In his last days on the job, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap is getting accolades for his many accomplishments, including his management of a smooth election in the rockiest of times.

A record number of Mainers were able to cast ballots in 2020, while coronavirus infections were spiking and confidence in the U.S. Postal Service’s ability to deliver absentee ballots on time appeared to collapse. Considering the circumstances, Dunlap’s last election was a triumph.

But you can’t expect a 14-year career in a high-profile job to be all triumphs. Dunlap might be best remembered for the things that went right during his tenure, but we will not forget how he responded when things went wrong.

This summer, after his office released the results of the July 14 primary, the staff discovered that about 11,000 hand-counted ballots had not been included in the ranked-choice voting tabulations. Ranked-choice voting is controversial enough in Maine, but this year, when voter fraud conspiracy theories have run rampant, even an innocent mistake could challenge the credibility of the whole election.

Dunlap didn’t let that happen. He announced the error with a news release and scheduled a retabulation in his office, with live video broadcast on the Facebook page of the Secretary of State’s Office. The ballots were included in the ranked-choice runoff process. Even though none of the outcomes was changed, the integrity of the election was intact.

“People will forgive an honest mistake,” Dunlap said later. But “they never forget anything that has a sulfuric smell of duplicity.”

Dunlap’s enthusiasm for keeping the public involved in even the intricate aspects of running an election is an important part of his legacy. As the Maine Legislature chooses a successor to Dunlap, who can’t run again because of term limits, a commitment to transparency should be considered a vital requirement for the job. The secretary of state can be a behind-the-scenes job, where the public can see little of what is being done on its behalf. But Dunlap’s experience shows that much is to be gained when our public officials take their relationship with the public seriously.

If they study Dunlap’s career, they can see how it’s possible to maintain public confidence in a system even during a time of extreme polarization. When it comes to elections, Dunlap’s agenda is not partisan: He has been committed to making sure that every eligible voter can cast a ballot, and as we saw this year, high participation does not favor any party.

Dunlap’s credibility made it possible for him to expose the dishonesty behind President Trump’s Election Integrity Commission, which ignored real attempts to interfere with the 2016 election while chasing the fantasy of widespread voter fraud.

And Dunlap’s participation in the Maine-Wabanaki State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission helped bring public attention to decades of institutional racism behind the routine removal of Native children from supportive communities.

Dunlap deserves the praise he’s getting. The task for his successor will be keeping the public involved in the important work of the office.


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