In most states, the office of secretary of state is far from glamorous. Though the duties vary, it’s largely an administrative role involving keeping records and issuing licenses.
But Democrats have made it a priority this November because of another role: handling elections.
As fights over voting rights has intensified in recent years, Democrats have come to see secretaries of state as a key post in both staving off new restrictions and expanding efforts to make it easier to vote. In 40 states, including 80% of the states where the officials are voted into office, the secretary of state is also the chief election official.
The Democratic Association of Secretaries of State is raising “seven figures in seven states”: Arizona, Ohio, Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Georgia and Michigan.
Alex Padilla, the president of DASS and California’s Secretary of State says the Democratic candidates in those races will support initiatives like automatic voter registration, pre-registration for teenagers, and the expansion of programs like vote-by-mail, as opposed to those more often championed by Republicans including implementing voter ID and cross-checking voter registrations with other state databases.
“The specific actions and agendas we’ve seen put in place by our Republican counterparts, from making it harder to cast a ballot and making it harder to register,” says Padilla, “are about as small-d undemocratic and un-American as it gets.”
Republicans, who hold the about two-thirds of all secretary of state offices, reject the argument that their policies are unduly restrictive.
This isn’t the first time partisan groups have taken concerted steps to determine who is elected secretary of state. Interest in the power of the secretary of state office piqued after the 2000 election when then-Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris oversaw the presidential recount while also serving as co-chair of the Bush campaign in the state. Harris was also linked to a controversial voter roll purge that incorrectly labeled thousands of voters as felons. A disproportionate percentage of those voters were African-American and deemed ineligible to vote.
“Since the 2000 election, it’s become very clear that in very close elections the rules of the game matter,” says Rick Hasen, Chancellor’s Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine and a election law expert. “And because many states use partisan election officials for their chief elections officers, it’s not a surprise that people are fighting over the person who gets to control at least part of the process of conducting elections.”
After that election, says Wendy Weiser, the director of the Democracy Program at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, state officials began experimenting with changes to the rules, though the most widespread changes came after the 2010 election. Since then, 23 states have enacted laws that make it harder to vote. Thirty-four states have voter ID laws, and 10 have strict laws about what kind of documentation you need to vote.
“One of the major problems is the fact that there are people who are setting the rules and who are administering the rules that actually have a dog in the fight, who actually care about who participates and who doesn’t participate,” says Weiser. “People are coming into office and wanting to set the rules to benefit their own supporters.”
Georgia’s Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp, who also serves as Secretary of State, has faced similar accusations amid a close election. Kemp is facing a lawsuit from voting rights groups who have accused his office of blocking some 50,000 mostly black, Latino and Asian-American voters from registering.
Because his office is in charge of carrying out the law — and because his opponent, Stacey Abrams, could become the nation’s first African American female governor — the suit accuses him of trying to suppress minority turnout ahead of the election.
“I think the Republicans have really used that, when they take over these offices, as a way to advance their partisan interests,” says Ellen Kurz, the president of iVote. “They’re not trying to let the voters pick their elected leaders, they’re trying to pick their voters.”
This cycle, iVote plans to spend at least $7 million in support of Democratic candidates, says Kurz. Democrats and voting rights advocates have often successfully used the law to try to block “nefarious” techniques she says are designed to suppress voters. “But we don’t want to wait until people are pushed off the rolls,” she says of this year’s effort. “We wanted to be on the offensive.”
Republicans, on the other hand, are hoping to maintain control over the majority of offices as a part of a longstanding effort they say is aimed at maintaining integrity of the voting system. The Republican State Leadership Committee, which hosts a committee that has helped elect Republican secretaries of state — there are 30 currently in office — plans to spend nearly $50 million at the state level this cycle, which includes spending for secretaries of state races.
In a statement, RSLC Communications Director David James refuted the assertion that Republicans use their positions to restrict ballot access and block minorities from voting. Democratic candidates support “chaos and disarray at the ballot box to rig the system for Democrats,” he said.
“Meanwhile, the Republican Secretaries of State Committee continues its commitment to electing Republican secretaries of state that preserve the integrity of elections, while expanding access at the ballot box,” says James. “iVote joins a constellation of liberal Democrat groups, up and down state-level campaigns, spending at fever-pitch levels like that of a party facing political death in many offices this November.”