No one who paid close attention to the last two presidential elections can doubt that, come election time, secretaries of state play pivotal, sometimes defining, roles. Though most Americans would be hard-pressed to name the holder of the office that manages elections in their home state, after 2000 everyone knew that Secretary of State Katherine Harris was in charge of deciding who voted and whose votes counted in Florida. And after 2004 everyone knew that Secretary of State Ken Blackwell was doing similar duty in Ohio. These two “down ballot” officials served as co-chairs for George W. Bush’s campaign in their respective states, but the real “service” they performed for the Republican cause came in what critics have identified as their aggressive manipulation of voting registration standards, unequal distribution of voting machines, intimidation of prospective voters and meddling with recount procedures to favor Bush.
The Ohio voting and vote-counting debacles of 2004 so unsettled Mark Ritchie, who coordinated that year’s nonpartisan National Voice voter-registration and -mobilization campaign, that the veteran activist decided to leave the sidelines and jump into the electoral fray. Ritchie left his job as president of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, one of the largest nonprofit organizations in the country promoting sustainable development and rural communities, and announced he would mount a Democratic challenge to Mary Kiffmeyer, Minnesota’s Republican secretary of state, with whom he had sparred over voter registration and access to polling places. Recalling the work he’d done as head of the 2004 coalition that registered 5 million new voters, Ritchie said, “Although we were very successful, we had to overcome obstacles created by the secretary of state’s offices in Ohio, Florida and right here in Minnesota. Through this experience it became clear to me that we could not have fully free and fair elections under our current secretary of state.”
Ritchie is not the only prominent figure to make a career change in order to run for a post on a platform that promises to manage voting and elections–a task that in most of the country falls to elected secretaries of state–in a manner that helps rather than hinders democracy. Debra Bowen, a California state senator who as chair of the elections committee led the fight to force firms that produce high-tech voting machines–especially the controversial Diebold Corporation–to guarantee that their equipment is reliable and accurate, just won the Democratic nod for secretary of state. As the progressive San Francisco Bay Guardian observed in its endorsement of Bowen. “She’s saying what few in politics want to openly admit: It’s possible to rig elections with this gear, and there aren’t enough safeguards to prevent fraud.” In Ohio, Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Jennifer Brunner resigned her position to mount a campaign that pledges to end the politicization of the secretary of state’s office that has characterized Blackwell’s tenure. Brunner says she’ll work to assure that vote counts can be audited and verified, to enforce laws against voter intimidation and to distribute new voting machines equally in order to break the pattern of favoring GOP-leaning suburbs while saddling cities and rural areas with inferior equipment.
In Massachusetts, National Voting Rights Institute founder John Bonifaz, who led the legal fight for a full recount in Ohio two years ago, surprised political insiders by winning enough votes at this month’s state Democratic convention to earn a place on the ballot for his against-the-odds Democratic primary challenge to veteran Secretary of State William Galvin. Urging voters to “elect a voting rights leader,” Bonifaz accuses Galvin of failing to fight for common-sense election reforms, such as same-day voter registration and practices that encourage participation by citizens for whom English is not their first language. He says he wants to “create a model for free and fair elections for Massachusetts and for the nation.”
What links the new crop of candidates for secretary of state posts is a determination to address rather than exploit the vulnerabilities of electoral systems and a faith that, by replacing predictable partisans with “champions for democracy,” to borrow Ritchie’s slogan in Minnesota, the oft-neglected office of secretary of state can be transformed into an activist position–much as New York’s Eliot Spitzer remade the image and operations of the down-ballot position of state attorney general. Ritchie says that when he began pondering a run, he thought his opponent would be the Republican incumbent. After several months on the campaign trail, however, he says that the real fight is with “the cynicism and alienation” born of uncertainty about whether every vote counts and whether candidates who get the most votes will actually take office. “We’ve got to overcome that cynicism and alienation if we ever want to restore faith in democracy,” says Ritchie. “That’s something that the right secretaries of state can do, one state at a time, until ultimately we’ve created the pressure that’s needed so that the whole country accepts that we must make elections free and fair.”