After years of frustrating fights to defend voting rights in the battleground state of Ohio, Nina Turner says she “decided that it was time to step up and go all in for free and fair elections.” While the veteran state legislator continues to support lawsuits and appeals to Congress, she is trying to get to the heart of the matter by running for secretary of state.
In Ohio and more than three dozen other states, the secretary of state serves as the chief election officer, responsible in varying degrees for such matters as determining which candidates and initiatives appear on the ballot; applying the rules that determine how hard it is to register or cast a vote; conducting recounts; and protecting the integrity of the electoral process. Yet it’s a safe bet that most Americans cannot name their secretary of state; nor do they realize the power that exists in these historically obscure down-ballot offices.
This year, amid a wave of attacks on voting rights following the Supreme Court’s decision to reject a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, some of the most powerful players in the country are counting on that obscurity to gain a leg up on the 2016 presidential race. Big money is flowing into the traditionally low-budget contests for secretary of state, an office that will be filled by elections in more than two dozen states this year—including presidential battleground states like Ohio, Colorado, Iowa and Nevada, as well as increasingly competitive states like Arizona and Georgia.
Just as the Koch brothers recognized the importance of influencing state legislatures, supporting policy groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council and pouring money into state contests, conservative operatives are turning their attention to the races for secretary of state. January saw the launch of SOS for SOS, a Super PAC that proposes to spend at least $10 million to elect secretaries of state who support restrictive voter-ID laws, so-called “citizenship verification” rules and policies favored by Republican secretaries like Ohio’s Jon Husted, whom Turner accuses of “reducing the amount of time we have to vote early, and cutting the evening early-vote hours that working Ohioans can actually use.”
Another group, the Republican Secretaries of State Committee, has developed a map showing how the GOP now controls these offices in twenty-eight states. “Republican secretaries have held the majority since the 2010 cycle, and it is crucial to continue to build on this lead,” the RSSC declares. Even before Arizona’s August 26 primary, dark money had become a major factor in that state’s race, where the conservative Arizona Free Enterprise Club has poured more than $500,000 into ads intended to aid Republican Justin Smith. And that spending is likely to spike this fall, as special-interest groups seek to defeat Democrat Terry Goddard, a former Arizona attorney general who is running for secretary of state on a promise to “fight to hold corporations accountable for all the money they spend on elections.”
In states like Arizona and Ohio, the stakes are high, so Democrats will try to counter the GOP’s spending. Veteran Democratic strategist Steve Rosenthal, who helped develop the Super PAC SOS for Democracy, which is expected to aid the Democrats in key state contests, tells The Washington Post: “They tend to be an afterthought, but people have a lot at stake in terms of ballot access, ballot issues, and a range of issues that secretaries of state are deciding.”
The roots of the wrangling over these traditionally low-profile positions goes back at least to 2000, when Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who co-chaired George W. Bush’s presidential campaign in the state, repeatedly decided questions regarding that year’s vote recount in Bush’s favor. (The conservative SOS for SOS website even highlights the number “537” with the tagline: “Margin of victory for Bush in FL.”) After the Florida debacle, veteran activist Mark Ritchie went to work organizing national nonpartisan turnout drives before the 2004 presidential election, only to see new voters forced to jump through registration hoops and wait for hours in line to cast a ballot in states like Ohio. In 2006, Ritchie was elected Minnesota’s secretary of state. Two years later, he oversaw the contentious recount that confirmed Al Franken’s election to the US Senate (with Minnesota Judge Edward Cleary declaring that Ritchie had “worked assiduously at avoiding partisanship in these proceedings”). Ritchie was re-elected as a Democrat in 2010, despite that year’s Republican wave, and in 2012 he played a crucial role in defeating a constitutional amendment that would have created restrictive photo-ID rules.
Conservative operatives heap scorn on Ritchie, who is not seeking re-election this year. Yet according to an in-depth analysis by Nonprofit Vote, a national nonpartisan group that works to promote voter participation, Minnesota’s turnout rate topped the nation in 2012. That ought to be the standard. While most secretaries of state are elected as partisans, their offices are too important to function as the political playgrounds of parties seeking to game the process in advance of a presidential election. There must be a universal commitment to err on the side of transparency, easy participation, high-turnout elections and reliable vote counts. Democracy 101 begins with what Nina Turner calls “the mission of creating simple, accessible and secure elections so that every eligible [voter] has the opportunity to shape the future of our great state.”
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