Woster: Trusting our secretaries of state (and elections)

Here’s the thing. A race is decided when all the ballots are in. That’s it.


Having spent four decades of my life as a news reporter covering politics and elections, I’ve struggled with the idea that so many people can believe an election in the United States has been rigged.

I’m not criticizing people who think that. I’m trying to understand them. They believe what they believe. They’ve been told non-stop that the election would be rigged and has been rigged. They believe their candidate, not the long-established process.

People get so caught up in politics they only trust what their “side’’ says. That’s especially so these days of all-the-time information, a fair amount of it carelessly or deliberately inaccurate. I’ve always believed I should test the validity of my opinions and beliefs by going out of my way to read and hear opposing views. These days an attitude like that is viewed with suspicion, as if it’s a Jedi mind trick. The only reason some folks read something from a non-favored source seems to be to post a snarky response.

That’s an issue the country must deal with in coming weeks, months and years. I’m not a smart enough guy to know what the answer is. I’ll tell you what I do know, and I’m pretty confident of this because I spend my entire professional career observing it, election after election. Secretary of state — or whatever the title is of the office overseeing elections in the various states — sometimes is the most important position in the land.

I’m serious. Yes, it’s a ways down the ballot compared to the federal offices and the governor and what all else. But an election run correctly is about as important a thing as there is in a democracy. Secretaries of state and the election officials they supervise make sure elections are run correctly. The secretaries of state I’ve known and covered absolutely understood that. Republican or Democrat, they knew their duty was to the people and the process, not the political party to which they belonged.


Alma Larson held the secretary of state’s office when I began my news reporting career in the state capital in 1969. She managed always to be both pleasant and professional in her dealings with the public. Her goal during election cycles was an error-free process that resulted in an accurate count and vote totals that correctly showed the successful candidate in each race. She was a dead-solid Republican herself. Her office was non-partisan.

After Larson, Lorna Herseth served. She was the only Democrat to run that office during my years around the Capitol. After Herseth, GOP legend Alice Kundert served, then Joyce Hazeltine and then Chris Nelson. Nelson was in office when I retired from newspapering. Like Larson, each of her successors was professional and pleasant, businesslike but as open to requests from reporters and other citizens — Republican, Democrat, independent or otherwise — as they could be within the constraints of the laws and rules that governed their office.

Election officials work under enormous pressure during election cycles, and on election night, the pressure multiplies. Folks want to know how races have turned out, and they want to know right now. Sometimes it’s quick. Sometimes it drags through the night. The goal of election officials I’ve known is the goal my first Associated Press boss gave me for news: “Get it first, but get it right first.’’

Here’s the thing. A race is decided when all the ballots are in. That’s it. People talk of one candidate slipping behind or jumping ahead. In fact, the ballots are all in those boxes, and it’s just a matter of which ones are counted at which point in the process that makes it look like it’s a horse race in real time.

I think we’ve been fortunate in this state to have chosen secretaries of state who care that an election is well-run and accurately counted. As I watched news reports from other states this past election, I saw many election officials who seemed to me to hold themselves as their staffs to the same standards my state’s election officials do.

That’s important. It’s worth recognizing, no matter who won or lost an election.

Related Topics: TERRY WOSTER
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