There’s no surer way to rile up the other party’s activist base than to change election rules. Republicans advocating voter identification legislation and Democrats championing things like same-day voter registration have learned that the hard way: Proposed changes to current election law is almost immediately met by accusations that supporters are playing partisan politics.
In most cases, the protestors are correct: Changing election laws is almost always driven by partisan strategists looking for a leg up. Broadly speaking, making it easier for people to cast ballots, whether by sending them an absentee ballot automatically or allowing them to register on Election Day, is good for Democrats. Tightening restrictions on early voting or requiring that voters show an identification is good for Republicans.
Now, to avoid the uproar that comes from legislation tightening or loosening restrictions on voting, party officials on both sides of the aisle are beginning to focus not on the rules, but on the rule-makers — the Secretaries of State who in most states are responsible for election policy and administration. Both Democrats and Republicans are launching high-profile campaigns aimed at influencing what are normally under-the-radar races, in hopes of giving their side an advantage.
On the left, veterans of President Obama’s campaign have launched iVote, a super PAC that will funnel money to battleground states with competitive Secretary of State races. Another group, dubbed SoS for Democracy, is being spearheaded by former long-time labor officials Steve Rosenthal and Larry Scanlon.
From the right, a super PAC called SOS for SoS, organized by a former top official at an outside group that supported Newt Gingrich in the 2012 presidential contest, is aiming to raise and spend $10 million on key races. Another group, the Republican Secretaries of State Committee, will run its own independent campaigns aimed at keeping GOP officials in top elections offices; that group is being run out of the long-established Republican State Leadership Committee.
“There seems to be renewed interest on Secretaries races with all these new PACs,” Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R), who chairs the RSSC, said in an interview. “It’s a political race, and this year will be no different. I think there’s a lot more focus on our races now than there ever has been.”
The impact a Secretary of State can have on election administration has generated that focus, and the influx of money on what were otherwise sleepy down-ballot affairs determined more by whether the incumbent has run Departments of Motor Vehicles well, or other technocratic measures. In Washington State, which is solidly blue, no Republican has won the governor’s mansion since 1980; at the same time, Republicans have run the Secretary of State’s office continuously since 1965.
Kim Wyman, Washington’s current Secretary of State, was one of three Republicans nationwide to win statewide office in 2012 in a state President Obama won. She is the only statewide elected Republican on the entire West Coast — a feat she said she achieved because she focused her campaign on managing an office well.
“I had over 20 years’ experience in conducting elections at the county level. My opponent didn’t have that experience, and she really ran a campaign focused on being pro-gay marriage, pro-women’s right to choose, the kind of solid Democratic agenda,” Wyman said. “I was keeping those things out of the race, saying running elections are more important than any of this.”
But recent battles over voter identification legislation, the Supreme Court’s decision rolling back a part of the Voting Rights Act and Democratic efforts to establish all-mail-in elections in states like Colorado, Washington and Oregon have injected a new partisanship into once-non-partisan races.
“Voting rights are really under attack across the country, and that attack is being led by the Republican Party,” said Stephanie Schriock, the president of EMILY’s List, an outside fundraising group that aids pro-choice Democratic women. “They’ve already pushed voter I.D. requirements. They’ve reduced early voting.”
Republicans control 28 election administration positions in the 50 states, compared with 22 for Democrats. Eighteen Republican seats and nine Democratic seats are up for election in 2014.
In many cases, changing the rules governing election administration can have as much of an impact on Election Day turnout as legislation. In many states, Secretaries of State have wide latitude over deciding whether to purge voters over registration errors, or how to process provisional ballots, or even the hours during which early voting stations are open.
“Folks are beginning to understand how important this office always has been,” said Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, a Democrat challenging the incumbent Secretary of State in this year’s elections. “You can shave off votes here and there just by [changing] the rules.”
Last month that incumbent, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted (R) announced voters who want to cast a ballot early this year will have 22 days to vote early — weekdays between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. for four weeks, and the final two Saturdays before Election Day, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. For the first time since early voting was established in Ohio, early vote locations will not be open on a Sunday.
Democrats say the lack of Sunday hours will affect their ability to turn out voters. For years, church groups in primarily African American, heavily Democratic precincts have driven voters to the polls on Sundays, which party activists refer to as “souls to the polls.”
“There are no evening hours in this latest directive, and there are no Sundays. It makes no sense,” Turner said. “This is disenfranchising a great deal of Ohioans who really enjoy access to the ballot.”
Beyond Ohio, Democrats are aiming to topple Republican incumbents in states like Michigan, Indiana and New Mexico, and to win back Republican-held offices that incumbents are vacating in Iowa, Arizona and Colorado. Republicans are hoping to win offices Democrats hold in Nevada, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The new money set to be injected into critical battleground states is likely to vastly outweigh money the candidates themselves typically raise. In Arizona, Secretary of State Ken Bennett and his Democratic opponent spent a total of $936,000 in 2010, less than one-seventh the total spent in that year’s race for governor. In Colorado that year, Secretary of State Scott Gessler (R) and his Democratic rival spent a combined $630,000 — less than one-twelfth the amount spent in the governor’s race.
Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson (R) beat her Democratic opponent, Jocelyn Benson, by just 5 points in 2010. During her first term, Johnson has advocated voter identification legislation and tried to boot several Democratic-backed voter initiatives from the ballot because the petitions supporters turned in had the wrong font size. The $1.85 million the two sides spent on Johnson’s race was far below the $26 million the two parties spent on the governor’s race that year.
“When it comes to elections, we want to make it easier for people to vote and harder to cheat,” Georgia Secretary of State Kemp said. “You want people in office that you know will make sure there’s a fair process that’s not manipulated.”
The influx of outside money and attention, however, is sure to influence the process by which Kemp and his colleagues are elected this year — and the rule changes they impose could reverberate for years to come.