty. Krebs didn't need the help: she may have spent barely $100K on a statewide race against late-comer opponent Angelia Schultz, who spent little more than $5K.
I'm also not sure how we would de-partisanize the Secretary of State's race. We could amend statute to make that campaign non-partisan like judges' races, but Republicans and Democrats who recognize the value of that office would still find a way to place their preferred candidates on the ballot and fund their campaigns.
It seems the best way to ensure Krebs's fair and faithful exercise of her duties is to subject her office to public pressure and scrutiny. Let's make sure her professional staff live up to their reputations. Let's press Secretary Krebs to protect voting rights for all South Dakotans and review petitions avidly and equitably. We have high expectations, Secretary-Elect Krebs. Leave your partisan hat at the door, and let's run elections right.